The truth is, for so many years I loved my restless mind. Whenever things were about as busy as they could get, and then got a little crazier, I loved it. I felt like I was in top form, saving the world. Do you ever have that feeling?
From a mindfulness perspective, the problem with that "save the day!" state of mind is that it can obscure things. As often as it feels laser sharp, it can also be moving too fast for nuance, too fast for insight and wisdom to arise.
Let's look at both ways, on today's episode.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen, and this is Wake Up Call #308, on July 8th.
Staying with the beloved text of the Dhammapada, and I’ve been listening on Audible to a wonderful translation by Professor Eknath Easwar, we’ve looked at Chapter One, the Dichotomies, about remembering that unwholesome states of mind lead to sorrow and wholesome ones lead to happiness; the second chapter, Vigilance, about using our mindfulness practice to watch, carefully, what state of mind we’re in, and shift to a more wholesome state whenever we’re not in such a wholesome state – and how essential that is in the law, where it’s unwholesome states are almost sanctioned.
So the third chapter of the Dhammapada is called, simply, The Mind. It starts with some lines that describe the mind and seem familiar to what we’ve been looking at so far, and also, at least to me, to the way I think of the legal mind:
The restless, agitated mind, hard to protect, hard to control….
Like a fish out of water, thrown on dry ground, the mind thrashes about…
The mind, hard to control, flighty – alighting where it wishes…
The mind, hard to see, subtle – alighting where it wishes…
This restless, agitated mind: I really recognize that. When I’m in lawyering mode, I’m looking for what’s wrong, or what might be wrong, or what might go wrong. Often I don’t rest in the present moment because of what I perceive to be danger lurking in every corner, a feeling of missiles, incoming, from any direction I’m not paying attention to. I feel like have to keep scanning, scanning.
Yet I delude myself into thinking I’m at ease, because it does sort of feel that way: I’m putting out fires and they’re going out. There’s endless incoming: ringing phones, looming deadlines, frantic heads poking into my office door, texting kids…and I’m saving the day, not breathless exactly, but also not breath-full, grabbing bucket after bucket, quenching fire after fire, but from a “bring it on!” state rather than from a calm, settled state. Can you relate?
For me, this is the mind that’s “like a fish out of water, thrown on dry ground, …thrash[ing] about.” There is momentum, too: I get in the car and start making calls, finish them in my driveway, check email when I get inside (or look forward to doing that, or feel a pull to do that), then maybe something to review after dinner or, in earlier days, after the kids were settled.
This is my restless, agitated mind. And it has a corollary in somatic experience. The body, and in this case the body of the lawyer, can feel unable to settle: agitated because there’s so much pressure, so much to do, so many people depending on us, pulling on us. And also agitated not only because of those conditions, but because of how seldomly we’re taking a breath or two or three, throughout the day.
This chapter, The Mind, concludes its description of the mind by saying, “for those who are unsteady of mind…and whose serenity waivers, wisdom does not mature.” And isn’t that the case? We can get stuck in this mode, and if that happens, we won’t – we maybe can’t – reach our potential. Our thinking is always obfuscated, even if just a little, when our minds are unsteady, when serenity waivers, when we’re restless, agitated, “thrashing about,” even when thrashing feels productive, like we’re saving the world.
But “for one who is awake,” the chapter promises, “whose mind isn’t overflowing, whose heart isn’t afflicted, [who] establishes this mind like a fortress…, neither mother nor father nor any other relative can do one as much good as one’s own well-directed mind.”
Of course we can read this. We can talk about it. But it’s our own experience that will verify whether any of this is true.
Which is why practice is so essential. Without a meditation practice, how do you know what’s happening in your own mind? How do you learn to notice restlessness and agitation? You can always ask the question, but to know whether learning what restlessness feels like for you, and how to shift into a steadier mode; and in order to be able to predict for yourself what that shift will portend and what failing to shift will portend, it’s all about practice.
I’ll tell you a story about that. Today we’re launching the new Warrior One website. I’m super excited – check it out! (You’ll probably have to do that little trick where you hold down the “shift” button and refresh your browser window to get there, if you’ve recently been to the old site.) I worked with my long-time IT company, which did I think a gorgeous job. But before that, I’d been referred to another company, and worked with them. They’d come highly recommended, by some folks in the mindfulness community in fact. And they did some not-very-nice things. They wrote a tricky contract which this lawyer – shoemakers children have no shoes & all that – didn’t carefully read. Their designer couldn’t achieve what we needed and got exasperated and wrote some not-very-nice things. Their main person set up a zoom call and proceeded to mansplain in a not at all nice way – if there’s a nice way to mansplain – that the fault was all ours. So anyway, we had to pivot. And now, a few months after we did that and now that we have our terrific new site, I want to write to them just to close. Not to ask for a refund (I did read that part of the contract!) but just to close.
And it’s a very potent moment. I’ve written & re-written this note, in a few different states of mind. One was calm. One was compassionate. One was angry. One was agitated. One was restless. You’re maybe familiar with this task. And I still haven’t put their names into the “to” line of the draft. I feel like I have to wait, because in this case, maybe this line of this Chapter is also true: “Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy, or haters, one to another, far worse is the harm from one’s own wrongly directed mind.”
Maybe there’s an email you have to write. Or a call you have to make. So let’s just do a lovingkindness meditation together now, and I’m going to do mine for these folks who messed up my website. And I invite you to do yours for someone whom you could see as the enemy, as a hater, as someone against whom you have the upper hand (and maybe rightfully so), or maybe just someone whom you really & truly feels needs to be schooled. And we’ll leave a minute or two at the end to look, and see, if the practice settles the mind, relieves some of the agitation, and opens up a doorway to even just one ray of wisdom…