As well as books that apply mindfulness to problems or aspects of our life, it is good to strengthen our practice by reading books that focus on meditation in itself. Good ones are not easy to find, but this one – Turning the Mind into an Ally - written by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 2004 is one of the best that there is. I have returned to it on numerous occasions over the years, because it is a serious, but accessible work that looks at meditation as an extended exercise in mind training and gives the tools to do this.
The book “translates” some traditional teachings from Tibetan Buddhism into a language that is easy to understand in the West. It gets across the heart of that meditation practice without the cultural baggage which can be so off-putting in similar books. The author is fond of using imagery to convey his point, comparing the mind to a wild horse, which we have to get to know and tame:
The bewildered mind is like a wild horse. It runs away when we try to find it, shies when we try to approach it. If we find a way to ride it, it takes off with the bit in its teeth and finally throws us right into the mud. We think that the only way to steady it is to give it what it wants. We spend so much of our energy trying to satisfy and entertain this wild horse of a mind.
The author goes on to outline - in very clear language - the basics of mindfulness and sitting meditation to tame this wild horse. It is here that he is most successful, gently going through the steps from the first, when we place the mind on the breath:
Placing our mind on the breath is the first thing we do in meditation. In the moment of placing our mind, it’s like we’re mounting a horse: we put our foot in the stirrup and pull ourselves up to the saddle. It’s a matter of taking our seat properly. This moment of placement starts when we extract our mind from its engagement with events, problems, thoughts and emotions. We take that wild and busy mind and place it on the breath. Even though we’re placing our consciousness, which isn’t physical, placement feels very physical. In order for placement to be successful, we have to formally acknowledge that we’re letting go of concepts, thoughts and emotions: “Now I’m placing my mind upon the breath.”
This is an excellent hands-on manual for those who wish to deepen their understanding and practice of meditation as a way of working with the mind. It is an encouragement to practice and as such is a valuable addition to any library.