Working with our thoughts is the greatest challenge in meditation—maybe in life. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche tells us how we can experience them as freedom not imprisonment.
Destructive habits and careless behavior are the cause of our suffering. If we seek to live our lives fully, we should not become trapped in our routines. When a bee settles on a flower to suck its nectar, it is intoxicated by the taste. Unaware that night is descending, the bee is trapped in the flower as the petals slowly close. As human beings, we should use our intelligence and hone our awareness so that our habits do not shackle us and rob us of our freedom.
Discursive thoughts and afflictive emotions obscure the naturally expansive and luminous nature of mind. Awareness is lost when we narrowly focus on ourselves and what the “I” experiences. This tunnel vision creates the breeding ground for a strong sense of ego. When we cannot transcend our ordinary, habitual ways of thinking, we become mired in our confusion. Not recognizing the pristine nature of mind, we suffer because there is a great deal of attachment to the “I.” An endless stream of thoughts, with one thought linked to the next, traps us in a perpetual cycle of confusion and pain.
Each thought should remain in its own place. It would not make sense to drag a caterpillar from its cocoon and expect it to make honey; that would be unnatural. Similarly, if you placed a honeybee in a cocoon, it would not know how to transform into a butterfly. So the caterpillar should remain in its cocoon, and the honeybee should make honey. When you experience each thought in its completeness, the energy of the thought arises and dissolves in its own place. Therefore, you do not need to tamper with your thoughts. Further elaboration causes bewilderment and confusion. When the energy of each thought is complete and independent, it is liberated upon arising and leaves no trace.
If you cannot see the nature of each thought as complete and independent, it is because you are attached to the “I” and what the “I” creates. When you think, “I am going to do this,” you create continuity for the “I.” If you think, “I want this,” you mentally select one button, and if you think, “I want that,” you select the next button. There is no space for each thought to be complete and independent because you are thriving on the illusion of continuity. One could say that an independent thought is natural energy that is fresh, vivid awareness. It is not dependent upon further support.
When you follow your thoughts in pursuit of an illusory “I,” your entanglement with each thought enslaves you. This mental confusion compels you to follow the first thought with a second thought, the second thought with a third thought, and so on, and so on. Therefore, each thought does not exist independently. We write our own story based on an illusory self. Bound in an endless chain of confused thoughts, we suffer in a vicious cycle of misery, which we call samsara. Samsara is the state of unenlightened ignorance. Unaware of the pure nature of mind and experience, one is helplessly controlled by disturbing emotions and karma, and one experiences an endless stream of mental and physical stress and suffering.
During the practice of meditation, we experience gaps in the flow of thoughts, and this space allows us to relax and loosen the grip of entrenched habits and reactive behavior. Glimpses of space in our mental landscape slowly free us from a tangled web of discursive thoughts and allow us to live more fully in the luminous present. Meditation is an effective tool for breaking free of deep-seated habits. Other methods, such as those offered in some self-help books, attempt to replace negative habits with positive thinking, but this does not address the real source of the problem. If we wish to free ourselves from our habits, the most effective approach is to ask ourselves, “Who is bound by habit, and how do these habits originate?”
The frequently quoted metaphor of the lion and the dog illustrates this approach. If you throw a stone at a dog, the dog will chase after the stone. If you throw a stone at a lion, the lion will chase after you! The dog will continue to chase stones, but the lion will be finished with it once and for all. Look directly at the source of each thought rather than following its trail. Habits are conditional and fabricated by thoughts. These patterns of thought and action are the result of our failure to discover their source. Habits are a form of energy, and energy emerges and subsides like waves on the surface of the ocean. When you recognize the source, the energy will selfliberate upon arising; it will not result in more habitual behavior.
Your practice is to find the source of the stone. You can continue to behave like a restless dog chasing after each thought, or you can pounce like a fearless lion and discover that the source of your thoughts is pure energy arising from emptiness. In this state of timeless purity, nothing truly comes into existence and nothing solidly exists, so there is no obstruction. If you have the courage to rest in this vast space, the fictions that fuel your enslaving habits will find no fertile ground in which to grow.
We should not reject our thoughts and feelings, since they are all valid. However, our thoughts and feelings cause us problems when we cling to them as if they were fixed and unchanging. When we abide in the empty and spacious nature of self and phenomena, we are free from all confusion. Therefore, let everything arise as sheer inspiration. Let everything be a celebration. Whatever arises is perfectly fine, but if nothing arises, that is fine, too. With a flexible mind, we can direct our lives with sophistication. We will be beyond corruption, and no matter what happens, we will be above the fray, so to speak. When we recognize the luminous quality of our true nature, clear essence will appear everywhere. This is amazing indeed!
Excerpted from Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath, by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. © 2012 by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, California.