Please see the published version of this article in Elephant Journal here.
The above quote is the theme of today’s post. I wanted to take a moment and summarize what, specifically, the Buddha meant by this statement and, in the process, address some of the misguided New Age quick fixes that have cropped up in the past several years surrounding this quote.
Buddha was not talking about lotto win’s or weight loss or attracting the perfect mate; he was not instructing us to visualize wealth, apply emotion toward that visualization, and then wait for the Universe to deliver it. Buddha’s first sermon took place in a deer park at Benares, India where he spoke to ascetics with whom he had previously associated. This sermon was later referred to as “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Law” and in it the Buddha discussed the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, all of which were foundations of the Middle Way.
Over the next forty-five or so years that Buddha taught, this sermon remained the cornerstone of his message. The nexus of this message was one of discipline, compassion, and mindfulness; all elements intended to cultivate Mind and therefore help ease suffering. Cultivation of the Mind, for Buddhists, is centered on mindfulness, not on the thinking (or Ego) mind. For those who may not be familiar with the concept of the many mind’s espoused in Buddhist psychology allow me to give an example. Assume you decide to try meditation. You sit on the cushion and try to focus on your breath to the in and out rhythm, the expansion of the abdomen and feel of air on your nostrils as you exhale. The breath focus lasts, maybe, two or three seconds and your mind flips to chores, disputes at work, what you’ll have for dinner that evening, whether or not you should clean the toilet, an argument you had with your mother three months before, and so on. . .it is ceaseless. That whirlwind of thought is what Buddhists call Thinking Mind. It is the logical dragon that rears its head, sometimes prevents us from falling asleep at night, and tells us all the things we need to do or should have done or could be doing at the moment, in fact, all the things that would be more useful than sitting on a cushion in a quiet space twiddling our thumbs.
Mindfulness takes practice, lots and lots of practice. Mindfulness encompasses the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, and, yes, the Middle Way; all of the essentials taught by Buddha during that first sermon. Mindfulness helps control Thinking Mind and enables us to identify mental chatter for the nonsense that it often is. This is not to say that Thinking Mind has no place, of course it does; this is merely to say that Thinking Mind should be acknowledged for what it is and nothing more. In short, you are not your thoughts, but if you fail to realize this then it is easy for you to be carried away by them. Mindfulness or the observation of and acknowledgement of Thinking Mind, i.e. mental chatter, is truly transformational. The Buddha said, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” Thinking Mind (or, if you like, Ego Mind) is the primary culprit that leads to suffering and it is for this reason that so much emphasis is placed on mindfulness.
I will discuss this is more detail in later posts, but for now let’s stick to clarifying the opening quote. “What we think we become” is not a magical key poised for insertion into the Mega Millions box. “What we think we become” is a reminder to monitor our thoughts and realize that 1) we are not our thoughts, 2) we can discipline and control our thoughts, and 3) by being mindful of our thoughts we have power, indeed we have the responsibility, to determine how to act, react, or behave in relation to them.
For example, you attend a family gathering and a relative makes a hurtful comment about your weight. The first reaction of Ego Mind is hurt (suffering) perhaps even to become defensive and make a hurtful comment in return. In short, you internalize the weight comment, respond from a place of pain and defensiveness and become, at least for the rest of the family gathering, upset, angry, embarrassed, humiliated, and so on. Thinking Mind has, in effect, created YOU as the upset, angry, embarrassed, and weight conscious entity that has to endure the remainder of the social event. On the other hand, you could respond to the family with a hug and a simple, “It’s good to see and I love you anyway.” We know from research that wishing someone well, especially our enemies or those who have hurt us in some way, can dramatically improve our mood and therefore our outlook on life. Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself and, as always, it does take time, patience, and practice.
Mindfulness practice won’t prevent a family member from commenting on your weight, but it will allow you to monitor your thoughts, perhaps even put them in perspective. When the painful post-comment spiral begins, you can let Thinking Mind take hold and drag you down into depression, pain, and self-criticism, or you can simply acknowledge it, simply say, “I see you Critical Mind, but I won’t let you ruin this day for me,” and carry on. Will it make the pain go away? No, not at first, but with practice you will begin to identify mental chatter for what it is and be better able to get a sense of who You really are. You are not your thoughts. You are not your pain. You are not your weight, house, car, in fact, You are not any of the material items that surround you.
The concept of “creating your reality” is an invitation to acknowledge the present moment and to appreciate it, indeed, to live inside it and allow full experience. Worrying about the past or the future serves no one, but it does lead to suffering and so, in a sense, it may serve the ruminative Thinking Mind. Does this mean you should throw caution to the wind, quit your job and sojourn into the wilderness? If that is your path, then go for it. If it isn’t your path, then do no such thing. No one can tell you who You are, not even the Buddha and certainly not a New Age guru prophesying a quick-fix sure-fire Law of Attraction windfall. I am not suggesting that Law of Attraction is without merit, it certainly does mean well. My suggestion, no, my overt intent here is to encourage you to seek the Truth from within and to do so by cultivating mindfulness. Every action you take results in a reaction, however small, and it is upon this experience that the opening quote is based.
You may well purchase a lotto ticket and win the prize, but the win has everything to do with the action of purchasing the ticket, indeed, the person you became in that moment (i.e., the purchaser of a lotto ticket) and little to nothing to do with magical thinking. Even the New Age proponents of Law of Attraction will attest to this fact: the key lies in the present moment and in proper action steps. Always.
Stay tuned for more articles on mindfulness and the multi-layered consciousness in the coming weeks. The above post is, admittedly, brief and I shall work to clarify the topic. Until then, be the journey and Namaste.
For those who are interested in learning more about Buddha’s first sermon, consider the following links:
- Translated sutra of the First Sermon, hosted by Columbia University.
- Article: Mindfulness Meditation as Buddhist Practice.
- Article: What is Mindfulness (includes links to helpful books).
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