Saturday, April 9, 2016

Thoughts about thinking

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

-- Dhammapada 

We create our world with our thoughts, the Buddha said. So to follow the Buddha's path, we examine those thoughts, considering whether they are true, how they color our reactions, how they create a world.

The thoughts come from our family, our culture, our experience. They help us make sense of the world.  But they also limit how we experience the world.

Consider this, from the book Welcome to Night Vale:

Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
Nope that was not right at all. Try again.
OK. Stop.
He is tall. He is skinny with short hair and long teeth that he deliberately hides when he smiles. He smiles more than he thinks he does.
Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
No, again.
No. Not close.
When you're told to imagine that boy, you get a picture in your mind based on what you know about 15-year-old boys, personally or from the news or from the media. But there's no one thing that's a 15-year-old boy. So when you meet one who doesn't fit your thoughts, you might think he looks old or young for his age; you might find him threatening or scary; you might think he's silly -- or sweet. You might think he's unacceptable, even if -- or especially -- if he's yours and he doesn't meet your image.

The boy is just a boy. The adjectives are our thoughts or views. The views may affect how we respond to the boy -- and then how he responds to us.

In this way, as the Buddha says, our actions are like the cart that follows the ox of our thoughts. If our thoughts are impure -- based on delusion, aggression, or desire -- we suffer and we act to create more suffering. Actions become habits, which condition us to act in certain ways that become ingrained and repeated.

The problem with thoughts is not that we have them but that we believe them. Because we think things are a certain way, we are discombobulated when they're not, and we suffer about that. The more we believe that our thoughts create a solid reality, the less we're able to respond with acceptance and flexibility to what happens in life. Instead, we create a world and we try to make life fit into it. That leads to what the Buddha called suffering, the dukkha of going through life pushing a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel.

The other problem with thoughts is that they distance us from the present moment. We can become  a brain on a stick, out of touch with our actual experience in the world. We think about our experience rather than simply experiencing it. We narrate it, analyze it, share it on Facebook, Instagram it.

Buddhist practice is about getting back to the original experience.

Suzuki Roshi calls it "beginner's mind," adding that "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind, there are few." In "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," he writes:
Our original mind includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty and ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.
We tend, however, not to believe that we have everything we need within ourselves. We tend to believe -- aided by consumer culture and advertising (although this also was the case 2,500 years ago in the Buddha's day, before there was mass media) -- that what we need is outside of ourselves. And that, the Buddha said, is the problem.

We don't recognize our genuine nature, so we're always grasping outwards, says Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, reaching for happiness in appearances, in things, in indicators of success. That happiness is insecure and impermanent, always destined to fade, leaving us with a sense of unease.

The only true way to happiness is to connect with our inner sufficiency, with the place where we have everything we need to ride the waves of external life with ease and grace. How do we do that?

It starts with meditation, with connecting with the awareness that sees the thoughts, that recognizes them as the mind-creations that they are. Thoughts arise and pass, if we don't grab onto them and elaborate. We see the ephemeral nature of desire, of views, or labels. We begin to meet each moment freshly, without preconceptions about what should happen.

Buddhism offers many styles of meditation to help us get there. In some methods of meditation, you allow thoughts to arise and pass. In others you take a more active role, examining thoughts and considering their veracity. Tantric meditation uses thoughts to invoke the experience of being in the presence of -- or of embodying -- an enlightened being. There also are meditations to cultivate certain qualities, such as kindness and compassion, to align the mind with thoughts that decrease suffering.

Different styles work for different people. All of them aim to help us to see our thoughts and to rest in the awareness that sees the thoughts. We stop trying to control every aspect of a situation because we see that we are OK despite the outer circumstances. We see that we really are enough.
Genuine happiness comes from the heart. It comes from a mind which has become more stable, more clear, more present in the moment; a mind which is open and cares for the happiness of other beings. It is a mind which has that inner security, a knowing that whatever happens can be handled. It is a mind that doesn't hold on so tightly anymore; it is a mind that holds things lightly. It is a happy mind. - Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

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