Training the attention

The undirected mind, by its very nature, wanders aimlessly and falls into ruts or habitual thought patterns. Some mental ruts people commonly get into include: “I don’t know what’s going on”, “I’m better than she is”, “I’m worse than she is”, “I can’t do that”, “I’m smart and beautiful”, “People think I’m good, but I’m really bad and selfish”, “I’m dumber than anyone knows”, and “Just not good enough”. It can be awfully difficult to recognize and get beyond such habitual thoughts.

This is what the Buddha says about directing your mind:

Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy,
Or haters, one to another,
Far worse is the harm
From one’s own wrongly directed mind.

Neither mother nor father,
Nor any other relative can do
One as much good
As one’s own well-directed mind.

(Dhammapada 42, 43 – Fronsdal)

No other thing do I know, O monks, that brings so much harm as a mind that is untamed, unguarded, unprotected, and uncontrolled. Such a mind truly brings much harm. No other thing do I know, O monks, that brings so much benefit as a mind that is tamed, guarded, protected and controlled. Such a mind truly brings great benefit.
(AN I, iv 1-10 selected – Nyanaponika & Bodhi)

That’s the good news: the mind is trainable. It can (gradually) become tamed, guarded, protected, and controlled. But how?

There’s no magic. All the things we’ve been talking about for the last many months are part of the re-training process. In general, it requires turning the attention to our own actions and words to see what intentions are associated with them and what results they bring in the world, and then considering whether we are satisfied with our actions and their consequences or whether there’s some improvement we can imagine making. Noticing, as things unfold in real time, is the key.

The task of training the attention to look inward more than outward is challenging. One thing that may help with the training is to have a clear notion of what is and is not under our control.

It is easy to mistake simple judging — “It shouldn’t be that way” — for control. It is important to notice when this thought comes up, and how you handle it when it does. There are many, many things in the world that cause unhappiness, and “shouldn’t be that way”. However, they are as they are. Your resistance to the truth of the situation doesn’t help; it is simply denial of how things are. Instead, difficult situations can be observed with appropriate humility, acceptance, and understanding. Only with this view can the best course of action be discovered.

If you direct your energies toward working in the field of your body, speech and mind, your effect on other people and events may become more powerful, and certainly will become more beneficial.

It can be freeing to let go of “knowing” how things should be. Here’s an illustrative story from T:
“R and I take turns ironing his shirts. One time, he was ironing a shirt and I was being very annoying, telling him that he was doing it wrong because, of course, I know how to iron a shirt and my way is best. After patiently listening to me, R looked at me and said, ‘Have you ever been embarrassed to see me walk out the door in a shirt I’ve ironed myself?’ I stopped to think, and the clear answer came to me. No, I had not, and just because I iron shirts one way and he irons them a different way, it doesn’t mean that my way is best. The two lessons learned: We can both accomplish things, great and small, using different routes. Also, it’s very liberating to be able to acknowledge when you are wrong.”

Be alert for situations in your own life where you are trying to fix someone else. In such situations you may be straying out of the area you can control — your own actions and words.

1 Comment

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One response to “Training the attention

  1. “No other thing do I know, O monks, that brings so much benefit as a mind that is tamed, guarded, protected and controlled. Such a mind truly brings great benefit. ” Wonderful!!! More than that, actually, BEAUTIFUL!

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