The Tibetan Bon Meditation Tradition
Like the majority of people I know, I wish I had a meditation practice. I theoretically know how to do it, though also like a majority of people I know, I spend most of the time when I’m supposed to be focused on my breathing pushing aside a cascading list of to-dos. And finding even ten minutes to carve out of my day, when I could be sleeping, feels hard. Almost impossible because I have two young children who will not always be contained when I want to sit quietly with my eyes closed on a quest for inner peace.
When I do manage to find some moments of calm—typically at the beginning or end of a yoga class—I can easily recognize its benefits. But I have to be forced into a 110-degree room and forced to do sun salutations with weights before I get there.
When I got an invitation to check out of the office and into the Amangani in Jackson Hole for a four-day meditation retreat, I was intrigued. Would I dare to step away from work and my family to devote myself to mindfulness for ninety-six hours? Did I need to go all the way to Wyoming to make this small miracle happen? It appears that I did.
In the spring of 1992, Geshe YongDong Losar fled Tibet with ten others. As we sat at dinner the first night in Wyoming, he explained that they’d had a few blankets and little food between them as they set out to cross the Himalayas on foot in their monk’s robes, led by a Nepalese guide. It took ten days, in deep snow. Geshe YongDong was strong and in his mid-twenties at the time, but many of the others were much older. Somewhat miraculously, they all survived and were able to find refuge in India. Ultimately, Geshe YongDong traveled to Dharamshala, in northern India, and met with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, with whom he then studied.
The Bon religious tradition is one of the world’s most ancient theologies: It was founded by Buddha Tonpa Shenrab 18,000 years ago in western Tibet and passed down through the centuries by monks. It has survived despite the intervention of the Chinese government. (The primary monastery, Menri, which dated back to the fourteenth century, was destroyed in the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1959—it was reestablished in Dolanji, in northern India.)
Only three senior Lamas made it out of Tibet during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and they went on to establish monasteries in India and Nepal, where they continued to train younger monks, like Geshe YongDong. In 1999, he moved to the West and established a center outside of Vancouver called Sherab Chamma Ling, where he teaches Bon meditation and Buddhist philosophy in English. He can
also be found as a visiting monk at several Aman properties, primarily in Asia—though now he’s in the States as he’s teaching a second workshop at the Amangani in January, which might just be the perfect option for anyone in a family of skiers who wants to opt out of blazing trails on the mountain.
At first, I thought the location was a strange choice. Why check in to one of the most spectacular hotels in the world—set against the majestic Teton Mountains, a stone’s throw from Yellowstone and all its must-see-before-you-die wonders—and then close your eyes for five hours a day? But by the first afternoon, I got it.
For anyone who isn’t an experienced meditator, five hours on your butt on a mat sounds potentially miserable. We did four sessions a day: an hour in the early morning, an hour after dinner, and two longer sessions, midmorning and midafternoon. I was hyped up on anxiety and worried about work by the time we started, which is exactly where you don’t want your mind to be when you have to be with your thoughts for sixty minutes straight.
But then I discovered the joy of this particular practice, which involves singing mantras, prostrations, nasal breathing, and chakra-clearing exercises. In short: There’s a lot to do and focus on rather than just corralling your ruminations. As Geshe YongDong explained, meditation involves clearing the mind of the 84,000 thoughts that come up throughout the course of an average day in order
to 1) purify and purge emotions and 2) find out who you are. As he explained, our habits are either wild like a monkey, or sloth-y like an elephant…and meditation offers both a whip (awareness, focusing on the sensations in your hands while you breathe) and a leash (mindfulness, thinking only about the present moment).
Geshe YongDong eased us into it slowly (the steps of the full meditation are below, and you can watch videos of Geshe YongDong doing them on his YouTube page or pick up a copy of his book Calm Breath, Calm Mind; he also has a CD of the mantras), but by the end of the first session, when we were done with our prostrations and mantras and nose clearing and had sat quietly for a bit focusing solely on bringing breath in and out of our bodies, I found that my body was moving in an almost imperceptible circle, as if I were a windup doll, released at long last.
I felt mildly self-conscious, but it also felt good and relaxing, so I just let it happen. As we opened our eyes, Geshe YongDong called my attention to it: “Let your body do what it wants. If you look at a room of meditating monks, they are moving. Your nervous system is unwinding.” Something about being liberated to move—rather than sitting in forced and tight stoic stillness—allowed me to
relax into the practice even more, and throughout the weekend I had all sorts of random physical releases, including observing that my hips wanted to spontaneously twitch whenever I was flat on my back. It was an odd moment of disassociation: My body was doing what it wanted.
I had expected that I would be relatively worthless during my downtime between sessions and intended to get little done, but I was so invigorated from the meditations that I read two books and wrote an essay, a story, and two positioning memos—all while making some new friends. It was as if a channel had cracked open and I was just pulling it through, with minimal effort or intervention. When I wasn’t with Geshe YongDong or admiring the view from my palatial room or the hotel’s restaurant, I also really wanted to move, and so
I was thrilled to take some brisk hikes around the Amangani property, which is truly some of the most stunning land in the United States. On those hikes, I blasted Slowdive into my AirPods and walked feeling my feet and my legs and my arms. I felt the brisk air, and I saw the late-season wildflowers, the poop from the horses on the neighboring ranch, the snow-flecked ranges in the distance. And I cried. Dear reader, I was moved to tears, multiple times. And just as I had on the mat, I simply let it move through me.
While we primarily meditated, sang, and cleared our chakras (in the Bon system, there are five—the crown, throat, heart, sacral, and secret chakras), Geshe YongDong also explained the tenets of the Bon and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, which is primarily about how attachment of any kind leads to suffering. To illustrate this concept, he picked up a water bottle and held it tightly in his grip while the bottle hovered over the ground.
“This is attachment,” he explained. “You’re holding it with fear and struggle. It’s hard, and challenging, and you can’t enjoy it because you’re stuck. When it doesn’t meet your expectations, you hate it.” Then he flipped the bottle around and cupped it in his open palm. “If it’s a gentle holding,” he added, “you can relax. If it goes away, you will still love it. Until you let go of your attachment, you will never be free.”
He also explained that we carry around our predilection for negative thoughts and emotions like a trash bag slung over our shoulders. “Take stuff out of the garbage bag and ask: Is this really necessary?” Acknowledge whatever it might be that you’ve been carrying around, and then put it down. “The trash,” he explained, “is like thorns in your body. Every time you touch a thorn, it hurts. So take your time, contemplate the hurt, and then take the thorn out. When you are unhappy, keep going back to it—accept the challenge instead of rejecting or running away. After all, challenge makes life more enjoyable.”
I found his short lecture on anger—“the most damaging of all the emotions”—to be even more profound. He explained that there are two types: hot, fiery anger, where you see red with rage, and then cold anger, where you are frozen and icy and hold the anger inside. Both are destructive, and both are repellant: Nobody wants to be close to angry energy, and you can spend a week with someone creating goodwill, only to destroy it in one wrathful moment.
As Geshe YongDong added, “It takes a hundred years to grow a forest, but a fire can burn it down in two hours.” In the Bon tradition, there are five stages of anger: 1) impatience 2) irritation 3) tantrum 4) anger 5) rage. And the antidote is awareness. Acknowledge what is happening in your body at any of the five stages, though earlier is obviously preferable, and then find a moment to bring any tool to the situation—breath, a walk, a mantra—to bring peace. When you are around an angry person, move away from them physically so that their energy doesn’t infiltrate your own.
I was recently talking to Shauna Shapiro, a therapist and mindfulness expert based in San Francisco, and she suggested that a better word for any sort of mindfulness practice would be “heartfulness,” which makes a lot of sense to me. After all, the point of any meditation is to find focused awareness, to quiet the “ordinary mind” in the brain, with its dualistic and conceptual view of the
world, and to move into the “original mind,” or the heart, which is where we find, according to Geshe YongDong, “primordial awareness.” He goes on: “When we are in our head, we are resisting and judging, but when we move to the heart, there is no judgment. There are no differences; we are all the same. If I focus, I see you from the heart and there is connection, there is loving-kindness and unification. We don’t change the world from the mind; we change the world when we send positive energy from our hearts.”
Standing, you will lift your hands up in offering as you inhale, and then let them fall in blessing as you exhale, bending your knees with a bounce as you sweep toward the ground. As your hands come down, create a triangle with them and pass them down past your crown, throat, and heart chakras. Work up to three sets of twenty-one times each.
Blow your nose well with a tissue. Bring your right ring finger to your right nostril and close it. Breathe in through your left nostril, imagining that you are bringing a light up and then through your head. Move your right ring finger and block your left nostril. Exhale with extra force at the end, imagining that smoke comes out as you purify your emotions. Do this three times, then switch sides. Repeat.
Breathe in and hold. Place your left hand on your hip, raising your left shoulder. Your right arm whips above your head, and then you let go as if it’s a lasso. Do this five times before switching sides. Next, roll your shoulder forward five times on each side. Breathe in a bit more air, then release.
Breathe in and hold. Place your hands on your knees. Move your waist in a circle like you’re Hula-Hooping five times to one side, then to the other side. Clutch your stomach up. Breathe in a bit more air, then release.
Breathe in and then send the air to your root chakra. Hold. Grab your right knee and move it in a circle five times, rocking forward and backward. Switch sides. Rotate your right leg forward in a circle five times and then reverse. Switch sides. With your hands on the floor, bounce on your butt five times. Breathe in a bit more air, then release.
Breathe in and then send the air to all five limbs. Hold. Send your arms out, then clasp your hands together over your head and rub them together quickly. Rub the top of your right arm, then rub the bottom of your right arm. Switch. Rub the top of your head, face, chest, and back. Then rub your right leg five times and your left leg five times. Then cross your legs. Extend your arms to the left in circles three to five times. Switch. Breathe in a bit more air and then release.
Repeat your mantras.