The smallest thing can fill our mind if we have no control over our thoughts.
Someone on Facebook fessed up that they had been engaging in an “internal tantrum and imaginary arguments”, and I thought to myself, “Now ain’t that the way our delusions go!”
It is so easy to get irritated if we let ourselves due to our unchecked habit of inappropriate attention. Normally I live in a pretty peaceful place with lots of space — just cats, dogs, possums, and huge parking spots for one’s air-conditioned car — I’m not rubbing shoulders with a mass of annoying humanity as I try to get around. But I also travel to NYC from time to time, partly so as to get my fair share of shoulder-rubbing, to keep it real 🙂
On the plane recently a young man sat next to me and, despite his good health, looks and fortune, I could tell he was already feeling slightly edgy. He got out his Blackberry and engaged in some very fast texting with his two thumbs. I nosily eyed what he’d written and to my surprise the last text said “This fat b**** next to me is so large that I cannot put down my armrest.” I could tell this was the tale-end of a moan about the person sitting next to him, and I noticed to my alarm that the armrest between us was firmly up. But I’m not that big so I glanced hopefully to the other side of him just in case, and it did appear that a large lady was occupying that seat.
Relieved as I was that he wasn’t texting about me, I felt a little sorry for her, oblivious as she was to his annoyance at having to spend the next 2 hours and 48 minutes wedged next to her, thinking how mortified she’d have been if she had been as nosy as me and looked at his Blackberry. Perhaps she’d in any case sense his dislike and spend a few less than happy, confident hours as a result. Even hurtful thoughts are hurtful; they are mental actions that do leave some impression on our mind and our world. In the teachings on karma, Buddha says that no action is ever wasted.
Just as I was musing on this, he suddenly thrust his Blackberry under my nose, gesturing me to read his latest message, which just happened to be addressed to me. It said: “Don’t get weirded out if I sit closer to you, but the woman next to me is sitting half on my seat.” She wasn’t actually, and he was now sitting on my seat, but I thought I’d try and cheer him up a bit by smiling that it was no problem, sure, I don’t mind being squashed into half a seat even if he does, its not inherently bad after all… (I doubt he got all my silent messages, but I thought them anyway). The rest of the journey passed without incident, he entered his own sullen headphoned world — hopefully he cheered up later.
A tiny example of a minor irritation blown out of proportion, but these can waste every day of our whole precious life if we let them.
What do you make of all these riots sweeping across England right now? People are getting hurt.
They are reminding me of two things:
(1) The uncontrollable nature of anger
(2) How influenced we are by others
In the newspaper I was reading online, a commentator tries to figure out what exact grievances are leading to the riots, e.g. poor housing, drugs, sink schools, gangs. But he concludes:
“While these phenomena may explain many forms of crime, my attendance at some of these occasions made me aware of the sheer momentum of a mob sensing a licence for an orgy of destructive mischief.”
A good friend of mine in Manchester just emailed me to say moreorless the same thing, which got me thinking. And what I am thinking is: “This sounds just like my mind of anger!” Anger starts with some pretext and then dwells on perceived grievances with inappropriate attention and the next thing you know the mind is on fire. It is far easier to put out a match than a forest fire. If no effort is made in anger’s early stages to control it, it rapidly spins us out of control. And it often thinks that it’s enjoying itself at the time, and that it’s valid, especially while we are still surrounded by other like-minded, over-excited “friends”. It’s only later, when the inappropriate attention has died down, that any remorse kicks in and we realize what destructive idiots we’ve been. There were other ways to do this, whatever it is.
Inappropriate attention is #6 of the six causes of delusion identified in Buddha’s teachings. Take anger for example. Cause #1 is the seed – we all have the seed of anger within us until we have abandoned our delusions by means of the wisdom realizing emptiness, and meantime we can prevent it ripening by stopping the other five causes. #2 is the object – we need some pretext for our anger, great or small. Nothing is inherently irritating but if we’re not careful anything can set us off, especially if we are prone to anger through familiarity with it – and #5 is familiarity. Bad habits, #4, don’t help, such as generally doing lots of stealing, drugs, arguing, watching violent movies and so on. Which leaves us with # 3, distraction and being influenced by others, which really does seem to be a major factor in what is going on in the streets of England as we speak.
Our friendships have a powerful influence over us. Since we tend to imitate our friends, we need to associate with friends who admire spiritual training and who apply themselves to it with joy.
That is, of course, if we want to make spiritual progress as opposed to get off with as many stolen video games as we can cram into our stolen shopping carts, have a good laugh at others’ expense, and possibly end up behind bars. Compare the riots to people’s uplifting accounts of the friendships made at the recent NKT Summer Festival, for example!
Anyway, a sad but useful reminder that until we uproot the six causes of our delusions, no one is safe, not even on the usually calm suburban streets of Croydon or in our own minds.
We make up our own storyline as we go along. So we might as well make it a good one.
I just heard that our two $700 bicycles that I ride all the time have been stolen. The upstairs tenants left them unlocked in the front yard. (I’m property manager but away at the moment).
I know straightaway that these things happen all the time – that things appear and disappear, even every moment. The bikes appeared out of nowhere in the first place, someone generously gave them to us when they left the area.
Inappropriate attention v appropriate attention
But my initial response is nonetheless one of disappointment followed fast on its heels by its best friend annoyance. And I can easily increase both these states of mind if I want to, for example by dwelling on detailed memories of the red and blue bikes with their cute convenient little key holders, the perfect distance between the seat and the handlebars, the 21 gears, the way I could sail up and over the bridge…. and how that is now all gone!! And the greater the disappointed lather I work myself up into, the greater the annoyance at Irena and the other Russian tenants who’ve ruined my fun: “I never said they could use those bikes! What were they thinking?! How careless!! How can we get $1400 out of them?” And kicking myself too for good measure: “You idiot, why did you trust them with the shed key in the first place?”
The definition of delusion is:
“A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”
With the delusion of anger (including aversion, annoyance, irritation, resentment etc), we pay inappropriate attention by mentally exaggerating the seeming bad qualities of a person or object until we consider it undesirable and become antagonistic and averse, wanting to push it away or even harm it/destroy it.
There are so many ways in which inappropriate attention can run riot and take down our peace of mind! And within that inappropriate attention is a corresponding editing out of anything that inconveniently contradicts it e.g. the good qualities of Irena. Appropriate attention could be thoughts like: “This same Irena is looking after my feral cat Korska, who now apparently loves her and whom she even named, she empties all the smelly trash cans, she waters all my newly planted flowers, she spent ages trying her healing techniques on little Ralph… she’s actually a good person and probably feels bad about the bikes herself.” But annoyance doesn’t want to think about any of that stuff because it commits hari kiri if it does.
We choose what we focus on. And Irena only annoys me if I focus on her seeming bad qualities, not if I don’t.
We can find plenty of things to annoy us every day of our lives (and being currently in England, the land of the Daily Mail, reminds me how superbly daily tabloids can tap into our potential for whininess.) Alternatively we can choose to follow any number of positive lines of thought and deeper meanings, like those explained in Buddha’s teachings. For example, when something is stolen from us we can practice patience by remembering karma and impermanence, or what a downer attachment is and how great it is to live lightly, or compassion for those who have lost far more than a bicycle in the recent tornadoes in southern US, or the children in the horn of Africa who desperately need our attention, or how there is no point giving people a hard time when life is hard enough already, etc. I can even mentally give the bikes away so that the (quite possibly homeless) person who stole them doesn’t incur negative karma, advice I magnanimously gave to someone else just weeks ago 😉
After all, the bikes are gone whether I choose to get disappointed and annoyed or not, and so the disappointment and annoyance solve nothing.
I have this theory that if you’re going to get your perspective back sooner or later anyway, you may as well skip out the annoying bit in the middle. We can hold onto certain things for years (our anger turning into the even worse delusion of resentment) due to stuck-record inappropriate attention, but don’t you find that we usually get bored of our negative thoughts sooner or later and end up dropping them? For example, what were you annoyed about this time last month, or last year? Can you even remember? And will the stealing of the bikes be any more than an anecdote in a matter of months, weeks, or even days?
There were two kids at Madhyamaka Centre long ago, brothers Edmund and Tamlin, who’d play with a third kid called Stephen, who was a bit of a handful. One day they fell out very badly with him and didn’t want to talk to him ever again.
They tell me this, so I test out my theory on them: “Have you ever liked Stephen in the past, like yesterday for example did you play with him?” They consider this for a moment, then: “Yeah”. “Can you see a time when you might like to play with him again in the future, for example if he lets you use his space cowboy gun?” Pause while they think about this. “Errr, yeah, probably.” “How about then just saving time and energy by liking him now as you’re going to end up liking him again anyway?”
They both got it. They nodded their heads and laughed, and the three of them were playing again that very afternoon.
So, who is Irena? — the warm smiling woman who risks life and limb to stroke Korska or the woman chatting carelessly to her friends while she goes inside leaving our $700 bikes unattended? Do I waste mental energy and time itemizing her faults or do I recall how much easier she made my life by taking on my property manager responsibilities? Stand up the real Irena! But the fact is she cannot because nothing and no one exists independent of mind. Can you point to a world outside of your experience of the world? Where is it? And the world we experience is the world we are focusing on.
Thinking differently is not that hard once we decide to do it. You might be objecting: “But I can’t help feeling disappointed and annoyed when things don’t go my way!” But I reckon you can. If I can, you can. We all can. Start with small annoyances and work your way up. If you want to do it, there are a gazillion enjoyable ways to do it.
Well, dear reader, guess what? I have just heard that it was their own bikes that the Russians left in the front yard, not ours, thus rendering all those mental acrobatics unnecessary. But I’m putting up this article anyway because they still happened and so I can now use this article to also underscore another point: Many of our objects of disappointment, anger and annoyance, major or minor, do not have even the slightest basis of imputation to begin with e.g. imagined slights, fear of future unlikely events, etc, yet the deluded thought processes are the same.