So often when we are in the middle of a negative state of mind, or difficult feelings, we forget that we have any way to change what is happening. When you are in the grip of any kind of strong sensation it can be very easy to be consumed by it. We feel like we are it, in it, totally surrounded by it.
But this is only a perception; when we meditate we learn that there are other perspectives available, and we get to experience the same kinds of strong sensations but with a bit of distance between us and the feelings. We get to observe the sensation rather than become it. But it is incredibly easy to lose sight of this and get carried along by thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
A couple of days ago I was doing a fairly monotonous chore and my mind was chattering away. After a while I found myself wondering when all the chatter was going to stop. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was just letting this happen. I realised I wasn’t doing anything about it, I was just listening to the unskilful mental chatter and wasn’t intervening at all. I remembered that what would be the more useful thing to do was to cultivate something more skillful, so I did.
I stopped paying attention to the brain junk and started thinking about something more positive. Then I thought to myself, ‘you know it really is much nicer to think about nice things,’ and gave myself a gentle kick – of course it’s nicer to think about nice things! They’re nice!
It’s not that I didn’t know any of this, obviously I did because I’ve already written about it previously when I’ve talked about the four right efforts. We get sucked into states of mind and into old habits, and we forget what we already know.
There can be many reasons why we seem to forget what we already know, but I’m going to suggest that one of the reasons is that we sometimes don’t realise that we are much more in control of our experience than we think we are. One of the things that you can come to realise through practice is that the human mind and body have capabilities that we ordinarily aren’t aware of. It is as if through the development (or perhaps over-development) of the conceptual functions of our mind that we have lost access to, or simply forgotten, the other abilities of the mind and how to use them. One thing we have lost sight of is the degree of control we have over our internal state.
Now you might be raising an eyebrow at me here; when you are in the grip of a foul mood it is very hard to believe that you have any control over it, but bear with me. If you can drive a car, think back to your first driving lessons. In the beginning most of us had very little sense that we were in control of the car, it felt more like it was driving us, and it was pretty scary too! But over time we started to understand how our inputs changed the behaviour of the car, until at some point we started to feel like we were in control of what was happening.
We have more control over what is happening in our mind than we sometimes think, but aren’t aware of it largely because we don’t know how those processes work. Once we learn though, we can feel like we are in the driving seat more of the time.
Sometimes when we meditate we bring so much stress and tension with us that when we get little moments of peace and clarity it feels like such a relief to us – we are so grateful for the breather from life – that we forget to investigate all the conditions and processes that allowed it to happen.
Sometimes we can even be almost superstitious, we want something to happen so much that we don’t dare to even think that we could have any control over making it happen, just in case we are disappointed.
This does have a little element of truth in it, trying to make something work by sheer willpower or desire alone will not be successful. But by the same token, doing nothing to make something happen will also have the same result. Like Sona’s harp strings (AN 6.55), everything has to be just right.
Now I appreciate that this might sound a bit contradictory; at times I say that the only thing to do is to sit with something, to see it out until it is finished, and this is the case sometimes. But the act of sitting with something isn’t about just learning tolerance of discomfort, it’s also about not interfering with the experience in the wrong way, in a way that will make it worse.
Quite often when we do start tinkering with an experience what we end up doing is making it worse, because the root cause of the distress is our self-view, our feeling that this thing is happening to “me”. So we inadvertantly summon up another “me” who wants to sort the whole thing out. But “me” was the problem, so “me” definitely can’t be the solution. The equation might look like this :
Problem caused by “me” + “me” trying to fix it = 2 x “me” + 2 x problem
That is why when we are in the middle of some kind of strong experience the first response is to just put everything down and don’t touch anything. Sitting with it allows you to stop another “me” from turning up:
Problem caused by “me” + no extra “me” = No extra problems
If we can do that then all we need to do is wait, because everything that arises will cease. So in the scenario when we sit with the experience we make it possible to just time it out; whereas if we try to tinker in the wrong way then waiting won’t work because we will keep making more problems faster than the previous one can end.
When we can recognise what that problem solving “me” looks and feels like and learn to stop it from becoming involved, then it opens up the possibility for us to utilise other strategies that don’t add more “me” to the problem. Then we can start to take more control of our experiences.
There is a lot of emphasis in some meditation and mindfulness approaches on non-interference with whatever we are experiencing, and while this is the right thing to cultivate at the start of our practice, as we develop we can begin to have more agency over what happens when we meditate.
The practice is about training the mind to do what we ask it to do, to make it flexible and compliant. The ultimate aim of this control and malleability is that we eventually get the mind to the position where it can see into the heart of reality, and this insight will allow us to stop making the mistake of creating selves, and creating suffering. Part of getting the mind to that point is to create the conditions where it is possible to see certain things more easily.
We close our eyes when we meditate to shut out external distractions; this creates a clear, quiet space that allows us to see details of our experience we would miss under the sensory noise of the outside world. We cultivate calm because this allows the mind to analyse difficult emotions and feelings without the heat of anger or upset getting in the way. We cultivate loving-kindness because hatred and anger interfere with our ability to see things as they really are.
There’s nothing extraordinary about doing this, it is simply utilising the ways that the human mind and body works. We actually manipulate our experience all the time. We put music on when we want to concentrate, or to feel more energetic. We go to places that make us feel peaceful. We speak to the people who make us feel happy, or safe, or whatever they do for us. We eat nice food, or put nice smelling oils in our bath. The human system has this function built into it, its state can be influenced and changed; meditation practice just takes advantage of this.
So the ability to create and nurture mind and body states is a key element in practice. We are supposed to be in control of our experience; the problem is that we have forgotten how to. Because we have forgotten how to do it, we feel like we are at the mercy of what is happening to us; and when we do try to take control we often do it in the wrong way.
Commonly if we don’t like our experience we blame other people or other outside factors for how we feel, so we focus all of our attention on trying to change what is on the outside. This never really works, but we habitually continue to do it anyway. Or we try to uproot the problem by sheer weight of ego: ‘I’ don’t like it so ‘I’ am going to make it stop. This is just using “me” to solve a problem caused by “me” again.
Let’s be clear though, I’m not saying that anyone is to blame for the way they are feeling, that’s not the case at all. If you don’t know how something works then how can you be to blame for the outcome? And if no one around you knows how it works then how can you expect to do anything differently to them? You can’t. We were all given a human mind and no instruction manual; we all just do the best we can.
Being hard on yourself, or blaming yourself is just making more “me”, which only ever makes more problems. Even when you are an experienced practitioner it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like “I should have known better” when you have made a really simple mistake – such as when I forgot about appropriate attention – but again that would be being too hard on yourself.
Ajahn Amaro likes to point out that in Buddhism no one is thought to be completely sane until they have achieved enlightenment. This is a useful reflection, not necessarily that we are crazy until we reach enlightenment, but as a reminder that we are all still works in progress until that point. If you think about a sane mind as being a stable and reliable one, then you can see that we just need to remember that our minds are not 100% reliable while we are still on the path and to not expect to never make any mistakes.
That’s why mindfulness is the all important skill to develop, the foundation upon which everything else can be built. The habit of constantly monitoring your internal landscape for thoughts and feelings is what allows us to see when we are making mistakes and to call upon useful strategies to counteract them. When we lose our mindfulness we lose sight of what we are doing, and usually when we stop paying attention to what we are doing we slide into our old habits. Keep paying attention to what is going on and you can spot that movement into the negative quickly and intervene before it drags you too far down the wrong road.
We don’t need to passively wait for our bad mood to blow over, we can cultivate better thoughts and emotions through our own interventions. Putting down the thoughts that are feeding the negativity is the easiest approach to take, just let them go. Think of something more positive, more wholesome. Or try reflecting on the teachings and how they can be applied. Or generate some kind feelings in your heart and mind; not necessarily for the person who caused you to be in a bad mood, but for anyone or anything that you can muster a bit of metta for. If it’s really bad then think of kittens, or baby penguins, if that is the kind of thing that usually cheers you up – anything to break the loop of negativity.
Positive thinking has a bit of a bad reputation, but don’t worry, that’s not what I’m talking about. We can be extremely cynical about artificially cultivating positive mind states, so let go of any preconceptions you have about it. As I said in my post Finding the Middle Way, we have a tendency in the West to take everything to it’s limit, so when people work on positivity they go for the kind of super-shiny happy-clappy mega-ultra-upbeat level positivity that is the calling card of American motivation speakers.
Buddhist practice is about not going to any kind of extreme; this kind of forced positivity is no more use than wallowing in cynicism, so don’t worry if you think this is about trying to hype yourself up into a good mood. What we aim for instead are the subtle states of peace and calm, and nothing is forced.
If you are still not sure about how much control you can have over your own mind states then remember that at the very heart of Buddhist practice is a universe that is ruled by cause and effect: this causes that, this plus this equals that, when this is not present then that is not present. What this means for us is that once we understand the equations then we can decide what mental states we want to cultivate. Part of our development from beginner level to experienced practitioner isn’t just being able to experience skilful states like calm, clarity, and focus, but to actually understand how to make it happen and to use that knowledge wisely to facilitate further development.
Remembering that you have some control over your internal world is an important element in experiencing peace and happiness, so don’t wait for the bad mood to blow over or for that ranty inner monologue to stop, use your knowledge and experience to cultivate something better instead.
Hard to hold down, nimble, alighting wherever it likes: the mind. Its taming is good. The mind well-tamed brings ease.https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Dhp/Ch03.html Dhp 35 trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Photo by Gustavo Quepón on Unsplash