Edited Dharma talk given by Ani Tenzin Palmo
Cambridge Zen Center, Cambridge, U.S.A., 1st June, 1997

Our Untamed Mind is Causing us Misery

So the Buddhadharma says that all things are mind. What it means by this is not that there is no external reality, but that we cannot know that external reality except through our minds. Even our senses - our eyes, our nose, our ears, our taste, and our touch - are conditioned by our human body. Everything that we see is only how it is brought into us through our senses and then interpreted to us by our minds. Beyond that we cannot know anything. Even modem physics says that everything that appears so extremely solid is really mostly space with just a few little atoms whirling around in it. In just one cell, the distance between the nucleus and the rest of the neutrons and electrons moving around is the same as the distance between the planets and the stars – a vast amount of space with very, very little in it. Yet to us things are very solid. If I hit somebody with something, that person would certainly feel it. So it's not that it's all our illusion on that level. Nevertheless, how something is and how it appears to us are two different things. Therefore we should learn not to take things so concretely.

We tend to think everything is so real. The people that we meet also seem so real. We ourselves are so real, and along with that, our thoughts and our emotions are so real. They seem so solid. So when we think something, when we have an idea, we absolutely believe it. We think that it is really true because it's what we believe. It doesn't matter that everyone else is telling us we’re crazy. I know because this is my thought. The same is so with our emotions. We believe so deeply in our happiness, our sorrows, our anger, our greed, our jealousies, and our joys. We think they are really true. When we're down, we're down, and we're going to be down forever. When we're up, we're up and that's it - we're never coming down again. We're completely encased in our thoughts and our emotions. It's as though there's no distance, as though we're completely suffocated. It's like being in the middle of a big ocean and the waves rolling over us are our emotions, our thoughts and our beliefs. And there's no separation. This is me. That's why people are suffering. Even when we remember something that happened when we were children and caused us a lot of distress, we totally identify with it - even to the present day. We cannot drop it. We think this is me, this is who I am. And it causes us so much grief. Presumably many of you have realized this and that is why you are all sitting here now because we realize that the mind, untamed and untrained, is causing at least 98 percent of our misery. We’ll give a little two percent to the external environment but if our minds were really together, we would be able to deal with that too.

How much Attention do we Give our Minds?

When we look at our mind, what do we have? Usually it's utter chaos. We all sit here looking very much like a lot of Arahats and Bodhisattvas but I wonder, if we had a microphone attached and everybody could hear through a loudspeaker what we were thinking, wouldn't it be a revelation? And wouldn't we have an incentive to train our minds?

So the problem is that we give so much time and attention in our culture to taking care of our bodies, to training them, to making sure we're very healthy and that we eat the right kinds of food and keep ourselves clean and decently dressed. Of course, in itself it’s important but how much attention do we give to the mind? How much exercise do we do for the mind? How much cleansing? Do we adorn the mind with beautiful thoughts? If we could open up our mind, would it look like a beautiful palace or temple, or would it look like a junk heap? Only each one of us can know how it is. And if we wouldn't want to live in a garbage site, we should realize that as long as our minds are untrained, that is exactly where we are living because the closest thing we have, the only place where we can actually live, is within our mind. That's our home. It doesn't matter if you're living here in Cambridge or if you go to India or Korea or Japan or wherever. It doesn't matter what external environment you have, the one thing you take with you is your mind. How much attention do we give to that?

Integrate Practice into our Daily Lives

So, then, you come here and you sit. And while you are sitting you are able to see what is going on inside. Most people don't even have a clue what is going on. They’ve never even asked. So already you have a wonderful advantage in that you at least have the desire to look inside, because that's the last place most people would want to look. So I congratulate you on that. However, as I'm sure you're all very aware, merely coming together every day to sit is not enough. It's not enough because the Buddhist path is a path of transformation. It's about taking our untamed, unenlightened minds and turning them into our genuine Buddha nature. There are many other things that need to be done in order to create this inner transformation. Now, there are many, many things one could say about this but I’ll limit myself to two main points. One is that it is essential to have a practice that completely integrates one's sitting and one's everyday life.

One of the things which is extremely admirable about the Zen tradition – one among many things - is that it has this appreciation that everyday life is practice. This is so important, to realize that every single action we do throughout the day, if done in a state of presence, of really being totally with the action in the moment, being completely aware in a non-conceptual presence, is the essence of the practice. Therefore, whatever one is doing, if one does it with this non-conceptual awareness, it is the same as if one is sitting in meditation.

Be Aware of the Presence of our Minds

The essence of the practice is to develop a mind which is totally present, totally vast, spacious and conscious, instead of our ordinary, untrained mind, which is just chatter, chatter, chatter. Unless you are really very well trained, normally what happens is that when you are doing one thing you are thinking about a hundred other things. The one thing you are usually not thinking about is what you are really doing. This is why people always have this sense of frustration about the state that they can get into while they're sitting and then their everyday life. Sometimes the deeper the practice of sitting, the further one seems to be from the practice of our everyday consciousness. The only way to link the two is by carrying, as much as possible, that sense of presence into everything we do.

This kind of presence does not need to be very tight and narrow. There are times when our attention needs to be one-pointed. When one is driving, for example, one has to concentrate to a certain extent on what one is doing. When one is doing anything very, very precise - for example, a surgeon who is operating - one needs to be very, very one-pointed. The surgeon does not need at the point of operating to have a very panoramic awareness. Nonetheless, for much of the time, it is important to know how to develop this very spacious mind - not a tight, hard kind of mind which at the end of the day would lead one to feel completely exhausted, but a mind which is very open but completely aware, completely poised and attentive. It looks very casual, very relaxed even, but it's very precise.

I think it was Suzuki Roshi who said that the way to control your cow is to give it a vast pasture You don’t have to put a rope on it and tether it with about two feet of space. Give it a wide pasture and why would it go? Likewise, if we try to keep the mind too tight it's going to rebel or get exhausted and stressed. But if we allow our mind to become very vast but we are nonetheless aware of what the mind is doing in any moment, then the mind becomes naturally relaxed and quiet. It quietens down, but we are present with what we are doing in the moment.

The example that comes to mind about this is the following. When I was living in India, I lived up in the Himalayas at about 12,0000 feet in a small cave. In the summertime, sometimes a shepherd would go by with his flocks. He would just go by, there was a meadow below the cave. One day a teenaged boy came up. He had obviously never been with the sheep before so he was terrified of losing even a single one, especially the goats, which were always running off. He was very, very nervous. He knew that if he lost any sheep he'd get a big beating when he got back, so he was keeping them tightly together in the flock. All day long, whenever I looked out, he was sending them over here and he was sending them over there, keeping them very tightly together, with the result that at the end of the day the sheep were extremely nervous. They hadn't really had anything to eat and the boy was completely exhausted. The next day the regular shepherd came back up. He was an old guy and he did what he always did which was to take the sheep down to the meadow, leave them alone, go and sit up on the little hillock, lie out there with his bottle of beer, and just watch them. So, of course, the sheep wandered about and there was plenty to eat, so they ate. Then, after a while, they just sat down. The shepherd spent the whole day just watching them, keeping an eye on them. At the end of the day he rounded them up and took them back down and everyone was happy.

Keep a Relaxed and Mindful Mind 

This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. If we try to keep our minds too rigid, too controlled, all that happens is that we get very stressed and uptight. I'm sure you've seen that happening. People try so hard to be perfect and good and not lose anything and keep their minds the way they're supposed to, but all that happens is that they end up with a kind of nervous condition in the body that the Tibetans call Rlung, where the prana in the body, the energy or Qi, goes completely crazy. It's because we try too hard, and all that happens is that we end up very nervous. Instead, what we should try to do is keep the mind very relaxed, very spacious. Not relaxed, spacious, half asleep and losing it, or just chattering away and loose, but a very spacious mind in which the central awareness is absolutely poised so that whatever is going on in the body, with the feeling, in the mind, or in the environment, we know. We’re not lost in our memories of what was happening yesterday or last year or when we were children. We're not lost in our thoughts and anticipations of what's going to happen next or tomorrow or next year. We're not commenting, we're not judging. We're not carrying on our usual fantasies and mental chatter. We are with what is happening in the moment, just with it, that is all.

Now, if our minds can sustain that presence then whatever happens we have the space to deal with it. Whatever comes into the mind, we recognize it, we accept it and we let it go. We don't hold onto it. We don't identify with it because, coming back to what I said before, our problem is that we try to identify. We identify with our memories, our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions. We think this is me, and therefore we suffer. We need to see that memories are just mental states, emotions are just states, feelings are just states, the thoughts that come into our minds are just mental states. They're like bubbles. They arise, they expand and they burst, to be replaced by other bubbles. This is not who we are.


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