Taming the Mind, Transforming Ourselves

Traleg Rinpoche describes the techniques of Buddhist meditation, explaining how working with our passions requires attention to one’s body and thoughts.

Traleg Rinpoche
1 September 2002
Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche describes the techniques of Buddhist meditation. Taming and transforming our wild passions involves the meditation of paying attention to the body and paying attention to our thoughts.

The practice of Buddhism must always begin with ourselves—with gaining some kind of understanding of where we are and what sort of beings we are. Transcendental concepts like buddhahood and nirvana may well represent our ultimate goal, but we will never become a buddha by ignoring our immediate human condition.

If we think of buddhahood and nirvana as realms that are far removed from our human condition, we will set up barriers between who we are and who we want to become. This kind of thinking only defers what we want to realize to some time in the future, because conceiving these realms of transcendence as having nothing in common with our everyday experience renders them unreachable. Thus they remain purely abstract concepts that have no real meaning to us as human beings.

Here are the three fundamentals points which ground our practice in the reality of being human and that are needed to transform ourselves on the spiritual path.

Dealing with Ourselves as We Are

As individuals, we have many different needs, and our spiritual need is one of the most important. It is only human beings who yearn to feel connected to something that is sacred and spiritual. If we are to have any hope of meeting that longing, we must first come in touch with ourselves.

According to the Buddhist tradition, we are on a journey whether we like it or not, because we are always in a state of transition. Sentient beings are referred to as drowa in Tibetan, which means “migrating creatures.” This is because we can never be in a particular place without moving physically, psychologically or spiritually. Whether we are thinking or sensing or experiencing emotions, everything is constantly being propelled or drawn forward. Emotions are “emotions in motion,” because even a state of agitation is a form of movement.

However, if we were not in a state of transition, we could not talk about transformation. Our life would be a closed book. But according to the Buddhist teachings, our lives are not closed books because of this constant forward movement. If we feel that we are stuck, that is only our misunderstanding of what is really going on, for something is always happening even if we do not notice it.

This is why Buddhist meditation is so important, because Buddhist meditation is designed for us to take notice of things. When we do not take notice, we feel that we are stuck. However, we are never really stuck because even the feeling of being stuck is a form of movement, ironically enough. In that sense, we are all pilgrims; we are all pilgrims on the move.

There is a story that illustrates this point very well. A meditator goes to a remote retreat hut to visit a meditation master who is renowned for his knowledge. The meditator hopes that this master has secrets and sacred texts that might be revealed to him. The master invites the meditator into his inner chamber and they sit down together. The meditator looks around to see where all the books are, but he cannot find any. He asks the master, “Where are your holy texts?” The master replies, “I haven’t got any.” Then the master says, “But what about your holy texts?” The meditator responds, “I did not bring any, I am just a visitor here.” To which the master says, “Me too.”

We are all just visitors here. We are moving along in terms of time: we get older, we get sick, we get well, we get sick again. We are always moving in that way through life. We know that, but we do not know it, because we do not pay enough attention to this. All the same, we are on a journey whether we know it or not. Being a traveler through life, we encounter many different things and those things shape our lives and determine what we will become.

As human beings we also have many contradictions. We have an enormous capacity for kindness and love. However, we are also equally capable of cruelty, violence and many other things besides. We can be very understanding of other peoples’ faults and then we can suddenly turn into an unforgiving, raging animal. We can be very courageous when we come across adverse circumstances and situations in life, while at the same time we can be cowardly. Sometimes we can be courageous in one instance and completely paralyzed by fear in the next. We can be very confident and display an enormous amount of self-esteem in certain situations, and then something triggers our self-doubt and we begin to feel inadequate, with our confidence totally shaken.

There is a whole litany of character traits like this in all of us. These are only examples, to highlight the necessity of paying attention to what sort of beings we are. We are the kind of beings who have these contrasting tendencies, who are open to all kinds of conflicting emotions.

Different religious or spiritual traditions have various methods for dealing with these aspects of our selves. The most common technique is called “taming the mind.” “Taming” refers to the fact that we have to domesticate our wild passions, which are divided into various categories by the different religious traditions. Catholicism refers to the “seven deadly sins,” while Buddhism talks about the “five kleshas” (conflicting emotions) of desire, anger, jealousy, pride and ignorance.

The usual approach is to employ some kind of ascetic method to discipline the mind and body. That discipline involves punitive measures, which may be either real or mentally exercised. Sometimes the body may even be subjected to physical tortures in order to rid it of negativities, because the body is seen as the locus within which all of the so-called “conflicting emotions” arise. In certain traditions, the body is seen as the place where sinful things occur and the means through which sins are committed. However, if the notion of “taming” or “subjugation” is not understood properly, the very means that we use to deal with our conflicting emotions may only exacerbate them. Instead of relieving them, we will only succeed in repressing, denying or fixating on them.

In Buddhism, taming is understood in terms of transforming the mind, which requires becoming aware of the conflicting emotions, rather than punishing them. By becoming aware of what is going on in our mind we can learn how to deal with it. We should not try to tame the mind by waging war on it through trying to beat down the conflicting emotions. Taming the mind should come about through learning how to understand the conflicting emotions. If we follow the ascetic method of punishing ourselves in order to expiate our “sins,” we will never have the chance to understand our minds properly.

For example, if we wish to overcome the negative impact of emotions such as gluttony and greed, we have to understand how these emotions arise in our minds. One way of relating to gluttony might be to see fine food as a temptation. If we were to view things in this way, we could avoid even going past a nice restaurant in case it tempts us. However, instead of denying ourselves the opportunity to enjoy food, it would be more valuable to go to the restaurant and observe how we behave when we indulge in gluttony. If we become aware of how we are stuffing our face with food by being attentive to this, by becoming conscious of it, we will learn how to tame the mind.

Normally we think that there are only two options available to us. Taking the example of food again, we either want to get rid of our craving for good food altogether, or we continue to gorge ourselves with food and stack on the pounds. We might fast and try to avoid eating altogether, or we might eat so much that even after satiating ourselves, we do not want to let go and just continue to mindlessly consume things. We take this approach with many other things as well. All of our energy is put into accumulating what we desire and our motivation for doing so is not necessarily connected to what is being accumulated or the benefit that we may gain from it. It is an automatic, habituated response, as Buddhists would say; habitual patterns are set up so that we mindlessly indulge in these things.

We will learn nothing about greed, gluttony, lust, or the other conflicting emotions through this approach. Nor will we gain any great wisdom through the more punitive, ascetic methods. Our intention to get rid of our sins (if we are Christian) or conflicting emotions (if we are Buddhist) as quickly as possible is the result of avoiding any kind of intimate relationship with our experiences. If we are not willing to develop that kind of intimate relationship, we cannot grow.

Thomas Merton compiled a small book called The Wisdom of the Desert, which is his version of the Christian desert fathers’ sayings. In the introduction, he says that many Christians have actually misunderstood what the desert fathers were doing in the desert. They assume that the desert fathers did not experience lustful thoughts, greed or any of the effects of the seven deadly sins. Merton says that this could not be further from the truth, arguing that the desert fathers “were in the desert keeping company with the deadly sins,” because they were more aware of their sins than we are. As I said before, when we indulge in sins or conflicting emotions we do so mindlessly, whereas being aware of these sins was part of spiritual training for the desert fathers. Rather than trying to get rid of the effects of those sins, the fathers were constantly working with them, and as a result, they became transformed.

The first part of learning how to transform ourselves then, is to be willing to deal with ourselves as we are, not as we want to be. We have to be willing to deal with whatever we experience with a sense of openness and intimacy. We should not be ashamed of the negativities that we have, nor try to suppress or repress them. Feeling shame only reinforces what we are already experiencing; it does not diminish the impact of those experiences. As modern psychology has pointed out, the repressed emotions do not go away; they just continue to operate below the normal conscious states.

Recognizing the Importance of the Body

The second part of transformation is to recognize, or reinstate, the importance of the body. To reiterate, the extreme ascetic perspective is that the body must be punished, because we feel the effects of the conflicting emotions or deadly sins through the body. However, when we learn to practice awareness and mindfulness in Buddhism, it is as much a physical as a mental act. Just the act of sitting in meditation means that we have to become the body. We have to appreciate the “incarnational” aspect of the body, instead of trying to dissociate our mental states from our physical states.

In its incarnation, the body is not just a bundle of flesh, bones, fluid and biochemical processes. Without the body we cannot do any kind of spiritual practice at all. We have to use the body to practice mindfulness and awareness—we have to pay attention to our physical posture and we have to pay attention to our breath. Sitting meditation is about learning how to be the body because the body is not something that we have; the body is something that we are. The body has to be seen as an integrated unit, where body and mind have become completely conjoined.

Learning how to become aware of physical states and processes is an extremely important part of Buddhist meditation. This includes observing how the body reacts to the conflicting emotions: How do you feel physically when you get angry? How do you feel physically when you are lustful? How do you feel physically when you are feeling jealous, when you feel love, when you are feeling joyous, when you are experiencing pleasure, when you are physically aroused, when the body is in a state of stasis? These are the things to be aware of, instead of learning how to dissociate ourselves more and more from the body through our spiritual quest. We have to remember to remember the body. We have objectified our body so that we use our body as if it were something that we own, like a toy, or a machine, or a car. That kind of attitude is totally non-spiritual, whereas learning to integrate with the body, to reconnect with or “remember” the body, is a spiritual exercise.

This kind of attention to the body is very different from how we normally view the body. Even when we are paying attention to our body through exercise and diet, we still regard it as something that is there to do our bidding. We go to the gym and if we do not get the results we want, we get angry with our body as if it were somebody else! By paying attention to the body with a sense of intimacy we see that it plays an important part in everything that we experience. This is not the body that we “own” and objectify, but the body of our lived experience. Everything that we experience is psychosomatic because the body is always involved, whenever we look through our eyes, whenever we hear through the ears, and in everything that we experience in terms of our feelings and sensations. We can see then, that paying attention to the body is an extremely important aspect of learning how to transform ourselves on the spiritual path.

Paying Attention to Our Thoughts

The third part of transformation involves paying attention to our thoughts—how we think and what we think about. When we start paying attention to our thinking, we find that we actually generalize quite a lot. This generalization involves the aspects of exaggeration and underestimation. It is important to note that Buddhism recognizes the opposite of exaggeration, which is very hard to translate, but which is something like “diminution” or “minimization.” We always believe that whatever we think, it corresponds to the truth. For instance, whenever we experience something unpleasant we have to find someone to blame, whether it is ourselves or somebody else. However, sometimes things just happen, and no one is to blame.

We need to pay attention to how we generalize, because we generalize about people in so many different ways. For example, if someone was in a relationship with a person who treated them badly, they tend to generalize and think that everyone they become involved with in the future is going to treat them badly as well. In Buddhism, specificity is very important—we must pay attention to the uniqueness of each circumstance and situation.

It should also be noted that from the Buddhist perspective there is rarely ever such a thing as a pure thought. Not pure in the sense that it is unsullied by defilements and obscurations, but pure in the sense that it is not tainted by some kind of emotional overtone. Thoughts and emotions almost always go together, so that when we are attracted to a certain thing we tend to exaggerate all of its positive qualities and minimize all of its negative ones. This does not mean that thoughts cause emotions or that emotions bring about thoughts; they simply arise together.

In other words, the construction of who we believe we are, what the world is like, how we should behave and how we should interact, is an ongoing exercise that we are undertaking all the time. By paying attention to our thoughts we can learn how we are contributing to the world we live in. Buddhists do not believe that we are spectators who have simply been thrown into a world that is pre-made or pre-given. We are participants in a continuous project of constructing and reconstructing the world in which we live. This is called vikalpa in Sanskrit and namtok in Tibetan. The basic point is that it is never a finished project. Everyone is contributing to the so-called “common world” that we live in. Even the natural world is to a large degree affected by our human mind.

Although we are always in a state of transition, transformation does not mean some kind of dramatic transition from a static state of existence to some other elevated state that is completely divorced from the previous one. Transformation, in the Buddhist context, is connected with taking notice of what is happening. If we do not take any notice of what is happening, we do not grow. However, if we begin to notice everything that is taking place within our minds and bodies and the world around us, we will inevitably grow as individuals. In that way, the spiritual path is not completely divorced from our worldly affairs. In fact, dealing with worldly affairs can be as much a part of the spiritual path as sitting in meditation or doing prayer.

Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) was president and director of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and established the E-Vam Institute in upstate New York. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.