Why training the mind is good

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When attention is not occupied by a specific task, like a job or a conversation, thoughts begin to wander in random circles. But in this case ‘random’ does not mean that there is an equal chance of having happy and sad thoughts. [T]he majority of thoughts that come to the mind when we are not concentrating are likely to be depressing.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Appreciate uncertainty

Fear and anxiety are the dominant psychological states of the human mind. Behind the fear lies a constant longing to be certain. We are afraid of the unknown. The mind’s craving for confirmation is rooted in our fear of uncertainty. Fearlessness is generated when you can appreciate uncertainty, when you have faith in the impossibility of these interconnected components remaining static and permanent. You will find yourself, in the true sense, preparing for the worst while allowing for the best. You will become dignified and majestic.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What Makes you not a Buddhist

Letting go of the constant flow

As stated earlier, thoughts can make our desire to sit still quite difficult. However, noticing them and, even more importantly,  the emotions that give birth to them is the key towards greater freedom. As we sit, we can easily notice how we are always chasing our tail, moved by a desire to get something other than we have now,   or to get rid of something that is bothering us. The big challenge is to how to switch off this as a process and get to the root of the problem, to discover how we can stop proliferating fears and fantasies and interrupt this quality of “always moving”.  To do this requires that we become skilled at noticing the key moment of “contact”- when the senses, including the mind, encounters something that moves it towards, or away from. We can notice this when we can spot a change in our interior space, when a disturbed, or restless quality takes hold – we were calm one moment, then we see something or remember something or think of something and we are disturbed.  So the practice is to try to notice what it arising, meet it and disengage from it, while bringing our awareness to the process itself. We ask ourselves – “What does it feel like to want this, or to want to get rid of that”….. “How does that concretely feel in the body, or in the heart”?  We practice with trying to  meet this moment without the impulse to fix it, or interpret it or judge it. The traditional teaching state that this is the way to step out of the stream, by not allowing the contact to gain a footing and proliferate:
From where do the streams turn back? Where does the round no longer revolve?
Where does name-and-form cease and stop without remainder?
Where water, earth, fire and air do not gain a footing.
It is from here that the streams turn back
Here that the round no longer revolves
Here name-and-form, ceases, stops without remainder.
Connected Discourses of the Buddha, 68, 69.

Non-productive patterns of thought

When we sit and try to quieten the mind, the first thing we usually notice is how many thoughts we have. For those who are beginning meditation this is what strikes first. However, even those who have practiced meditation for some time can still have times when the thinking mind is very busy One way of working with that busyness is to broadly label the  thoughts, thus allowing them pass through and reducing the amount of weight which we give to them. This has the effect of turning down the amount of energy associated with them and creating more space and calm in the mind. In other words, rather than getting caught up, we step out of the stream:

If you label your disruptive thoughts, you will get an idea of your habitual thought patterns. We use one descriptive word such as ‘future,’ ‘past,’ ‘planning’, ‘remembering’, ‘wanting’, ‘rejecting’, ‘resisting’, ‘bored’, ‘disinterest’, ‘nonsense’, ‘fantasy’, ‘dream’. It doesn’t matter which word comes to mind first. Eventually you can see a pattern, for example that you are constantly planning. When you notice your thought patterns in this way, you can see they are non-productive and drop them.

Ayya Khema

Being as fluid as life itself is

It seems to me that fear is more basic than the emotions. It comes from our basic confusion. Fear touches on the most basic aspect of the human dilemma: “How do we live in an uncertain world?”  We understand this when we sit to practice. We don’t really know what to do with our experience. We either get lost in our thoughts or try to suppress them. Somehow, we can’t find our resting place with the energy and expression of our mind. It can feel overwhelming – scary. … So we can say that, due to our inability to relax around experience, we contract in fear or get lost in our confusion. It says in the teachings that this “overwhelm” causes us to cling tightly. This experience of clinging tightly is what we misunderstand as the self. We continue to look for stability and security, and yet the world (our inner and outer worlds) is not a static situation. What we experience as a self, we could say, is a continued desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. The problem we have is that there is so much bewilderment around our experience and not knowing what to do with it, we contract out of fear…..There is panic, which is a frozen,  very physical,  sensation. Our breath gets shallow. We feel like life is something happening to us, rather than feeling a part of the bigness of life.

But however contracted we get,  life continues to flow.…no matter how tightly we hold on. We can’t separate ourselves from life. Even a fortress is part of life. And even as a fortress we are still in relationship with life and our mind. That we are part of the great interdependence of life means that actually, we are very, very big – infinite, in fact.  So the purpose of practice is to find our true relationship with life, rather than contract. Trying to create security in a world that is fluid is a good definition of pain/samsara. The purpose is to value life and let it touch us and change us – so that we can be as fluid as life, which is a poignant and beautiful, freeing and emboldening experience.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, Moving Beyond Fear

Some things will be imperfect today

Don’t think peace of mind only comes when you have fixed up all your problems and finished all your business. All your worrying, all your striving and struggling, has it ever got you where you really want to be? You can’t control the world and change it the way you would like it. Therefore you can only find peace of mind and achieve the meaning of life when  by embracing the imperfections of life. How do you do that? By knowing that imperfection is in the nature of the world.  So make peace with imperfection.

Ajahn Brahm