Taming the Mind

“Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.”

–The Dhammapada

Meditation is often misunderstood as entering into a kind of hypnotic trance or a blanking-out of the mind.  It’s actually just the opposite: a deliberate and intentional paying attention to whatever we are experiencing right now.  It’s an opening-up and awakening rather than a closing-off or shutting-down.

We do it sitting motionlessly in a non-stimulating environment to simplify our field of attention.  If we went rushing about in a stimulus-rich environment we couldn’t develop and cultivate intimate attention.  Too much would be happening too fast.  Meditation is a slow walk down a country road rather than a fast drive down a superhighway.  We can take our time to notice things.  We can begin to discover what kind of listening and being is possible in any given moment.

As you sit down to meditate, the first things you may notice are sensations, sounds, and  thoughts.

Thoughts like:

”Am I doing this right?  What is it I’m supposed to be doing?  This is boring!  I can’t believe I’m going to have to sit here for a full 30 minutes!  Uh, oh!  I don’t like the position I’m in.  I’d like to change to a different posture.  There’s an itch!  I sure want to scratch it, but the directions are I’m not supposed to move.  But who will notice if I move?  These are dumb directions.  I can’t stand this itch for the whole rest of the time! Uh, oh!  My ears are beginning to ring.  I wonder why?  Uh, oh!  My leg is going to sleep. Will I get gangrene if I don’t move?  Is the thirty minutes up yet?  Maybe I didn’t set the timer right.  Uh, oh!  Someone outside is blasting a boom box.  How on earth can I meditate with that infernal racket?”

These thoughts generate and maintain a series of corresponding emotional states: irritation, boredom, frustration, worry, and so on.

All of these thoughts and their ensuing emotional states are mental objects we can attend to, just as we can attend to the itch on our face, the sound of the boom box, or the feel of our breath.

We pay attention to it with the light, nonjudgmental attention known as mindfulness.

When we are mindful of mental phenomena we are aware of them but not ensnared by them.

When the thought  <I can’t stand this itch> occurs without mindfulness we assume the thought is reality.   As a result, we can’t stand the itch; we end up scratching instead of observing, reacting without reflecting.

On the other hand, if we’re mindful of the thought <I can’t stand this itch>, it’s just a thought, neither true nor untrue; just an object of observation itself.  It doesn’t lead to action; we just sit and pay attention.  Over time we discover the itch doesn’t last forever; it goes away on its own accord.

Why is it so important to learn <I can’t stand this itch> is just a thought?

Because there are a great many just like it that cause harm to ourselves and others.

Thoughts like:

”I’ll go crazy if I don’t have a drink of alcohol right now.”

”That chocolate cake looks so good.  I can’t resist it, even though I’m supposed to be on a diet.”

”I can’t stand being lonely!  I need a relationship right now, even if it isn’t a good one.”

”I can’t hold this anger in forever.  I need to explode.”


Cravings and impulses are transient mind states that pass on their own if we do nothing to satisfy them.

It can be particularly useful to pay attention to the moment in your meditation when you have the desire to leave off.  Maybe you set the timer for 30 minutes, and somewhere 15 minutes into your meditation you experience an urge to cut it short.  Usually there’s some unpleasant mind state occurring at that moment: boredom, frustration, restlessness, discomfort.  When this occurs, it’s useful to focus your meditative attention on this unpleasant mind state and identify the qualities of the mind state and the thoughts that are generating and maintaining it.  Often they are thoughts related to your desires for how your meditation ought to be instead of how it actually is.  If you can let go of attachment to these desires and invest new interest in how the moment actually is, a valuable lesson can be learned.  This is how meditation teaches us to unhook from unskillful attachment in our daily lives.

It’s also useful to explore what’s happening at the moment before you lose focus on the present moment.  Often there’s some very subtle mind state that makes staying with the present moment uninteresting or unpleasant, and makes going with thoughts and reveries more interesting and enticing.  As we deepen our meditation practice, we become more skillful in identifying these subtle mental states and not allowing them to control us.

Learning to be mindful of mental states that lead to harmful behavior and the thoughts that generate and maintain them is a first step towards liberation.  Through mindfulness and the application of skillful means we learn to tame our minds and come into full possession of ourselves.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

–The Dhammapada