The movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.
To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.
Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.
Movie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.
Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute.
(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)
These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.
- Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
- Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
- Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
- Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
- Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
- Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
- Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.
- Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control.
Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.
When I attempt to watch my mind … I use my own analogy – as a teacher, I imagine my delusions are a classroom of students such as anger, jealousy, envy, anxiety and so on and whenever any of these arise I see them as students putting their hands up so then I try to respond to them as quickly as possible with compassion and patience that way I try to catch them early and teach them a better way 🙂 Tam Tare 🙂
My favorite modern analogy helps me understand how emptiness and form are the same thing. It goes like this:
So you go to work Monday morning and you’re catching up with your friends, and they say “What did you do this weekend?” And you say “I went to the movies.” And they say “Really? What did you see?” When have you ever answered “The screen.”? “I went to the movies and I saw the screen.” Really, when have you ever actually seen the screen? You’re looking right at it. Your eyes are glued to it. For 2 full hours you never look at anything else. And yet you never actually see the screen. Why not? Because you’re all caught up in the drama that appears to be happening on it.
This is the nature of emptiness. You are always looking at it. For all your life, for all your lives, you’ve never looked at anything other than emptiness. And yet you’ve never actually seen it. Why not? Because you’re all caught up in the drama that appears to be happening on it.
This analogy helps me a lot.
I have an example of the power of analogy that’s all about compassion, proudly recounted by my mother just the other day.
My nephew, who is just four, found a tiny snail in his grandmother’s garden. He picked it up and presented it to my brother saying victoriously saying “I want to take this home. Do we have something to put it in?”
My brother leaned forward, close to his son’s face and said … “No, you can’t take it. It already has a home. Where did you get it?”
His son gestured to some tall grass near the compost heap in the far corner of the garden.
“We need to take it back now to its family. Its mother and brothers and sisters will be looking for it. It’s only a baby and it’ll be scared.”
At this my nephew’s excitement about finding something he could keep turned to concern over the snail’s welfare.
Together they returned the snail to the underside of leaf right where he’d found it. My nephew spent the next fifteen minutes crouched over it, anxiously waiting for its family to return to collect it. And then later spent most of the journey home enthusing about how happy he was to have returned the baby to its family.
Learning to see a tiny snail as a living being with it’s own needs and wants is unlikely to turn my nephew into the popular guy who sprays positivity over anyone in his orbit. But he’s beginning to learn to the do the right thing, even at personal cost. My nephew will be kind, I’m feel sure of that.
I love this story.
So true. Beautifully put.
I’d like to share a teaching I heard from Gen-la Dekyong when she was the Resident Teacher in Seattle, because she took an unusual approach. She is always telling us that everything can teach us Dharma if we let it – all the situations we find ourselves in, the people we meet, even the “ducks on the lake,” as she once said in NY. On a walk near the Temple, Gen-la said she heard a train whistle, as the tracks for the train to Vancouver run nearby, and she thought “train, train, train” (as in train your mind). Such a flexible mind to come up with that double meaning!
Very nice! Milarepa said that all our life experiences are like a book teaching us Dharma. In fact, he said “I have no need of books” for that reason!
I very much like this train analogy. Thank you !
My pleasure, glad you like it.
“It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.”
This is my problem. I’ve coined a slogan
“When thoughts spin round in your head, like the wheels on a bicycle, don’t apply the brakes, just stop pedaling.”
…but I have yet to live it.
This is a good analogy. Shows we can’t force it. When we do breathing meditation, for example, there is no point in fighting our distractions — we just have to stop thinking them and be more interested in our object of meditation.
Thanks Luna. What a brilliant demonstration of how to use our own Dharma wisdom, experience and insights to build a meditation. Very inspiring! Lots of points you made really chime in with me. That’s another great post! Thanks again 🙂
Thank you Vide too for all your really creative analogies on Daily Lamrim.
I agree, the train analogy is perfect. Thank you!
Another great article. The analogy of a runaway train is excellent. With all my “habitual tendancies” I built up for so many years and lifetimes, how do I stop this train? My favorite Lamrim meditation is “wishing love”, and this seems to my key to getting my “train” under more control. Whenever I go for a walk, ride the bus, or as much as I can “off the cushion” I use the “wishing love’ meditation almost like a slogan or mantra to bring things back in perspective. There has been a lot of chat about the killing of the young black man in Florida last month, and a tendency may be to pounce on the man who shot him, or to try and defend the shooter, but if we can look at the situation with a more balanced mind, we may see that it is the delusions of anger, hate and fear that have caused this tragedy. Like you said in your article, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances, and all our skill, energy, compassion and wisdom are needed.
Thank you Bill. I agree that it is a really good idea to have one “quick fix” to our daily problems, taking our favorite meditation and becoming so good at it that it becomes second nature and we can pull it out at any time. Then the other meditations can flow from there.