Living Skills

By: Eknath Easwaran

When I came to Berkeley as a Fulbright scholar in the early sixties, I found a house near a place called Live Oak Park. On the edge of the park, sat a couple of tennis courts, and here, several days a week, the city had stationed a tennis coach with a very good reputation. I had played a bit of tennis in India and had enjoyed it, so I said to myself, “Why not go and benefit from his expertise?”

One morning I carried my racquet over and approached him. “All right,” he said, “stand over there on the other side of the net and let’s take a look at your game.”

I ran to the other court. “Okay,” he called, “go ahead and serve.”

I tossed the ball in the air and hit it for all I was worth. He returned it nicely; I must say. We exchanged a few shots – you might even have called it a rally. I served a few more balls, and then he came to the net and looked at me. “Let’s have a chat,” he said.

I felt flattered. “In only five minutes,” I asked myself, “have I impressed this coach so much? Maybe I have the makings of a Big Bill Tilden.”

“Won’t you sit down?” he said. Then he asked innocently, “Where did you learn to play like this?” “Oh,” I said, “in India. At my university.” “Who taught you?” I had him there. “Nobody,” I said. “I taught myself.” He grimaced. “That’s what I thought!”

And like a really good coach, who is interested not so much in pleasing you as in improving your game, he started without preamble: “The way you stand is wrong. The way you hold the racquet is wrong. The way you throw the ball in the air is wrong. The way you approach the ball and swing is wrong. Naturally,” he added kindly, “the way you miss it, is wrong too.”

My face must have fallen, because he smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “There’s no need to feel discouraged,” he said. “That’s how people who teach themselves tennis, usually start.” And he proceeded to give me a list of instructions, ticking them off on his fingers: one, two, three, four, five. “Start doing all this,” he assured me, “and things will begin to go right.” I guess he was giving me this advice to be encouraging. If you’re someone who has always wanted to take up tennis lessons and wouldn’t get discouraged if you got critisism like I did, why not check out sites like for tennis and sports for kids and get on the courts! You’ll have something to do in your spare time and it is quite fun, especially when you can see yourself improving.

My grandmother, my spiritual teacher, used this same approach to teach me how to live. She was active and vibrantly alive, tough and tender at the same time, and although she used words sparingly, she made each one count. Clearly but compassionately, she would tell me just what I was doing wrong. Then, largely by her personal example, she would show me how to change.

Once, I remember, I got into a senseless squabble with a classmate and came home hurt and angry. Granny took one look at my red eyes and asked, “What happened, son?”

With the simplicity of youth I replied, “Raman called me names.”

My mother would be very tender on such occasions. “Don’t worry,” she consoled me. “What does he know? You’re really a very nice boy.”

But Granny just asked, “And then what?” “Well, he was rude to me, Granny, so I was also rude in return!”

She shook her head slowly. “What is the connection?” I had no answer, of course. Then came the words I dreaded most to hear from her lips. “You’re such a bright boy. Tell me, what does his being rude have to do with what you say or do?”

“But Granny,” I said, “he’s impossible to get along with!”

“There is only one person in the world you can hope to control,” she replied drily, “and that is yourself. Work on how you respond. Otherwise you are like a rubber ball: he throws you against the wall and you bounce back.”

Of course, just hearing this kind of advice does not necessarily help much. If my coach had merely said, “You don’t hold the racquet right,” it would not have improved my tennis game. I would have objected, “Show me how I’m holding it wrong and how to hold it right!” What made Granny a consummate teacher is that she could always show me how to solve my problems: by working on my own mind.

The Mind-Factory

One of the major difficulties in learning to train the mind is, that it is so hard to stand back and see our thoughts clearly. The mind – everybody’s mind – is a vast factory, producing a continuous stream of thoughts of every description: a wisp of anxiety followed by a strong desire; then another anxiety, a palpable fear, two or three irrelevant memories, a surge of anger . . . the assembly line goes on and on. Most of us see ourselves as nothing more than the product of these thoughts. That is where the danger lies.

Most of the products of our mind-factory are rejects. The reason is simple: out of ignorance, or under the banner of some naive notion of freedom, we refuse to supervise production. Our philosophy is free enterprise, “make whatever you like,” and that is what “rejects” are all about.

Anger makes a good example. All of us know people who are accident-prone: on their way to deliver a few words in front of the Garden Club they drop their pen, and when they bend over to pick it up, their feet get entangled in the microphone cord and down they go in a heap. It can be tragic. Yet, how many more of us are anger-prone! All it takes is thinking angry thoughts a thousand times, enough to make anger a reflex. Then we are capable of flying off the handle and saying and doing unkind things with no provocation at all. This is merely a case of the machines of the mind taking over and running us, which is what conditioning means. Such a simple diagnosis of a terrible problem! But it points the way to a solution, for it locates the answer in the mechanics of the mind.

If you go on turning out the same kind of “reject” thought over and over, the machinery becomes conditioned: it begins to specialize in manufacturing that particular type of thought. Then, just as the machines in a garment factory might stamp out the same pattern of shirt from several different fabrics, the machines in your mind-factory will keep on producing the same pattern of thought. Whatever you put in, you get the same old response: anger, hostility, suspicion, jealousy, whatever the mind has been habituated to turn out.

When we see someone reacting like this, we say, “That’s the kind of person he is.” What we should say is “That’s the kind of mind he has” – or, more accurately, “That’s the kind of thinking his mind does.” He has let his mind-factory turn out the same response again and again, and now it produces automatically.

Quality Control In The Mind-Factory

Not only could my tennis coach see clearly what a player was doing wrong, he had a systematic method for showing how to set things right. We can do the same with the mind. Through personal experience, I have developed a method for introducing quality control in the mind.

I do not claim to have made these points up. In fact, part of their appeal is that they appear in all the world’s great spiritual traditions. The methods I present are not particular to any country, culture, or religion; they have been well worked out for modern times. They comprise a program anyone can follow for teaching the mind to be calm and kind.

First and foremost comes meditation, because through meditation we can actually lay our hands on the machinery of the mind. This is imperative, for the mind-factory is already in full production: daytime, swing shift, even graveyard. Thoughts love to work through the weekend without pay, and they never call a strike. “We just get into a rhythm,” they would explain, “and we can’t stop.” With this powerful internal machinery always running, it is crucial to have a supervisor on the job.

The method of meditation I teach, involves sitting quietly with eyes closed and going slowly (in the mind) through the words of an inspirational passage that appeals to you deeply. It might be a prayer, or a poem from one of the great mystics, or a piece of scripture from any of the world’s religions. This method has several direct effects on the quality of thinking. To begin with, it gives the mind’s machinery better raw material.

When you sit quietly every morning with your eyes closed, concentrating completely on words that embody your highest ideals, you are giving your mind, thoughts of the purest quality to work with during the day. A perfect example is the opening of the Buddha’s Twin Verses, taken from the Dhammapada:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart follow the hooves of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy when they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them.

One reason this kind of training is so effective, is that it uses the same machinery that gives the mind its immense power. For meditation to work, you don’t have to reason over, reflect on, question, or answer the words you are meditating on – in fact, if you do, you are letting the mind do its own thing again, letting it produce whatever it wants. Instead, all you have to do is try to give complete attention to one word at a time, and bring the mind back when it wanders. If you are giving a word your best attention, its meaning cannot help sinking in. Anything else actually keeps the meaning from penetrating.

If this sounds easy, try it. The whole factory will rebel. For a long, long time you will feed the words in and the machines will spit them right back at you. The mind will insist on producing its own things, thinking its own thoughts: everything from little distractions (such as what you need to do that day) up to major crises, when you cannot get the mind out of a vicious circle of hostility or craving. To focus on the words of the Buddha, you need to slow down the frantic pace of the thinking process so that you can pay attention to one thought at a time.

Somehow, in our modern civilization, we have acquired the idea that the mind is working best when it runs at top speed. Yet this is not true even with assembly-line production. A racing mind lacks time even to finish a thought, let alone to check on quality. It just churns out whatever it can, the more the better, and the faster it runs more likely it is to overheat, jam, and even shut down and have to be restarted. Slowing down the mind means not only achieving better quality, but actually getting more done. A smooth-running flow of thought saves a lot of wear and tear on the nervous system, which means more vitality and resilience in the face of stress.

Until you experience it, this may sound like the kind of control that takes the joy out of living. But if I may say so, most thoughts are neither joyful nor necessary. It took me many years of meditating to make this discovery. Anxious thoughts – who needs them? Worry – better off without it. Resentments – why ask? Quite a host of our troubles, if you stop to think about it, are due to thinking too much.

Let me hasten to make clear that I am not saying we should throw the machinery of the mind away. I have been meditating for decades, and I assure you, my mind has never functioned better. But I use it when I want to; it does not use me. My thoughts have to come by invitation. Most thoughts are gate-crashers, you see; that is my objection to them. And negative emotions like anger and resentment not only come without an invitation, they crash the party early and eat up all the food. When the proper guests arrive, the plates are empty, the chairs are upside down, and the place is in chaos. Quality control simply means that when thoughts come you can say, “May I see your invitation?” If they don’t have one, you say, “Excuse me, but this party is not for you.”

Meditation, then, is bringing your attention back to quality thoughts, over and over and over. When distracting thoughts intrude, you simply return your attention to the words of the passage. But don’t try to evaluate each thought that arises while you are meditating; you will find yourself lost in a forest of distractions. Instead, teach your mind that during its period of meditation, it has one job and one job only: to keep to the plans laid out by the Buddha. Anything else, however fascinating, is out of order. With practice, your mind will take to this job rather well, and reminders of your meditation passage will come to your mind at crucial times throughout the day.

In some ways, training the mind is very much like training a dog. When we take our dog for a walk in the countryside, the moment he sees a calf or a deer he wants to jump the fence and take off after it. We call, “Come back,” and he comes back halfway. But the old pull remains, and as soon as we look the other way, he is off again. We repeat: “Come back!” It may take a dozen patient repetitions, but he finally settles down and trots amiably by our side.

It is the same with the mind. When you sit down to meditate, a little calf of distraction slips barely noticed past the edges of your consciousness. Suddenly, instead of repeating the words of your meditation passage, you find yourself going over what you plan to tell that client you are seeing for lunch. You make a resolution: “I’m not going to think about her now! I’ve got time blocked out for that when I get to work.” But your mind says, “Listen, I’ve thought of a new slant. If you want me to hold it till nine-thirty, you’re taking a pretty big chance. Why not just make a note of it? Here, take this down . . .” And you’re off.

When distractions come, they can knock on the door of the mind as if they were bent on breaking it down. We get annoyed and open it with a bang, demanding, “Don’t you know I’m trying to meditate? Who do you think you are?” That’s exactly what the distraction wants. It grins and says, “Thanks, boss. That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about. Have you got a minute?” It stands there with its foot in the door, and we are too polite to walk away.

Resisting distractions only strengthens them by giving them your attention. Instead of struggling with distractions when they come, simply give more attention to the words on which you are meditating: “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” The more attention you give to the passage, the less there will be for anything else. As your concentration improves, the disturbance from distractions will become less and less. After a while you may not be aware of the distraction at all.

This sounds like plain, dull work, so let me show you some of its very useful applications.

For one, everybody knows how painful it is to keep thinking about an unpleasant memory. Actually, the problem is not the memory but the fact that we cannot stop thinking about it. We can spare ourselves the agitation by withdrawing the mind from that memory completely.

Take resentment, for example. Resentment is nothing more than compulsive attachment to a set of memories. If you could peek through the window of the mind-factory when you feel resentful, you would see the production line turning out the same emotion-charged memory over and over: “He did that to me in 1983, he did that to me in 1983 . . .” You are dwelling on something that took place in the past – or, more likely, on how you misunderstood that event and reacted to your misunderstanding. When you keep pumping attention into an event in this way, even a limp little memory gets blown up into a big balloon of hostility. If you can withdraw your attention, the balloon is deflated. There is nothing more to it.

Once my young nieces brought home a box of balloons and blew them up until our living room was full of them. It was great fun until one of the balloons burst, leaving only a shred of rubber. Similarly, when you stop pumping up a resentment, there is nothing left to cause trouble. Burst balloons can bring tears to children’s eyes, but a burst resentment floods the heart with relief and love.

Brooding on memories serves no earthly purpose, and it can go on until your mind is so filled with balloons that there is no room for the joy of living. But through meditation, by withdrawing your attention from distractions, you can train your mind to the point where no memory can upset you or drive you into compulsive action.

This is not amnesia. Your memories are still there in the file if you need them. What is lost is their emotional charge.

There is no exaggeration in this. Through many years of practice you can gain such command over your thinking process that if there is a spurt of hostility towards someone, you have only to look at your mind and say “No.” The hostility will wither. If resentment creeps in you can say “Please leave,” and it will go. That is why, after more than forty years, I still catch myself thinking every day, “There is nothing like meditation!”

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