Dhammapada verses 35 & 36

The mind, hard to control,
Flighty — alighting where it wishes —
One does well to tame.
The disciplined mind brings happiness.

The mind, hard to see,
Subtle — alighting where it wishes —
The sage protects.
The watched mind brings happiness. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

There’s no wrong time to watch the mind. Sometimes it jumps around, calling our attention to it; sometimes it stays “in neutral” and we might not be aware that we have a mind. But if we make a habit of keeping track of where our mind is going, two things happen: first, we notice that it is completely out of our control, we’re an observer in this process; and second, that the more we attend to the movements of our minds with steady interest and kindness, the less agitated our minds become. The very act of equanimous observation has the effect, over the long term, of taming the mind.

One important result of maintaining awareness of our mind is that if we are noticing the moods and movements of the mind, we are less inclined to identify with each flight of fancy or negative landing-place. We see thoughts as a scientist might, as natural changes in energetic momentum, stimulated by causes and conditions we can rarely identify. If we make no attempt to track the movements of our mind, we are along for the ride, identifying with every random thought with the underlying assumption, “This is me”, often followed by the thought, “What’s wrong with me?”. 

As the verses point out, it is hard to see our own minds, and even harder to control them. We can’t control our minds through force, we can only gradually re-train them to stay in the fields that we (try to) confine them to. We can choose carefully what we take in to our mind. If we watch a lot of images of cruelty, damage, and destruction, that will be its field of abode; if we read or listen to the Buddha’s Dhamma, that creates a place for the mind to visit and possibly settle. The people we spend time with inspire or discourage us. These are significant factors in the process of training the mind.

The more we practice this type of mindfulness, attending to the state of our mind and what influences those states, the more clearly we will understand that this mind is not directly controllable, and is not “me”. The result of this understanding is a calm and pleasant mental space.

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Interesting (pandemic) times

We interrupt our previously scheduled posts to check in on how we are doing in the extraordinary conditions we are all living through right now. In our different situations, we are facing challenges we could not have foreseen a few months ago. Fear, anxiety, sorrow, panic, resignation, compassion, gratitude – we may have been experiencing any or all of these mind states, plus many others. How are we to understand what is going on?

One way is to look through the lens of the Buddha’s four truths:

  1. There is dukkha. Two of the standard definitions of dukkha are (a) not getting what we want, and (b) getting what we don’t want. Many of us are experiencing both of these to an unprecedented degree. We want things to be normal, we want to maintain our independence, we want to feel free to choose among appealing options. Instead, we are surrounded by unpleasant and sometimes irrational emotional displays. We’re unable to live as we usually do and there are pressures we could not have anticipated. An analogous situation might be the start of World War II. Everyone in the countries involved lost control of their lives. Many lost their lives or their minds; everyone had less than they had before. There was disappointment, uncertainty and heartbreak as a daily diet. Our duty with respect to dukkha is to acknowledge it, to overcome our desire to deny that it exists. Most of our work is here; if we fully accept things as they are right now, including the uncertainties, we stand a good chance of being able to remain sane and behave in a wholesome manner.
  2. There is a cause of dukkha. The generic cause of dukkha is that we don’t want things to be unpleasant for us, that is, we crave for things to be as we want them to be  rather than how they are. This craving is the source of dukkha.
  3. There is an end of dukkha. There is the possibility of ending our craving, of accepting things, including ourselves, just as we are. It is not impossible.
  4. There is a path leading to the end of dukkha. This is the Buddha’s Eight-fold Path: Wise View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. The bottom link to the right of this post gives a fuller picture of this path, but be forewarned, each element of the path is a training requiring study, reflection, work, refinement, and persistence. The good news is that in each category, we can understand and embody its message sufficiently that we can experience growth, and from this we can take heart.

Breathe; breathe consciously; breathe without doing anything else, just for half a minute. Know that others are breathing at the same time and making the same effort to steady themselves. Sing, pray, tell others that you care about them, listen to people. Whatever you do to center yourself, make it a more regular habit in these days of tumult. We are all in this together.

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Dhammapada verse 34

Like a fish out of water,
Thrown on dry ground,
This mind thrashes about,
Trying to escape Māra’s command. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

“Māra’s command” represents a desire that we know is unwholesome, so the struggle represented in this verse is between our wanting X and our knowledge that pursuing X is not in the best interests of ourselves or others or both. Sometimes this does feel like a life and death struggle, which a fish out of water is experiencing when it thrashes about.

We could also understand that the activity of clinging, whether to something egregious or simply as our default state of mind, creates problems for us. The way the Buddha most often describes clinging is at a basic level: the five “aggregates” or categories of experience. We are inclined to cling to form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. When we are aware of any of these experiences, we have a tendency to see them as worthy of our effort to grab and hold onto them, or to try to manipulate them to our satisfaction. This is why they are called the “five aggregates subject to clinging”.

In SN 22, the Buddha says that “In clinging to form [feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness] one is bound by Māra; by not clinging to it one is freed from the Evil One.” and “In seeking delight in form [feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness] one is bound by Māra; by not seeking delight in it one is freed from the Evil One.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi translation)

One example might be clinging to an idea that a person or situation “shouldn’t be like that”. In spite of the fact that we understand, at some level, that people and things are as they are and behave as they do because of causes and conditions that came before and are still in motion. These causes and conditions are not in any significant way under our control! We don’t like the result, but we can’t do much to affect how things are, and yet we obsess over how someone could be so insensitive, so oblivious, so unkind, etc. The sensations of a fish out of water might feel analogous.

So we train our minds to see things as they really are. All of the aggregates, that is all of our experiences, are unstable, impermanent, insubstantial, continuously changing. Clinging to any part of experience can only bring us distress. We can function perfectly well while holding this understanding, as we discover at every deeper levels the longer we practice mindfulness.




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Dhammapada verse 33

The restless, agitated mind,
Hard to protect, hard to control,
The sage makes straight,
As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Most of us recognize that our minds tend to be restless and agitated, at least at times. When those hyper-energetic states are present, we experience a challenge to our sense of balance or ease.

The sage, or wise person, finds a way to cut through the jumble of thoughts and bring herself fully into the present. We collect our attention, setting aside whatever worries or distractions have us in their grip, and focus on the facts as they are now.  We can straighten our posture, feel our feet on the earth and inquire into where (in the body) and how intense our agitation is; we acknowledge what is currently true and start to track its changes. We might take a few deep breaths  to interrupt any overwrought emotions, then return to examining the information our senses are giving us. Even if we are still upset, at least we are grounded in the truth of how it is now.

By practicing in this way, persistently and whenever we feel the need to re-settle ourselves, a sense of ease can become our dominant state, one which we know how to return to.

Certainly in the Buddha’s time, making a straight arrow out of a stick of wood would have taken not only skill but also time. Perhaps these days arrows are smoothed out by a machine with little human intervention, but let’s go with the original image. Slowly, the skilled craftsperson would sharpen his tools before starting to cut away the grossest parts of the stick – the bark and any knobs or thistles. Then, with patience and persistence, the whittling begins, and continues. Scraping, testing, running our hands over the shaft of the arrow, we continuously smooth, check, evaluate, and adjust our work.

And so it is with learning to protect and control our minds. We start with whatever raw materials we have, we make mistakes, we see the results of our actions, we adjust our aim, and start again. With patient and persistent practice, our minds become more malleable and clear, absorbing informational blows without losing our sense of being fully present.

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Dhammapada verses 30, 31 & 32

With vigilance, Indra became the greatest of the gods.
The gods praise vigilance,
Forever rejecting negligence.

The monastic who delights in vigilance
And fears negligence
Advances like a fire,
Burning fetters subtle and gross.

The monastic who delights in vigilance
And fears negligence
Is incapable of backsliding
And is quite close to Nirvana. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

These final three verses in the Vigilance chapter are primarily exhortations to “strive on with diligence” and they appear to be addressed to monastics. As we read this and other sections of the Pali canon, it is up to us to figure out how we might apply the embedded wisdom to ourselves, though we are mostly laypeople and live in a different era.

All three of these verses offer powerful images with what look like absolutes: “greatest of gods”, “forever rejecting negligence”, “advances [in the practice] like fire”, “incapable of backsliding”, and “quite close to Nirvana”. If the goal of our meditation practice is not full awakening, if we are somewhere else in our karmic journey, what are we to make of these verses?

In SN 20.1, the Buddha is quoted as saying:

Bhikkhus, just as all the rafters of a peaked house lead to the roof peak and converge upon the roof peak, and are all removed when the roof peak is removed, so too all unwholesome states are rooted in ignorance and converge upon ignorance, and all are uprooted when ignorance is uprooted. Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell diligently.” Thus should you train yourselves.

In the notes for this sutta, Bhikku Bodhi says that “diligence” here means “constantly yoked with mindfulness.” This can be our access point. At whatever level we can maintain mindfulness throughout our day (including during our sitting practice), we can all start where we are and make the effort to extend and deepen our mindfulness; there is a goal we can strive towards. If we are mindful only during one or two activities per day, we can add a third one. We can start and end our days with bringing our awareness back to discover the true state of our bodies and minds. We can cultivate skillful speech and actions. In our various ways, all of us can “strive on with diligence!”.

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Dhammapada verses 28 & 29

Driving away negligence with vigilance,
Ascending the tower of insight and free of sorrow,
A sage observes the sorrowing masses
As someone standing on a mountain observes fools on the ground below.

Vigilant among the negligent,
Wide awake among the sleeping,
The wise one advances
Like a swift horse leaving a weak one behind. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)

One could look at these verses and think, “Oh! What arrogance!”, but this is not what’s intended. Instead, they describe a state of disengagement with the lusts that drive most humans. It is quite possible to feel like an oddball as one’s meditation practice bears fruit. We remember earlier times when we thought the unimportant was important, when material rewards or “being right” were our main interests, and we look with compassion on those who have not yet understood the problem. The person at the top of the mountain was once at the bottom, so there’s hope for everyone.

Of course there is the danger we might feel superior, the danger of ego-gratification, which is another form of clinging. Instead, we might have a sense that we’ve freed ourselves from a form of bondage. If we keep an eye on our tendency to cling to ideas, especially ideas of “self”, we can avoid the trap of feeling pity rather than compassion, of feeling superior rather than seeing ourselves as escapees. We may be acutely aware of others who still suffer with the attachments that once plagued us.

We can also look up the mountain, and, seeing others ahead of us on the path who have worn away their fetters, be encouraged to continue the climb.

Both the images of ascending a mountain and of waking from a sleep state are metaphors we see regularly in the Pali canon. They represent the falling away of delusion, the expenditure of right effort in the cause of investigating and releasing our various forms of clinging. There’s no magic here, just the persistent effort to recognize our suffering, trace its cause to the object of our clinging, and, seeing the causal connection, release our grip. These verses are meant to inspire us to continue our efforts.

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Dhammapada verses 26 & 27

Unwise, foolish people
Give themselves over to negligence.
The wise
Protect vigilance as the greatest treasure.

Don’t give yourself to negligence,
Don’t devote yourself to sensual pleasure.
Vigilant and absorbed in meditation
One attains abundant happiness.

This pair of verses reminds us that it’s up to us to choose. In any given moment, we can be lazy or diligent, we can go for easy gratification or remember our best intentions.

In a recent discussion of “free will” a couple of points worth mentioning came up. We do have free will, but:

  1. It is partial, limited by our history, our habits, our biases, and the conditions influencing us right now, and
  2. We only have free will in this moment, not in the past or the future. We can only make decisions now – what will we choose to do or say? Which direction will our thoughts go in, and how far?

The virtue of living in the present, as mindfulness trains us to do, is that we can remember that all of our intentions and actions matter, and that they have moral ramifications for us and others.

The second verse points out that unless we make the effort to direct our attention to the internal, we are at the mercy of external causes and conditions. The great value of a regular meditation practice is that it reminds us to own our energies, to take responsibility for the movements of our mind, at least in the sense of corralling our grossest thoughts and nudging them in wholesome directions. When we fall away from a daily practice we feel the effects in ways that are at first subtle, but grow heavier with time. We can sense that something is “off”, but it might be unclear what that is. Our inclination towards reflective thought becomes stunted; we forget which direction we wanted to go, and the result may be distressing. More than any other activity we might do, meditating refines our ability to think clearly ; it sweeps away the detritus of everyday distractions.

Fortunately, we can never be fired from mindfulness practice, we can always begin again, no matter how long we’ve been away. Refining the mind and developing compassion are two goals that are always worth returning to, and we can support these intentions with a variety of mindfulness practices.

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