Last Updated: March 27th, 2019

Tenzin Palmo got an early start on her Buddhist practice. She first got into Buddhism as a teenager in London, England, then went on to India at the age of 20, becoming one of the first Western women to be ordained as a nun. Her biography, Cave in the Snow, got its name for the 12 years she spent in retreat in a cave in the Himalayas. His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, Head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, gave Tenzin Palmo the title of Jetsunma, for the effort she put into improving the status of nuns in Buddhism and for her dedication to her own practice. I sat down with her at her home, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, a nunnery she started in Himachal Pradesh, India  in 2000, to get her thoughts on shamatha meditation, also known as mindfulness meditation.

How do we relax the mind?

There are a few ways to tame a wild horse. You can beat it into submission, which is pushing the mind to be calm, or you can coax the horse to calm down and want to cooperate in order to be trained—a much more sensible approach because then the horse will be friendly. It doesn’t just quiet down because it’s frightened of being beaten.

When I think of the mind, it just wants to work.

Yes, that’s why we have to persuade it that it would be ever so much better at its job if it was tamed. The reason why we get stressed out, make mistakes and burn out is because our mind is working too hard and we exhaust it. If our minds were quieter and our attention spans were more acute, longer and stronger then whatever we did with the mind, the mind would be a good instrument to work with.

We’re not trying to close off the thinking. That’s not at all the point. The point is to make the mind serviceable, workable and flexible—to get the mind to be more calm, clear and focused. At that point it becomes a good instrument to work with no matter what task we give it.

Anybody who has spent time looking at their mind is aghast with horror at what a mess their mind really is. Not just because it’s endlessly thinking, but a lot of our thinking is completely irrelevant and stupid like replays of old soap operas. We thought we were so efficient and intelligent until we look at our minds. This is why meditation is important [laughs]. To make us happy. Because we manufacture our own distress.

Some people prefer meditating with eyes open, some closed. Is there a method you would recommend?

I think it’s up to you. In Theravada, they say close your eyes. In Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, they say keep your eyes slightly open. In some practices you have the eyes wide open. For most people starting out it helps to keep the eyes slightly closed. In the Tibetan tradition they often give you a small pebble to focus on, which is not only for the shamatha, but also to exercise the gaze so it stays on one point without wavering.

You mentioned in your talk on shamatha at Tushita that you spoke with a number of long-time meditators who, through injury or through old age, had to sit in chairs to meditate, and they said that it didn’t really make all that much difference between sitting on a chair or sitting on the floor. The yoga sutras mention lotus and half-lotus postures saying that they help relax the mind and alleviate physical problems. Do you think the sutras were exaggerating the point of these postures?

I think they were written by Indians who were used to sitting on the floor. The Tibetan tradition has certain postures like sitting cross-legged, having your hands in a certain position, having your shoulders back, your neck bent, etc. Each one of these is connected with a different prana.

If you can sit comfortably in lotus or half-lotus that is very best because your body is very balanced, like a triangle, and all the different pranas in the body are so balanced that it’s like the body disappears. But the fact of the matter is that many people who practice meditation have never been used to sitting cross-legged on the floor, so they spend all their sessions dealing with aching knees, aching hips, aching backs. They’re trying to get their mind calm and all the time they’re just dealing with the fact that they’re extremely uncomfortable because they’re not used to sitting like that, especially older people.

What do you think of meditating standing or lying down?

Alan Wallace, who is one of the foremost teachers, especially of shamatha nowadays, gets many of his students to lie down in corpse pose at least for some sessions to calm the mind. The mind is caught in the body when you’re not comfortable. If the body is not relaxed, the mind is not going to relax.

The most relaxed posture is to lie with your hips out and to focus meditation on the rise and fall of the abdomen, which is very prominent when you’re lying flat. People I know who have tried this technique using his direction have found it really helpful because your body is at ease and you don’t have to think about your body. That gives you the chance to go into deeper levels of meditation. If you don’t fall asleep and you use it to really concentrate, it can be very helpful and can also help in sitting position.

In Buddhism, especially in the Theravada tradition, walking meditation is very much emphasized. People sit for a certain time then walk backwards and forwards, mindfully aware of the feeling of moving, especially of the feet and the soles of the feet and their contact with the Earth. Many people go into deep concentration doing that.

In the Catholic Church people very much practice a kind of shamatha. They typically kneel or just sit, but they still go into deep levels of concentration. The point is to be able to relax the body so that you’re not caught by it.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo with nuns

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo with five retreatants from Long Retreat in 2008

People often get bored of shamatha practice and they start looking to other more interesting forms of meditation and different practices altogether. Are there any changes people can make in their shamatha practice to stay engaged rather than look elsewhere?

I think first of all, if they’re bored they haven’t attained shamatha. Shamatha, if you really get into it, is so absolutely fascinating and blissful, that people don’t want to lose it and don’t want to go on vipassana, which is much more analytical. Because of the bliss, the sense of open spaciousness and all the various internal phenomena that comes from becoming skilled in shamatha, people get addicted and have to be taken off that drug.

Any practice we do, if our mind is not completely merged with it it’s not going to work. Normally there’s the technique and there’s the mind and somehow they try to come together. Until they absolutely become one and the practice goes from the head down into the centre of our being, it’s just the ego trying to meditate. The ego cannot meditate. The thinking mind does not meditate. It’s something beyond the thinking mind. Shamatha is to get us to access that awareness and quiet down the noise going on. The noise can still be there, but it’s in the background. We’re no longer swept away by it. We’re developing this inner quality of mindfulness and attention so that we become stronger and stronger. And all the background noise begins to recede. When we’re in that state of really being at one with the practice then we can go on to other practices.

The Buddha stressed the importance of getting established in shamatha, but a lot of beginners are jumping into a vipassana course right from the very beginning. Do you think they’re wasting their effort or do you think that based on their individual needs it could be worthwhile for some people to take that approach?

For example, in the Goenka 10-day courses, the first few days are spent on shamatha at least, because without that you can’t do anything. There has been a lot of thought nowadays about why so many long-time vipassana practitioners have gained some insights yet find that these insights are short-lived. You get incredible realizations and you think, “Yeah, now I understand,” then you go out and ordinary life takes over again and it all fades away into a distant memory. Some people feel that this is because they’re not following the Buddha’s instruction, which was that first one gains stability in the beginning jnanas (levels of mental absorption). So when practicing vipassana with this well-trained mind, insights arise, they transform and then you won’t fall back. It’s not just up in your head, it’s very deep in every cell of your being.

You absolutely have to have a mind that is well trained otherwise the realizations which one gains, although they are very valid, are superficial. They don’t transform. The whole point of real insight is that that the very seeing changes. And if it’s not deep enough then that change will not really affect a very deep turning about in the depth of consciousness.

Is there a way of knowing whether you’ve developed yourself enough in the jnanas?

The mind should be very clear, very vivid. It is able to stay where you put it and will rest there. At the very least you should be able to stay completely absorbed in 21 breaths. It’s considered in the Tibetan tradition that you should be able to stay completely concentrated for four hours.

Is that with no background noise at all?

Even if there’s background noise you’re not carried away by it. The point is not whether there is background thinking, but whether or not we get caught up in it. If someone has a television on in another room, but you’re reading a good book, you’re not hearing it, because you’re working at whatever you’re doing and that’s whatever has your focus. The background noise is irrelevant; you don’t really hear it. As our concentration becomes more clear and more one-pointed naturally the background noise quiets down. We don’t have to calm the thinking mind down—of itself it will calm down as our ability to focus becomes stronger.

Back millennia ago (or even a century ago) there was so much less sensory input, which would have made our minds much less crowded. Do you think meditation plays a different role today than back then?

I think we’ve never needed it more. If 2,600 years ago the Buddha described our minds as mad monkeys imagine what he would say today. Have we ever needed more to get our minds de-stressed? People imagine that they just sit down and it’s all going to be beautiful.

If you want to learn how to play a Beethoven sonata you don’t just sit down at the piano and bang away and if it doesn’t sound good you just say, ‘Well I’m not musical.’ To really be able to master any instrument, sport or skill it takes enormous amounts of dedication and practice. Thousands of hours of it. So why do people think if they take a weekend meditation course and their minds don’t wind down that shows they can’t meditate.

Even the wildest mind can learn at least to calm down. And as the mind calms down inner joy arises. This calmness and joy is not dependent on external circumstances at all, which is why hermits and people living what outwardly appears to be a rigorous and difficult life are usually the happiest people because it doesn’t matter where they live. It’s totally irrelevant. They have this inner strength of happiness.

Is there one main insight that you learned about meditation that you wished you knew when you first started meditating?

Many people think that meditation requires a lot of effort and it’s something you have to gain. We plug into this idea that somehow it’s something we have to force ourselves to do and at the end of it we will succeed or fail. And I think it’s very important to realize it’s nothing to do with that at all. That’s just the ego wanting to be a meditator.

The whole secret of meditation is to learn just how to be present in the moment and in a state of complete openness and relaxation. It’s not a matter of gaining, it’s a matter of losing, of dropping—letting go, letting go, letting go. I think it’s really very important, especially in this age where we’re all programmed to want to get something that it’s not a matter of what you get, it’s a matter of what you lose.

Read the transcript of a talk Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo gave in QUESTION EVERYTHING: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo on thinking outside the box>>