Restoring the Mind to Kindness

Sylvia Boorstein on how to rescue your mind when confusion overwhelms it into suffering.

Sylvia Boorstein
11 September 2019
Mind in space.
Photo by Prottoy Hassan.

I wish it were true that regular meditation and prayer guaranteed equanimity, but it’s not that way for me. I began to practice mindfulness in 1977, and I meditate and pray and study and teach, and I still get angry or worried or impatient or frightened. The difficulties—great and small—of my regular life present ongoing challenges to peace of mind. I feel annoyed when my personal plans don’t work out, and I often feel chagrined and dismayed when I see that my personal plans are taking up so much space in my mind when the world is in such terrible trouble. I’m also continually surprised to find how the pains of my past—shame, sadness, guilt, losses, fears of even long, long ago—remain easily activated sensitivities that upset my heart all over again through memory. A grandchild, coughing the benign cough of a child turning over in bed in the next room, frightens me out of a sleep because the sound matches the sound of my mother coughing the cough of congestive heart failure in a bedroom down the hall from me sixty years ago, and I wake up sad.

I’ve gotten over being surprised that my internal life isn’t more smooth and peaceful than it is. I think I imagined, when I began meditating, that I’d become much more tranquil than I am. In the years since I’ve begun teaching Buddhist Concentration and Mindfulness meditations, I’ve often had students ask me how it feels to be peaceful all the time. I am eager to tell them that although I think I am wiser about the decisions that I make, and generally kinder, I am not peaceful all the time. By temperament, I am somewhat dramatic, and personality doesn’t change. I remain a passionate person. What happens in my family and what happens in the world are both important to me. I can’t imagine not being cheered by good news or saddened by bad news. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I feel alive when I know that I care, that things matter. Although it is true that feeling cheered and saddened need not necessarily upset the mind’s balance, for me—perhaps because I startle easily—they often do.

Still, I consider my meditation practice a success because of one crucial and definite change in me in the thirty years since I began. I now trust that even when what is happening to me is difficult and my response to it is painful, I will not suffer if I can keep my mind clear enough to keep my heart engaged. I know that my suffering begins whenever my mind, for whatever reason—the enormity or the suddenness of the challenge, its own exhausted state—becomes confused. In its confusion, it seems to forget everything it ever knew. It tells itself stories, alternatively angry (“This isn’t fair!”) or pitiful (“Poor me!”) or frightening (“I can’t stand it if things aren’t different!”). No inner voice of wisdom (“This is what is happening, it’s part of the whole spectrum of painful things that happen to human beings, and you can manage”) can make itself heard to soothe the distress. I continue to suffer, stumbling around in stories of discontent, until I catch myself, and stop, and allow myself to know, and deeply feel, that I am frightened or confused or disappointed or angry or tired or ashamed or sad—that “I’m in pain!” Then my own good heart, out of compassion, takes care of me. It all happens when I am able to say to myself (I honestly do use these very words), “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”

In those rescue phrases, there are three instructions.

The first is “Relax.” This is a startling instruction—“Relax? Are you kidding? I’m upset!”—to give to a mind held captive by confusing and dismaying stories. It’s the startle, though, that matters. It interrupts the stories. It isn’t the instruction for how to calm down, but it is the reminder that calming down is possible. It inspires the next instruction, which is “Breathe.”

We are always breathing, of course, but this instruction means, “Pay attention to your breath. Put all of your awareness into this next breath, the next few breaths.“ Attending particularly to the breath accomplishes two things. First of all, because the breath becomes shallow and the body becomes tense when the mind is disturbed, lengthening the breath calms the body. Second, and more important, it causes the mind, for the space of time it’s attending to breath, noticing it in descriptive terms, to drop the story line of discontent. We can multitask, but we can’t advance two story lines at the same time. The narrative accompaniment to attentive breathing, “I’m breathing in a long breath” or “I am breathing in a shallow breath” or “I am breathing in a whatever kind of breath,” is a straightforward description of a current reality, and its neutrality calms the mind. It replaces the alarming, non-neutral “Woe is me” narrative of the mind in contention with experience. Concentrating the attention on one neutral focus, such as the breath, calms the mind and begins to clear it of confusing energies. Even a small moment of clarity reminds the mind it could possibly choose a helpful response. That awareness provides hope and courage. (Saying “Take a breath” is a generic shortcut. Any neutral focus would work. A substitute for breath, a blessing phrase repeated aloud or spoken silently, also calms the mind, and since I use them a lot, they will be part of this book.) Calming the mind prepares it for the last instruction, “Pay attention to what’s happening.”

Pay attention, in other words, to the presence of distress and, if it is obvious, to what prompted it. “I am mad because he said …” Or “I am terribly ashamed because I just remembered …” Or “I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world …” Or “My best friend just met the love of his life, and I am jealous …” Or “My best friend is dying, and I’m afraid I won’t have heart enough to support her.” The most important instruction, always, is “Pay attention to the feeling of distress.” Sometimes the proximal cause is obvious, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. Pain is pain. Knowing the story of the distress is helpful for choosing a response, but my first response—in addition to the recognition of the pain—is to not be mad at it, or at myself for falling into it. That’s why it’s important that I say, “Sweetheart.” (You might use another word, if that one doesn’t work for you, as long as it means that you aren’t mad at yourself for whatever difficult feeling is present.) “Sweetheart” reminds me that it isn’t my fault that my mind is embittered, that something has upset it, that I’m in pain. Even if I see that the source of my suffering is my own mind’s refusing to accommodate to its challenge, I can still feel compassionate about that. No one purposely suffers.

From the book Happiness Is An Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D. Copyright © 2007 by Sylvia Boorstein. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved. Buy here.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.