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“Why control the mind?”, The Speaking Tree

Oct 05 2019

“Why control the mind?”, The Speaking Tree

This article was published in The Speaking Tree, here.

The idea is not to control or subdue the mind with a whip. The mind simply needs to be trained to work for us rather than against us. The mind is a beautiful tool, organ and muscle in many ways, and what it needs is to be understood and trained. I avoid words that imply a struggle or a fight, because ultimately, it’s all taking place within ourselves, and we don’t want one part of us trying to suppress or vanquish another part. All parts of us need compassion and love, and to be seen.

When we talk about controlling the mind, it’s not about using a whip, or holding it in a vice-like grip. The goal is to train it to be a great tool in our hands rather than the master of the show. For example, we may say that we don’t want our minds to be impacted by the outside world. Yet, taking cues from the world around us is what helps to keep us alive. For example, we step off the pavement to cross the street when suddenly, out of nowhere, a speeding car comes our way. If we’ve quietened our mind so completely that it’s not bothered by any external stimuli, we’ll just walk right on to the path of the speeding car.

What we’re looking to do is train, rather than subdue.

Let it pick up cues from the external world, whether through smell, sight or sound. The world has glorious experiences to offer us — the fragrance of flowers, the ability to look into the eyes of someone we love, to behold a sunset, to listen to music and allow it to change the frequency of our bodies, and so on. We are surrounded by beautiful things. But we don’t want to be a slave to those stimuli, and that’s the issue.

Normally, we simply react. Our lives become a series of stimuli and responses, akin to Pavlov’s dogs. But that is not the highest calling of our lives or the highest use of our minds. That’s why the mind must be trained. Let’s say you’re walking down a street. You’ll see restaurants, cafes, other people, an ATM machine, maybe a music store. The streets are filled with innumerable stimuli — a barrage of visual and auditory stimuli. No one can actually absorb all of it. We’re seeing the world through a filter of our personal minds and attention. Imagine you’re walking down that street starving — you’ve just got off work, haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast and it’s seven o’- clock in the evening. What are you going to notice? The music store? No, of course not. You’re going to notice the eateries. Pizza, or Chinese food, or maybe a sandwich vendor. So that’s what you’re going to notice. Restaurants. If you aren’t hungry but are driven by sensual desires, you’ll notice attractive people on the street.

What we see is actually determined by the mind. If a hundred people walk down the same street, they will experience it in a hundred different ways. It’s not that they invent their experiences. They are all equally justified in their perceptions. One person will notice the pizza place; another who may have just got a cast of plaster off her leg will keep her eyes on the ground to make sure she doesn’t fall.

So training the mind is having control over what gets absorbed. That’s what meditation gives us. It is a practice, a tool to help us master the mind. When we focus on the breath, what does that do? It takes our awareness from a thousand places and brings it to one. It doesn’t have to be the breath; it could be a mantra. It could be a candle flame; it could be awareness in general. There are entire schools of meditation based purely on the practice of awareness. We teach that if you sense an itch, bring the mind back to the breath, but there are schools of meditation that say if it itches, allow the awareness to be with the itch and name the sensation ‘itching, itching, itching’. They’re all just different ways, different mechanisms, to take the mind from jumping aimlessly in a thousand places and make it sit in one place. The various techniques available help us get a little bit more familiar with it, befriend it and train it. ‘Ah, you were in a thousand places, now you’re in one, whether it’s my breath, whether it’s my mantra, whether it’s my itching foot, you’re in one place.’

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