The restless, agitated mind,
Hard to protect, hard to control,
The sage makes straight,
As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow.
Dhammapada v. 33, translated by Gil Fronsdal
I’ve skipped over a short chapter in the Dhammapada titled “Vigilance” because it seems primarily addressed to monks and nuns, and I’m going with the assumption that most of you, dear readers, are lay people.
This third chapter is simply called “The Mind” and the beautiful images in it seem useful to all of us.
Let’s start by assuming that sometimes our minds are restless and agitated, and sometimes they are not. Do we notice when the mind is calm? Or do we tune out because there’s nothing exciting going on? Staying alert when the mind is peaceful can open up a vast, underexplored part of our experience.
Meanwhile, the verse above points out that an agitated mind easily receives negative input and gets us into trouble through prompting careless words and actions. I believe you can confirm this with your own experience. How do you suppose a sage (or wise person) makes her mind “straight”, like an arrow?
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and have to accept it as an ongoing personal challenge. For each of us, the mind becomes restless and agitated in its own ways, so the remedies must likewise be customized to the situation. When my mind is really agitated and I notice that this is so, sometimes the only thing to do is keep still and breathe until the worst of it passes. If the mental restlessness is workable, then I can use awareness to try to discover the cause of it.
Sometimes the cause is obvious and I can investigate further, but sometimes I can’t figure out why my mind is unhappy. What I do notice is that if I don’t address a negative mental mood, it will perpetuate itself. So, if I wake up feeling grumpy (or something), it colors all my perceptions. Everything I see, hear, touch or think is an aggravation. It can be interesting to watch this phenomenon, since the very same stimuli, with a different mind-mood, can be quite pleasant.
The process of making an arrow involves paring away the excess wood and leaving only a thin, smooth, round, straight shaft. I like the idea that the process of making our minds straight begins with removing extraneous “wood”, that is ideas, memories, or whatever is creating the disturbance.