When I was a young(er) man my main character was one driven by depression. I was an unhappy kid. Home was oppressive, and the alternative was to ‘go out’. Having lots of friends, but none close, I’d do the rounds, finding different groups of people to hang out with each night. But what I really wanted was to be alone.
I would go down to the local river, where I knew pretty much every bush, each dip of every stream. A place to be alone! But when I got there, I’d be too restless. I’d look for a fantasy to dive into. I would have to keep moving. Some time later I read about Barry Crump (if you don’t know who that is, you don’t need to!) who was told he knew nothing about literature, because was too uneducated. So he pulled all the classics out of the library, drove his van into the desert, and read them all.
This appealed and I tried to do the same, but it doesn’t really work in a Mini in Manchester. Again, I longed to be alone, but did not know how to.
Later I read some Ajahn Chah and he described a dog with mange, that runs from place to place, but always itches. This really hit home. All this time, it was not lack of a suitable surrounding that stopped me finding somewhere to be alone, but the mind. Buddhism says you can train the mind. Then the mind will be less like a monkey, and more like a bull which, despite it’s bulk can be led by the ring in its nose.
To train the mind, you first need to know it. In fact, in Vipassana, you really don’t need to train the mind at all, because once you know it, then it will already be trained. The effort is in observation. There’s no need to let the ego come along and decide how to fix everything. Just to know what is going on is enough. You will know naturally what needs to be done after that.
The best way I was taught of knowing the mind, is to ask the question: What is my state of mind right now?
Then you just stop and look.
It is well worth training yourself to ask the question to yourself verbally. Don’t just figure you understand the practise, and leave it there, as I did for many years. All the teachings in Buddhism are tools with which you work on yourself. There are no philosophies that will enlighten you, but there are lots of reflective tools which if you use them in a practical way, will bring about a change that your ‘self’ or ego could never have thought of.
If you ask the question a lot, and are satisfied with just that much – just seeing, then your state of mind becomes more clear to you all the time. And often you find that the mind is not how you thought it was. One time I was struggling with sleepiness, and I asked the question, what is my actual state of mind? And then I knew, the state of mind was one of struggling to attain something, and not really of sleepiness at all.
This practise starts to break down your preceonceptions, because when you thought you were annoyed, you find you were really quite ok. When you believe that you want to do something, you find the mind is in a state of not really being so enthusiastic.
But again, talking about the results of this practise, distract from the actual doing of it. Sooner or later you have to stop figuring stuff out. Stop looking for inspiration or force-fitting teachings you have heard on to your own experience, and just do it.
There isn’t any downside to getting to know your own state of mind better.
For myself, now I know how to be alone or with other people, without my mind ruining it for me.
Note: citta can be understood as ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ or even ‘heart’
The way the Buddha put it is as usual quite sharp and to the point:
And how does a monk remain focused on the mind in the mind? There is the case where a monk, when the mind has passion, discerns that the mind has passion. When the mind is without passion, he discerns that the mind is without passion. When the mind has aversion, he discerns that the mind has aversion. When the mind is without aversion, he discerns that the mind is without aversion. When the mind has delusion, he discerns that the mind has delusion. When the mind is without delusion, he discerns that the mind is without delusion.
When the mind is constricted, he discerns that the mind is constricted. When the mind is scattered, he discerns that the mind is scattered. When the mind is enlarged, he discerns that the mind is enlarged. When the mind is not enlarged, he discerns that the mind is not enlarged. When the mind is surpassed, he discerns that the mind is surpassed. When the mind is unsurpassed, he discerns that the mind is unsurpassed. When the mind is concentrated, he discerns that the mind is concentrated. When the mind is not concentrated, he discerns that the mind is not concentrated. When the mind is released, he discerns that the mind is released. When the mind is not released, he discerns that the mind is not released.
In this way he remains focused internally on the mind in the mind, or externally on the mind in the mind or both internally & externally on the mind in the mind. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of arising with regard to the mind, on the phenomenon of vanishing with regard to the mind, or on the phenomenon arising and vanishing with regard to the mind. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a mind‘ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & mindfulness. And he remains independent, not clinging to anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the mind in the mind.
Jeff Oliver will be leading a one day workshop on this topic on Sunday 18th August. Book yourself in here.