What is Shinay and Where Does It Belong in Meditation?

This article was published in issue # 36 | Fall-Winter 2015


When we practice Buddhism and follow the Buddha’s methods, we do it in a gradual way.  We learn the teachings—what Buddha taught—and we try to understand it. If we do not understand some things, then we ask our questions and slowly clarify it. We will also see that, as time goes by, more and more questions come, along with more clarification.

In our practice there is one thing that is the key to everything: meditation. If we do not get to the meditation level, we will never really change our mind to bring us to liberation and enlightenment. That is what we aim for, not just for ourselves but for everybody. So, the meditation practice is really the main thing. Of course, we have to know why we do it and also know the view, but the meditation practice is the main thing.

Buddha taught many different meditations and meditation methods. All of these methods can be put into two categories: shinay, which is to focus and calm our mind; and, vipassana or lhaktong, called insight meditation, which is to realize the nature of our mind.These two go together. That is what is special in Buddhist practice; we need both of them.

The methods have a certain order. Of course, we like to start out with the “real thing,” which is realizing the nature of our mind. We want to do that as quickly as possible. But, in order to do that, we first need to get a hold on our mind. That is where shinay comes in. If we have not practiced at all, we barely know that we have a mind. For people who are not following a certain spiritual path, mind is not something that they really think about or even notice much.

What is mind? What is consciousness? One simply lives whatever one experiences in the mind and does not have many thoughts or ideas about it.  One has no distance between what is happening and one’s own mind.

So the first thing is to be aware of what is actually going on in our mind. Once we start to see what is going on there, we notice that we do not have much control over it. We have a lot of emotions, thoughts, and ideas, which are very scattered, and we are not able to control it. The process of meditation—what meditation really is—is to start getting some kind of grip on our mind. This means not to just let it run its own course without noticing it, but to actually start working with it—slowly going through the process of getting a real understanding of what the mind is, noticing that the mind is doing all these things, and then starting to control it. And how do we do that?

First, we quickly notice that we cannot focus. We cannot keep our focus on anything. We just sit for a few minutes and then we see how much we can focus or how long we can focus. Many distractions make our mind just follow its usual pattern, going everywhere, but this is something that we can change. We can really learn to keep our mind on one thing. We can keep it focused. When we do that, we start to notice how often and how much the mind is being distracted. This processing of the mind is what shinay means.

All the methods that we are using when we learn to keep our mind focused on something is actually shinay. That is where we train our mind not to just walk off, but to stay put in one place. While training our mind, we notice that the mind wanders off, that we can get very sleepy and even fall asleep, that we become unclear, and that we can also get bored. All these things can happen. That is normal because we are not used to this kind of discipline.  It is a new habit that we have to develop. If, in the beginning, it feels very funny and kind of artificial when these different things happen, we need to have patience and do something—take breaks, inspire ourselves, motivate ourselves—and then slowly the habit will grow.

When we get to the end of a meditation, the completion phase, we actually try to let go of all the things that we are focused on. That is when we get to the second kind of meditation, which is vipassana in Sanskrit or lhagktong in Tibetan: the insight meditation. We need to do both together because if we have not focused well in the beginning, then this second part of the meditation does not happen. We can maybe call it meditation and try it, but it doesn’t happen. It is not something that happens easily. First, we need to have a very stable state of mind in order to dissolve anything, but we are lucky because we are already combining it, even though we cannot do it yet. That means that eventually we will be able to do it.

The shinay practice that we do a little of—where we are not focusing on the buddha aspects but using other objects for focus—is when we start by focusing on our breathing.  That is actually the shinay practice I want to talk about here. Then, once we have finished the Foundational Practices (also called Ngöndro), we can go deeper into the practice where we focus on the breathing or other things without the buddha aspects. This is something that those who have finished the Ngöndro are recommended to do and also to combine it with the other meditations. When we practice shinay with more concentration, the practices we do will be more stable and more profound. This is the shinay that we will talk a little
bit about.1

As long as we live and have our bodies, there is a strong connection between our body and our mind. So for shinay practice—the simple one or the advanced one, or actually for any meditation we do and especially for the insight meditation—our body can be used to help our concentration. Shamar Rinpoche recommended that we do a little more meditation on the breathing. For that, the meditation posture is very important. It is a very big help. We can imagine that we have many energies running through the body, with all kinds of things happening in the body, and the meditation posture helps to harmonize all these different energies. It is a way of influencing the mind through the body in the way that it becomes more stable.

The most important thing is that the back is straight. Then we cross the legs as best as we can; completely cross them if possible. It will make you sit even better. If you cannot, then just put one leg up. Sit very straight, not leaning to one side or the other or toward the front or back. Your head should be straight with the chin tucked in a little bit. You have your mouth closed because you want to breathe through the nose.

You don’t tighten anything. You just close your lips without using any muscles so that it is still relaxed. There is a little space between the teeth. The tongue will touch the palette.  Then you have your eyes half open and just let them follow the sight in front of you. When you sit in this way, the eyes naturally look down a bit in front of you.

Focusing on the breathing is extremely simple. (laughs) You just breathe out and breath in. (laughs) The breathing is just what you focus on. You don’t do anything else. In order to stay focused on breathing as your object, you don’t do anything with the breathing. You don’t force it, you don’t keep it, and you don’t give it any color or anything. You are just trying to be really mindful of how the air comes out and through your nose and how it goes down in front of you and comes up again. You try to just be present in that. No matter what else goes on in your mind, you try not to be distracted and keep focusing on the breath.  Focus only on that, nothing else. (Hannah then enters this meditation state.)

Was it easy for that brief time? Most of you do that anyway before the meditation, so what is useful now is to train such that you really try to keep totally clear as you do it. If it is only for one or two times, that is fine. You pause a bit and then you can do a few more breaths. We are used to concentrating on the breathing while, at the same time, our mind goes this way and that. It comes back and then we go again. Now, instead of the coming and going, try to really concentrate and stay focused, even if it is for a very short time. Keep it very concentrated and then take a short break and do it again. Even if it is for a count of seven or 21 times2 you can train your concentration a lot if you practice like that. Later in your meditation practice, when you meditate on Diamond Mind for example, you can feel that it helps the meditation. It is not possible to stay in full concentration all the time. It is good to be very focused, and then again to relax.

Whether you have meditated for many years or are totally new, you may already recognize it. For totally new people, it is good to have some idea of how we actually want to work with the mind. The reason we need this meditation is that we are not used to working with the mind. Our mind is simply not used to working in that way. It has so many other habits and they are very strong. They are so difficult to change. So when things happen, when we have different feeling or ideas, we cannot let go of them because we are so used to just following them. What we learn in the meditation is to get away from this habit of just following what is going on in our mind. That is how we change our habits.

By taking breaks, we avoid going into a more passive state of mind, which is then not clear. Sometimes people think that meditation just means to sit down and close the eyes and just sit like that. If you just sit like that for a while, you do not get so many outer impressions. Maybe you can get into a pleasant, sleepy, relaxed mode and you think that this is meditation. But this is not meditation; it is a dull state where the mind is less clear. You definitely do not want that. If you get used to this short concentration and taking a break, and concentration and taking a break, then you will never fall into that trap. The mind will stay vivid and fresh.

It all sounds quite simple, and it is a really simple practice, like most of the meditations we do. But, as you may have experienced, it does take a lot of effort and patience. Meditating is not always joyful and it is not always very blissful. Knowing this is part of the practice. It is the process of getting used to concentrating and training the mind. In that process, you do not look for the results. You just do it with confidence that, when you do it, the results will come.

When the results start to come, especially of the shinay, there are some things to be aware of and to know, e.g., not to fall into the trap of hanging on to these results, but to treat them exactly as we were already doing with our confusion and thoughts and emotions. That means not to follow it or hang onto it.  After having a “good” meditation, you can experience a very peaceful state of mind that is not unclear. It is the result of shinay. Your mind is very peaceful, very calm, and it is a very pleasant state of mind. It is easy to want to stay in that or, when it is gone, to want it to come back because that is what we are used to. We always want a nice or pleasant experience. In many things, that is what we go for. When it happens in meditation, then, of course, wow, we will really be happy about it. We expect it to happen again, but then it doesn’t. I can promise you. (laughs)

In this habit of wanting it again, it is gone. The only reason that it came in the first place was that we had worked enough with our mind to know not to want it again. Then, we block it again. That is what we have to learn not to do. If there is some kind of pleasant experience, of course it is nice, but you don’t do anything; when it is there, it is there and when it is gone, it is gone. You don’t do anything about it. You keep your mind completely neutral. You can even have an experience where you feel very lucid, very clear, which is also a side effect of the shinay.  Again, it is the same: if it is there, it is there and if it is gone, it is gone. Don’t do anything about it. You can even get into a state where it feels like the experience of emptiness because there are no ideas or concepts; it is just a state without all these concepts. But it is just another meditation experience and we should treat it in the same way as all things that normally happen in the mind.

The point is that whatever happens in the mind is actually of the same nature. It is like a thought or a feeling or an idea; it is all the same quality. It is not different. It all belongs to the mind. It is something that is not different from the mind. That is also why there is no reason to go up and down in the meditation according to what kind of thoughts or feelings are going on in the mind. That is why we treat them all equally. Now I am talking about the actual meditation session. That is where we work like this. That is where we stay neutral.  We don’t go for good thoughts or avoid bad thoughts. Everything that happens is just distraction and we go back to focusing, no matter what it is. Whether visions or whatever, just go back, keep going back to whatever we meditate on.

What happens when you keep the mind focused is that you notice when a distraction is there because, if you don’t notice it, then you already are distracted. The earlier you notice the distraction, the more you have actually trained.

When we meditate, no matter what meditation we do, we always need to find a balance where we are concentrated and, at the same time, we are not tense. We need to keep our mind wide, not getting too tense or too relaxed, because then we cannot focus. We are aiming for this balance.

Of course, when we are not in the meditation session, it is a different matter. Apart from that, the meditation helps us to be more mindful. Calming the mind does not mean that everything is equal, good and bad. There we want to strengthen the compassion. We want to do what we can to help other people and so on. That is a different matter. It is important not to confuse these two things. What is irrelevant in the meditation is relevant when we are out in life and active in the world.

Once we begin to realize the insight and the nature of mind, it is again a different matter.  Then meditation and non-meditation become equal. All the relative things will automatically also be all right. One will not make mistakes on that level. As long as that is not the case, the post-meditation sessions are important for strengthening our compassion and also, at the same time, for staying more mindful.

What if, when you concentrate on the breathing in this way, it gets more and more difficult?

Stopping breathing is not supposed to happen yet. Please don’t stop. (laughs) You have to do it more relaxed and just focus without being tense. Also, don’t do it too long. Just make a short break in your mind and then make your mind wide—just space—and then again back to the focus. That is also habit.

When my eyes are open and always in contact with the outer world, it is difficult not to let thoughts wander. It is much easier to have the eyes closed.

That is true. It is also a question of training. For other shinay meditations, for example, when you meditate on the different buddhas, then usually you keep your eyes closed. It is easier also. You cannot really focus if you have your eyes open. But for this practice with the breathing, it is really a question of getting used to it. Here you actually train to keep the mind focused and not to let it wander off because of what you see. Our visual impressions are of the same nature as thoughts or feelings. You have to treat them in the same way. Do not follow them or get ideas about them.

Someone had practiced shinay intensively for about ten days and many hours every day. She felt that it did increase the sharpness of her mind, but she didn’t feel much blessing—for sure not the same kind of blessing when she does other types of meditations. 

One does not exclude the other. It has a lot to do with what state of mind you do the practice in and how open you are. If you do it just as a technique, of course you will not feel much blessing. But if you motivate yourself, if you open yourself to the buddhas and bodhisattvas and the lamas, that is when you feel the blessing. It has to do with how you think. The technique alone is just a technique that helps you to focus.

My friend is always falling asleep when he starts meditation, especially Diamond Mind. He has done half of the practice, but it is not changing.

You are not the only one who has had that experience, especially with Diamond Mind. It often works like that. The best thing is to try again to take a break and don’t wait until you fall asleep. When you do the mantra and you can sort of feel that you cannot keep the concentration, then, before it is gone, just stop for a moment and then again start.

I fall asleep on the first mantra.

The first mantra you fall asleep? Wow! (laughs) When you stand up, are you very fresh?  You are not sleepy? Then you have to at least try to do the meditation in a place where it is not too hot and when you have not eaten. Be ready to refresh yourself and try to interrupt the sleepiness. You have to try to cut that habit.

When I meditate, I have so many thoughts in my mind.

As long as you don’t follow them, it is fine. You know what I mean by follow? Like following a chain where you are then distracted. You cannot be both distracted and keep the focus. That is not possible. So if you follow it, you will not focus anymore. As long as you focus, even if the thoughts are there, you are still not following them.  If you notice that they come, then you can avoid following.


At first just don’t follow them. The mind will calm down. In the beginning, when you start to see how your mind works, you actually think that you have more thoughts than ever. This is compared to a waterfall—so much water pouring down. It is not that you have more thoughts, just that you now see how many thoughts you have. When you have trained for a while, the mind becomes more calm and is compared to a river, which sometimes is just moving along and sometimes is more turbulent. Eventually it goes into the very still ocean. That is when there is full calmness and control. 

The important thing is that you have an idea of how the mind works in this process. It is totally normal, actually for quite a while, that the mind can be very busy if one doesn’t fall asleep. (laughs) That is the other option. It also happens.

There was someone who had done some Zen practice where the meditation was to sit down in front of the wall and to do shinay. There were certain experiences that were coming. Is that recommended?

I think the way we use it and have used it so far is actually a good balance, namely that we do it for our practices. I would not change that. We recommend doing the more intensive training of shinay after the Ngöndro because you have a better foundation for it and you can go deeper into it. Then it can go into the insight meditation.

When we do the Foundational Practices, our mind is not that trained yet and we sometimes cannot keep our mind clear. Are we then protected through the practice of not falling into a wrong meditation?

Yes, you are. That has mainly to do with what one of you was saying before. What makes the practice Buddhist is that you have the right frame around it. You take refuge, you consciously develop your bodhisattva mind, and then you do the practice the best you can. Then you dedicate it. Of course, you have to be aware and do it the best you can. You have to train in it, but you cannot really go wrong. Also, when we do the preliminaries that is what we are doing. That is what you are training through the practice. You are training. Just as when you are doing the breathing practice, also in the meditation when we do the Ngöndro, you also take a break from the meditation if you get too unclear or too tired or too distracted. You can always do that. Taking a break means that, just for one moment, you relax and do not focus on anything and then go back to what you were meditating on.  It’s like that. It’s like training muscles. Here you train the mind to be clearer.

How do you get away from the thought of focusing?

You just focus. You don’t have to think that you are focusing. You just direct your mind toward the breathing. Anyway, you always direct your mind to something. We are talking about the shinay here. This is the level of the practice when you do the breathing. We are not talking about when you are meditating on the nature of your mind. That is a different kind of meditation. Right now you just learn and train your mind to be more focused because usually it is not. It is a question of learning and getting used to it.

When the result of the meditation is that we are controlling our emotions, could you control your emotions when Lama Ole’s accident happened?

I can control my mind better than my body. (laughs) I understand your question. Of course, to a certain extent, there is less disturbance but I think you can still have reactions. You can have physical reactions and you can also have mental reactions. Of course, you get worried. It is painful when someone else is in pain like that. I wouldn’t even try to change that. But it is more a question of still keeping some kind of inner calm. I don’t know if you understand what I mean. Things happen all the time, both physically and mentally, when you are in the world, but through meditation you learn to relate to what happens in a different way. You cannot just change what happens and you cannot change the effect. But you can change how you relate to the events or happenings and states, even in your own mind. You learn how to relate to them. You are not absorbed in them in the same way—even if it is happening.

Before I started my Ngöndro I read some books on meditation and tried some practices that were described in the book. I just sat down and focused on my third eye and then the experience I had was that I didn’t feel my body anymore and lost taste and smell and sound. Then suddenly nothing was there anymore and it was just red light or whatever. The question is, does that refer to the practice of shinay in some way or what was it?

It is a kind of shinay. Shinay means that you focus your mind on something and then naturally there will be some effect or side effects. A lot of these things, like clear sight or miracles, are the effects of shinay, of calm abiding. The thing is, a Buddhist practitioner doesn’t go for the effect. That is a big difference. For a Buddhist, why you do it is very important and your whole attitude and that you dedicate it. That kind of state of mind is one effect of the concentration of your mind.

Does it mean I should do it more often?

No. Well, I don’t know what you want! (laughs) You use it in a Buddhist context. You follow the different methods that include shinay but have more than that.

Every time we have a course with Lama Ole, he insists that we have to finish Ngöndro. What confuses me is when I read a book by Chogram Trungpa and he insists we do shinay and vipassana. Many other times I have read other articles, also in Karma Kagyu, and
they say the same.  So I don’t know if it is something specifically from Ole that we have to finish Ngöndro first.

We learned to finish Ngondro first from Kalu Rinpoche. He and many other teachers say that, and many Mahamudra explanation texts will recommend it. There are different schools for what you are asking about. It depends on how much foundation you want to have before you go into shinay. So this will also decide what kind of shinay you get. You are safer in your practice if you have a strong foundation, have purified a lot of impressions, or have built up a lot of positive impressions before you start focusing only on your mind.

Do you think that focusing in normal life, being very focused on computer work or going for a ride on a motorcycle, is comparable to shinay practice—this kind of focusing on something? Would it be a basis for a meditation too? Sometimes I ask people, do you feel you can meditate more easily because you are doing this?  Quite often they say no, and for me it is quite surprising. I think they should be able to focus in meditation very easily.

I think that kind of concentration you talk about is much more conceptual. That is probably why. It is not pure concentration without any kind of thoughts and ideas. You just go into something. Of course, you can generally say that it is a way of focusing and can help you to focus, and in some meditations one also goes into a topic and follows that topic. But that topic has some meaning and one gets some understanding by following that topic. When you just focus on some kind of job or whatever, then it is different because then you are already distracted.

Is it good, when we just practice shinay, that we feel the presence of our lama above our head?

Well, you mean in the meditation or what?

No, just when we have a few minutes somewhere and we are not able to do the regular meditation.

You can do that and you can also concentrate on it. What we are talking about here is more when you sit for meditation and you train your concentration in a meditation situation. Somehow I get the impression that you still think it is different from what we are normally doing. (laughs) We now call it shinay as it concerns the breathing and, when you do your Foundational Practices, that is also shinay. When you are building up the meditation, that is shinay and when you meditate in the Guru Yoga, that is also shinay.

Would it be ok to do a few minutes of breathing shinay meditation and then go straight into Ngöndro practice, or should we keep the two a little bit separate?

I thought we always did that? (laughs)

No, but to actually do the breathing shinay consciously for a few minutes and then go straight into your Ngöndro practice or maybe even make it the beginning of your Diamond Mind meditation?

I thought we always did that. We feel the formless stream of air come and go at the tip of our nose, no? That is it. You mean to do it longer? Well, I don’t know how long you normally do it but you can do it for a minute or so. Sure, but I wouldn’t do it too long.

I have a question about integrating this practice into daily life. I work in a computer programming office with people who are used to working with mind and I know they all know that I am a Buddhist. They are interested and now I plan to start in my pauses to do a little shinay meditation because it is a good break, especially with this kind of work. I plan to do it once a day and maybe they will become interested. What should I do if they ask to join or something like that?

In this case I would not replace it with what you are normally doing. Are you normally doing a practice at that time? Is this something new? Are you hoping to add this practice because it is simple? If your colleagues are interested in meditation, it is okay to do the technique for a few minutes, but it is different if you do it as a Buddhist. You have to explain it to them also. If you have half an hour and you want to sit down, I think I would just continue with the practice that you normally do and not shift to something else. If they ask and they are interested in doing some kind of meditation, you can tell them to concentrate on their breathing.

Instead of concentrating on the breathing, is it possible to focus on the naked awareness of mind because if feels wider, or is this not shinay?

Well, in order to focus on the naked awareness of mind, your mind has to be very focused already. I don’t know if your mind is that focused or not. Usually one needs to really focus more before one can go into just resting in the naked awareness of mind. Of course, I cannot say how your meditation is. If, in your meditation, you feel that the usual distractions are coming and maybe sometimes that you are sleepy, then it is better that you do the preliminaries and that you do more shinay.

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Hannah Nydahl (1946-2007) together with her husband Ole became the first Western students of H.H. the 16th Karmapa in December 1969. For over 30 years, she interpreted for the highest Karma Kagyü teachers, including the 16th Karmapa, Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche, and translated many Tibetan Buddhist texts on teachings, practice, and philosophy.

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