Training the mind is a necessity because, as I have mentioned before, the mind makes a poor master but a great servant. We are training the mind so it doesn’t wander all over the place, and so we can focus on what really matters.
Everything thrives on attention. With attention we can uncover deep, habitual patterns in the mind and body, and by bringing everything into the light of consciousness, we can examine and understand them. Without this training we get caught in our fears, delusion, and greed, an endless, repetitive loop, which is also called the wheel of suffering, or samsara.
By training the mind, we not only discover much about ourselves, but also find that we can make conscious what usually is on automatic pilot.
It is said that every human being will be given 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows during their lifetime. No amount of practice or magic pill will alter that amount. We all experience some joy and some suffering. The problem is when we create more suffering than is necessary.
Over time, our mindfulness practice creates that pause, the moment where we get to examine our reaction and choose how to proceed.
This is the promise and power of the practice.
I took to vipassana like a fish takes to water. Up until then I had been trained to focus the mind by using a mantra. And while this is a beautiful practice and I still use it at times, it didn’t work for me as a basic training. I always felt like I was covering something up by putting a nice, exotic mantra on top. The whole exercise felt more like an escape from my reality, which didn’t feel right to me. With vipassana practice, any presentation of the body/mind becomes the sacred mantra. We patiently, and with great interest, look at whatever occupies our heart and mind. I loved giving myself this kind of careful attention and respect, because I have always believed that the answer lies within.
Mindfulness is a loving and non-judging awareness. We soon realize that most of the times we react to what is happening in three different ways:
- When we like what is happening we instinctively try to get more. This is called grasping, or, in its basic form, greed.
- When we don’t like what is happening, we push it away immediately. This is called aversion.
- When our experience is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, we simply ignore it. This is called delusion.
These are the typical automatic responses of an untrained mind to experiences we have. If we look at the state of affairs in the world, we see that these three types of reactions are huge forces operating everywhere, among all peoples.Not everything that seems unpleasant is bad for us, and not everything that is pleasant turns out to be good.
I like to use the example of ice cream. For most people eating ice cream is an intensely pleasurable experience. If we are on automatic pilot, we might eat the entire pint of ice cream. It tastes good, but later we will probably regret it. If we eat with awareness, not only do we actually enjoy each spoon, but we also get to stop before it’s too much.
Mindfulness is like a wrench thrown into the automatic response of grasping. And the benefit is that mindfulness actually turns greed and grasping into gratitude instead.
With unpleasant experiences we can use the example of "swallowing the bitter pill." We all know we have to take it sometimes in order to get well again. Even though we want to push away the bitter remedy, we take it, knowing it is for our own good.
Mindfulness is like a wrench thrown into the automatic response of aversion. The benefit is that mindfulness turns aversion into compassion.
When our experience is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, we tend to ignore it and so miss out on many beautiful moments. Many of us are addicted to drama, and if we don’t feel something intensely, we think it is not valid. When we learn to rest in the quiet moments without the intensity we can once again appreciate contentment. The benefit is that mindfulness turns delusion into contentment and spaciousness.