Saturday, August 8, 2009

Are Your Thoughts Killing You?

That was the question posed, in large block lettering, on a flyer I used to see taped to streetlamp poles and phonebooths all around New York City, advertising some type of mind-control therapy. As a meditator I've frequently wrestled with an overactive mind -- sometimes to the point of exhaustion -- and whenever I saw that flyer I wanted to respond, emphatically: "YES!"

When we begin to practice meditation, most of us are in for a rude awakening. We sit down on our cushion with the hope and intention of experiencing clarity and peace -- and maybe we do find moments of that -- but more often than not, we are confronted with a mind that seems to have a mind of its own, one that has no respect for our hopes or our intentions of being good meditators. If we aren't sliding into dullness and sleepiness, we are wild and agitated, jumping from thought to thought and unable to stay with the object of meditation.

This first, naked experience of mind's habitual wildness can be shocking and disheartening, and many beginning meditators give up at this point. Tenzin Palmo compares this to someone who sits down at the piano for the first time to learn to play and, within minutes, gives up in frustration because they cannot immediately play a Beethoven concerto. Who in their right mind would approach learning to play the piano that way? And yet, so many people do precisely this with meditation.

In his book "Mindfulness in Plain English," Bhante Henepola Gunaratana beautifully captures the feeling of this experience:

Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed.

Much of the language we use to talk about meditation can give us the mistaken, even dangerous idea that we are supposed to be aiming for a state of meditation that is thought-free. Thoughts are seen as distractions and detours away from the object of meditation, something to be avoided -- in fact, for many of us, much of the time, thoughts are regarded as the enemy, a nemesis that constantly lurks and springs out of the bushes at every turn to startle us and spoil our feeble attempts to abide peacefully. If we believe we are "supposed" to be meditating without thoughts, but find that the mind is continually thinking in spite of our best intentions, then it becomes easy for us to fall into the trap of adopting an adversarial relationship to our thoughts. But that way madness lies.

We cannot control our mind's tendency to think any more than we can control the sun's tendency to shine. Milarepa, in his song of realization, "The Six Questions," said: "Mind's impulse to sudden thought cannot be stopped by hundreds with spears." Imagine that all the warriors from the movie "300" gathered in a circle around you and threatened to impale you with their spears and swords if you had a single thought -- even then, under penalty of a gruesome and violent death, you still could not suppress your mind's impulse towards thought. In fact, it seems like the more we desire to be thought-free, the more wild and numerous our thoughts become. Our minds, like wild animals, don't like being backed into a corner. If you try to meditate by suppressing your thoughts, it becomes like one of those Whack-a-Mole games at a carnival -- each time one critter pops up and you smash it over the head with the mallet, another one pops up somewhere else.

In a Dharma talk I was listening to recently, Tara Brach pointed out that our mind's strong habitual tendency towards conceptual thought is actually part and parcel of our genetic heritage as human beings. Our vision and our hearing and our sense of smell are pretty pathetic in the animal kingdom, but our ability to think and strategize has enabled our species to dominate life on earth (and, unfortunately, to destroy much of it). From an evolutionary point of view, it's no wonder that our biggest advantage as a species has such a powerful sway on our minds. So why, then, do we torture ourselves, yearning to achieve the impossible, to avoid the unavoidable? Why do we try to meditate without thoughts?

The problem can become even worse if we do experience periods of non-thought in meditation. Such experiences do arise, if only briefly, and they can be blissful and thrilling because they match our idealized concept of what meditation is "supposed" to feel like. But if we latch onto these experiences and try to perpetuate them, or try to resuscitate them after they've passed -- which they invariably do -- then we fall back in the same old trap of not relating naturally to what's happening right now. If thoughts are what is arising in the present moment, then we need to find a way to relate naturally to our thoughts.

In the radical Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions of meditation, thoughts and emotions are viewed as the spontaneous display and movement of wisdom itself. Not only are thoughts or emotions *not* regarded as a problem in meditation -- from a yogi's point of view, they are extremely good news. The more thoughts the merrier. Thoughts and emotions are not separate from mind's innate clarity and luminosity; they are, in fact, its very display and brilliance, and therefore they make mind's luminosity and clarity easier to see.

The problem is not that thoughts arise -- it's how we react to them when they do arise. Normally, we react to our thoughts somewhat hysterically, labeling them as good or bad thoughts and trying to string out and sustain the good ones and suppress or push away the bad ones. But thoughts actually have no substance; they arise spontaneously from the empty nature of mind, and they naturally dissolve back into that same emptiness -- as long as we don't interfere with them. The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says that we are always bothering our thoughts, trying to change them into something they are not, trying to make them permanent and solid through our attachment and aversion. Imagine, he says, how you would feel if there were someone who tried to grab you every time you passed by and wanted to change you and manipulate you and give you a new haircut and a new outfit, and simply wouldn't leave you alone. This is how we relate to our thoughts most of the time.

Thoughts, say the Mahamudra and Dzogchen masters, dissolve naturally in the very same instant they arise -- like drawing on the surface of water -- unless we get involved in trying to adopt or reject them. "Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky," wrote Trungpa Rinpoche in the Sadhana of Mahamudra.

In his commentaries on Dzogchen, the great Dza Patrul Rinpoche said that if you lack this realization of thoughts as being self-arisen and self-liberated, then your meditation practice -- no matter how sincere and diligent -- will be merely the path of delusion. You might have some good experiences and think that your practice is bearing fruit because your mental afflictions are temporarily suppressed, but when you encounter adverse circumstances, "the rotten corpse of your thoughts will rise again."

"A single instant of self-liberated awareness," he writes, "is superior to a thousand experiences of a still mind."

If we really want to get on with this business of liberation and awakening, we need to stop kidding ourselves about our thoughts and emotions. As long as we continue to regard the thoughts that arise in our minds as friends or enemies, as good or bad, and continue trying to adopt the good ones and reject the bad ones -- as if any of them had any real substance to begin with -- then we will keep binding ourselves in the cycle of suffering, like a snake that someone has tied in a knot. Just as the snake naturally and easily frees itself from the knot when left to its own devices, our thoughts and emotions are self-liberated in the very instant they arise -- with just one catch. We have to stop bothering them, and let them be as they are.

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