Break the Chains of Thought

When you study your thought process, says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, you not only see how it rules your life. In the breaks and gaps between thoughts, you can experience awakened mind on the spot.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
10 November 2020
Photo by Ingmar Hoogerhoud.

We are all citizens of the Information Age, when attention-consuming data is abundant and human attention itself is regarded as a scarce commodity. In the noise and chaos of this flood of information, how often do you notice where your mind is and what it’s doing? Your attention can be so absorbed in the outside world that, in a sense, your mind isn’t really your own. There’s no “me” at that time, because when you lose your awareness you lose yourself.

A good way to redirect your attention and reclaim your awareness is the practice of meditation, where the first thing you meet is your thoughts. If you didn’t know it before, once you sit on a meditation cushion and look at your mind, you immediately recognize that you are constantly thinking.

The starting point for discovering the true nature or reality of your mind is just this awareness of thoughts.

No matter what else is happening, our thought process is running, one thought after another. How do these thoughts appear? Are they random, chaotic, showing up out of the blue? If you pay attention over time, your understanding of the thought process becomes clearer and more precise. You’re able to see patterns in your thoughts and in your habitual reactions to those patterns.

The starting point for discovering the true nature or reality of your mind is just this awareness of thoughts. When you can see these patterns clearly, that’s the beginning of discovering the sanity and wakefulness within your own mind.

When we talk about this positive reality of our mind’s nature, there’s often some misunderstanding. You might imagine this nature as a glowing, shiny entity in a beautiful space, where everything is calm, peaceful, and perfect, untouched by this mad world.

But there is no such thing. Why? Because chaos and sanity coexist—they depend on each other. Without insanity, there is no sanity. So please don’t worry about your thoughts and the chaos of your mind. They can serve as the basis of your transformation.

When you look at your thoughts and emotions, the starting point is very important. It’s like chaos theory, which looks at the dynamics of highly sensitive systems. A very small change at the outset or starting point of a motion makes the system behave completely differently, and that very small change can make a big difference after a while. An often quoted example in popular culture is the “butterfly effect,” in which a butterfly flapping its wings in the forests of Brazil could cause a hurricane in the East China Sea.

It’s the same with thoughts. You may have just a glimmer of a judgmental thought about someone. It seems so small and harmless. But that tiny thought has the potential to intensify and color your next thought, and the next, in the end triggering deep-rooted habitual patterns that have a big effect.

Say you’ve noticed that a coworker hasn’t responded to your request for a sensitive meeting but has time to post pictures for all her friends on Facebook. First you are taken aback, then you’re irritated, indignant, and finally irate. You feel compelled to do something and start rehearsing a stinging speech. You’re so distracted by these thoughts that you’re late and unprepared for your own meeting!

The interesting thing here is that within the seeming chaos or randomness of our thoughts, there are patterns, including how our thoughts and emotions interact. In many traditional Buddhist scriptures, there’s really no word for “emotion” that’s distinct from the notion of “thought.” Instead, thoughts are viewed as always at play with our emotional energies, driving them one way or the other.

So when a negative thought kicks in, emotions become negative. Your mind feels disturbed, painful, and confused. When there is no thought, then your emotional energies are just pure energy, clear awareness, and the beautiful energy of wisdom.

It doesn’t matter whether these patterns appear to be chaotic or orderly. Whatever the process is, you can investigate it through your own contemplation and meditation. Once you’ve started down this road, the next step is to look at the nature of thought itself.

We have so many thoughts—positive thoughts, negative thoughts, coarse thoughts, subtle thoughts—but when you look directly and closely at any thought, or any emotion, perception, or appearance of mind at all, what do you see?

The first thing you see is that the thought you’re looking at disappears. As soon as you think, “Oh, there is a thought, I am going to look at it,” it is gone. And after the thought is gone, then what do you see?

Between the dissolving of one thought and the arising of the next, there is a gap, an open space. When a thought arises, it’s there for just a moment, then starts to dissolve. When it dissolves, there is a clear, open space where there’s nothing happening until the next thought. If we can totally let go, rest, and relax, then that point where thoughts vanish is where we will find our natural liberation, our genuinely awakened heart.

With these momentary gaps, our chaotic thoughts are being quite kind, offering to give us a break and a chance for awakening. But usually we don’t take that opportunity. We run right over it. We are attached to our busy, workaholic pattern that keeps us moving on to the next thought, the next moment, the next experience. That’s one of the main patterns of our mind—to always be moving, instead of pausing and resting where we are, even for a moment.

Although thoughts are momentary, it feels like our mind is always thinking. That’s because we don’t notice the gaps. We create the illusion of continuity by linking thoughts together seamlessly, so they have a feeling of permanence and oneness.

That’s why in Buddhism it’s taught that each momentary thought is like a link in a chain that connects to another link in the chain, and so on. Who knows where the chain began or where it will end? At some point, without even knowing it, we’ve created a chain that effectively binds us. We are a captive of our own thoughts. Positive thoughts we attach to may create a pretty golden chain, but we are still bound.

To accomplish our aims, it’s important for us to have a good understanding of our thoughts and how the patterns they form blind and control us. We also need the tools of meditation to develop our awareness to the point of seeing the true nature of thoughts as inseparable from this awakened heart, this buddha mind.

When you can see the full display and just let it go, there is liberation right there. Not liberation in a religious sense, but simple freedom from being controlled by your thoughts. You don’t have to take this on faith. You can discover it yourself. As you get closer to it, you can feel it, and then finally you can see it.

Most of all in this process, we need to have a genuine measure of compassion for ourselves and others. Even if it’s just a little, it can still have a profound and far-reaching effect, like the flapping of the wings of our butterfly.

Break the Chains of Thought

The practice of sitting meditation is a means of settling our mind and slowing the momentum of our thoughts. As a result, we can see the dynamics of mind more clearly. We can see how link by link we create the chain of thoughts that binds us, and how we can dissolve it.

First we see that we’re not in control of our thoughts; they are in control of us. They keep coming, stirring up our mind, making it hard for us to just sit still.

Then we see that our thoughts don’t remain just thoughts. Because of them, we speak out and engage in various actions, wisely or unwisely. So our actions are also ruled by our thoughts. And from actions come consequences, and from these consequences come all our experiences of happiness and joy or suffering and pain.

Seeing these patterns, we get to know our mind so that it works better for us and helps us to achieve our goals in this life. Beyond that, we can recognize the very nature of our mind, which from the Buddhist point of view is awakened from the beginning.

We don’t have to work hard and be good children to create this awakened mind. It’s always there, but simply obscured, covered over by layers of confusion. We see that thoughts are momentary, arising and then dissolving, and in the open space between them we can discover awakened mind on the spot.

photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.