One of the benefits of sitting meditation is that it forces one to face the mind and how it works. When you are sitting quietly, your mind is given unfettered access to your attention. When this happens, it becomes like a little puppy who just wants to run and play and chase squirrels and pee on everything it sees. It’s only after some experience with meditation that some measure of control over the mind is gained. The puppy needs to be trained and learn to heel and not run off and not pee on everything. It’s hard work and often surprises newcomers to meditation just how challenging it can be to sit quietly and keep a clear mind.
Why is keeping a clear mind important? Because all of our suffering can be traced back to the mind as the source for all suffering. Our minds tell us that something is good or bad, pretty or ugly, smells good or bad, is nice or unpleasant or useful or not. Another function of the mind is to act as a DJ, spinning thoughts and memories around and around without stopping. When you combine these two functions, judging everything and looping through thoughts, you end up with an ideal recipe for suffering.
How? It’s quite simple. First, the DJ picks a memory out of its huge collection. It puts it on and gives it a spin, then the judging part of the mind kicks into gear and all of a sudden you’re giving context to the thought: “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “that was a great experience”, “why did I say that?!”, “I should do that again”, “I hope I never do that again”, “I’m so embarrassed by that”, etc. Before you know it, you’re out on the dance floor and the DJ is going to keep you dancing all night long. As you go through this process over and over and over, it begins to take its toll on you. As you construct scenarios in your mind to replay the good thoughts or avoid the bad ones you plant the seeds of suffering. If you have a good thought, you’ll suffer when it’s over. If you have a bad thought, you suffer because of it. Rinse, repeat.
As you sit in meditation, this dance becomes easier to observe. Meditation allows you transition from being a dancer to a chaperon trying to keep order over the dancers. It’s at this point that the rules that make up the dance become clearer. There are three ways that the mind reacts to thoughts cause the dance to go on. All three add to suffering but understanding how these things work makes you a better chaperon so that you can keep things from getting out of hand.
- Checking – This is the process of constantly replaying thoughts. It could be thinking about something you said, or did or didn’t say or do. Regardless of the content of the thoughts, the process is the same. You think about something and then you react to it. Constantly going over things and judging them. Not only do you check your own mind/thoughts/actions but you check others too. It is checking that so often keeps us running around in a circle like a new puppy.
- Holding- This is like checking on steroids. The process of checking usually doesn’t last too long. As your mind wanders, you check whatever it comes across. Holding is where you refuse to let something go. If someone did something you don’t like, if you’re upset about something, if you are with someone you like you hold on to these things. Holding is what keeps us stuck in a place of suffering. We hold on to things for any number of reasons. However none of those reasons are ever good ones.
- Making – When we get tired of checking or holding we often float into the realm of making. This is the most esoteric of the rules as it is where we construct the “what ifs” and alternate realities that make our present reality so difficult to deal with. Thinking about something you will do or say tomorrow and then constructing a hundred different scenarios that could play out in response is just one example of making. The process of making keeps us from our situation and robs us of the moment we are in. Making is the process of living in the future or the past. It is often the response to holding. As we hold on to something, we try to think of ways to deal with it. We construct elaborate stories about how we handled the situation with grace and style and our prowess was on display for all to see or we know that when we put our plans into action everyone will be amazed at our brilliance and they’ll immediately come over to our side and sing our praises. When compared to reality, who wouldn’t prefer the worlds we create when we are making?
What all of this comes down to is that we make our own suffering. When we check, hold and make thoughts, we experience their effects. The end result of those effects is suffering. That’s why the founding teacher of the school of Zen that I am a part of used to say, “Big mind, big problem. Small mind, small problem. No mind, no problem! Ha ha ha!” Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of checking, holding and making. It’s been so intense that it has kept me from being able to focus on what really matters. It has contributed to my weight gain and robbed me of my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle. It prevented me from sitting in meditation for quite a while too since sitting meant I had to confront all of the checking, holding and making that I was doing. However, I eventually did begin to sit again in spite of my mental state and I began to see how to get things in order. I saw clearly how my mind was working and I have adjusted to stop the cycle and keep a clear and calm mind. My mind still checks, I still hold on to things and I’m still making, making, making but at least I am aware of it now and I have the ability to stop myself instead of trying to chase the puppy around to keep it from peeing on everything. Without someone to chase it, the puppy gets bored and calms down on its own. At least until it sees another squirrel.