Incorporeal and hidden
Is the mind.
Those who restrain it
Will be free from Mara’s bonds.
Dhammapada v37, translated by Gil Frondsal
Our minds may seem to be independent of us at times (far-ranging), hidden and hard to grasp. And yet we are asked to restrain our minds. Is this a reasonable request?
I suppose the answer is that if we want to be free of our greed, hatred and delusion, then there is no other path. We can’t pray or chant our way into freedom, we have to work with the mind we’ve got. To start with, we have to build a safe container of ethical actions and words, and trust that ethical thoughts will increase as a result of our persistence.
Also, I think this verse points out that working with the mind is different from working with the body. If we exercise our bodies, they get stronger. But exerting physical energy is no help at all with taming the mind. In fact, I think the key here is that training the mind must be approached with a different (maybe even opposite) sort of effort from training the body. Rather than pressing hard and huffing and puffing, maybe we just need to relax the mind more, allow it to be receptive, while keeping alert to its workings.
From experience and from the teachings, I think there is a paradoxical sort of effort which is a type of letting go. Our minds are inclined to keep creating a “me” out of every experience. It could be a good me or bad me, but the process of creating and re-creating a self (incessantly) takes a lot of energy and clouds clear vision.
Sayadaw U Tejaniya recommends that we see all of our experience as nature; phenomena arising in our field of perception, according to their own causes and conditions, nothing directly to do with us. To me this view (which Sayadaw calls “right attitude”) provides a wholesome way to relate to our experience, and allows us to side-step all the self-making our minds do.
Some people find the idea of not-self (anatta) frightening or confusing, and so shy away from it. If this is you, don’t worry; keep working on making your actions and words more and more harmonious. This will lead you in the direction of a deeper understanding of everything as it is.