Mind is the creator of our experience
Mind is the creator of our experience
A series of talks based on Taming the Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from March 2009 to December 2011.
- How mind creates our experience through our attitude and our karma
- How the way we describe a situation to ourselves determines our experience
- How what we think about things influences how we behave, which influences how others react to us
- How karma links our actions to the situation in which we find ourselves
Taming the mind 01: Teaching by Venerable Thubten Chodron (download)
Welcome to the Abbey. About the prostrations—because I remember the first time I was in a Buddhist setting and I saw people do prostrations, I was totally horrified. Because in America, the only thing we bow to is the credit card. I was raised by… you know, idol worship, “What are these people doing, bowing to another human being?” It’s like, “We don’t do that.” But what the practice is about is about making ourselves receptive vessels, and I should say it’s completely optional, so do it if you feel like, don’t do it if you don’t feel like. The purpose is to kind of empty ourselves out, the idea being that if we come to hear something, and this pertains to anything, not just here, but in regular school, at work, if we come in with the mind that says, “I’m the best, I know what’s going on,” then we are preventing ourselves from learning. Whereas when we develop the mind that sees the good qualities of others, then it opens us up to develop those good qualities ourselves. So that’s the idea behind bowing.
We’re starting a series today, in the New Year, and it’s going to be based on taming the mind, which was initially published under Taming the Monkey Mind. People really liked that, especially people born in the year of the monkey. But it wasn’t just written for those people. We will be going through several different kinds of topics. There’s some good background reading for you to do, because if you’ve read some of it before you come, you have some familiarity with what we will be talking about. Today we are going to be talking about the mind as the creator of our experience. But before I talk, I always like to sit quietly with people just for a couple of minutes. So let’s just do that and come back to our breath, and then I’ll talk about how our mind is the creator of our experience. Just come back to your breath for a minute, let your mind settle.
Let’s take a moment and generate our motivation and think that we will share together this morning so that we can pacify our clinging attachments and our anger and our ignorance, and so that we can enhance our love and compassion and wisdom. To do this not only because it has a positive effect on ourselves personally but so that we can make a positive contribution to the welfare of all living beings, for the good of the world, the good of the universe, the good of our society.
The mind is the creator of our experience. First of all, what in the world is the mind? Interesting. If you look in the encyclopedia, if you go online or look in the encyclopedia, there are many pages about brain, not very much about mind. In Buddhism, we use the word mind in a very particular way, and what it refers to is any conscious experience. It has to do with experience and consciousness. It doesn’t mean mind as in brain, which is a physical organ, and it doesn’t mean mind solely in the realm of intellect.
What’s interesting is that the Tibetan word for mind, that we translate as mind, can also be translated as heart in the sense like somebody has a good heart. In English we think somebody has a good mind, or somebody has a good heart, you get two very different impressions of two different people. In Tibetan, in Buddhist language and even in Sanskrit, it’s the same word. Saying somebody has a good heart is saying that they have a good mind, and vice versa.
Very interesting isn’t it? We have this Western culture: there’s the mind that somehow is up here, the heart is here and then there is a wall between them. But in the Buddhist way of approaching things, they’re not in two different places and there is no brick wall.
When we’re talking about the mind, we’re really talking about conscious experience. It includes sense perceptions: seeing, hearing, taste, touching, feeling. It includes thought, it includes emotions, it includes pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. It includes views and attitudes and moods and all these kinds of things are all included under the big generality of mind.
When we say that our mind is the creator of our experiences, this can be taken many, many different ways, at many different levels. One of the levels, which is very easy for us to understand initially, is how our attitude toward something creates how we experience it. A particularly good example is going into a room full of strangers—an experience we’ve all had, right? Whether you’re starting a new job or you’re going to a new school, going somewhere, some party or whatever, there’s a room full of strangers. There are various kinds of attitudes we can have before we go into a roomful of strangers. One person might be very anxious and say, “Oh, I don’t know anybody in this room and they all know each other, and I don’t know if I’m going to fit in, and actually I don’t know if they’re going to like me, but also, I might not like them. In fact, I am sure if they won’t like me, I won’t like them. And they know each other, they have all these things, and I’m going to be on the outside, I’m going to be the wallflower and everybody will notice me just sitting there twiddling my thumbs. It’s going to remind me of when I was in high school, and the dances, I can’t stand those.” You remember high school dances? What suffering. We have this incredible apprehension about going into a room full of strangers.
Now, if we go into a room full of strangers with that attitude, what is likely to happen? Just what we feared would happen. Because when we have the attitude that they all know each other, I’m not going to fit in, I don’t know if they’re going to like me, how are we going to act? Are we going to be friendly and outgoing? Are we going to go and start talking to people or are we going to hang back and wait for them to come talk to us? In other words, how we are thinking before we go into the situation is going to influence our behavior, which of course is going to influence how we feel. And if we are hanging back there because we are anxious and nervous, it’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’ve seen this in our life, in many ways. There could be another person who’s going into the same room full of strangers, who thinks, “Oh, there’s a bunch of people in this room together, not everybody’s going to know each other, and some people are going to be shy, and I’m going to go in and just kind of talk to people, and maybe I’ll talk to somebody who’s shy, maybe I won’t, but there’s a whole room full of people who’ve had many different kinds of experiences that I haven’t had and different ideas and it still could be very interesting who I get to meet.” So that person goes in with that kind of attitude, and what’s their experience going to be? Just, what their attitude was telling them beforehand, because they go in with an attitude of friendliness, and they talk to different people and they extend themselves, and then of course, other people will respond.
So we see, on a basic level, that how we describe a situation to ourselves is going to dramatically influence how we’re going to experience it. Other kinds of examples of this: somebody criticizes us, that’s kind of a pretty frequent occurrence, isn’t it? Somebody says something hurtful, painful. To us? Can you imagine? Sweet innocent perfect me, and they’re saying horrible things and this and that. I mean this is how we feel when people criticize us. “Well I’m not like that.” People say things that we find rude or confrontational, or offensive, and then we sit and we do our single-pointed meditation on them. “Oh, he said this, he’s always talking to me that way. Everybody talks to me that way. Who does he think he is? That is totally unacceptable behavior.” And we sit and we ruminate, we sit and we just go over the situation again and again and again. We psychoanalyze the person, they must be bipolar, they must be, no they’re not bipolar, they are what is it?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yeah, they’re borderline. No, they’re not borderline, they’re…
VTC: Schizophrenic. No, no, that’s too severe, they’re the one…
VTC: No, not the obsessive compulsive. The new one, the new disorder that is usually called anger… oppositional something … disorder?
Audience: Oppositional Defiance Disorder.
VTC: Oppositional Defiance Disorder. ODD, yes. Actually, totally normal isn’t it? It means getting angry a lot. So we start to diagnose people, and we sit and really ruminate on the situation. And in the process of doing so, we get more and more and more unhappy. So that the next time that we see the person, what is in our mind is just this huge intolerance and wanting to retaliate and want to strike back and cause them some pain because they caused us some pain. And you know, it may be a couple of weeks between what they said and when we see this, and each day we are thinking about it, and we’re ruminating and we’re totally miserable.
Meanwhile, the other person was just in a bad mood that day. They said that thing. They probably felt sorry afterwards. Even if they didn’t, they forgot about it. But we made it into this big crisis that occupied our entire life and clouded every conversation we had with everybody after that because we ruminated on what this person said, and then we’re in a bad mood, and we read everybody else, and “What are they going to say to me?” Because you know how it is, when you’re in a bad mood, you meet so many disagreeable people. It’s true, isn’t it? When we’re in a bad mood, everybody’s … “Why do they just turn up this day when I’m in a bad mood? Can’t they just leave me alone?”
So you see it’s all a product of our own mind, isn’t it, because the days we’re in a good mood, we meet the same people, we don’t feel like they’re all out to get us, and if we change our attitude, and recognize, “Oh, that person was in a bad mood or they were really suffering, or something was really bugging them, but it probably didn’t have much to do with me,” and we don’t make a big deal out of it, then our future interactions with that person are okay, and we save two weeks of a bad mood.
You see it’s quite clear that what we do with our mind influences how we experience the external world. Are you getting what I’m saying? It’s very obvious when we talk about it like this, but our usual way of interpreting things is not like this. Our usual way is there’s happiness and suffering outside, and I just happen to be this innocent person that encounters it. Therefore, if I want to be happy, I’d better rearrange everything on the outside so it’s like what I want it to be. And then we set about our daily chore of trying to make people be what we want them to be.
That is indeed a chore, isn’t it? How often have we been successful and completed that chore? Not very often. It’s really hard to make other people be what we want them to be, and we keep trying even though it doesn’t work: we’re slow learners.
We keep trying, even though it doesn’t work, to make other people be what we want them to be. Whereas the big thing is changing what’s in here, because if we change what’s in here, then how other people appear to us is very, very different.
This is the role of meditation. Meditation has the same verbal root as to familiarize or habituate, and so what we are trying to do is to build up new habits of mind, familiarize ourselves with more positive attitudes, instead of getting stuck in the fantasy stories we tell ourselves about the sensory things that we observe on the outside.
So often in our lives, we impute meaning to things that don’t have that meaning from their own side. It’s interesting. A very good example, in Tibetan culture, when they clap, they think that you’re scaring away the evil spirits, so clapping is what you do to scare away evil spirits. When you meet somebody, you want to show respect, you bend over and you stick out your tongue, like that. That’s being polite. When the British went into Tibet in 1906, 1908, something like that, there were a bunch of Tibetans lined up on the street, going like this [clapping]. And the British thought they were happy and welcoming them. This is very blatant how we impute meaning to something that doesn’t have that meaning. And then when people came to see them and stuck out their tongues, they thought these people were very rude. Who sticks out their tongue?
So all day long, as we move through the day, we are imputing meaning without bothering to find out whether the meanings we’re imputing are correct. Or we are imputing motivations on other people without asking them if what we’re thinking is their actual motivation. But we just impute these things, we dream them up. We believe them and then we act on them. And then we wonder why it’s so difficult to communicate with other sentient beings. Why it’s so difficult, because we never really bothered to ask them if what we are thinking is really what’s going on with them or not. We just assume that it does.
When I was a teenager, my parents were always trying to control me. They were always saying I had to be home at a certain time, and of course my friends parents’ weren’t like that. My friend’s parents were much nicer and let their kids stay out later. But my parents were very protective. I couldn’t stay out so late. And on and on, and they’re controlling me, they won’t let me do this, and they won’t let me do that, and na na na na na. And it wasn’t until many years later—well put it this way, I thought that the reason my parents and I weren’t getting along was because they were just too controlling. That’s it! They were trying to control me. It took me a long time to figure out that controlling me wasn’t my parents’ concern. What their concern was my safety. That never entered my mind when I was a teenager because when you’re a teenager, you know, you never think of getting hurt, you never think of anything being dangerous. You just go and do it.
So, all this suffering that I had as a teenager in relationship to my parents, and all the stuff I projected on them, was totally false. Because I thought they were disputing my autonomy, when that was only from my side. They weren’t disputing my autonomy, they were trying to ensure I was safe. I didn’t see that at all. And of course, as parents, they didn’t see that I felt that my autonomy was at stake, and that I felt like that I needed to trust some more, because when you’re sixteen, you know everything. It’s amazing how you get a little bit dumber as you age. You notice that you get dumber as you get older and your parents get smarter as you get older? Very curious how that happens. So all this suffering that we went through, was because I was imputing motivations on them that weren’t their motivations at all. And I thought we were quarreling over something that wasn’t their topic of the quarrel at all.
In so many instances like this, we just make assumptions, and then we get very, very upset about something that is not even in the other person’s mind. Family gatherings are often good examples of how this kind of thing operates. When we’ve had long-term relationships with people, then we think that people never change. Of course we change, and they should recognize how we change and we mature and we gain more knowledge and skills. But when we look at our parents and our siblings—they never change. They’re just like that. And so we go to some kind of family gathering with our mind chock-a-block full of expectations about how those other people are going to act. And because of our expectations about how they’re going to act, little beknownst to us, we play our old role as well. In other words, although we think we’ve changed, we aren’t acting like it. And so we do our old thing that pushes their same old buttons, and they do their old thing and then we blame it all on them. Sound familiar?
Before different family things, it’s like, “Okay, my mom and my brother are going to have a fight, and my dad is going to do this, and my sister is going to do that.” We have it all planned out, never giving those people any opportunity to change, thinking that we’ve been the one who changed, but then we go in and do our old number because you know how it is sometimes, when you know people well, how you know exactly what to say that can really get them. You know that, especially in families. “I know exactly how to torment this person, oh, but I would never say anything to hurt their feelings, I’m only a sweetie pie.” And then we say our little thing and whoosh!
What I’m getting at is, how we think about things influences how we behave, which is influencing how other people react to us. And this is happening all the time. It happens for many reasons.
First of all, we don’t bother to ask the other person if they’re thinking what we’re thinking they’re thinking. We don’t bother to ask them if they did something for the reason that we think they did it. And we’re not bothering to look at our own mind and see what our own preconceptions are and the story we are telling ourselves about the situation, whether before we go in the situation, while we’re in it, or after we’ve come out of it. In other words, we are telling ourselves stories, we are screenwriters all the time of the drama starring me, but we don’t realize that we are writing the screenplay, and instead we think that there is an objective world out there that’s like that. And it’s not like that. It’s not like that.
It’s amazing when we start becoming more aware of what our preconceptions are, and start pressing the pause button on them. Then, how our relationships with other people transform. Whereas if we don’t become aware of our preconceptions, then we find that wherever we go, or whatever situation we encounter, we tend to have very similar types of experiences. Have you noticed that?
Then we build upon that very concrete view of the world. Let’s say we have the thought of going into a room with strangers, which we’ve all done. “Well, they’re not going to like me, so I’m not going to like them.” And then we play that out in how we speak to other people, and then of course, other people aren’t going to be very friendly towards us because we’re so afraid of them rejecting us that we aren’t bothered to make friends, we are rejecting them before they can reject us. Right? Seems like a smart tactic, doesn’t it? And then we wonder why we’re lonely. “I’ll reject them before they can reject me, and then I’ll feel lonely, and then I’ll just think that all those people are unfriendly, and in fact everywhere I go, I have that same experience. So that’s just human beings’ nature is that they’re unfriendly and they reject people. But I’m just little old me who’s the victim of all these peoples’ stupidities.”
We can see that the world is like that, and that’s the cause of suffering. The cause of big suffering. And who’s creating that suffering? Are other people creating their suffering? We’re creating our suffering by the way we think. If you change the attitude, the whole experience changes.
I remember one of my teachers, Lama Yeshe—this is an extreme example, but it shows you what is possible. Lama was born in the late 1930s, so he was maybe around 20 years old, or his early 20s, when it was 1959. He was a monk in Sera Je Monastery in Lhasa at the time there was the aborted uprising that we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of on March 10th. You may have heard about that, when the Tibetans had an uprising against Chinese occupation. Anyway, this was put down very severely, and Lama was a young monk in Sera monastery, and he told us there was all this trouble in Lhasa, the capital, and so the monks just went into the mountains for a few days. They didn’t take much with them because they thought, “Oh there’s trouble but everybody will calm down, and we will come back and continue everything in our monastery.” Well, it didn’t turn out that way, and that’s when his Holiness the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas and became a refugee in India. Lama Yeshe at that time too wound up never going back to Sera and instead becoming a refugee in India. And when these tens of thousands of Tibetans were coming over the Himalayas—India’s a poor country, they didn’t know what to do with these people. They had an old British POW camp, you know in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet,” where they imprisoned Heinrich Harrer, that camp. It was called Bosa, and it was an old British POW camp. They put all the monks there. It was horrible because they had come from high altitude down into India where it’s low altitude, so they were all getting sick, and they didn’t have anything. It was pretty much of a mess.
From that they started building a refugee community. Lama told us that this whole thing happened because of Mao Tse-Tung’s policies, who said Tibet was part of the motherland and he was liberating Tibetans from slavery and serfdom and getting rid of this ridiculous spiritual leader who was suppressing people. But instead so much suffering for the Tibetans came about. Lama said, because he never went back to his home, he never saw many of his family members again, and then he wound up somehow meeting Westerners and teaching us, of all people. Who would have thought? One time he said, “I really have to thank Mao Tse Tung, because if it wasn’t for Mao Tse Tung, I never would have become a refugee, and I never would have really understood what practicing Dharma meant.” He said “I would have stayed in Tibet, become a fat geshe, and never would have really thought about what practicing the Dharma meant. But when I became a refugee, I really had to change, I really had to practice, so I am so thankful to Mao Tse Tung.”
Could you imagine saying that to somebody who evicted you from your home and made you leave your country and your family and be impoverished? This is the kind of thing. From the normal viewpoint, for somebody in Lama’s situation, we would say, if that person were bitter, if that person were angry, if they were speaking harshly, we would say, “Oh they have every reason to, look what they were subjected to in their life.” But regardless of whether the whole world thinks you have a reason to feel the way you feel, when you feel that way, you’re miserable. Lama totally changed the way he thought and said, “It was a good situation and I’m really thankful it happened.” And he was somebody who was quite happy as an individual, quite happy. Actually, he had a heart condition, he had some kind of hole in his heart, that’s what we heard way back then, now maybe they would have diagnosed it as a valve disorder or something like that. But he had some sort of heart malfunction, and he was so happy you know? And that all came about because of the way he deliberately chose to cultivate his view on life. So it isn’t just a thing of, “Well I was born that way, or that’s how I grew up, or I’ve always thought like that,” and we use that as an excuse for not changing. But instead to realize we are moment by moment creating our reality dependent on how we view the situation and how we describe it to ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. And so moment to moment, we have the ability to change what our experience is. This is one very strong way in which our mind creates our experience.
Does anyone have the clock? I thought you were deliberately trying to make it so that I couldn’t see the clock. People always do that to me!
Another way in which we create our experience has the viewpoint of karma and its effects so it has the viewpoint of multiple lives, which if I got into and started explaining now, I wouldn’t be able to make the point I want to make. Just for the time being, let’s set aside the idea of multiple lives because what I am going to say you can also think about in terms of one life.
Karma simply means action. It’s nothing mysterious, it’s just actions, what we say, what we think, what we do, what we feel—actions of body, speech and mind. When we act, there is, for lack of a better description, although this isn’t totally accurate, there’s a remnant of energy that’s left that becomes what we call a karmic seed or a karmic latency and that influences what we experience later down the line. We often see our actions bringing results, but we usually think of that happening only in terms of the immediate results that we experience. But here we’re talking about doing something and then its delayed reaction, like one of those delayed reaction aspirins—you don’t get the result right away; it comes later. It might come later in this life, or it might come in a future life, but we get the result.
The actions we do are governed by our mind because our body doesn’t move to do some kind of action unless the mind has an intention to do that. The mouth doesn’t start flapping unless the mind has an intention to do that. We don’t start thinking a whole pattern of thoughts unless the mind has some intention. Very often we have intentions that we’re not aware of having, and often we’re not aware of these intentions and we don’t try and govern them and control them in any way. Whatever thought or impulse comes in our mind, we just do it. So we wind up doing all sorts of different actions, some with good motivations, with kindness or generosity and some with bad motivations of wanting to retaliate and hurt somebody. We do various things. It leaves imprints, or latencies, or seeds of actions in our mindstreams, and then later on, in this life or in future lives, when the conducive circumstances are there, these latencies ripen and influence the kind of situations we find ourselves in.
So here’s another way in which our mind creates our experience. Why having certain attitudes and motivations and emotions that motivate us thinking or speaking or doing particular actions that leave the karmic latency that ripen into the situations we find ourselves in. You see there’s a chain here and we wind up finding ourselves in certain situations. You know how sometimes we say, “Why me?” This is why. Of course we always say why me when it’s unhappiness, but we seldom say why me when we experience happiness. We should say why me and investigate the causes and then create more of those causes [when we’re happy], and if we’re saying why me when we’re miserable, let’s think about the karmic causes and abandon those in the future. There is some kind of link between our actions and the situations we find ourselves in. And so when we notice that, when we have some conviction in that process, then we see that we can start changing our experience by changing our actions. If we find ourselves in a situation, let’s say where we tend to be criticized a lot, then we should look and see how much criticism we give other people. If we dish out a lot of criticism, that’s kind of the cause to receive a lot of criticism. And here you don’t even have to believe in future lives to understand this. Because it’s true, isn’t it? If you’re an argumentative person, you get in a lot of fights. You criticize a lot of people, a lot of people criticize you. Our mothers taught us this and our fathers taught us this when we were little kids, but we somehow haven’t learned it. We still think it’s all coming because other people are horrible.
What I’m getting at is if we start changing our motivations and changing our actions, then the external experiences that we find ourselves in will also start to change. That’s another way in which our mind influences our experience. And if there are some experiences in our life that we really enjoy, that we find very pleasant and very enriching, and we want to have more of those, then we should create the karmic cause to have that experience in the future and then that will happen. It may not happen immediately but the thing is to be content with creating the causes and leave the ripening of the results for whenever the conditions are there.
So that’s just a little bit about ways our minds create the experience—how we frame the situation and how we act. Now to leave it open for questions and comments.
VTC: Sure. I’ll repeat your question. When we first learn about karma, it seems very simplistic. You hit somebody, they’re going to hit you back. You say something nice to somebody, they’re going to say something nice back. But when you begin to learn more about karma, you realize that actually it’s quite a complicated topic. While we can learn general guidelines around karma, they say that the specifics of karma, in other words what a specific person did in a specific situation that brought about a specific result: only the Buddha has the full knowledge of all of that. The rest of us have some kind of a generality functioning in there. But the generality is definitely good enough to get us going in the right direction. So the basic premise is that actions, by and large, that are motivated by clinging attachment, anger, confusion, or other harmful emotions or attitudes—they bring suffering in the future. Actions motivated by kindness, by altruism, by compassion, by generosity, by ethical conduct, ethical restraint, those actions will bring happiness in the future.
That’s the general pattern. Now within that, each action we do brings different kinds of result. So if we have an action… Well, there’s a lot to say about karma, because you have a complete action. To have a complete action, you have to have the object, the attitude or the intention, the actual action, and the completion of the action. If you have an action with these four branches, then it’s going to bring many different kinds of result. One of the results will be what we are born as, another result will be even if we are born human, the kinds of situations that happen to us. Another result is the kind of habits we have, mental habits that we tend towards, or physical habits that we tend towards. Another result is the nature of the environment we are born into, whether it’s snowy or sunny, whether it’s peaceful or fraught with violence.
All of this is influenced by the karma that we create, and we’re creating a lot of different karmas throughout our lives, building up all of these different imprints and seeds and latencies in our mind. Different ones will ripen according to the cooperative conditions. Just as you might have a bunch of different seeds in the field, but depending upon how much sunshine and how much water and where in the fields you put the water and sunshine, different seeds are going to ripen. Similarly, in our mind, a lot of the things that happen in this life will influence what karmic seeds can ripen. For example, if we have in our mindstream one seed to have an accident and another seed to have a long life, because we can have many contradictory seeds in our mind, so we have both of those seeds from previous actions from different lives on our mind, then you go drinking and driving, or you choose to go in a car with someone who’s been drinking and drugging, then what seed is going to be easier to sprout? The one for happiness and well being, or the one for the accident? The one for the accident. Very often, if we put ourselves in certain situations, it sets the stage for different kinds of seeds to ripen. So that’s why we also try to take care of what we are saying and doing and thinking and feeling in this life, and the situations we put ourselves in.
VTC: She’s saying that when you’re actually in a situation of high stress, we have so much habit that something happens and boom, we say what we say, and sometimes even as we’re saying it, we’re going … you know, but we don’t quite move our hand there. We keep saying it instead but, like you said, if we only just pause for a moment, then we would realize that we wouldn’t need to say that, and that saying what we say doesn’t help the situation. In fact it often inflames it.
So how do you get that space? I think this is the role of having a regular daily meditation practice, because when we have a regular meditation practice, we are sitting with ourselves, noticing our mind, we are becoming friends with ourselves, and getting to know our habit patterns. We are slowing our mind down and looking at it, and so that helps us really gain that space, even if it’s a fraction of an instant, to make the determination of “No, I’m not going to say that.” We need to practice throughout the day, giving ourselves some space to actually be quiet inside and get to know ourselves. We do that in terms of having our daily meditation practice, and then in the break time in our practice, we also try and slow ourselves down and walk a little bit more slowly, be a little bit more careful about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. In that way, we stop ourselves from getting into that stress situation and we also give ourselves the space in our daily life to be more aware of what we’re thinking about and what’s going on that creates that space so that we can restrain saying something when we need to restrain. It’s basically practice and this mental factor of mindfulness, which is awareness of how we want to be in the world as well as attention to what’s going on around us.
Another mental factor is monitoring what we’re doing and saying, “Am I doing what I need to be doing right now, and why am I doing what I’m doing.” Getting into the habit, so that we enrich those two mental factors. That becomes very, very helpful.
Another thing that I think is helpful is if you work in an environment that’s very stressful or if you’re going into even a personal situation that might be stressful, to make a very strong determination that morning of, “Today I’m not going to harm somebody, and I’m going to try to be of benefit, and I’m going to be very careful about what I say. I’m going to be in a situation where things happen that easily push my buttons, so today I’m going to be really, really attentive and really careful about that and pay attention and not just let my body, speech, and mind go on automatic. Making that kind of determination early in the day often gives us that space during the day to remember our intention and to monitor our actions in that way.
VTC: You’re saying that the habit is to blame others, and when we turn the mind, and see that we have some… that we’ve created it. Why is that such a powerful antidote to the mind that’s being distressed? I think because when we’re blaming others, then we are giving away our power, and we feel we have no control over the situation. We feel helpless. We feel powerless because if it’s somebody else’s fault, there’s nothing we can do, because we aren’t that other person. There’s this feeling of helplessness as well as incredible anger because we can’t change them, even though we want to. That attitude takes us nowhere, so we feel very, very miserable. Whereas the moment we realize that we can shift the situation by shifting our own attitude and our own emotion, then immediately, we see that there’s something to do, and we know that we aren’t helpless and we aren’t powerless. That there is a way to deal with the situation. Automatically, that brings a feeling of optimism, and then, in the next moment, if we start to shift our attitude, then when the mind changes from being angry to, “Ok, let’s work on something and do something constructive,” then of course the mind is going to be happier.
Because when we’re angry, we are always unhappy, aren’t we? Blaming others just reinforces sitting in our own anger. You say, “It’s somebody else’s fault. I can’t do anything,” except yell and scream and throw things, but that doesn’t solve the problem. When we start changing our own mind, it can start to solve it and be free from the pain that the anger causes us.
VTC: And of course, yes, we are functioning. When we’re seeing that we have responsibility, that’s definitely more realistic, because blaming others is totally unrealistic. It would be really awful if things really were other people’s fault. It would be totally awful because then we’re just condemned to suffering. But things don’t exist that way, that’s not a realistic attitude. We can change.
So let’s just sit for a minute. Think about what you’ve heard so you can take it home with you and think about how you can apply it in your life. So just sit for a couple of minutes to let things sink in.
We dedicate all the positive energy that we’ve created as individuals and send it out into the universe.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.