“Why is it so hard to tame the mind?” Someone asked me the other day. “When I sit down to meditate or in general too, at times, some thought or feeling out of nowhere overpowers me completely. Is there a way out?”
“What happens,” I asked, “when you shake a sealed fizzy drink and then open it for the first time? Is it possible to avoid the spillover?”
When we undertake meditation, bottled up thoughts and emotions from our recent and distant past start boiling over. That’s not to say that you can’t do anything about it though. You can certainly tame your mind.
I went on to tell him that in meditation when a persistent thought nags at you it underscores one of two things:
a. you are trying too hard to focus or concentrate. Or,
b. you are suppressing your thought energy.
The first point is easy to understand; I’ve spoken a great deal on this and written about it in A Million Thoughts. The solution lies in balancing between mental exertion and relaxation. I have also touched upon how maintaining and mastering this balance helps you progress through the various states of attention. You can read more about the nine states of attention here.
It’s the second point — suppressing your thought energy — I wish to shed a bit more light on today.
You see, thought is a form of energy and it must either be channelized or be given an outlet. Otherwise, its build up reaches an unbearable crescendo eventually. Why else do you think people struggle to keep secrets or they feel light after a good conversation? Why being heard takes the negativity or stress away? Why people need friendships and relationships? Conversations give an outlet to this ever-building thought energy.
When we continue to suppress our thoughts and feelings, they hit back with a vengeance one day. And, their attack is brutal, often resulting in not just sapping one of their mental energy but robbing them of their sanity altogether.
People fall sick with depression, experience intense loneliness, sadness, or a great void in their life. In a way, therefore, a constant flow of thoughts is not always a bad thing. It helps you from bottling up. In fact, that’s why a lot of the time, people feel relaxed after meditation. Meditation is to the mind what a physical workout is to the body. Good meditation helps you harness and channelize your thought energy and bad meditation expends it. Either way, there’s a sense of relief.
The question remains: is there a way to tame your mind so it listens to you rather than you having to play second fiddle to it?
The good news is, and I speak from experience, yes, it is possible. Before I say how, let me share with you a little story I first heard in a poetry recitation event by Om Vyas:
“You are so tiny,” a sledgehammer said to a key once. “I’m much bigger and stronger than you and yet when it comes to opening a simple padlock I have to keep attacking it. Only after several blows the lock opens and even then it isn’t open but broken. Whereas you don’t seem to use any force and unlock it almost effortlessly. How come?”
“Aha,” the key said, “it’s actually not that hard. You deliver one blow after another mercilessly. You are attacking the surface, you want to open it by brute force. I don’t do such things. I gently make my way in and hold a little conversation with the padlock. I make a request. We fit like hand in glove, like two people in love. There is no force, I don’t make any demands, I work around the constraints of the padlock.”
The art of taming your mind is no different. It requires that you build a healthy and functional relationship with your mind. The joy you then experience is the same as having a beautiful relationship with your loved ones. When a certain thought is raging, we can’t just hammer at our mind and deliver relentless blows of instructions (shut-up mind and let me meditate), self-doubt (will I ever be able to tame this thing?) or, guilt (why can’t my mind ever be quiet?).
At that time, we must go beyond the surface, we need to slide in and speak to the mind and make a gentle request. We must ensure that the mind knows it’s not being ignored, that we recognize its importance and role in our life. This is the art of self-dialog. A tearing thought can’t be dealt with an iron fist.
You must love yourself enough to not defile yourself, you must value yourself so you don’t ignore what your body and mind need, you must treat yourself with respect because without these things, it will be impossible to develop a kindful relationship with yourself. And, in the absence of self-love and self-kindness, our approach towards ourselves will remain that of the hammer’s in our story.
We need to be the key, someone who can hold a polite conversation with our mind and find out what it needs from us.
In other words, a solid blow can get the job done, only once, but breaking a lock can hardly be called opening it. Besides, it’s unnecessarily painful and violent. It is okay to let your mind have its way sometimes. In fact, it’s important that you let it happen. We can’t always go on berating our mind when it’s tired or bored or unwilling to do what we want it to do. Instead, cajole it, persuade it, nudge it, and at times let it do what it wants to do. Buddha’s not complaining. Take it easy.
I once read a nice little joke in The Official Jewish Joke Book by Larry Wilde:
Steinberg felt a cold coming on so he went to a doctor. Before he could meet the doctor or explain his ailment, the nurse sent him into the next room and told him to strip. A man was standing there with his clothes under one arm and a package under the other.
“Can you imagine,” complained Steinberg to his companion, “that nurse sent me in here to take off all my clothes — I only got a sore throat!”
“That’s nothing,” the man said, “I came here to deliver a package!”
I can’t give the same treatment to every thought. I must know when to listen to my mind versus when it should listen to me.
And, that my friend, is the entire secret of good meditation and a sound mind.
It is the middle way, the path you walk when you realize that between the extremities of restraint and indulgence lies the solution of moderation, of being kind to yourself.
A hammer can’t imitate a key without breaking things. For, what is attained by going in can’t be accomplished from the surface. It pays to turn inward. To meditate. Lovingly. Kindly.