A thought arises and we seize it. We generate another thought in response to that one, perhaps embellishing our thought in pursuit of something we desire, or perhaps changing the subject in order to push away an unwanted experience.
And so on and so forth, one tumbling thought after another, all spurred on by the “needs” of our afflictive emotions. We want to attract that thing we are thinking about and repel that other thing. All those internal conversations that you have going on, oh, once in a while. Endless problem solving as you try to figure out how you can get that promotion, get that difficult person out of your way, get someone like you back, etc., etc., etc.it is don’t leave well enough alone. It’s not the steady calm, [how I translate shamatha meditation]. We are signing up to samsara every moment, involved in the film, jumping into it and playing in it, trying to produce it, direct it, rewrite it and recast it as we go. 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 watch this chain reaction in slow motion. You are sitting there, meditating, breathing and watching peacefully. The thought of your manager at work pops up. Yesterday she told you she didn’t like your clever 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 what you would say to her, trying different phrases and imagining how she might respond. Then you decide it might be best to go over his head and talk to his manager or for your colleagues to join you in presenting your idea. The more you spin these scenarios, the more restless and less peaceful you feel.
You see how it goes: now you have a whole movie going and you are the star. And there is nothing quiet or stable about this production.
And maybe at some point in your heightened restlessness, you remember, “Oh, yeah, I was meditating.”
The drama started not with your manager’s image and words, actually, but with your next after this 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 drove me crazy. Well, my lama, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, was sent to prison by the Chinese at the age of 13 for being a religious leader. He probably wanted to tell the guards that when he got to jail. But then he learned that no matter what the guards did or what situation he was in, his own reaction was something else entirely. This decoupling of external events from our reactions to them is key to our search for peace. If we depend on everything being fine in our outer world, it’s going to be a long wait (and by long, I mean infinite), so we will never find happiness. Acquiring the ability to react as we wish is the only way I can imagine we can be happy all the time. It is also the path to true freedom.
If we have no self-interest (or ego on) what happens when faces or words appear, then they disappear very quickly, without any drama. In the Vajrayana we sometimes speak of a thief coming to an empty house. It’s no use staying. So if we become an unbiased observer – not numb but simply without indulging in this “personal stake” – these thoughts, appearances, even feelings can come and go in an endless stream, and we haven’t lost our seat. . Under these circumstances, gradually, the flow of thoughts will naturally slow down.
We can only experience the true nature of our mind, see to the depths, after the waters have subsided.
Even in the early stages of shamatha practice, I could feel a bit of stillness in the pause between breaths. I discovered that I would prolong this pause a little, to savor this beautiful immobility. You can try this yourself, without pushing or straining. Just a little break.
In the gap between two thoughts,
Thoughtless enlightenment happens all the time.
Extract of Wisdom and compassion: start with yourselfsecond part of Lama Tsomo Ancient wisdom for our time series. This new version, released on September 13, 2021, and the first part, Why bother?revisits Lama Tsomo’s first book, Why does the Dalai Lama always smile?by turning the text into smaller workbooks that are easier for meditation practitioners to integrate into their daily teaching and personal practices.