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 more articles on meditation and technology coming up: Improving our focus and How to use the gaps in our day. I mention it here as it will then oblige me to finish them in a timely fashion without getting distracted, lol.

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 

 

 

The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

21291102_10155010326470847_424149716_n

With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

A vision of hope in troubled times

A guest article.

Extract: “It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering the Bodhisattva (“friend of the world”) ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.”

Do you think world peace is possible? We want your comments on this subject! And please share this article if you can.

It’s fair to say that we live in troubled times. Whether it is the growing divisions in society, the threat of global terrorism, global warming, or the potential for conflict (or indeed all-out war) in parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Korea, it’s clear we live in volatile times. While we may not be expressing it externally so much, it seems to me that many people are living with a sense of quiet hopelessness for the future of humanity and our planet.

planet earth 3Thankfully all is not lost. There is a way we can all emerge stronger and more resilient in spite of the times we live in. Many people have found that within the teachings and practices of Buddha – for example, in the practical, modern Buddhist approach of Kadampa Buddhism – we can find a universal vision of real hope for everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It also seems there has never been a time in the history of humanity when this vision of hope was more needed, at all levels of society.

Why? It starts with understanding the goal of Buddhism, which is the realization of world peace. Just as importantly, it offers methods to accomplish this vision. To explore how Buddhism offers very real and practical solutions for our troubled world, the key is to be clear about what is the biggest problem we have in the world today. It may surprise you to hear that it’s not the divisions in society, the growing threat of terrorism, or even global warming.

The biggest problem in the world today

The biggest problem in the world today is the current lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings. I say the “current” lack of wisdom and compassion because all is by no means lost, and this present situation can truly change. As I will explain below, we can all evolve our current levels of wisdom and compassion, and in this way realize this inspiring vision of hope, a peaceful and harmonious world.

At present, the external problems in our world today – on which we are focusing most of our energies — arise from this inner problem that we largely ignore, our universal lack of wisdom and compassion.

Due to lacking compassion we face many problems on a micro and macro level in society and in our world. Lacking compassion, and due to grasping tightly at what “I want” to be more important than what “you want”, we experience so much conflict and breakdowns in our relationships. Terrorism is the result of a fundamental lack of compassion for others. In this case, what I want or my world view is more important than your life, even if your life happens to be the life of an innocent child.

radiate loveEvery major world religion without exception advocates love and compassion at the very heart of its teachings and way of life. Yet much of the terrorism we see in the world today is carried out in the name of religion. Lacking compassion, we cannot tolerate and embrace the differences in others, whether those differences are based on politics, race, religion, or sexual orientation. A brief glance at the daily news stands testament to the fact that we have never lived in such divided and intolerant times. For too many people today, it seems that if you are not like me, I don’t like you, or indeed I hate you. Also, lacking compassion, we close our hearts and borders to our fellow humans who seek only to live in peace, free from the traumas of war.

Due to lacking wisdom, our elected politicians believe the way to solve potential regional conflicts is to follow a path of diplomacy until that appears to have failed. Then, history shows that the final solution of our leaders seems to be imposing world peace through the force of guns and bombs.

Due to lacking the wisdom that understands the true causes of happiness, the prevailing world view is that we can buy our way to happiness. This leads to the problems of a consumer society working too hard, spending too much, eating too much, drinking too much, and ending up paying for it all in rising debt levels and decreasing physical and mental health and well-being.

When our accumulated stuff does not bring us the happiness and contentment we seek, we discard it. This then ends up on ever-growing land fill sites that contribute to a polluted world and potential global environmental catastrophe.

In reality, as the well-known modern Buddhist teacher and author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, explains in many of his books:

Happiness is part of our mind that experiences peace of mind, it does not exist outside ourself.

Ironically, the cause of real peace and real happiness is, in essence, simply wisdom and compassion!

A note of caution: it is important that we direct our blame in the right direction, which is never toward other living beings. All too often people get angry at all the angry people they see in the world, which simply perpetuates the problem, never solving it.

Other people are never a valid object of judgment, yet always a valid object of compassion.

Everyone — whether they are painters or politicians — is simply working with their current levels of wisdom and compassion, which sadly at present can often be quite un-evolved. Unless people have consciously trained their minds to grow and strengthen their qualities of wisdom and compassion, it is unrealistic to expect anything better than what we see in our world today.

Everyone everywhere has the same potential

The solution is both simple and profound. As a starting point, as Geshe Kelsang puts it:

If everyone practiced cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

We have tried everything else — perhaps it is time we embrace a new way of solving the problems we experience in our own lives, society, and world. This is not a nice to have, rather an absolute necessity if we are to successfully navigate our way through these difficult times.

The changes in society and our world need to start with a change in our relationship with ourself. To begin with, we need to come to know through our own experience that we all have the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom already in our hearts.

Anne FrankIn truth there is natural and limitless peace and goodness that lies at the heart of humanity and indeed all living beings. Whilst at present this natural peace and goodness is obscured by our negativity and delusions, Buddhist meditation gives us proven methods to connect to and fully liberate this peace and goodness. And we can start right here and now.

How? Any small experience of peace, joy, or good hearted qualities such as love, compassion, and kindness is revealing the essence of who we are, and the potential for who we can all become. In Buddhism, we call this inner potential our “Buddha nature”, and the good news is that everyone has the same potential.

Therefore, the solution to the biggest problem we have in the world today — the lack of wisdom and compassion in the hearts of living beings — is to simply recognize, through our own experience, this universal truth of our own Buddha nature and then learn how to access and fully actualize this potential.

When hope becomes reality

How do we accomplish this? Instead of living from greed, aggression, and intolerance, we need a new vision of how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world.

To put it simply, we need to become a friend of the world. This in the Buddhist tradition is known as the “Bodhisattva” ideal. A Bodhisattva is someone who identifies deeply with their Buddha nature, and motivated by a universal compassion for all and guided by wisdom, views themselves as a friend of the world. On this basis, they dedicate their life to the goal of accomplishing world peace. World peace is when everyone in the world is truly at peace, happy, and free from suffering. This is also enlightenment.

The way to accomplish this is simple yet profound. As Gandhi put it ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Find real and lasting peace, freedom, and happiness within your own heart (enlightenment) and work to help everyone – without exception – to accomplish the same.world of friends1

In one of his earliest books, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso wrote:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in the West as well as in the East. ~ Meaningful to Behold

Although written nearly 40 years ago, for me this a compassionate message of real hope for our modern times and troubled world. If we are to solve the problems of our world and make it through these perilous times, people everywhere need to embrace and live at least some aspect of the Bodhisattva ideal. If we can create a shift in the global paradigm, and a lot of people can embrace this ideal even a little, we can change our world beyond recognition.

We shouldn’t see this as an impossible goal, and in fact this kind of change is not entirely new or unnatural to us. It is often in the periods of great darkness in the history of humanity that our Buddha nature seems to manifest as a force of light to oppose this dark, and some aspect of the Bodhisattva mind manifests. For example, the civil rights movement arose as a powerful and compassionate response to the inhumane segregation and repression of the rights of African-Americans. I also vividly recall the outpouring of compassion that arose from the images we saw on our TV’s of the terrible suffering during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s. This was the catalyst for the Live Aid concerts and the millions of dollars that were raised at that time, and the humanitarian projects it funded.

However, these positive shifts in humanity’s consciousness and the social movements that arise from these shifts all too often either dissipate or even sometimes turn from compassion to frustration and anger. We still have major racial divisions in the US and around the world, and we all too often turn off our TV screens at the latest global catastrophe or famine due to ‘compassion fatigue’, the result of the present limitations of our compassion and wisdom.

Towards an enlightened society

In my own experience, this is where the modern Buddhist approach can truly help. With its focus on integrating the principles of wisdom and compassion into all aspects of our daily life, and its universal applicability, everyone can learn what it means to live and grow from a truly peaceful, wise, and compassionate heart. This is the Bodhisattva’s way of life. If everyone could do this, one day we will realize this vision of a peaceful and harmonious world. World peace is simply the day when the world is at peace — this is an enlightened society. wings of wisdom and compassion

The practical way to realize this vision is to create a more enlightened society right here and now. It all starts with a social dialogue, openly considering and practically exploring the Bodhisattva ideal and way of life in all areas of society, not just in Buddhist Centers.

In this way we start a conversation about a better way for humanity and ultimately all living beings. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it offers proven meditations and practices for daily life that empower everyone in our society – regardless of your race, religion, or background – to at least begin to live the Bodhisattva’s way of life, right now!

When people in all areas of society — whether you are a father or a mother, a painter or a politician — try their best to live and grow from a genuinely peaceful mind and good heart of wisdom and compassion, we will begin moving towards a truly peaceful world, an enlightened world, and this vision of hope can one day be fully realized.

This guest article was written in response to my request at the end of this last article, A Buddhist way to world peace.

I am sincerely hoping that it will encourage more conversation around this subject, and not just on this blog but by you talking about compassion and wisdom as a viable answer to the world’s problems with the people around you, wherever you are.

I have met a number of people already finding ways to share these ideas at work and so on, changing people’s lives, and maybe you are one of them? And I am hoping we can collectively find more and more ways to spread these universally applicable solutions far and wide.