“We are what we think, having become what we thought,” begins the collection of verse entitled the Dhammapada, the most accessible of ancient Buddhist texts. This emphasis on the state of our minds is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Buddhist approach. Mind is both the problem and the solution. It is not fixed but flexible. It can be changed. But much of the time we are not even aware of what we are thinking and we are certainly not in control of it. The everyday mind runs on by itself and more often than not we are at the mercy of our immediate reactions. If someone cuts us off in traffic or looks at us in a nasty way, we get angry. If we have a drink, we want another one. If we taste something sweet, we want more even if we are full. If someone offends us, we repeat it over and over to ourselves, rubbing in the hurt. The Dhammapada delights in describing how out of control our minds can be and how much better it feels to do something about it. “Like an archer and arrow, the wise man steadies his trembling mind, a fickle and restless weapon. Flapping like a fish thrown on dry ground, it trembles all day,” it comments. The Buddha was more like a therapist than the founder of a religion. He saw, from his own experience, that self-awareness makes self-control possible. If we want to change what we become, the Buddha taught, we have to change the way we think. “A disciplined mind is the road to Nirvana,” is the Dhammapada’s insistent refrain.
“The everyday mind runs on by itself and more often than not we are at the mercy of our immediate reactions.”
There is no single word for meditation in the original language of Buddhism. The closest is one that translates as “mental development.” Meditation, as taught by the Buddha, was a means of taming the mind by bringing the entire range of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations into awareness, making the unconscious conscious. There were already various forms of meditation widely practiced in the Buddha’s day but they were all techniques of concentration. Buddha mastered each of them but still felt uneasy. It was fine to rest the mind on a single object: a sound (or mantra), a sensation (the breath), an image (a candle flame), a feeling (love or compassion), or an idea. This gave strength to the mind, a feeling of stability, of peace and tranquility, a sense of what Freud came to call the “oceanic feeling.” While this could be relaxing, it did not do enough to change the mind’s complexion. Buddha was after something more.
“Meditation, as taught by the Buddha, was a means of taming the mind by bringing the entire range of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations into awareness, making the unconscious conscious.”
The meditation that the Buddha found most helpful was moment-to-moment awareness of what is actually happening to us and in us at successive moments of perception. This did not mean resting the mind on a single object, as he had been taught, but meant observing the mind in action. Human beings have the peculiar ability to be self-reflective, to observe themselves even as they are in process. The Buddha’s method harnesses this ability and develops it. Tibetan Buddhists describe this kind of meditation as like setting up a spy-consciousness in the corner of the mind, eavesdropping on whatever is going on. Freud described something similar when he instructed psychoanalysts to “suspend judgment and give impartial attention to everything there is to observe.” The Buddha found that the mind, when subjected to this kind of self-awareness, settles down and begins to shine.
“Human beings have the peculiar ability to be self-reflective, to observe themselves even as they are in process. The Buddha’s method harnesses this ability and develops it.”
To experience a taste of this luminosity, try sitting quietly in an upright posture. It could be in a chair or on the sofa or cross-legged on the floor. Keep your back straight. Or lie down if you would rather. Let your eyes gently close. And just listen. Listen to the sounds and the silence that surround you. Let the sounds come and go as they wish without choosing one over another. Try to listen to the entire sound, noticing when your mind identifies it as whatever it is: a car horn, the refrigerator, the heat coming on, children’s voices, the dog, or nothing. Don’t let your identification of the sound stop you from listening. Simply note the thought and return to the bare sounds, to the act of listening. If your mind wanders, as it will, bring your attention back to the sounds. It might be after a moment or two, or it might be after a whole cascade of thoughts, it doesn’t matter. At some point you will realize, “Oh, I’m not listening, I’m thinking,” and at that point you can return attention to the sounds. Treat your mind the way you would a young child who doesn’t know any better. Be gentle but firm. Meditation means bringing your mind back when you notice it has wandered, it’s not about keeping your mind from wandering in the first place. You will notice that you instinctively prefer some sounds over others—don’t let this influence your listening. Just observe the liking or the not liking but don’t let it control you. Listen to everything, the way you would listen to music.
After five minutes, or ten, or fifteen—it doesn’t matter—open your eyes and resume your day. Like a fish returned to water, you may notice that things flow more easily.
– Mark Epstein is the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Psychotherapy Without the Self.