Working With The Mind
by Robert Augustus Masters / @RobertMasters
How many of our thoughts do we actually think? Does not most of our mental activity arise unbidden, seemingly independent of a thought-generating thinker? And, even when we are clearly behind our thoughts — as when we’re deliberately passing judgment on another — are we not then usually identified with such thoughts, tangled up and lost in their weave?
Working with our mind means being consciously attentive to its various formations — thoughts, fantasies, judgments, and so on, all in constant flux — and such awareness is not something of which our mind is capable. Only that which is beyond the mind can see the mind.
Thinking that we are aware is altogether different than being aware of thinking.
To be aware of the actual process of thinking, and to maintain that awareness for more than a few minutes, is not easy. Our mind has, so to speak, a mind of its own, and is not about sit still or be quiet just because we want it to do so.
Nevertheless, we have to be able to stand apart — in healthy detachment — from our mental activities. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of whatever winds are blowing through our mind. A certain thought arises, and we automatically feed it with attention, letting ourselves be controlled or guided by it, all the while acting as if we are in charge. Becoming aware of what our mind is actually up to, and realizing how difficult it is to maintain such a focus for very long, is a humbling experience.
The mind is a marvellous servant, but a poor master. As we learn to relate to it, rather than only from it, we find ourselves freer, regardless of our current circumstances.
So how to do this? Discipline is needed — particularly in the form of sustained concentration — but so too is relaxation. Initially, we make the effort to stay focused on a particular object, like the sensations generated by our breath, and once we are sufficiently steadied — the chatter of our mind having significantly quieted down — we let our efforting lessen or perhaps even disappear, allowing ourselves to settle into the uncluttered ease of innate awareness.
After sufficient practice, we’ll find our concentrative doing and our spacious non-doing mixing more and more naturally. This is the essence of meditative practice, done not just in meditation halls, but in the midst of everyday life. Relaxed alertness. Consciously inhabiting the space between thoughts. Letting ourselves be awareness-centered, taking shelter in the natural vastness and peace of Being.
This is about having the same relationship to our mental activities as does the sky to its clouds. Not trying to get rid of them, not being stuck in their dramatics, neither suppressing nor indulging them. Awareness doesn’t take sides. It just is. The sun of awareness shines equally on all that it touches.
Learning to enter — or to reenter — that awareness is not so much a movement from here to there, as from here to a deeper here. It brings us present. If we’re not present, we are not really living, but are only dwelling in fantasies populated by spectres of past and future.
Awakening from such fantasies — and, ultimately, from all the entrapping dreams we habitually animate — is what meditative practice is all about. Meditation is not some exotic import from the East, but is simply the art of allowing everything to be encompassed by awareness. The art of awaring. Meditation doesn’t necessarily change the mind, but rather illuminates it.
As we work with our mind, learning to witness its thoughts, beliefs, dreams, and interplay with our body and emotions, we are, in effect, cleaning house, allowing ourselves immersion in the everfresh Mystery of Being. This process is perhaps best catalyzed not through meditative practices alone, but through the efficacious blending of such practices with apt psychological and body-centered approaches.
Even after plenty of meditative practice, we’ll very likely still find ourselves slipping into old habits of mind, resurrecting the same old thoughts, but we don’t have to make a problem out of that. Getting off track — derailed by our train of thought — need not be an occasion for self-castigation or unfavorable report cards, but rather for healthy humility; and it’s a chance to get back on track in a way that both lightens and strengthens us. Of course, we’ll likely continue to fall, to get deflated, to find ourselves on our hands and knees (along with everyone else), even after we’re sure that we’ve learnt the lesson by heart. The goal, however, is much deeper than perfection. Arrival, and a deeper arrival, when the ground once again shifts.
Compassionate attention nonviolently stills our mind. When our mind is thus naturally quieted, the signals of our intuition and heart come through more clearly, allowing us to live more wisely.
Robert Augustus Masters is a psychotherapist, group leader, bodyworker, and teacher of spiritual deepening practices, integrating the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual in his practice. He has authored eight books, including Divine Dynamite, Darkness Shining Wild, and, most recently, Spiritual Bypassing. His essays have appeared in magazines ranging from Magical Blend to the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, as well as in several anthologies. And running rampant through all his writing is poetry, keeping his prose on its toes.