A collection of parts produces the concept of a vehicle.
- Samyuttanikaya, translated by Maria Montenegro
One of the first lessons I learned as a Buddhist was that every sentient being - that is, every creature endowed with even a very basic sense of awareness - can be defined by three basic aspects or characteristics: body, speech, and mind.
Body, of course, refers to the physical part of our being, which is constantly changing. It’s born, grows up, gets sick, ages, and eventually dies.
Speech refers not only to our ability to talk, but also to all the different signals we exchange in the form of sounds, words, gestures, and facial expressions, and even the production of pheromones, which are chemical compounds secreted by mammals that subtly influence the behavior and development of other mammals.
Just like the body, speech is an impermanent aspect of experience. All the messages we exchange through words and other signs come and go in their time. And when the body dies, the capacity of speech dies with it.
Mind is harder to describe. It’s not a “thing” we can point to as easily as we can identify the body or speech. However deeply we investigate this aspect of being, we can’t really locate any definite object that we can call the mind. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles have been written in an attempt to describe this elusive aspect of being. Yet in spite of all the time and effort spent on trying to identify what and where the mind is, no Buddhist - and no Western scientist, for that matter - has been able to say once and for all, “Aha! I found the mind! It’s located in this part of the body, it looks like this, and this is how it works.”
At best, centuries of investigation have been able to determine that the mind has no specific location, shape, form, color, or any other tangible quality we can ascribe to other basic aspects such as the location of the heart or lungs, the principles of circulation, and the areas that control essential functions like the regulation of metabolism. How much easier it would be to say that something so frustratingly indefinable as the mind doesn’t exist at all! How much easier it would be to dispatch the mind to the realm of imaginary things like ghosts, goblins, and fairies!
But how could anyone realistically deny the existence of the mind? We think. We feel. We recognize when our backs hurt or our feet fall asleep. We know when we’re tired or alert, happy or sad. The inability to precisely locate or define a phenomenon doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. All it really means is that we haven’t yet accumulated sufficient information to propose a workable model.
To use a simple analogy, you might compare the scientific understanding of the mind to your own acceptance of something as simple as the power of electricity. Flipping a light switch or turning on a TV doesn’t require a detailed understanding of circuitry or electromagnetic energy. If the light doesn’t work, you replace the bulb. If the TV doesn’t work, you check the cable or satellite connection. You may have to replace a burned-out lightbulb, tighten your connection between the TV and the wires connecting it to your cable box or satellite dish, or replace a blown fuse. At worst, you may have to call a technician. But underlying all these actions is a basic understanding, or faith, that electricity works.
A similar situation underlies the operation of the mind. Modern science has been able to identify many of the cellular structures and processes that contribute to the intellectual, emotional, and sensory events that we associate with mental functioning. But it has yet to identify anything close to what constitutes “the mind” itself. In fact, the more precisely scientists scrutinize mental activity, the more closely they approach the Buddhist understanding of mind as a perpetually evolving event rather than a distinct entity.
Early translations of Buddhist texts attempted to identify the mind as a distinct sort of “thing” or “stuff” that exists beyond the limits of current scientific comprehension. But those incorrect translations were based on early Western assumptions that all experience might eventually be related to some aspect of physical function. More recent interpretations of classical texts reveal an understanding much closer to the modern scientific conception of “the mind” as a kind of constantly evolving occurrence arising through the interaction of neurological habits and the unpredictable elements of immediate experience.
Buddhists and modern scientists agree that having a mind is what sets all sentient, or conscious, beings apart from other organisms such as grass or trees - and certainly from things that we wouldn’t necessarily consider alive, like rocks, candy wrappers, or blocks of cement.
The mind, in essence, is the most important aspect of all creatures that share the attribute of being sentient. Even an earthworm has a mind. Granted, it may not be as sophisticated as the human mind; but then again, there may be some virtue in simplicity. I’ve never yet heard of an earthworm that stayed up all night worrying about the stock market.
Another issue on which Buddhists and most modern scientists agree is that the mind is the most important aspect of a sentient being’s nature. The mind is, in a sense, the puppet master, while the body and the various forms of communication that constitute “speech” are merely its puppets.
You can test this idea of the mind’s role for yourself. If you scratch your nose, what is it that recognizes an itch? Is the body, of itself, able to recognize itching? Does the body direct itself to raise its hand and scratch its nose? Is the body even capable of making the distinction between the itch, the hand, and the nose? Or take the example of thirst. If you’re thirsty, it’s the mind that first recognizes thirst, urges you to ask for a glass of water, directs your hand to accept the glass and bring it to your mouth, and then tells you to swallow. It’s the mind that then registers the pleasure of satisfying a physical need.
Even though we can’t see it, the mind is always present and active. It’s the source of our own ability to recognize the difference between a building and a tree, between rain and snow, between a clear sky and a cloud-filled one. But because having a mind is such a basic condition of our experience, most of us take it for granted. We don’t bother to ask ourselves what it is that thinks, I want to eat; I want to go; I want to sit. We don’t ask ourselves, “Is the mind inside the body or beyond it? Does it start somewhere, exist somewhere, and stop somewhere? Does it have a shape or a color? Does it even exist at all, or is it just the random activity of brain cells that have, over time, accumulated the force of habit?” But if we want to cut through all the varieties and levels of pain, suffering, and discomfort we experience in daily life and grasp the full significance of having a mind, we have to make some attempt to look at the mind and distinguish its main features.
The process is actually very simple. It only seems difficult at first because we’re so used to looking at the world “out there,” a world that seems to be so full of interesting objects and experiences. When we look at our mind, it’s like trying to see the back of our head without the aid of a mirror.
So now I’d like to propose a simple test to demonstrate the problem of trying to look at the mind according to our normal way of understanding things. Don’t worry. You can’t fail this test, and you don’t need a Number 2 pencil to fill out any forms.
Here’s the test: The next time you sit down to lunch or dinner, ask yourself, “What is it that thinks that this food tastes good - or not so good? What is it that recognizes eating?” The immediate answer seems obvious: “My brain.” But when we actually take a look at the brain from the perspective of modern science, we find that the answer isn’t quite so simple.
WHAT’S GOING ON IN THERE?
All phenomena are projections of the mind.
- THE THIRD GYALWANG KARMAPA, Wishes of Mahamudra, translated by Maria Montenegro
If all we want is to be happy, why do we need to understand anything about the brain? Can’t we just think happy thoughts, imagine our bodies filled with white light, or fill our walls with pictures of bunnies and rainbows and leave it at that? Well . . . maybe.
Unfortunately, one of the main obstacles we face when we try to examine the mind is a deep-seated and often unconscious conviction that “we’re born the way we are and nothing we can do can change that.” I experienced this same sense of pessimistic futility during my own childhood, and I’ve seen it reflected again and again in my work with people around the world. Without even consciously thinking about it, the idea that we can’t alter our minds blocks our every attempt to try.
People I’ve spoken with who try to make a change using affirmations, prayers, or visualizations admit that they often give up after a few days or weeks because they don’t see any immediate results. When their prayers and affirmations don’t work, they dismiss the whole idea of working with the mind as a marketing gimmick designed to sell books.
One of the nice things about teaching around the world in the robes of a Buddhist monk and with an impressive title is that people who wouldn’t usually give an ordinary person the time of day are very happy to talk to me as if I were somebody important enough to take seriously. And during my conversations with scientists around the world, I’ve been amazed to see that there is a nearly universal consensus in the scientific community that the brain is structured in a way that actually does make it possible to effect real changes in everyday experience.
Over the past ten years or so, I’ve heard a lot of very interesting ideas from the neuroscientists, biologists, and psychologists with whom I’ve spoken. Some of what they’ve said has challenged ideas I was brought up with; other things have confirmed what I’d been taught, though from a different perspective. Whether we’ve agreed or not, the most valuable thing I’ve learned from these conversations is that taking the time to gain even a partial understanding of the structure and function of the brain provides a more grounded basis for understanding from a scientific perspective how and why the techniques I learned as a Buddhist actually work.
One of the most interesting metaphors about the brain I’ve come across was a statement made by Robert B. Livingston, M.D., founding chairman of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego. During the first Mind and Life Institute conference, in 1987, Dr. Livingston compared the brain to “a symphony, well tuned and well disciplined.” Like a symphony orchestra, he explained, the brain is made up of groups of players that work together to produce particular results, such as movements, thoughts, feelings, memories, and physical sensations. Although these results may appear fairly simple when you watch someone yawn, blink, sneeze, or raise an arm, the sheer number of players involved in such simple actions, and the range of interactions among them, form an amazingly complex picture.
To better understand what Dr. Livingston was saying, I had to ask people to help me understand the information in the mountain of books, magazines, and other materials I’d received during my first few tours of the West. A lot of the material was extremely technical, and as I tried to understand it all, I found myself feeling a huge amount of compassion for aspiring scientists and medical students.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to talk at length with people more knowledgeable than I am in such areas, who translated all the scientific jargon into simple terms that I could understand. I hope the time and effort they expended was as helpful to them as it was to me. Not only did my English vocabulary increase enormously, but I also gained an understanding of how the brain works in a way that made very simple “people sense.” And as my grasp of the essential details improved, it became clearer to me that for someone who was not raised in the Buddhist tradition, a basic appreciation of the nature and the role of the “players” that Dr. Livingston spoke about is essential to understanding how and why the Buddhist techniques of meditation actually work on a purely physiological level.
I was also fascinated to learn from a scientific point of view what had happened inside my own brain that enabled me to go from being a panic-stricken child to someone who can travel around the world and sit without any trace of fear in front of hundreds of people who’ve come to hear me teach. I can’t really explain why I’m so curious about understanding the physical reasons behind the changes that occur after years of practice, while so many of my teachers and contemporaries are satisfied with the shift in consciousness itself. Maybe in a former life I was a mechanic.
But, getting back to the brain: In very basic “people terms,” most brain activity seems due to a very special class of cells called neurons. Neurons are very social cells: They love to gossip. In some ways they’re like naughty schoolchildren constantly passing notes and whispering to one another - except that the secret conversations between neurons are mainly about sensations, movement, solving problems, creating memories, and producing thoughts and emotions.
These gossipy cells look a lot like trees, made up of a trunk, known as an axon, and branches reaching out to send and receive messages to and from other branches and other nerve cells running through the muscle and skin tissues, vital organs, and sense organs. They pass their messages to one another across tiny gaps between the closest branches. These gaps are called synapses. The actual messages that flow across these gaps are carried in the form of chemical molecules called neurotransmitters, which create electrical signals that can be measured by an EEG. Some of these neurotransmitters are pretty well known to people nowadays: for example, serotonin, which is influential in depression; dopamine, a chemical associated with sensations of pleasure; and epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, a chemical often produced in response to stress, anxiety, and fear, but also critical for attention and vigilance. The scientific term for the transmission of an electrochemical signal from one neuron to another is action potential - a term that sounded as strange to me as the word emptiness might sound to people who have never been trained as Buddhists.
Recognizing the activity of neurons wouldn’t be very important in terms of suffering or happiness, except for a couple of important details. When neurons connect, they form a bond very much like old friendships. They get into a habit of passing the same sorts of messages back and forth, the way old friends tend to reinforce each other’s judgments about people, events, and experiences. This bonding is the biological basis for many of what we call mental habits, the kind of “knee-jerk” reactions we have to certain types of people, places, and things. .
To use a very simple example, if I’d been frightened by a dog at a very young age, a set of neuronal connections would have been formed in my brain that corresponded to the physical sensations of fear, on one hand, and the concept dogs are scary, on the other. The next time I saw a dog, the same set of neurons would start chattering at one another again to remind me that dogs are scary. And every time that chatter would occur, it would grow louder and more convincing, until it became such an established routine that all I’d have to do was think about dogs and my heart would start pounding and I’d begin to sweat.
But suppose someday I visited a friend who had a dog. Initially, I might feel scared hearing it bark when I knocked on the door and when the animal rushed out to sniff me. But after a while the dog would get used to me and come around to sit by my feet or on my lap, and maybe even start to lick me - so happily and lovingly that I’d practically have to push it away.
What’s happened in the dog’s brain is that a set of neuronal connections associated with my scent and all the sensations that tell it that its owner likes me creates a pattern that is the equivalent of “Hey, this person is cool!” In my own brain, meanwhile, a new set of neuronal connections associated with pleasant physical sensations start chatting with one another, and I’d begin to think, Hey, maybe dogs are nice! Every time I visited my friend, this new pattern would be reinforced and the old one would be weakened - until finally I wouldn’t be so scared of dogs anymore.
In neuroscientific terms, this capacity to replace old neuronal connections with new ones is referred to as neuronal plasticity. The Tibetan term for this capacity is le-su-rung-wa, which may be roughly translated into English as “pliability.” You can use either term and sound very smart. What it boils down to is that on a strictly cellular level, repeated experience can change the way the brain works. This is the why behind the how of the Buddhist teachings that deal with eliminating mental habits conducive to unhappiness.
THREE BRAINS IN ONE
The Buddha’s forms are classified as three. . . .
- GAMPOPA, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche
By now it should be clear that the brain is not a single object, and that the answer to a question like “What is it that thinks this food tastes good - or not so good?” is not as simple as it seems. Even relatively basic activities such as eating and drinking involve the exchange of thousands of carefully coordinated, split-second electrochemical signals between millions of cells in the brain and throughout the body. There is, however, an additional level of complexity that must be considered before we complete our tour of the brain.
The billions of neurons in the human brain are grouped by function into three different layers, each of which developed over hundreds of thousands of years as the species evolved and acquired increasingly complex mechanisms for survival.
The first and oldest of these layers, known as the brain stem, is a bulb-shaped group of cells that extends right out of the top of the spinal cord. This layer is also commonly referred to as the reptilian brain, owing to its similarity to the entire brain of many species of reptiles. The primary purpose of the reptilian brain is to regulate basic, involuntary functions such as breathing, metabolism, heartbeat, and circulation. It also controls what is often called the fight-or-flight, or “startle,” response: an automatic reaction that compels us to interpret any unexpected encounter or event - for example, a loud noise, an unfamiliar scent, something crawling along our arm, or something coiled in a dark corner - as a possible threat. Without conscious direction, adrenaline starts coursing through the body, the heart speeds up, the muscles tense. If the threat is perceived to be greater than our ability to overcome it, we run. If we think we can beat the threat, we fight. It’s easy to see how an automatic response of this sort would greatly affect survival.
Most reptiles tend to be more combative than cooperative, and they possess no innate capacity for nurturing their young. After laying her eggs, the female reptile typically abandons the nest. When the young hatch, though they possess the instincts and capacities of their adult counterparts, their bodies are still vulnerable and awkward, and they must fend for themselves. Many do not survive their first few hours of life. As they scramble toward the safety of whatever habitat is most natural to them - such as the sea, in the case of sea turtles - they’re killed and eaten by other animals, and quite often by members of their own species. In fact, it’s not uncommon for newly hatched reptiles to be killed by their parents, who don’t recognize their prey as their own offspring.
With the evolution of new classes of vertebrates, such as birds and mammals, a startling development in the structure of the brain occurred. Unlike their reptilian cousins, newborn members of these classes aren’t sufficiently developed to care for themselves; they require some degree of parental nurturing. To fulfill this need - and to ensure the survival of the species - a second layer of the brain gradually evolved. This layer, referred to as the limbic region, surrounds the brain stem like a kind of helmet, and includes a series of programmed neural connections that stimulate the impulse to nurture - that is, to provide food and protection, and to teach essential survival skills through play and other exercises.
These more sophisticated neural pathways also provided new classes of animals with the capacity to distinguish a wider range of emotions than simple fight-or-flight. For example, mammalian parents can distinguish not only the specific sounds made by their own young, but can also differentiate among the types of sounds they make - such as distress, pleasure, hunger, and so on. In addition, the limbic region provides a broader and more subtle capacity to “read” intentions of other animals through physical posture, style of movement, facial expression, the set of the eyes, and even subtle scents or pheromones. And through being able to process these various kinds of signals, mammals and birds are able to adapt more flexibly to changing circumstances, laying the groundwork for learning and memory.
The limbic system has some remarkable structures and capabilities that we’ll examine more closely later on, when we look at the role of emotions. Two of its structures, however, deserve special mention. The first is the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe - that is, just behind the temple. (Actually, we have two hippocampi, one on either side of the brain.) The hippocampus is crucial for creating new memories of directly experienced events, providing a spatial, intellectual, and - in the case of human beings at least - verbal context that gives meaning to our emotional responses. People who have suffered physical damage to this region of the brain have difficulty creating new memories; they can remember everything up to the moment the hippocampus was injured, but after the injury they forget, within moments, anyone they meet and anything that happens. The hippocampus is also one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, as well as by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe depression, and bipolar disorder.
The other significant part of the limbic system is the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped neuronal structure situated at the bottom of the limbic region, just above the brain stem. Just as with the hippocampus, there are two of these little organs in the human brain: one in the right hemisphere, the other in the left. The amygdala plays a critical role in both the ability to feel emotions and to create emotional memories. Research has shown that damage to or removal of the amygdala results in a loss of the capacity for almost all types of emotional response, including the most basic impulses of fear and empathy, as well as in an inability to form or to recognize social relationships.
The activity of the amygdala and hippocampus bears close attention as we attempt to define a practical science of happiness. Because the amygdala is connected to the autonomic nervous system, the area of the brain stem that automatically regulates muscle, cardiac, and glandular responses, and the hypothalamus, a neuronal structure at the base of the limbic region that releases adrenaline and other hormones into the bloodstream, the emotional memories it creates are extremely powerful, linked to significant biological and biochemical reactions.
When an event that generates a strong biological response - such as the release of a large amount of adrenaline or other hormones - occurs, the hippocampus sends a signal down to the brain stem, where it is stored as a pattern. As a result, many people are able to recall exactly where they were and what was going on around them when, for example, they heard about or saw the space shuttle disasters or the assassination of President Kennedy. The same types of patterns can be stored for more personal experiences of a highly charged positive or negative nature.
Because such memories and their associated patterns are so powerful, they can be triggered quite easily by later events that bear some resemblance - sometimes very slight - to the original memory. This type of strong memory response obviously offers important survival benefits in the face of life-threatening circumstances. It allows us to recognize and avoid foods that once made us sick, or avoid confronting especially aggressive animals or members of our own species. But it can also cloud or distort perceptions of more ordinary experiences. For example, children who were regularly humiliated and criticized by their parents or other adults may experience inappropriately strong feelings of fear, resentment, or other unpleasant emotions when dealing with authority figures in adult life. These types of distorted reactions often result from the loose method of association on which the amygdala relies to trigger a memory response. One significant element in a present situation that is similar to an element of a past experience can stimulate the whole range of thoughts, emotions, and hormonal and muscular responses stored with the original experience.
The activities of the limbic system - or the “emotional brain,” as it’s sometimes referred to - are to a large extent balanced by the third and most recently developed layer of the brain: the neocortex. This layer of the brain, which is specific to mammals, provides the capacity for reasoning, forming concepts, planning, and fine-tuning emotional responses. Though it’s fairly thin in most mammals, anyone who has ever witnessed a cat figure out how to pry open a closet door or watched a dog learn to manipulate a door handle has seen an animal’s neocortex at work.
Among humans and other highly evolved mammals the neocortex developed into a much larger and more complicated structure. When most of us think of the brain, it’s usually this structure - with its many bulges and grooves - that appears in our mind’s eye. In fact, were it not for these bulges and grooves, we wouldn’t be able to imagine the brain at all, since our large neocortex provides us with the capacity for imagination, as well as the ability to create, understand, and manipulate symbols. It’s our neocortex that provides us with our capacity for language, writing, mathematics, music, and art. Our neocortex is the seat of our rational activities, including problem solving, analysis, judgment, impulse control, and the abilities to organize information, learn from past experiences and mistakes, and empathize with others.
Simply recognizing that the human brain is composed of these three different layers is itself amazing. Even more fascinating, however, is that no matter how modern or sophisticated we think we are, the production of a single thought requires a series of complex interactions among all three layers of the brain - the brain stem, the limbic region, and the neocortex. In addition, it appears that every thought, sensation, or experience involves a different set of interactions, often involving areas of the brain that aren’t activated by other types of thoughts.
THE MISSING CONDUCTOR
The mind is not in the head.
- FRANCISCO J. VARELA, “Steps to a Science of Inter-Being,” from The Psychology of Awakening, edited by S. Bachelor, G. Claxton, and G. Watson
One question still troubled me, though. If the brain is a symphony, as Dr. Livingston suggested, shouldn’t there be a conductor? Shouldn’t there be some objectively identifiable cell or organ that directs everything? We certainly feel as though there is such a thing - or at least we refer to it when we say things like “I haven’t made up my mind,” or “My mind’s a total blank,” or “I must have been out of my mind.”
From what I’ve learned in talking with neuroscientists, biologists, and psychologists, modern science has been looking for such a “conductor” for a long time, investing a great deal of effort in hopes of discovering some cell or group of cells that directs sensation, perception, thought, and other kinds of mental activity. Yet, so far, even using the most sophisticated technology available, no evidence of a conductor has been found. There’s no single area - no tiny “self” - in the brain that can be said to be responsible for coordinating the communication among the different players.
Contemporary neuroscientists have thus abandoned the search for a “conductor” in favor of exploring the principles and mechanisms by which billions of neurons distributed across the brain are able to coordinate their activity harmoniously, without the need of a central director. This “global” or “distributed” behavior may be compared to the spontaneous coordination of a group of jazz musicians. When jazz musicians are improvising, each of them may be playing a slightly different musical phrase, yet somehow they still manage to play together harmoniously.
The idea of locating a “self” in the brain was based, in many ways, on the influence of classical physics, which had traditionally focused on studying the laws governing localized objects. Based on this traditional viewpoint, if the mind had an effect - for instance, on emotions - it should be localized somewhere. Yet the whole idea of solid entities is questionable within the framework of contemporary physics. Every time someone identifies the tiniest element of matter imaginable, someone else discovers that it’s actually made up of even tinier particles. With each new advance, it’s becoming more difficult to conclusively identify any fundamental material element.
Logically speaking, then, even if it were possible to dissect the brain into smaller and smaller pieces, down to the smallest subatomic level, how could anyone be sure of precisely identifying a single one of these pieces as the mind? Since every cell is made up of many smaller particles, each of which is made up of even smaller particles, how would it be possible to recognize which one constitutes the mind?
It’s on this point that Buddhism may be able to offer a fresh perspective, one that can perhaps form the basis for new avenues of scientific research.
The Tibetan Buddhist term for mind is sem, a word that may be translated into English as “that which knows.” This simple term can help us to understand the Buddhist view of the mind as less of a specific object than of a capacity to recognize and reflect on our experiences. Although the Buddha taught that the brain is, indeed, the physical support for the mind, he was also careful to point out that the mind itself isn’t something that can be seen, touched, or even defined by words. Just as the physical organ of the eye is not sight, and the physical organ of the ear is not hearing, the brain is not the mind.
One of the earliest lessons I was taught by my father was that Buddhists don’t see the mind as a discrete entity, but rather as a perpetually unfolding experience. I can remember how strange this idea seemed to me at first, sitting in the teaching room of his monastery in Nepal, surrounded by students from around the world. There were so many of us crammed together in this tiny room that there was barely enough space to move. But from the windows I could see a huge expanse of mountains and forests. And my father was sitting there, very composed, oblivious of the heat generated by so many people, saying that what we think of as our identity - “my mind,” “my body,” “my self - is actually an illusion generated by the unceasing flow of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions.
I don’t know whether it was the sheer force of my father’s own experience as he spoke, or the physical contrast between feeling crammed on a bench among other students and the view through the window of the open spaces beyond, or both - but in that moment something, as they say in the West, simply “clicked.” I had an experience of the freedom of distinguishing between thinking in terms of “my” mind or “my” self and the possibility of simply experiencing being as widely and openly as the expanse of mountains and sky beyond the windows.
Later, when I came to the West, I heard a number of psychologists compare the experience of “mind” or “self” to watching a movie. When we watch a movie, they explained, we seem to experience a continuous flow of sound and motion as individual frames pass through a projector. The experience would be drastically different, however, if we had the chance to look at the film frame by frame.
This is exactly how my father began to teach me to look at my mind. If I observed every thought, feeling, and sensation that passed through my mind, the illusion of a limited self would dissolve, to be replaced by a sense of awareness that is much more calm, spacious, and serene. And what I learned from other scientists was that because experience changes the neuronal structure of the brain, when we observe the mind this way, we can change the cellular gossip that perpetuates our experience of our “self.”
Looking again and again at the mind which cannot be looked at, the meaning can be vividly seen, just as it is.
- THE THIRD GYALWANG KARMAPA, Song of Karmapa: The Aspiration of the Mahamudra of True Meaning, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
The key - the how of Buddhist practice - lies in learning to simply rest in a bare awareness of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as they occur. In the Buddhist tradition, this gentle awareness is known as mindfulness, which, in turn, is simply resting in the mind’s natural clarity. Just as in the example of the dog, if I were to become aware of my habitual thoughts, perceptions, and sensations, rather than being carried away by them, their power over me would begin to fade. I would experience their coming and going as nothing more than the natural function of the mind, in the same way that waves naturally ripple across the surface of a lake or ocean. And ultimately, I realize, this is exactly what happened when I sat alone in my retreat room trying to overcome the anxiety that had made me so uncomfortable throughout my childhood. Simply looking at what was going on in my mind actually changed what was going on there.
You can begin to taste the same freedom of natural clarity right now, through a simple exercise. Simply sit up straight, breathe normally, and allow yourself to become aware of your breath coming in and going out. As you relax into simply being aware of your inhalation and exhalation, you’ll probably start to notice hundreds of thoughts passing through your mind. Some of them are easy to let go of, while others may lead you down a long avenue of related thoughts. When you find yourself chasing after a thought, simply bring yourself back to focusing on your breath. Do this for about a minute.
In the beginning, you may be surprised by the sheer number and variety of thoughts that pour through your awareness like a waterfall rushing over a steep cliff. An experience of this sort is not a sign of failure. It’s a sign of success. You’ve begun to recognize how many thoughts ordinarily pass through your mind without your even noticing them.
You may also find yourself getting caught up in a particular train of thought and following it while ignoring everything else. Then suddenly you remember that the point of the exercise is simply to watch your thoughts. Instead of punishing or condemning yourself, just go back to focusing on your breath.
If you keep up this practice, you’ll find that even though thoughts and emotions come and go, the mind’s natural clarity is never disturbed or interrupted. To use an example, during a trip to Nova Scotia, I visited a retreat house that was quite near the ocean. The day I arrived, the weather was perfect: The sky was cloudless and the ocean was a deep, clear blue - very pleasant to look at. When I woke the next morning, though, the ocean looked like a thick, muddy soup. I wondered, “What happened to the ocean? Yesterday it was so clear and blue, and today it’s suddenly dirty” I took a walk down to the shore, and couldn’t see any obvious reason for the change. There wasn’t any mud in the water or along the beach. Then I looked up at the sky and saw that it was thick with dark greenish clouds; and I realized it was the color of the clouds that had changed the color of the ocean. The water itself, when I looked closely at it, was still clean and clear.
The mind, in many ways, is like the ocean. The “color” changes from day to day or moment to moment, reflecting the thoughts, emotions, and so on passing “overhead,” so to speak. But the mind itself, like the ocean, never changes: It’s always clean and clear, no matter what it’s reflecting.
Practicing mindfulness may seem hard at first, but the point is not how successful you are right away. What seems impossible at present becomes easier with practice. There’s nothing you can’t get used to. Just think about all the unpleasant things you’ve accepted as ordinary, like wading through traffic or dealing with a bad-tempered relative or coworker. Becoming mindful is a gradual process of establishing new neuronal connections and inhibiting the gossip among old ones. It requires patiently taking one small step at a time, practicing in very short intervals.
There’s an old Tibetan saying: “If you walk with haste, you won’t reach Lhasa. Walk gently and you’ll reach your goal.” This proverb comes from the days when people in eastern Tibet would make a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital city, in the central region of the country. Pilgrims who wanted to get there quickly would walk as fast as they could, but because of the pace they set for themselves, they’d get tired or sick and have to return home. Those who traveled at an easy pace, however, pitched camp for the night, enjoyed one another’s company, and then continued on the next day, actually arrived at Lhasa more quickly.
Experience follows intention. Wherever we are, whatever we do, all we need to do is recognize our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as something natural. Neither rejecting nor accepting, we simply acknowledge the experience and let it pass. If we keep this up, we’ll eventually find ourselves becoming able to manage situations we once found painful, scary, or sad. We’ll discover a sense of confidence that isn’t rooted in arrogance or pride. We’ll realize that we’re always sheltered, always safe, and always home.
Remember that little test I asked you to try, about asking yourself the next time you sit down to lunch or dinner, “What is it that thinks that this food tastes good - or not so good? What is it that recognizes eating?” It seemed pretty easy to answer, once upon a time. But the answer doesn’t come so easily anymore, does it?
Even so, I’d like you to try it again the next time you sit down to lunch or dinner. If the answers that come up for you now are confusing and conflicting, that’s good. Confusion, I was taught, is the beginning of understanding, the first stage of letting go of the neuronal gossip that used to keep you chained to very specific ideas about who you are and what you’re capable of.
Confusion, in other words, is the first step on the path to real well-being.