I have a mind that tends to run away with me. Not in a romantic way like taking a beautiful drive down the coast, but in a way where it spins out of control and suddenly I'm stuck in a skipping record of worry, fear, anger, or something worse.
In mindfulness parlance this is a "hell realm." It's a place I know all too well. Maybe you do, too.
The antidotes are remembering it's just a runaway mind (the most usual thing in the world), taking responsibility for any harm done (ug - the most uncomfortable thing in the world), and continuing to diligently train the mind (not the easiest thing in the world).
Fun times. See you soon.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 345. Today’s topic is Taming the Runaway Mind but the original title was, Remembering that Hell is Optional. I just didn’t think I should put that in an email.
I don’t think I’d ever seen the word “hell” used in mindfulness teachings until I read Chapter 22 of the Dhammapada. But it’s the title of the chapter and it feels like it’s used to make a point.
Not a metaphysical or religious point. Or at least I’m not going to talk about it that way today. I’m going to talk about hell as a place we get to on our own, all by ourselves, in any given moment, just by letting our mind run away with us. I learned this once when I was on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which is this gorgeous, nurturing, and - for me - very safe place in the hills of Northern California. It was about day three of the retreat when I started obsessing about this person who was causing me a lot of pain, treating me horribly unfairly, being nasty, getting in my way, on and on and on. This lasted for days. Finally, I had my regularly scheduled meeting with my teacher. He tried to shift my point of view to something more spacious. I couldn’t understand. He tried to help me see that this thought pattern wasn’t personal. It still felt personal. He reminded me that the situation was impermanent. It sure didn’t feel that way. Nothing he offered, stuck, because my mind was stuck. Finally, he just looked at me and said, “hell realm!” and dismissed me.
That dismissal had a huge impact. I was confused at the time and it was a few months before I got what he said. But when I finally did, I understood what hell was, and that I’d created that hell realm all by myself, and for myself, with my own runaway mind.
Chapter 22 is about how.
The chapter says, “those who assert what is not true go to hell, as do those who deny what they’ve done….”
Then it names three ways that we deny what’s true or deny what we’ve done, and end up in hell. Or in a hell realm like I did, at one of the most idyllic places in the world. Here are the ways:
- Being ashamed of what’s not shameful and not ashamed of what is
- Seeing danger in what’s not dangerous and not seeing danger in what is
- Finding fault in what’s not at fault and seeing no fault in what is
Being ashamed of what’s not shameful is an inquiry into unwholesome states of mind, and an invitation not to be ashamed of them. Anger, envy, greed, others – they can be uncomfortable. But they arise because we’re human. And because when the conditions are right, pow, there they are. And because they feel solid, even when we know they’re impermanent. And because even though we’re meditating, we haven’t purified our minds completely, so these states of mind are still possible. Even HH the Dalai Lama said, when asked if he was still angry at the Chinese for taking over Tibet, said, “almost not.” So “being ashamed of what’s not shameful” is about being ashamed of unwholesome states of mind that are perfectly human and not shameful.
The consequence of shame is a different matter. Shame can preoccupy us, making it less likely we’ll catch these states of mind before they infuse our words and actions and cause pain and suffering. And when that happens, shame makes us more likely to turn away, deny, explain, or justify. Thus not being ashamed of what is shameful, is about not being ashamed of turning away, denying, explaining, and justifying.
Upshot: don’t be ashamed of unwholesome states of mind: they’re unavoidable, impermanent, and not personal. Do be mindful and turn towards them, so they don’t take you for a ride and cause harm. And when you miss them, which we do, then be ashamed but don’t spend much time on shame. Put that energy into making amends, being self-compassionate, and cultivating your practice so this happens less often in the future.
Seeing danger in what’s not dangerous, is seeing danger in taking responsibility for the harm we’ve caused. Which for me anyway mostly happens when I’m afraid to admit I’ve caused it because I don’t want to feel bad about my…self. But there’s really no danger. Why? Because there is no such thing as a solid, immoveable, self: we’re all just collections of experiences in motion, changing and morphing as we encounter our day to day world. On the other hand not seeing danger in what is dangerous, is about missing the danger in forgetting that we’re these beautiful kaleidoscopes who need to take responsibility for any harm we cause (and then make amends and be self-compassionate), because when we forget that, and deny, explain, or justify, we end up causing more harm.
Finally, finding fault in what’s not at fault is about blaming the weather, the traffic, opposing counsel, our mom (if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother, right?) – none of which, or whom, are at fault for our unwholesome states of mind. And seeing no fault in what is at fault, is forgetting to be mindful: not taking responsibility to practice more diligently, if we’re slipping into unwholesome states of mind a lot of the time. Because what the practice tells us, and shows us, is that those hell realms are avoidable, if we’re diligent.
Those who assert what is not true go to hell, as do those who deny what they’ve done…. When we’re paying attention, remembering nothing is permanent or personal, taking responsibility, and remembering to be loving and compassionate, including to ourselves, chances are we’re asserting the truth and owning what we’ve done. And when we do that, chances are that we’ll end up in hell, or in hell realms like the one I landed in at that retreat, much less often.