An Extract from The Dhammapada for Awakening
Experience is surely the best teacher, but sometimes its lessons are discouraging. That is why Arjuna told Krishna:
“Restless man’s mind is, so strongly shaken in the grip of the senses: gross and grown hard with stubborn desire for what is worldly. How shall he tame it? Truly, I think the wind is no wilder” (Bhagavad Gita 6:34).
Buddha, who could not have been unaware of Arjuna’s opinion, had this to say on the subject:
Elusive and unreliable as it is, the wise man straightens out his restless, agitated mind, like a fletcher crafting an arrow (Dhammapada 33).
Krishna replied to Arjuna:
“Patiently, little by little, a man must free himself from all mental distractions, with the aid of the intelligent will. He must fix his mind upon the Atman, and never think of anything else. No matter where the restless and the unquiet mind wanders, it must be drawn back and made to submit to the Atman only” (Bhagavad Gita 6:25, 26).
The wayward mind
Buddha lists four characteristics of the mind that render it so difficult to deal with, much less master.
How many people know their minds? Virtually no one. That is why self-analysis (swadhyaya) can be such a revelation. The mind, being a bundle of illusions, has progressed through many incarnations from being a lie to being a liar with an unsettling half-life of its own.
I never thought my mind was worth much consideration, but when I began meditating, and it began to have an effect and thus endanger the mind and ego, I discovered that the mind was virtually a separate person inside me. (In reality, the mind is separate from the Self.) After meditating a while my mind would say: “I am bored. My legs hurt. Why not quit?” If I ignored or told it to shut up it would keep on fussing. One time I said: “That’s right. I am bored. I am going to quit for now.” And my mind became completely quiet. I meditated about twenty more minutes and again my mind announced that it was time to quit. Again I said that I was going to quit, and even said what I was going to do after quitting. Once more: silence of mind. And so it went.
It might seem funny, but it is really frightening.
Within us is an entirely false self–completely false, not a distortion of our real self, though it can imitate it when it suits its purpose. We are all schizophrenic. Our ego/mind is the escaped lunatic that threatens us every moment. It is elusive because it is ever-changing.
This is seen in the account found in the Sri Devi Mahatmyam (Sri Durga Saptashati or Chandi) of the manifestation of the Goddess Durga to vanquish the demon Mahishasura. No matter how much she struck at him with her weapons (and she needed a great many to deal with his many mutations), he kept changing and thereby eluding her. The mind’s capacity to change shape and even become invisible and undetectable is genuinely miraculous. How do you deal with something that can differ from moment to moment and disappear at will? (“What problem?” “What illusion?” “What mind?”)
As we evolve, so does the mind. The bigger we get, the bigger grows the net.
It is astounding that people almost never face the fact of the mind’s unreliability. (Actually, it never arises in their consciousness, so there is no question of facing it or not.) Again, the mind is a liar. It will tell us anything we want to hear or do not want to hear–whichever is the way to perpetuate its control over us. See how the likes and dislikes of the mind swing back and forth, ever changing. For many years people think they are so devoted to some spiritual ideal and in a moment they become either indifferent or inimical to it. It had always been no more than a puff of air.
Buddha told his disciples that adherence to “views” was an obstacle. Why? Because they spring from the mind and are therefore nothing. Even an interest in Nirvana is meaningless when it comes from the mind rather than the deep intuition of the true Self. Most religion is nonsense because it is mind-based rather than spirit-based. We can count on nothing that the mind produces. “Well, I know one thing…,” says the deluded individual as he teeters on the brink of completely changing his “knowing.” The mind can never be trusted, the “spiritual” mind least of all.
Some translators prefer “difficult to guard.” The mind is like a restless horse, a mad elephant, even. How can it be held in check or guarded when it is intent only on that which worsens its condition? The mind constantly demands diversion of all sorts, even delighting in pain and suffering if it can get nothing else as a distraction. As an addict requires larger and larger doses, so does the mind demand increasingly powerful objects and situations for its absorption.
That is what the mind becomes when it does not get its addictions supplied and increased. The mind is desperate in its pursuit of…EVERYTHING. If it had some order to its goals then there might be a chance. But there is nothing it does not want at some time or other, and nothing that it does not equally despise or ignore at some time or other.
The solution: The wise man straightens out his mind
Who would not be overwhelmed at this panorama of determined chaos? Yet the wise man sets himself to the task of straightening out his mind just as a maker of arrows straightens the shaft so it can be sent unerringly to its target by the skilled archer. So after this awful picture we are given hope: the wise man can and does bring the mind under his mastery and renders it accessible, reliable, calm, and content.
How? Krishna put it in the briefest possible way: “Become a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46). Meditation is the means by which we straighten and sharpen the arrow of the mind.