A thought arises and we grab it. We generate another thought in response to this one, perhaps beautifying our thought in pursuit of something we desire, or perhaps changing the subject in an effort to fend off an unwanted experience.
And so on and on, one tumbling thought after another, all stimulated by the “needs” of our afflicting emotions. We want to attract that thing we’re thinking about and push that other thing away. All those internal conversations that you have going on, oh, every now and then. Endless problem solving, as you try to figure out how you can get that promotion, push that difficult person out of your way, get someone like you back, etc., etc., etc.it is don’t leave it alone though. It is not quiet stable, [how I translate shamatha meditation]. We’re subscribing to samsara every moment, involved in the movie, jumping in and playing the lead role in it, trying to produce it, direct it, rescript it and recast it as it goes. . We could stop at any frame, but we don’t even notice that there are separate frames, or even that it’s a movie.
Let’s look at this chain reaction in slow motion. You sit there meditating, breathing and watching peacefully. The thought of your manager at work appears. Yesterday she told you that she didn’t like your smart idea. You see his face in your mind. You hear his dismissive tone. Now is the time when you can just be aware of that thought and let it go. But in a less than conscious moment, with frustration (the little brother of anger and aversion) in your heart, you move on to the next link in the chain reaction. You think about how you would respond to her, trying different phrases and imagining how she might react. Then you decide that maybe it would be better to go overhead and talk to her manager or to get your colleagues to join you to put forward your idea. The more you shoot these scenarios, the more restless and less peaceful you feel.
You see how it goes: now you’ve got a whole movie going, and you’re the star. And there is nothing quiet or stable about this production.
And maybe at some point in your exalted restlessness you remember, “Oh, yeah, I was meditating.”
The drama didn’t start with the image and words of your manager, in fact, but with your after that thought. And at that point you went from peace to samsara. This is how we register for samsara every minute, every day.
We often say, “You’ve made me crazy. Well, my lama, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, was sent to prison by the Chinese at the age of 13 to be a religious leader. He probably wanted to tell the guards this when he first arrived in prison. But then he learned that, whatever the guards did or whatever situation he found himself in, his own reaction was something else entirely. This decoupling of external events from our reactions to them is the key to our search for peace. If we depend on whether all is well in our outside world, it’s going to be a long wait (and by long, I mean infinite), so we will never find happiness. Gaining the ability to respond the way we want is the only way I can imagine we could be happy all the time. It is also the path to true freedom.
If we don’t have a personal interest (or ego in) what happens when faces or words appear, then they disappear very quickly, without any drama. In Vajrayana we sometimes speak of a thief coming into an empty house. There is no point in staying. So if we become a serene observer – not numb but simply without indulging in this “personal stake” – those thoughts, appearances, even feelings can come and go in an endless stream, and we have not lost our seat. Under these circumstances, the flow of thoughts will gradually slow down.
We can only experience the true nature of our mind, see the depths, after the waters have calmed down.
Even at the start of shamatha practice, I could feel a little stillness in the pause between breaths. I discovered that I would lengthen this break a little, to savor this beautiful stillness. You can try it yourself, without pushing or putting in a lot of effort. Just a little break.
In the gap between two thoughts,
Thoughtless awakening is constantly happening.
Extract of Wisdom & Compassion: Begin with Yourself, second part by Lama Tsomo Ancient wisdom for our time series. This new version, released on September 13, 2021, and the first part, Why bother?, revisit Lama Tsomo’s first book, Why is the Dalai Lama always smiling?, by transforming the text into smaller notebooks that are easier for meditation practitioners to integrate into their daily teaching and personal practices.
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