Healing the Mind
Just as we heal the body and the heart through awareness, so can we heal the mind. Just as we learn about the nature and rhythm of sensations and feelings, so can we learn about the nature of thoughts. As we notice our thoughts in meditation, we discover that they are not in our control- we swim in an uninvited constant stream of memories, plans, expectations, judgments, regrets. The mind begins to show how it contains all possibilities, often in conflict with on another- the beautiful qualities of a saint and the dark forces of a dictator and murderer. Out of these, the mind plans and imagines, creating endless struggles and scenarios for changing the world.
Yet the very root of these movements of mind is dissatisfaction. We seem to want both endless excitement and perfect peace. Instead of being served by out thinking, we are driven by it in many unconscious and unexamined ways. While thoughts can be enormously useful and creative, most often they dominate our experience with ideas of likes versus dislikes, higher versus lower, self versus other. They tell stories about our successes and failures, plan our security, habitually remind us of who and what we think we are.
The dualistic nature of thought is a root of our suffering. Whenever we think of ourselves as separate, fear and attachment arise and we grow constricted, defensive, ambitious, and territorial. To protect the separate self, we push certain thing away, while to bolster it we hold on to other things and identify with them.
A psychiatrist from the Stanford University School of Medicine discovered these truths when he attended his first ten-day intensive retreat. While he had studied psychoanalysis and been in therapy, he had never actually encountered his own mind in the nonstop fashion of fifteen hours a day of sitting and walking meditation. He later wrote an article on this experience in which he described how a professor of psychiatry felt sitting and watching himself go crazy. The nonstop flood of thought astounded him, as did the wild variety of stories it told. Especially repetitious were thoughts of self-aggrandizement, of becoming a great teacher or famous writer or even world savior. He knew enough to look at the source of these thoughts, and he discovered they were all rooted in fear: during the retreat he was feeling insecure about himself and what he knew. These grand thoughts were the mind’s compensation so he would not have to feel the fear of not knowing. Over the many years since, this professor has become a very skillful meditator, but he first had to make peace with the busy and fearful patterns of an untrained mind. He has also learned, since that time, not to take his own thoughts too seriously.
Healing the mind takes place in two ways: In the first, we bring attention to the content of our thoughts and learn to redirect them more skillfully through practices of wise reflection. Through mindfulness, we can come to know and reduce the patterns of unhelpful worry and obsession, we can clarify our confusion and release destructive views and opinions. We can use conscious thought to reflect more deeply on what we value. Asking the question, Do I love well? from the first chapter is an example of this, and we can also direct our thought into the skillful avenues of loving-kindness, respect, and ease of mind. Many Buddhist practices use the repetition of certain phrases in order to break through old, destructively repetitious patterns of thought to effect change.
However, even though we work to reeducate the mind, we can never be completely successful. The mind seems to have a will of its own no matter how much we wish to direct it. So, for a deeper healing of the conflicts of the mind, we need to let go of our identification with them. To heal, we must learn to step back from all the stories of the mind, for the conflicts and opinions of our thoughts never end. As the Buddha said, “People and opinions just go around bothering one another.” When we see that the mind’s very nature is to think, to divide, to plan, we can release ourselves from its iron grip of separatism and come to rest in the body and heart. In this way, we step out of our identification, our of our expectations, opinions, and judgements and the conflicts to which they give rise. The mind thinks of the self as separate, the heart knows better. As one great Indian master, Sri Nisargadatta, put it, “The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.”
Many of the great sorrows of the world arise when the mind is disconnected from the heart. In meditation we can reconnect with our heart and discover an inner sense of spaciousness, unity, and compassion underneath all the conflicts of thought. The heart allows for the stories and ideas, the fantasies and fears of the mind without believing in them, without having to follow them or having to fulfill them. When we touch beneath all the busyness of thought, we discover a sweet, healing silence, an inherent peacefulness in each of us, a goodness of heart, strength and wholeness that is our birthright. This basic goodness is sometimes called our original nature, or Buddha nature. When we return to our original nature, when we see all the ways of the mind and yet rest in this peace and goodness, we discover the healing of the mind.’
- Jack Kornfield. A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life.