Tumbling Like a Waterfall: Thoughts and Your Meditation Practice
By: Alakananda Ma
Lassoing the Wild Horse
When we begin our path of meditation, our mind is like a young wild horse, completely untamed. Our thoughts tumble like a waterfall, one thought crowding upon another. The first step of the path is simply to gain the ability to sit still for as long as it takes to eat a meal or sip a cup of tea; that is, for about twenty minutes. Surrounded by many stimuli, we are not accustomed to doing nothing. Even when we are not busy at work, we have innumerable distractions—email, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, local radio, cable television, You Tube, newspapers, cell phones, shopping and more. When we sit to meditate, we turn off the radio, phone, television and computer and sit still. Now we can have some peace. Or can we? Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone are nothing compared to the ingenuity of our own mind. It was our mind that created these distractions and it is our mind that perpetuates them while we attempt to sit still and do nothing. Don’t be surprised if, after a few minutes, you remember something very important you forgot to do…that just can’t wait. It’s only been ten minutes and you are up and doing something already.The first step of taming a wild horse is lassoing it, so the young horse will learn that it can’t run wherever it wants. And the first step of working with the mind is to offer our rampant thoughts a gentle rope. You might choose to use a mantra, or simply to work with the breath. Giving the mind an object of awareness is like roping the wild horse. You will still wander off into thoughts, but now you have something to come back to. The analogy given by the Tibetan masters is that of a pigeon on the mast of a ship. The pigeon flies off here and there, but it always returns to the ship for food and water. In the same way, even though your mind is wandering here and there, it will always return to the breath.
Making Friends with Our Mind
Once our mind starts to settle and becomes accustomed to returning to the breath, we have begun to develop some basic concentration and peacefulness. We find we can sit for longer periods, gently bringing the mind back to the breath whenever it wanders off. Now that your wild horse has grown accustomed to the rope, it’s time for you to get to know the horse. A real master does not dominate the horse, but rather, creates a partnership based on mutual trust and respect. You have been blessed with a human birth, and that means having a lively human mind. Our mind is amazingly agile. It can travel the world faster than the speed of light, and travel through time too. So now, begin to befriend your mind. What kind of thoughts tumble in your waterfall?
As you watch the flow of thoughts, you will see that thoughts fall into two categories: thoughts about the past and thoughts about the future. Thoughts about the past are basically memories, perhaps accompanied by anxiety or guilt about what we did or did not do. Thoughts about the future include wishing, hoping and planning, often accompanied by anxiety about outcomes. Whenever your mind is thinking, it has left the present moment and gone into the past or future.
After spending some time noticing how our mind wanders into the past and future, we can now take careful note of the specific texture and quality of our thoughts. In Ayurveda there are three doshas, Vata, the airy dosha, Pitta, the fiery dosha and Kapha, the earthy-watery dosha. In our mind, these three doshas manifest as three distinct kinds of thought. The airy, Vata quality in our mind loves to fantasize about the things it wants. It blows here and there. “I want ice cream…I want to go on a trip to Hawaii…I want to get a new car…I want so-and-so to like me… I want a new boyfriend…” Vata brings thoughts that fixate on craving or attraction. There are endless images and fantasies of the things we want to get, along with anxiety about not getting them. The anxiety about not getting what we want makes our mind speed up to a Vata, windy pace.
Meanwhile, hot, fiery Pitta drives thoughts about things we don’t want. “I’m uncomfortable about…I’m mad that…I’m angry about…I’m irritated about…I’m frustrated with…I hate when…” Pitta brings thoughts focused on aversion, along with anger and irritation at not being able to get rid of the things we don’t want. The annoyance at not being able to eliminate unpleasant things heats the mind up into a raging Pitta fire. As for dull, slow Kapha, “I just don’t care…it doesn’t matter…it’s none of my business…whatever…” Kapha fogs the mind with thoughts rooted in ignorance, which appear as neutral states— an ignorant neutrality very different from true equanimity. The ignorance of simply not caring lulls the mind into sleepiness and dullness.
The secret is not to try and get rid of thoughts—that would simply be another form of aversion. Nor do we want to become attached to our thoughts, another form of craving. Simply noticing the quality of thoughts flowing in our mind brings us into mindfulness, the next step of taming the horse. And as we befriend our mind, we come to see that underneath each kind of thought there is sanity. Underneath Vata’s craving is joy and delight. If we don’t chase after Vata’s fantasies, we can take delight in the good things that manifest in our lives. Underneath Pitta’s aversion is clarity. If we stop trying to get rid of unpleasant things, our tendency to aversion becomes a power of discrimination that guides us in our choices. And underneath Kapha’s ignorance and dullness is tranquility. If we don’t identify with our turning away from life in order not to be bothered, Kapha’s neutrality becomes a calm tranquility that helps us through the ups and downs of life.
Riding the Horse of Mind
Now that you have some concentration and peacefulness to sit still and some awareness, mindfulness and equanimity regarding the flow of thoughts, your mind is no longer tumbling like a waterfall. Instead it is flowing slowly and gently, like the Ganges at Varanasi. It is the nature of your mind to think, just as it is the nature of a river to flow or of a horse to run. The time has now come to mount your horse and ride. Using the reins of awareness and mindfulness, you can guide the mind in the direction you want to go, rather than being carried here and there by whatever thought arises. This stage of training the mind consists of cultivating thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion. Breathe in “May I be happy,” sending nurturance to every cell of your body. Breathe out “May all beings be happy,” sending love and nurturance to the entire world. Like the sun that shines on everyone without distinction, send loving kindness and compassion to all, without making any distinction of friends and enemies. Loving kindness is the wish, “May all beings be happy” and compassion is the wish, “May all beings be free from suffering.” There is a beautiful Sanskrit prayer that contains the essence of both loving kindness and compassion. Sarve bhavantu sukhina—May everyone be happy. Sarve santu niramaya—may everyone be free from all diseases. Sarve bhadrani pashyantu— May everyone see the good. Ma kaschit duhkha bhagbhavet—may all miseries be destroyed. If you wish, you can repeat this prayer at the conclusion of your meditation time.
Your sitting meditation period is a training session, learning to guide your newly tamed horse gently, in accordance with its nature. The real test is your everyday life. It is one thing to generate thoughts of love and compassion when you are sitting peacefully in meditation and another when your two-year-old just decorated the house with your lipstick or a co-worker threw a hissy fit. Getting the mind accustomed to move in the direction of love and compassion calls for great patience and perseverance.
Every one of us has a lifelong habit of dwelling in thoughts of craving, aversion and ignorance. Replacing this old habit with different ways of thinking takes time. Through repeated practice, we build new synapses in our brain. There are periods when it seems as if we are not getting anywhere. Then a crack of light shines through. We see ourselves behaving in fresh and different ways and realize that our practice has borne fruit. A while ago, I had general anesthesia for surgery on a broken wrist. When I came to senses, I said, “Where am I? I’m thirsty. My arm hurts.” Then, while still completely groggy, I said, “May all the pains of sentient beings lighten solely upon myself, and may all beings attain enlightenment.” At that moment, I realized that dharma works. Patient efforts lead to a trained mind that effortlessly flows in paths of loving kindness.
As you become accustomed to the horse and get to know its different paces, you also want to make sure your mount stays healthy. Intrusive thoughts are a sign that the fine horse of our mind needs some care. If your meditation is taken over by dark, heavy thoughts about impending catastrophes, your utter worthlessness and how the world would be a better place without you, this is a symptom of depression. Intrusive thoughts cannot be dealt with alone, any more than you could set a broken bone on your own. It’s time to seek out an ally such as an Ayurvedic practitioner or psychotherapist. If there are intrusive thoughts about ending your own life, a psychiatrist would probably be the best ally for the time being.
Meanwhile, if your meditation time leaves you feeling dark and heavy, it is better to use that time for a contemplative walk. Go into a park or place in nature and walk slowly, trying to notice the world around you. Smell the pines, watch the birds, and breathe in the fresh air. If intrusive thoughts come in, stop, take some deep breaths, look around you and come back to where you are night now. As your Vata, Pitta and Kapha become rebalanced, the intrusive thoughts will cease to trouble you and your normal practice can safely be resumed.
The Thought to End All Thoughts
What next? After you have gained skill in riding the horse of mind and guiding it in paths of love and compassion, new vistas open out. Endowed with concentration, tranquility, mindfulness, awareness, and equanimity in working with thoughts, you are ready to add a new quality—self-enquiry. The thought, “Who am I?” is regarded as the thought to destroy all discursive thoughts, the scalpel that excises the cancer of illusion, the thorn that removes the thorn stuck in our foot. Originating in the ancient Vedantic texts, the Upanishads, the practice of self-enquiry was revived for modern seekers by the great South Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi. It is a simple practice, yet one calling for clarity and dedication. Whatever state of mind arises, simply enquire, “Who is thinking this? Who is feeling this? Who am I?” Don’t try to answer the question with conceptual thought. Rather, rest in the question. For instance, if anger arises, ask, “Who is angry? I am. Who am I?” If joy or rapture arises, don’t get carried away by the rapture. Ask, “Who is experiencing this? I am. Who am I?” If sleepiness and dullness arise, ask, “Who is sleepy? I am. Who am I?” When you rest in the question “Who am I?” thought stops and for an instant your true nature shines forth.
Practicing self-enquiry brings freshness and curiosity to each experience. Asking with real interest, “Who am I?” we can penetrate the density of our ingrained patterns of thought. We move our attention from the thought to the thinker. Where does consciousness arise? Who am I? With the practice of self-enquiry, your horse of mind becomes a winged horse, soaring into the immeasurable space of the heart. When you direct your attention from the thought to the thinker, every thought, however trivial, however neurotic, however obsessive, can be transformed into silence and radiant awareness. You awaken to the true nature, beyond the conceptual mind. In each moment of genuine self-enquiry, the river of thought flows into the “vast ocean where the lights of son and mother merge in one.”