One way to think about evil thoughts is to corral the mind and not let them in. Good luck with that. Or I should say, I haven't had good luck with that.
My own mind is capable of conjuring up evil thoughts without much provocation at all, then blithely letting them go forth and multiply.
Here's another idea. What about literally crowding out the evil with the good? What if, instead of trying to corral our minds, we filled them with so many wholesome thoughts that there was no room for anything else?
I can't say what happens because I'm definitely still working on it. On today's podcast I've shared a story about my own "evil" thoughts, and unpacked the practice of crowding them out as best I can. Enjoy.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 328. I hope you had a great holiday week last week, with lots of gratitude out lout and self-appreciation. I also hope you’re pacing yourself into December.
Let’s head back into the Dhammapada. We left off at Chapter 9, which has the very brief and slightly alarming title, Evil.
The way I read this chapter, the point is to watch carefully whenever we notice evil thoughts or actions (sometimes I use the word “unwholesome” instead of “evil” because it feels less alarming, but I suppose “evil” is used for that very reason) – and abandon them right away. And watch carefully for non-evil/good/wholesome thoughts and actions and lift those up. And then lift them up so far, that they take up all the space, and there’s no space for evil anymore.
The first three verses of Chapter 9 say:
Be quick to do good, restrain your mind from evil. When one is slow to make merit, one’s mind delights in evil.
Having done something evil, don’t repeat it, don’t wish for it: evil piled up brings suffering.
Having done something meritorious, repeat it, wish for it: merit piled up brings happiness.
We had a big Thanksgiving. All the relatives. And it’s a blended family, so, people from several different directions. Plus friends. Plus family & friends of family & friends. It was great.
We sat down at the table. My partner and I had been working for three days so I sat down with a smile, and a pretty deep sigh. I remembered to feel my butt in the chair. I turned to my partner, who was about to welcome everyone.
He’d decided to invite a quick go-around with everyone offering one word to say what they’re grateful for just in the moment. We swung around the table. People were grateful for each other, to be together, to meet new folks, for the food, for vaccines!, lots of things. We got ¾ of the way around, and someone I love very much, and who is a also a colleague – a member of the tribe – meaning the tribe of the lawyers – said, “pass.”
My heart broke. I was just so, so, so, sad. Sad that there wasn’t anything coming to mind, or that there was too much panic to speak, or that some mood was in the way, or for whatever was happening.
And then judgment arose. Why couldn’t they say anything? They have a lovely family, a thriving law practice. What’s wrong with them? Who has no gratitude? Judgment, and also meanness. The very evil Chapter 9 is talking about.
But then what happened next was, I forgot about Chapter 9. And I don’t do anything about the judgment, or the mean thoughts. I’m not “quick to do good.” I fail to “restrain [my] mind from evil.” I fail to fill the space – the mind – with wholesome thoughts: thoughts of compassion and love, which are there for the summoning.
Instead I just let my mind fester. I watched as it did exactly what the verse says, delight[ed] in evil. I realized it was doing that because a few days later, when it was our turn to go to this person’s home for a Chanukah party, I assumed they’ll be the same – grumpy, anxious, depressed, tight, unpleasant, or maybe none of those things but somehow, ungrateful…or at the very least, unable, or unwilling to express gratitude. I had it in my mind that that’s what I’d encounter. I braced for it. I realized I didn't want to go, even though I did want to go because I love being with my family. But as the verses say, evil piled up really does bring suffering. I could see I was in an aversive mood.
And then when we arrived at the Chanukah party, this person was in a great mood! They were super fun. The party was terrific.
I was relieved. I got there, too. I had a lot of fun, too. But finally (finally!), I noticed what had happened. And wow, what a waste of time, and energy, and emotion, on my part. And fundamentally, what a wasted opportunity for practice.
I could have gone straight to compassion, like I fleetingly did, and then stayed there. I could have remembered how much I love this person at the time, at Thanksgiving. I could have guessed how hard it was for them to say “pass” to gratitude, and how, whatever state of mind obfuscated their being able to think of something they were grateful for, must be a strong and for them, difficult, state of mind. And I could have seen how the same thing was happening for me.
Chapter 9 talks about this very thing. It says:
Don’t disregard evil, thinking, “It won’t come back to me!” With dripping drops of water even a water jug is filled. Little by little, a fool is filled with evil.
Don’t disregard merit, thinking, “It won’t come back to me!” With dripping drops of water even a water jug is filled. Little by little, a sage is filled with merit.
I’m a fool for missing the opportunity to practice at Thanksgiving and in the days following. And I’m a sage for eventually remembering, even if way too late. Maybe you can relate? Because if so, then we’re all fools, and we’re all sages. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said. He actually said, Do I contradict myself?Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes). Which is even more accurate. We contradict ourselves: we’re all fools, and we’re all sages.
So when we see our own evil, our own foolishness, and at least for me there’s plenty to see, can we catch it? Can avoid what happened to me: how, little by little, [I was] a fool…filled with evil. Or can we at least do that some of the time? Or more of the time?
And when we wake up, even for a moment, and see our own love, compassion, and caring hearts, can we catch that, and then maybe put our hand on our heart, or smile, and let in that goodness, that merit? And then cultivate it, let it foment just like – at least for me – the evil ordinarily would – and let the goodness and merit take up more space, or eventually all the space, so there’s no room for evil? So that little by little, [we can be a] sage…filled with merit