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Training the Untrained Mind
An Excerpt from The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton
Mind training is essential to Buddhism. In essence, it is the path the Buddha advocated in his Fourth Noble Truth. And yet, as I’ve said, mind training is not necessarily a religious or spiritual practice. It does not rest on accepting certain religious beliefs or adopting particular terminology. It can be used successfully as an entirely secular practice, or it can be incorporated as a deliberate spiritual practice within any religion, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or something else. You can be a businessperson, schoolteacher, or a stay-at-home mom or dad and still practice mind training. Naturally, the ideas behind mind training, or the explanations of mind the Buddha presented in his first three Noble Truths, are equally essential no matter our place in life. Training and theory go hand in hand. So, as you read the rest of the book, keep practicing the mind training methods this chapter describes, and as you practice, keep reading to steadily improve your understanding and success.
As we begin, I want to share a wonderful and amusing historical anecdote that captures what the practice is all about and how transformative it can be. From the seventh century, Buddhism flourished in Tibet, but in the ninth century, it declined as a result of a ruthless Tibetan king who aimed to destroy Buddhism in his country. Then, in the early eleventh century, Tibetan Buddhism began a regeneration. This was marked by increased travel between Tibet and India, as key Tibetans traveled to India for instruction, and many Indian masters were invited to Tibet. Foremost of these Indian masters was Lama Atisha, a well-known scholar and practitioner who was one of India’s principal teachers of mind training. Lama Atisha was invited personally by the current king to spearhead the reestablishing of Tibet’s rich Buddhist cultural and religious tradition. Initially, Atisha committed to staying in Tibet for three years, but he was so well-loved by Tibetans that he remained for a total of twelve years, finally passing away in Tibet.
One reason for Atisha’s long initial commitment was because travel from India to Tibet was not easy. You had to negotiate hot, disease-infested jungles, eighteen-thousand-foot Himalayan passes, and inhospitable tribes and bandits. The trip took months to prepare and months to complete, involving dangers and hardships we can barely imagine today. Among the party traveling to Tibet was Atisha’s personal cook, who was known as a very difficult person to get along with. And indeed, the Tibetans found him rude, crass, and unfriendly. But even worse, the cook’s terrible behavior did not merely extend to the Tibetans but even to Atisha himself. The Tibetans just could not understand why Lama Atisha would keep such an unsavory person as his cook. Wasn’t travel hard enough?
However, Atisha never showed any sense of intolerance, anger, or embarrassment over his cook’s behavior. Then as now, traveling can sometimes bring out the worst in people, and the Tibetans were impressed that Atisha showed only affection for the cook. Finally, though, they couldn’t stand it, and they asked Atisha why he did not fire the man and send him back to India. Lama Atisha replied, “He is not just my cook; he is my teacher of patience.”
With that one simple statement, Lama Atisha demonstrated to the Tibetans and to us the entire concept of transforming one’s inner experience through mind training.
Next: how to embrace our problems
Embracing Our Problems
It would be a mistake to interpret Lama Atisha’s remark as a glib attempt at humor. He was not making the best of a bad situation. Atisha was speaking the truth: he regarded the cook as his teacher, and he deliberately chose to keep this difficult man close to him. Amazingly, Lama Atisha chose to make his life harder than it needed to be.
This exemplifies the first aspect of mind training. Rather than being another way to avoid or escape problems, mind training freely embraces problems. Not only that, as Lama Atisha indicated, we must actively seek and engage our problems, rather than wait for them. Only in this way can we learn how to avoid suffering. In his case, Lama Atisha’s “problem” wasn’t the cook; it was his own feelings of anger or frustration stimulated by the cook’s behavior. In his response to his Tibetan traveling companions, Atisha did not deny that the cook was insufferable. Instead, he was indicating the primary thrust of mind training: it is a method of handling any emotion that disturbs us so that we retain our balance and sense of inner peace.
There are numerous techniques to help us do this, but they revolve around a few basic principles: training our mind not to be “attached to” or “influenced by” our emotions, desires, or perceptions, and learning to transform negative emotions into their positive counterparts. In Lama Atisha’s case, through his cook, he was practicing replacing anger with patience.
An important distinction with mind training is that it is not “reframing” or just a faith-based feel-good trick. Therapists, for ex-ample, use reframing as a common technique in therapeutic practice, and sometimes it can be quite helpful for the client. Looking on the bright side, seeing the glass as half full, identifying the beneficial lessons in an otherwise hurtful relationship: This can be a good, positive approach. But this is not mind training, and “reframing” has limited long-term usefulness. Oftentimes, reframing can feel contrived. Someone, some other, higher authority or code of belief, tells us how to feel, and so we try, even if we lack real conviction. Reframing can sometimes be illogical; it denies the truth of one’s experience. We may be asked to imagine that a person who deliberately hurt us didn’t really mean to hurt us. In mind training, the intentions and motivations of others, although relevant, are not the primary focus. We are concerned with our point of view and its accompanying response.
Similarly, when a terrible accident occurs, we are sometimes asked to see it as “God’s will” or “punishment for our sins” or the workings of “karma.” Not only does this fail to explain events, but it overlooks the real problem: how we should deal with our feelings of grief, rage, and disbelief. I consider it “reframing” when we are asked to take the goodness of the universe on faith. Don’t get me wrong: faith is important. Indeed, the reasons for events often escape human understanding, and the world is unpredictable. Ultimately, these difficult, existential truths are what mind training helps us to cope with. Ultimately, in Buddhism, mind training is a spiritual practice in the sense that its goal is to awaken our inner potential.
However, that is not where the beginner starts. Instead, we start by accepting the counterintuitive notion that we must use our problems to solve our problems. Problems provide the resistance that helps us exercise our minds. When problems appear, instead of avoiding them, we confront, understand, and eliminate all of those unhelpful emotions and thoughts that arise because of them and that have run our life since the day we were born. In truth, we are merely “retraining” the mind. Just the idea that we can change and transform our everyday existence is quite encouraging by itself. It is in this way that, in training our mind, we become our own therapist and are, by my definition, spiritual practitioners. When we work with transforming our mind at more advanced levels, we actually look forward to confronting our problems, just like Lama Atisha. Why? Because we understand that the problematic conditions of the world will never go away. It is simply the nature of life. All we can do is get better at handling them. We understand that even if we are calm and happy today, something will happen tomorrow to challenge us and throw us off. Perhaps it will be an unexpected bill, or a medical problem, or a painful buried memory lying under the surface of our conscious mind that arises at the drop of a hat…like a rear-end collision that comes out of nowhere while we sit at a red light. The rather unconventional, “in your face” Buddhist approach of mind training is to courageously confront all of our dirty little secrets and difficult emotions whenever they come up until we’ve changed the nature of our relationship with them. Then, instead of being bossed around by our worst tendencies and disturbed emotions, we become the boss of our own mind.
Karuna Cayton, psychotherapist and author of The Misleading Mind, spent twelve years working with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and studying with Buddhist masters. His Karuna Group practice applies Buddhist psychology to individual and organizational clients. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.thekarunagroup.com.
Excerpted from the book The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them © 2012 by Karuna Cayton. Printed with permission from New World Library.
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