To Control One’s Mind
by Ayya Khema
Our old friend, dukkha, arises in the mind as dissatisfaction caused by all sorts of triggers. It can be triggered by bodily discomfort, but more often it is caused by the mind’s own aberrations and convolutions. The mind creates dukkha, and that’s why we must really watch and guard our minds.
Our own mind can make us happy, our own mind can make us unhappy. There is no person or thing in the whole world that will do this for us. All happenings act as triggers for us, which constantly catch us unawares. Therefore we need to develop strong awareness of our own mind-moments.
We have a good chance to do that in meditation. There are two directions in meditation, calm (samatha) and insight (vipassana).If we can achieve some calm, that indicates that concentration is improving. But unless that valuable skill is used for insight, it’s a waste of time. If the mind becomes calm, joy often arises, but we must observe how fleeting and impermanent that joy is, and how even bliss is essentially still only a condition which can be easily lost. Only insight is irreversible. The stronger the calm is established, the better it will withstand disturbances. In the beginning any noise, discomfort or thought will break it up, especially if the mind has not been calm during the day.
Impermanence (anicca) needs to be seen quite clearly in everything that happens, whether it is in or out of meditation. The fact of constant change should and must be used for gaining insight into reality. Mindfulness is the heart of Buddhist meditation and insight is its goal. We’re spending our time in many different ways and some portion of it in meditation, but all our time can be used to gain some insight into our own mind. That’s where the whole world is happening for us. Nothing, except what we are thinking, exists for us.
The more we watch our mind and see what it does to us and for us, the more we will be inclined to take good care of it and treat it with respect. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is taking the mind for granted. The mind has the capacity to create good and also evil for us, and only when we are able to remain happy and even-minded no matter what conditions are arising, only then can we say that we have gained a little control. Until then we are out of control and our thoughts are our master.
“Whatever harm a foe may do to foe,
or hater unto one he hates,
the ill-directed mind indeed
can do one greater harm.
What neither mother, nor father too,
nor any other relative can do,
the well-directed mind indeed
can do one greater good.”
The above words of the Buddha show quite clearly that there is nothing more valuable than a controlled and skillfully directed mind. To tame one’s mind does not happen only in meditation, that is just one specific training. It can be likened to learning to play tennis. One works out with a trainer, again and again, until one has found one’s balance and aptitude, and can actually play in a tennis match. Our match for taming the mind happens in day-to-day living, in all situations we encounter.
The greatest support we can have is mindfulness, which means being totally present in each moment. If the mind remains centred then it can’t make up stories about the injustice of the world or one’s friends, or about one’s desires, or one’s lamentations. All these mind-made stories would fill many volumes, but we are mindful such verbalisations stop. “Mindful” is being fully absorbed in the moment, leaving no room for anything else. We are filled with the momentary happening, whether that may be standing or sitting or lying down, being comfortable or uncomfortable, feeling pleasant or unpleasant. Whichever it may be, it is a non-judgemental awareness, “knowing only,” without evaluation.
Clear comprehension brings evaluation. We comprehend the purpose of our thought, speech or action, whether we are using skillful means or not and whether we have actually achieved the required results. One needs some distance to oneself in order to be able to evaluate dispassionately. If one is right in the middle, it’s very difficult to get an objective view. Mindfulness coupled with clear comprehension provides one with the necessary distance, the objectivity, the dispassion.
Any dukkha that one has, small, medium or large, continuous or intermittent, is all created by one’s mind. We are the creators of all that happens to us, forming our own destiny, nobody else is involved. Everybody else is playing his own role, we just happen to be near some people and farther away at other times. But whatever we are doing, all is done to our own mind-moments.
The more we watch our thoughts in meditation, the more insight can arise, if there is an objective viewing of what is happening. When we watch mind-moments arising, staying and ceasing, detachment from our thinking process will result, which brings dispassion. Thoughts are coming and going all the time, just like the breath. If we hang on to them, try to keep them, that’s when all the trouble starts. We want to own them and really do something with them, especially of they are negative, which is bound to create dukkha.
The Buddha’s formula for the highest effort is worth remembering: “Not to let an unwholesome thought arise, which has not yet arisen. Not to sustain an unwholesome thought which has already arisen. To arouse a wholesome thought which has not yet arisen. To sustain a wholesome thought which has already arisen.”
The quicker we can become a master of this effort, the better. This is part of the training we undergo in meditation. When we have learned to quickly drop whatever is arising in meditation, then we can do the same with unwholesome thoughts in daily living. When we are alert to an unwholesome thought in meditation, we can use the same skill to protect our mind at all times. The more we learn to shut our mind-door to all negativities which disturb our inner peace, the easier our life becomes. Peace of mind is not indifference. A peaceful mind is a compassionate mind. Recognising and letting go is not suppression.
Dukkha is self-made and self-perpetuated. If we are sincere in wanting to get rid of it, we have to watch the mind carefully, to get an insight into what’s really happening within. What is triggering us? There are innumerable triggers, but there are only two reactions. One is equanimity and one is craving.
We can learn from everything. Today some anagarikas had to wait quite a long time in the bank, which was an exercise in patience. Whether the exercise was successful or not, doesn’t matter as much as that it was a learning experience. Everything we do is an exercise, this is our purpose as human beings. It’s the only reason for being here, namely to use the time on our little planet for learning and growing. It can be called an adult education class. Everything else we can think of as the purpose of life, is a mistaken view.
We’re guests here, giving a limited guest performance. If we use our time to gain insight into ourselves utilising our likes and dislikes, our resistances, our rejections, our worries, our fears, then we’re spending this lifetime to the best advantage. It’s a great skill to live in such a way. The Buddha called it “urgency’ (samvega), a sense of having to work on ourselves now and not leave it for some future unspecified date, when one may have more time. Everything can be a learning experience and the only time is now.
When we meet our old friend dukkha, we would ask: “Where did you come from?” When we get an answer, we should inquire again, getting deeper into the subject. There’s only one true answer, but we won’t get it immediately. We have to go through several answers until we get to the bottom line, which is “ego.” When we’ve come to that one, we know we have come to the end of the questioning and to the beginning of insight. We can then try to see how the ego has produced dukkha again. What did it do, how did it react? When we see the cause, it may be possible to let go of that particular wrong view. Having seen cause and effect by ourselves, we’ll never forget it again. Single drops fill a bucket, little by little we purify. Every moment is worthwhile.
The more we experience every moment as worthwhile, the more energy there is. There are no useless moments, every single one is important, if we use it skillfully. Enormous energy arises from that, because all of it adds up to a life which is lived in the best possible way.