Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 27, 2014

[INSERT: Before the blog, a note about grandpa (that's me) and grandma (my wife Margaret) and our most recent grandchild Iris, just five months old. My daughter May and her husband Seth Bernard are well-known musicians in the Michigan area and around the Midwest. For example, they have appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion" and May is opening for Lyle Lovett & His Large Band" in a few days. This is festival season. The problem is what to do with little Iris when May performs. Grandpa and grandma to the rescue. I thought you might like to see this iPhone photo of a gig they just did yesterday at a gracious home in the wilds of western Michigan. Here they are performing on a little deck (lined with couches) on the edge of a lovely little woodland stream, while fifty or so listeners looked on. It really was a beautiful setting. Grandma and I are sitting with Iris, where the camera is. Iris of an age where she can now interact with Grandpa. Lots of laughs were had and of course I made a fool of myself making her laugh. It was great. And with that said, the blog.]

The whole point of meditation and mind training is to learn to use our own mind. I'd say "use it or lose it," but you can't lose what you have never known. It seems that the hardest part of mind training is breaking away from our ingrained stare at the external world and learning to turn inward and actually look at the mind itself. Do you realize that most people have never done this? I love the passage of the philosopher Hegel from his most important book "The Phenomenology of the Mind," where he says "We go behind the curtain of the Self to see what's there, but MAINLY for there to be something to be seen."

Before we can change our mind, we have to know it, as in: have personal knowledge of it -- grasp it. Unfortunately we come from a culture of mental passivity. So much of our time is spent in passive entertainment like watching TV, listening to music, looking at art, reading books, pretty much anything but the active exploration of our own mind. And we are not even aware of how to do this.

In what little mind training I know, one of the most difficult things, at least what took me the longest, was to stop confusing understanding with actual experience, you know, being satisfied that I had realized something by letting an idea go in one ear and out the other. American culture, which is in some ways so physically active, is pretty much mentally inert. Even when you are reading this, most of you are grasping the concept (understanding the words) and letting it go at that. Understanding does not often move us to action. Once we understand something, we think we are done. This is a very hard habit to break.

As Americans, we understand that the body needs exercise to be healthy. What we don't get is that the mind is meant to be exercised as well. Unfortunately we don't even know what mental exercise is. If asked we might say it is doing the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, solving the Rubix Cube, playing chess or some such thing that is out there to be fiddled with. We don't know the first thing about moving around WITHIN the mind itself, which is the exercise I'm pointing at here.

And I'm no exception. I spent years listening to my dharma teacher pointing out how to use the mind and I never got it. It went right in one ear and out the other. Instead of doing what he suggested, I thought I understood what he said and let it go at that. I mistook understanding for realization. I never realized what he was talking about, which was his whole point in teaching. It went right over my head.

Rinpoche wasn't asking me to just understand his words. He was asking me to actually physically look at the mind itself, to get off my duff and do something. As an example, Rinpoche would say "Determine if the mind is red?" meaning is the mind the color "red?" And I would quickly think, "Of course not. The mind has no color. The mind is not the color red" and let it go at that. I am sorry to say that this went on for years. I substituted understanding for action on my part.

It was not until one year when Rinpoche explained that in Tibet the students of advanced meditation practice were asked the same thing, to determine if the mind is red. They were then told to go off for three days and three nights and do nothing but answer this question for themselves and then report back, only to be asked if the mind was blue and sent away again. This process went on for three months straight!

Well that kind of got my attention. I knew these advanced practitioners were no fools. Why would they be doing this? And at last it dawned on me that Rinpoche was not asking me to understand with my intellect if the mind was red. He was asking me to actually look at and in the mind itself and determine for my own self if it was the color red. This is a completely different thing from what I was doing, understanding in two seconds that the mind was not red and leaving it go at that.

This was a little breakthrough for me, to grasp that I was to get off my passive butt and actually look within my own mind, to go in there, look around, and see if it was the color red. Now you might think that this would be the same as just thinking and understanding as I mentioned earlier, but it is not even close. Please note that.

We know what a 'Charley Horse is', but we don't tend to think of the mind as being muscular, but this is exactly what I faced when I actually tried to look in my mind. It made my mind ache like I had pulled a muscle. The simple fact is that I had up to then never tried to work my mind actively, to exercise by using it that way. When I tried I got a mind-ache just like we get a muscle ache. And you can try it out right this second and see for yourself.

Just try to look at whoever is reading this sentence. In other words, look at the looker! If you actually try this, you will be able to quickly see that it is like putting two magnets of opposite polarity together. There is some push-back. That is what I am talking about, making an effort within the mind to look around. Most of us have never done that, and like anything else it takes practice. And we can get mind-aches in the process; at least I did.

What I am trying to explain and point out here is not just nothing. It is key to learning to work with the mind, the idea that you have to actually do it, not just think or understand it intellectually. The mind is exactly like a muscle we have never used until now and it needs to be exercised. And you will probably get tired from trying. Years ago I wrote this little poem about this:


Learning to rest the mind,
Really puts my practice to the test,
So sometimes I just need to take a break,
And simply get some rest.

The point of all this is that mind training is like physical training in a very real way. We develop a whole different set of mental muscles as we learn to stop thinking about something as a matter of understanding and instead start actually exploring the mind for ourselves. We explore it not passively like we read books. We don't "think" about it. We go into our mind and begin to look at what is there, and this is a whole different kettle of fish.

Going beyond intellectual understanding, which is what most people think is all the mind is for, into an active exploration of who and what is in there is arduous, an adventure. As mentioned, learning to look at who is doing all this looking, going to see in the mind for ourselves, is an essential part of mind training at some point for each of us.

I used to tell myself that this is like erecting a circus tent inside our mind, pushing up the tent poles higher and higher, stretching the elastic mind beyond anything it has ever known. And when the mind is stretched open, we go inside and begin to look around, getting to know what until know we have never known.