When Is Meditation Non-Meditation?

The dharma path is nothing other than working with your own mind. In Buddhism, one of our most powerful tools for working with the mind is meditation. Meditation is about seeing who you are, seeing your mind, through which you can discover your mind’s nature.

There are many ways to meditate, many different meditation practices and techniques, but here I would like to focus on the three qualities of sitting or resting meditation taught in Vajrayana Buddhism. These three qualities are:

  1. Non-distraction

  2. Non-meditation

  3. Non-fabrication


What is Non-Distraction?

The first of these is non-distraction. Non-distraction is actually what meditation is all about: being non-distracted from this current experience. Being distracted is a source of many of our problems. It is difficult to accomplish anything if we are not focused on what we are doing. For example, when we are distracted from our conversation, we can get into a lot of trouble with our friends or loved ones.

But also, from the point of view of the Buddhist teachings, when our mind is distracted, that is the time we usually fall into some kind of mistake, negative habit, or get easily disturbed by difficult thoughts and emotions. When we are distracted it is easy to miss when powerful emotions like anger, jealousy, resentment, and so on are arising for us. We may not notice we are experiencing these emotions until they are so intense that we have very little room to work with them. But if, due to not being distracted, we notice them earlier, when they are still gaining some steam, so to speak, we have many more options on how to work skillfully with them. So non-distraction is a very helpful quality.

Non-distraction is not exactly like focusing and concentrating. From the perspective of Vajrayana Buddhism, we don’t really need to make a lot of effort to concentrate our mind. Focusing and concentrating is not the key, it is just the tool. It’s just a tool for non-distraction.

Even when we say concentrate on the breath, it means breath is a reference point. A reference point for what? It is a reference point for non-distraction. We need a reference point for non-distraction, something that keeps us aware of what is happening in the present.

In the beginning we use the breath because the breath is always happening now, so it is a very helpful reference point for non-distraction. We can’t look at the past breath, it is gone. We can’t look at the future breath, it is not here. When we look at the present experience of breath, of breathing, we are here, now, resting non-distracted in the present. When we focus on the breath we have this quality of non-distraction. It is important to remember that. Focusing on the breath is simply a tool for not getting distracted from the present, nothing more.

What does Non-Meditation Mean?

We may think that in meditation we have a lot to do. That’s why sometimes we say, I’m “doing” meditation. Actually there’s nothing to do. Just sit. The very statement, “I’m going to do meditation” is problematic. It is like saying, “I’m going to do resting.” That doesn’t make sense. You don’t say that, do you? You say, “I’m going to rest.” So there’s no “doing” resting. There is no such thing as ‘doing’ resting, it is just resting. That’s the second quality; that is non-meditation. There’s no such thing as doing something here, because the instruction is simply for us to rest. It’s called resting meditation. If you are doing something to rest then you’re not resting. If you are “doing” meditation then you are not meditating.

The Third Quality of Resting Meditation: Non-Fabrication

This means don’t try to be someone. Don’t think when you sit in meditation you are becoming a totally different person, a ‘spiritual’ or ‘Buddha’ person. It is not the case that you sit down and become a better version of yourself, and then when you stand up from the cushion and become your evil twin. That’s not our practice.

Non-fabrication means when you’re meditating you are the same person, and when you arise from that meditation you are the same person. Don’t fabricate, don’t put on a mask, and don’t hide from yourself. We have to relax and be ourselves. You don’t have to become religious or spiritual. Meditation is not about becoming a religious, spiritual, or ‘better’ person. It’s about discovering who you are. Meditation is about discovering ourselves, who we are, who we actually are, not who we think we are. In Buddhist language, we say meditation is about discovering the true nature of our mind.

Why is There Nothing to Do and No One to Become?

In the Vajrayana teachings we talk about mind’s nature being Buddha Nature. We talk about our mind’s nature being awakened now, right now, in this very moment. We don’t need to create our mind’s nature or improve it in any way. Mind’s nature has always been awakened, we just need to discover or rediscover that.

But, if you want to see that nature, that naturally awakened mind, you have to see your mind first. Before you can discover the nature of a thing, you need to find the thing itself.

We say that we want to see mind’s nature, and we are really focusing on finding this nature, but at the same time, we don’t know our mind yet. That’s a problem. First, we have to find out what this mind is, then we can discover its nature. For that reason, non-fabrication plays a very important role in our practice.

In the space of relaxed non-distraction, we need to take a good look at our mind, without any fabrication, fakery, or pretense. Then we see whatever we see. Once we see our mind, we can start to look for the nature of that mind.

What About All Those Thoughts?

Within that resting meditation –– with the three qualities of non-distraction, non-meditation, and non-fabrication –– we may experience thoughts. Thoughts are arising and arising for us, continually.

Thoughts themselves are not a problem, but usually we come under the influence of those thoughts and they totally overpower us. We become a very loyal follower of our thoughts. We chase thoughts of the past, the future, and the present. And so in the meditation, if we experience being overpowered by thoughts, we need to come back to non-distraction. The basic technique we learn is “acknowledge the thought.” Say “thought” and let go. Come back to breathing. Or, come back to non-distraction. It is that simple.

These are three qualities or three methods of Vajrayana resting meditation. But, all methods have the possibility to bring about the realization of the nature of mind. Don’t think, “Oh I need to finish this first, then this, then that, then boom, I will get realization.” It doesn’t happen that way. And it is never taught in the Mahamudra or Dzogchen teachings that that’s how we get it. Realization can happen in any moment. Seeing the nature of mind can happen in any moment. Any method can lead us to that. The key point here is how genuinely and how well we actually apply these methods.

A Simple Meditation

Here is a simple meditation you can try at home.

1. With a positive, heartfelt motivation sit comfortably with your spine well-supported and allow your body to relax.

2. Bring your attention to your breath, your reference point for non-distraction.

3. With the breath as your support, relax your mind into the experience of nowness.

4. If thoughts arise just notice them without chasing after them or trying to stop them. Thoughts themselves are not a problem.

5. If you become overpowered by thoughts, distracted by thoughts, you can label them “thinking” and then return to a light focus on your breath, return to resting in non-distraction.

6. Relaxing without distraction in the present moment, simply be as you are where you are. Remind yourself there is no need to do anything, no need to fabricate anything, no need to dress up your experience into something more “spiritual”, and no need to try to make it better or worse. Don’t push away or hold onto your experience. Relax and stay present.


The teachings presented in this article were originally given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche to a public audience in Montreal, in 2015.