A chapter I wrote for the book "The View"
Returning to Natural Mind
People are disturbed, not by things, but by the view they take of them. — Epictitus
"In the final analysis," said the Dalai Lama, "the hope of every person is simply peace of mind." As with many great truths, these words resonate with something we know deep down. Beneath all our endeavours, we all want to be at peace, to feel content, fulfilled, at ease. None of us want to be in pain or suffer unnecessarily.
We may decide to change jobs, start a new relationship or take up a new hobby because we believe we will be happier. I may choose to go hiking because I expect to get some pleasure from it, a tangible endorphin rush from the exercise, or a feeling of warmth and closeness from spending time with a friend. I may spend time writing a book, foregoing other pleasures, because I gain satisfaction from my creative expression.
The gratification that we seek may not always be immediate. Most of us do not enjoy visiting the dentist, but we go in the hope that we will suffer less later. Or we may forego some personal gain and devote our time to helping elderly relatives or others in need; yet we do so because it brings some inner fulfillment. Even the masochist, who sets out to cause himself pain, does so because he takes some comfort from it.
It is not a bottom line that can be measured in numbers, but it is nevertheless the true arbiter of all our decisions. We may think we are seeking an external goal, but we are seeking that goal in the hope that, in one way or another, we will feel better for it.
Why then do we seldom find peace of mind? After all, we are intelligent beings, we can look ahead and plan for the future. Moreover, we have many tools and technologies with which to create a better world for ourselves. One would think that we, of all creatures, would be content and at ease. Yet the very opposite seems to be the case.
As far as I can tell, a dog spends more time at ease than its owner who is busy seeking the various things he or she thinks will bring satisfaction and fulfillment. Leave a dog with nothing to do, and it will probably lie down, put its chin on the ground, and watch the world go by. Leave us human beings with nothing to do, and it is not long before we complain of being bored, get restless, and start looking for things to fill the time. We worry what we might be missing and how we might improve things, or we go check off one more thing on that never-ending "to do" list.
Paradoxically, it is our remarkable ability to change our world that has led us into this sorry state. We have fallen into the belief that if we are not at peace, then we must do something about it. We think we need to obtain something we don't yet have, get others to respond as we would like, enjoy a new experience, or, conversely, avoid some circumstance or person that is causing us distress. We assume that, if we could just get our world to be a particular way, we will finally be happy.
From the moment we are born our culture reinforces this assumption, encouraging us to believe that outer well-being is the source of inner fulfillment. As young children we learn from the example of our elders that it is important to be in control of things, that material possessions offer security. As we grow up, much of our education focuses on knowing the ways of the world in order that we might better manage our affairs and so find greater contentment and fulfillment. As adults, the daily deluge of television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements reinforces the belief that happiness comes from what happens to us. The net result is that we become addicted to things and circumstances.
Our material acquisitiveness may not look like a drug addiction, but the underlying pattern is the same. With drugs—whether they be alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tranquilizers, cocaine or heroin—people take them for one simple reason. They want to feel better. They want to feel happy, high, relaxed, in control, less anxious, temporarily free from some suffering. In this respect drug-takers are seeking nothing different from anyone else; it is just the way in which they are doing it that most societies find unacceptable.
Similarly with our addiction to having and doing, we are seeking a better state of mind. And, in the short term, it may appear to work. But any pleasure, happiness, or satisfaction we do find is only temporary. As soon as one "high" wears off we go in search of another "fix". We become psychologically dependent on our favorite sources of pleasure —food, music, driving, debating, football, television, shopping, whatever.
When this fails to bring any lasting satisfaction we do not question whether our approach may be mistaken. Instead we try even harder to get the world to give us what we want. We buy more clothes, go to more parties, eat more food, try to make more money. Or we give up on these and try different things. We take up squash, or look for new friends. Yet true peace of mind remains as elusive as ever.
We live in what Indian philosophies call the world of samsara, meaning "to wander on". We wander on, looking for fulfillment in a world which provides but temporary respites from discontent, a momentary pleasure followed by more wandering on in search of that ever-elusive goal.
The Clinging Mind
Throughout human history, there have been those who have woken up from the dream that our state of mind depends on what we have or do. They are the rishis, roshis, mystics, saints, lamas and other "wise ones" who have seen through the illusion that, if only we could get the world to be the way want, we would finally be happy. They have each, in their own way, rediscovered the same timeless truth about human consciousness: The mind in its natural state is already at ease.
By 'natural' they do not mean the state of mind in which we spend most of our time—which clearly is not usually one of ease and contentment—they are speaking of the mind before it becomes tarnished with worry, wanting, analyzing and planning. Time and again they have reminded us that we do not need to do anything, or go anywhere to be at ease. On the contrary, all our doing, all our seeking to change things, takes us in the opposite direction. We imagine something is missing, and with this self-created sense of lack comes discontent. Feelings of discontent cloud our consciousness, overshadowing the intrinsic ease of the mind in its natural, unsullied, state.
This was one of the Buddha's key realizations. He saw that we all experience what he called dukka. The word is often translated as "suffering," leading to the common misconception that Buddha taught that life is suffering. The word dukka is actually a negation of the word sukha, which has the meaning of ease (originally, a wheel that runs smoothly). So dukka means not-at-ease, and is probably best translated as discontent or unsatisfactoriness.Suffering, as we think of it, is an extreme form of discontent. Much more common—indeed, so common that it usually passes unnoticed—is the discontent that comes from wishing that things were different, worrying about what happened earlier, or hoping for a better future. Buddha realized that the root cause of this discontent was our clinging to our ideas of how things should or should not be. As soon as clinging enters the mind, we lose the natural state of ease.
Thus, to return to a state of ease, we have only to stop creating unnecessary discontent. That means letting go of our attachments as to how things should or should not be.
Letting go never seems easy. This is because we treat "letting go" as another task to do. We've become so enmeshed in the habit of doing that we mistakenly approach letting go in the same way. But you can't "do" letting go—however hard you try. It is our doing that is the problem. To let go we have to cease the "doing" of holding on. Letting go is allowing the mind to relax, accepting the present moment as it is, without resistance or judgement.
This is sometimes misinterpreted as accepting the world as it is, which can lead to a Pollyanna attitude of "everything is OK"; the world is perfect as it is. But there is a subtle, and crucial, distinction between accepting our experience of a situation and accepting the situation itself. Sadly, the world around us is rife with injustice, self-centredness and unnecessary suffering. No one, I hope, is proposing the kind of acceptance that says we can simply let such ills be. Accepting our experience of the situation, on the other hand, means not resisting what we are actually perceiving and feeling in the moment. There is nothing we can do to change our present experience. Wishing it otherwise is a pointless waste of time and energy. All it does is create additional discontent.
The most commonly recommended way to become more present is to bring our attention back to our physical experience, noticing how it feels to be a living being—the feelings in our bodies, the sensations of breathing, the air against the skin, the sounds around us. Our immediate sensory experience is always in the present moment. It is when we start thinking about our experience, what it means, and where it might lead, that our attention is drawn into the past or the future—and back into the world of samsara.
The more often we can come back to the present moment, the more the mind is able to relax. When it is fully relaxed, totally at ease, we rediscover the mind in its natural, undisturbed state.
In Indian philosophy the profound and delightful ease of natural mind is called Nirvana. To many, the word conjures images of some blissed out, euphoric state of consciousness. But its original meaning is very different—and much more instructive. The word "nirvana" literally means "to blow out", as in extinguishing a flame. When we accept our experience of the moment, as it is, without lament or resistance, the flames of greed, hatred, jealousy and the many other unwelcome ramifications of our discontent die down; extinguished by a lack of fuel.
No longer blinded by self-concern, we are better able to see a situation for what it is. We are free from imagined lacks and needs and able to act in accord with what the situation requires. Whether it be helping others, righting injustices, working for some social cause, taking care of our health, raising children, whatever we choose to focus out energies upon, we can do so with greater commitment and deeper compassion.
We spend so much energy trying to find contentment in the world around us. If we spent a fraction of this energy allowing the mind to relax, letting go of some of our attachments, we would find more of the peace of mind that, in the final analysis, we all are all seeking. And the world around us would surely become a much better place.