Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

8 mins read

IMG_5326The other day I heard about a study in which psychologists asked a bunch of regular people how many of their thoughts they had no control over, out of 10.

Their findings seemed quite startling, so in my own further market research I have of late been asking hundreds of people this same question.

I’ll ask you, if you don’t mind … out of 10, how many of your thoughts are in your control and how many are not? Or, put another way, how many of your thoughts do you actually want or choose to think and how many of your thoughts do you not want to think but can’t help thinking?

…….

I don’t know what your answer is, but I have, interestingly enough, been getting the same answer as the psychologists from almost everybody else. Which is …

9.

9 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10! Rarely has it been 8. Never has it been lower than 7. Sometimes people have said 10. Or 11!

Meditation is the antidote – it enables us to control our thoughts. So this has given me even more appreciation for the vital role of meditation in our day and age. For if this is true, and I have no reason to doubt what people are telling me, we can’t control our own mind 90% of the time. No wonder we feel bad a lot (90% of the time). No wonder we have only a 10% guarantee of happiness on any one day. And no wonder our world is such an uncontrollable mess – we are all pretty much insane.9-10-rating

Buddha analyzed that the main reason we are still suffering is because of our uncontrolled mind. We have a word for these uncontrolled thoughts – “delusions,” unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts that arise from inappropriate attention. Anxiety, anger, attachment, addiction, jealousy, self-obsession, pride, and so on rule the roost. They dominate and manipulate us all day, well at least 90% of the time. They are our worst enemies — our only enemies when it comes down to it. We have to gain control over these delusions or they will continue to control us, till kingdom come, every single day.

The devastating knock-on effects of uncontrolled thoughts

Yes, the world is getting crazier, if you ask me. Nationalism is on the rise in many countries. Hatred for “others” seems to be increasing exponentially, not just in the US, but in Central and South America, and all over Europe. These last 34 days leading up to a potentially no-deal Brexit feel to me like watching a slow-motion train wreck that we could stop but for some reason won’t. Meanwhile one fifth of the world’s children are living in a conflict zone, traumatized; and way too many children are starving. And don’t get me started on our behavior towards animals.

Where do these bad actions and their ensuing problems really stem from? Is it not from anger, hatred, intolerance, greed, selfishness, confusion, apathy? Are these not the real problems that we need to fix? Corrupt politics and so on are the conditions arising from these delusions, not the root cause. When we don’t control our thoughts, they control us.world peace

The great Indian master and founder of the Kadampa tradition, Venerable Atisha, said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Try as we might to cure the world’s problems and sort everyone else out, and as important as that work and goal undoubtedly is, we can only make a deep and lasting difference if we are sorting out our own thoughts at the same time.

Below the mess

We are not crazy at heart though. At heart, below all this mess, we are amazing. We all have an indestructible potential for perfect concentration, mental mastery, peace, love, wisdom, and endless bliss. And we need to learn to pay attention to this, learn to identify with it, so that we can realize it. Our uncontrolled thoughts are still just thoughts – we can learn to let them go and think instead the thoughts we want to think.

And what would those be, as a matter of interest? Probably happy ones, loving ones, helpful ones, creative ones, etc. Buddha has a lot of ideas for positive and wise thoughts we can develop, comprising the entire path to enlightenment.

Mastering our own mind, we master our life and we master our future. With mindfulness and concentration, and indeed the whole path of training the mind in compassion and wisdom, we can learn how to master 2 thoughts out of 10, then 3, then 4 … all the way to 10/10. True mental freedom!

We have our work cut out

And I would submit that there is no time to waste. Distraction and intrusive thoughts are only getting worse. If you are reading this, you are probably older than 0 to 6 years old. But bear in mind that many of this age group are right now immersed in a screen somewhere, picking up the habits of distraction that will quite possibly torment them for a life time.Calvin and Hobbes

By the way, I just looked up “distraction” in the dictionary:

  1. something that serves as a diversion or entertainment
  2. an interruption; an obstacle to concentration
  3. mental turmoil or madness

Distractions can be all three at the same time, if you ask me, when driven by attachment. Our seemingly innocent diversions and entertainments can indeed be interruptions and obstacles to concentration; and our dependence on them is surely driving us to mental turmoil and madness.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered to wait for the results of the research on this intrusive technology on developing brains to come in – I will take the word of my dentist instead. She told me today that when her 4-year-old and 6-year-old nieces greet her, they run up, say “Hi Ally!”, and then immediately root about her person for her phone, “Can we do Snapchat!?!” If they are offered a toy to play with, they are uninterested, unless by playing with it they are then allowed more screen time. They won’t play board games. They are not all that interested in the great big outdoors even though they live in a veritable children’s wonderland (Colorado). They are already entirely addicted to the magic box. And in this they are just like all their friends. “Have you noticed fewer kids playing in the cul de sacs and so on?” Ally asked me. “Doesn’t it strike you as quieter outside these days?”

“All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box”

baby and technologyBy coincidence I also read The Week article about this later in the day, called “An iPad is not a parent”:

Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward.

And:

All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain.

A quick Google search reveals that kids under the age of 8 use screens for 2-3 hours a day and counting. Preteens and teens (from ages 8 to 18) an average of 7.5 hours. Adults stare into the light an average of 8.5 hours a day.

You know. We got problems.

My dentist Ally, who is very likeable and sociable by the way, told me that people don’t know how to have conversations any more, that they aren’t looking each other in the eye. And that when teenagers sit in her dentist’s chair, they are still glued to their phones. She lets them because it is their comfort zone. But when she tries to get their attention, “I’m afraid we are going to have to take five teeth out, and if you don’t reduce your sugar intake you might lose more,” they keep thumbing their video games, mumble, “Umm, okay,” and studiously avoid all eye contact.

playing outsideAnother friend told me today that at the middle school where he teaches, they now have a no-phone rule all day, and the results have been outstanding: kids are playing actual games like cards and rough and tumble, concentrating in classes, and generally seeming more content and communicative. But he says once they get to high school it won’t be possible to control their online behavior in this way.

Dentist Ally also mentioned that she is so relieved to be of the generation that can still remember a time before it was normal to be glued to a screen, spending the days of her early childhood riding her bike and hanging out with flesh & blood friends. I would like to point out that Ally was the one bemoaning what is happening to the next generation — and she is only 31! Things are changing very fast.

(Note to Kadampa Centers: we really need kids’ meditation classes.)

How can we improve this percentage?

 It looks like we have a huge problem on our hands, but luckily there are many effective ways to cure it. And rest assured that controlling our unwanted thoughts is not the same as pushing them away forcefully, entering into battle with them, suppressing them. Not the same at all. It is more about learning to take them less seriously and letting them go, gradually replacing them with their opposite wanted thoughts.

The most obvious and popular way for newcomers to start this is to learn some simple breathing meditation – and within that there are variations we can try out, some of which can be found here. Or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our mind. Or we can meditate on absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought. Prayers help too, as does dissolving enlightened beings into our heart.

And whatever method you choose, please start in your heart space, not your head. We won’t get far along the road to peace if we stay in our head, there is little space to be found there. IMG_5325-1

Through any of these methods we will experience the relaxing clarity and concentration needed to work on uprooting our uncontrolled thoughts entirely, replacing them with wonderful thoughts, so as to reclaim our sanity, our happiness, our lives, and world peace.

There are 2 further articles on meditation and technology here: Improving our focus and Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you – your insights are most welcome on this topic of how to get all our minds under control in over-stimulated times. Our collective future is at stake.

Related articles

Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants

Articles on how to learn meditation

Addicted to social media?

Articles on mindfulness 

 

 

You’re never alone

5.5 mins read.

people walking in NYCNew York City is full of people. So full, perhaps, that you could find yourself sucked into dramas morning till night. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Given that there are so many people here, so many people in other cities, so many people in ant hills, so many people in samsara …  how on earth are we supposed to extricate ourselves, let alone everyone else?! It can all feel very solid and real – the sickness, the ageing, the death, the homelessness, the hunger, the cold, and so on. No wonder compassion fatigue is a thing.

It is true that there are infinite beings in the six realms of samsara, and our stories of pain and suffering, told since beginningless time, seem to show no signs of slowing down, much less stopping. Taken alone, getting us all out seems a daunting task. But when feeling besieged by samsaric narratives, it can be incredibly helpful to remember that although there may be countless samsaric beings, there are also countless enlightened beings.

To infinity and beyond

full moon surrounded by starsWhen we visualize Buddha Shakyamuni, for example, he is not appearing with only a few holy beings dotted around him, in our tiny NY room, hopelessly outnumbered by a gazillion sentient beings. Buddha is surrounded by infinite enlightened beings, “like the full moon surrounded by stars”, who stretch on and out forever and ever.

This is not just true for Buddhists. This is true for everyone. Holy omniscient beings, however or whoever we envisage them, pervade everywhere and everyone.

(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this, I heard Stevie Wonder sing: “When you feel your life’s too hard, just go have a talk with God.” 🙂 )

Countless beings, once just like us, have attained enlightenment and no longer belong in samsara. This means that although there are infinite beings in infinite galaxies, Buddhas and Buddha Lands equal, if not outnumber, them all.

Samsara is the product of hallucination. Enlightenment is reality. Pit samsaric worlds and beings against enlightened worlds and beings, and who, ultimately, is going to prevail?

What is faith?

With the practice of Dharma we get to start choosing whose company we want to keep and be influenced by. We can start to feel that we are in the company of enlightened beings whenever we want; and with Tantra we feel that we are already one of them.

This is faith, of course – but faith doesn’t have to be overly complicated or mysterious. We can believe in the existence of enlightened beings by observing our own minds and how we have been able to reduce our delusions and increase our love and patience, for example. Nothing is fixed about our thoughts, and everything depends upon our thoughts. Taking that to its logical conclusion, we can envisage ourselves free from all faults and suffering and pervaded by spontaneous wisdom and compassion.New York skyscrapers

Close your eyes for a moment and try it!

Did that work? If so, even being able to entertain a notion of being enlightened indicates our potential for enlightenment and therewith the fact that countless enlightened beings already exist – the only difference between us and them is that they have put in the effort.

Based on this so-called “believing faith”, we can develop admiration for their good qualities — they can be our role models and super heroes, we can feel happy about them. And because we have this so-called “admiring faith,” which includes that faith in our own potential, we have the wish to become just like them, which is called “wishing faith.”

As Geshe Kelsang says in the first edition of Transform Your Life:

Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure, faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist. Faith is like pure eyes that enable us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara.

The company we keep

countless BuddhasWhenever we think of Buddha, there he or she is. He is there even when we don’t think of him. Enlightenment is everywhere, always, because enlightenment is reality, always waiting to be revealed.

As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena; and because his or her body and mind are the same nature, his body is also all-pervasive. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist.

This means that enlightened beings and Buddha Lands are everywhere and always, including right here right now. Holy beings are just as close to us as all these samsaric beings popping up around us. Purify our minds and we will see these pure beings directly. In the meantime we can have faith that they’re here, and that, because they are always relating to our pure potential as opposed to our delusions and suffering, they love us unconditionally whatever we are up to.

We do have a choice. Even in the middle of a huge city, full of seemingly endless suffering samsaric beings, we don’t need to invest in every passing mirage, powerlessly pulled in every direction. With Dharma in general and Tantra in particular, we can start to enjoy ourselves and those around us as illusion-like appearances arising within the space of emptiness – not inherently suffering, potentially pure and enlightened. We are already in the living company of countless holy beings in a pure and beautiful world.

to infinity and beyondAs it continues in Eight Steps:

Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along, and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we will see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

Tuning into joy and purity like this, space opens up and discouragement goes away. I think there’s an enormous amount of love and support available all the time, more than enough to stop us from feeling overwrought. And, situated now on the side of the solution, we can always find the energy to help others. For if we are already in the Pure Land, what is there to worry about?

This is the highest and most empowering form of renunciation (seeking to be permanently free) and compassion (seeking to free others), which we can learn to feel all the time, wherever we are. After all, as Freddie Mercury just happens to sing in the movie I’ve been watching on this plane out of NYC:

We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.

Over to you. Comments welcome below!

Related articles

What is the point of faith? 

Enlightenment is right here, right now 

Blessings are not that mysterious 

 

 

 

 

 

Fellow American

Sickened by political division and conflict, a filmmaker travels across the US in search of  a different story.
A love letter to a troubled nation, one face at a time. 

 

 

 

 

New York narratives

6 mins read

Subway 1A month in New York City provides more than enough food for thought for a meditator. There is no avoiding people in the city that never sleeps, and on every street, avenue, and subway all manifestations of human nature, good or bad, are on display. Here are three subway stories for starters.

Story 1 The Family

I was sitting opposite a family – the elderly mom and dad sitting close to each other, and the adult daughter standing up next to them. They were being companionable, not chatting very much if at all, but they looked sweet together. I wondered whether the parents had come to visit the daughter, or the daughter had come to visit the parents, or whether they all lived in NYC. I wondered what they all did and whether there were other children in the family. I can’t remember what else I wondered about, but it kept me occupied for at least two subway stops.

Then we reached 42nd Street and the daughter got off. She didn’t say goodbye to her parents! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude. Or … and this was a bit of a blow … maybe she wasn’t their daughter after all!

Ah well, they still made an adorable couple. Obviously been together for years as they felt no need to make small talk. Probably still had a daughter somewhere. Maybe a dog too.

But when we reached 28th Street, the husband just stood up and left — without so much as a backward glance at his wife of 30 years! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude! Or … and this was now not just a blow but an entire dismantling of my subway reality … maybe they weren’t a couple after all!!!

IMG_5260-ANIMATIONHmmm. I don’t know about you (well, I do a bit), but I am doing this kind of thing all the time. We are making up stories about other people, and ourselves for that matter, but then believing them as if they were the truth. Always believing whatever appears to us, which just so happens to be the same as whatever it is we are unknowingly projecting with our thoughts.

This story and its characters turned out to be completely unreal, but all felt perfectly real at the time. How many of our daily stories are actually real? What are we doing all day long?!!

Story 2 “You are a sick woman!”

Story 1 was a fabricated narrative for sure, which left me feeling slightly foolish; but no real harm was done, and I didn’t inflict my “truth” on others. This was not the case in this second story.

Subway 2

Opposite me was a man and a woman (they were canoodling so I felt safe in assuming they were a couple), and next to the girlfriend (Woman 1) was another woman (Woman 2).

The couple were chatting away while Woman 2 was contentedly minding her own business and, like 95% of the rest of the carriage, playing with her phone. All was fine. All was peaceful.

Then Woman 1, wanting to point out where they were going, accidentally waved her hand in Woman 2’s face. Woman 2 not unreasonably pushed her hand away without looking up from her phone.

Woman 1 made a face at her boyfriend, but was otherwise ready to let it go. But he wasn’t. He leaned over and said, “What do you think you are doing, pushing my girlfriend’s hand away like that?!”

Surprised, Woman 2 said it had been in her face, and in the way of her and her texting.

“I don’t care!” said the man. “That was incredibly rude”. Anyway, I will now spare you the details of what they said, but the whole carriage, including Woman 1, started to pay even more attention to their phones as this rapidly escalated into a loud argument.

Woman 1, embarrassed, put her hand on the boyfriend’s knee to try and pacify him, but he wasn’t having it, the bit now between his teeth. And instead of just saying sorry or nothing at all, Woman 2 was giving back as good as she got.

Visibly agitated, they stopped and stared ahead of them for a few moments. Peace at last, the rest of us fervently hoped, as we surreptitiously resumed some eye contact.

But then Woman 2 leaned over, having thought of something really juicy to say, and let it rip.

Within the time frame of two subway stops, two strangers had become two mortal enemies — the man was standing up and yelling at her, “You are a sick woman!”

Luckily, he had to get off at his stop. But his anger went with him; he was still fuming as he walked past the window. Subway 3

The two women sat there right next to each other in silence. Woman 1 looked like she was about to cry. I wanted them to turn to each other and say, “Sorry about that! Bit over the top.” But they didn’t. They just looked miserable. All three of those people’s mornings were ruined. That may not even be the only time anger arose for them that day. And it could all have been so easily avoided.

This was just one of million stories of anger playing themselves out all over the city and all over the world. Ruining people’s enjoyment. Ruining relationships. Exaggerating everything into such ugliness. Causing such harm. And for what? Where was the truth in any of that? To those in the carriage not under the deception of anger, for example, there was nothing believable about that narrative at all.

Story 3 The old lady fallen on hard times

Meanwhile, while the anger narratives play out on every street and subway, the stories worth paying attention to if we want to develop positive minds are instead ignored.

A woman in her seventies, I would guess, got onto the subway and started hesitantly to tell us her story. “I am very sorry to be doing this, but I never expected at my age to be staying in a shelter.”

She lived with her husband for many years and had a job just like everyone else. But he fell very ill and, having no children, she left work to take care of him. They spent all their money, and then he died, a month ago. And she realized she had nothing. That she was homeless.

This story was so so sad, I was deeply moved. I gave her some money and a smile, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

Homeless at Columbus CircleThe reality is that she is our kind mother, she is just like us, and she has fallen on hard times and is deserving of our love and concern. She could have been me. She could have been you. We could be her. If I so much as lost my phone, wallet, or way, for example, or if I felt faint, I would expect the people around me to be sympathetic if I asked for help. But everyone in that carriage was way too immersed in their phone or studying the floor to even look at this entirely lost old woman. Not one person gave her money. Not one person said, “I’m so sorry.”

Then I got to wondering, because I know these people are not bad people, what if you had been sitting next to her in a doctor’s waiting room or at a friend’s funeral when she told you her story? Would you not say, “I’m so sorry” then, and mean it? What line, in other words, do people have to fall below to become invisible?

One homeless man, head bowed, had a cardboard sign saying, “I am invisible.”

homeless 2In India, a friend from Calcutta was telling me, most people don’t see the huge numbers of destitute street children, and, if they do, they look through them or down on them. And you wonder how anyone could ever become that desensitized, you think, “That could never happen in my country! Those children would be cared for!” Well, guess what, it is happening in my country, it is happening right under my nose.

Where is the shared humanity? Let’s not get started on our unkindness to other species – what about man’s inhumanity to man? We are better than this of course, much better. And if we could just learn to follow our better instincts, live in accordance with our Buddha nature, there would be no more loud arguments on the subway, no more callous disregard of an old lady’s despair.

Over to you.

Related articles

Us and them in Buddhism 

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

Anger ruins our fun