It’s not uncommon for practitioners to express frustration with the ups and downs of their practice. Sometimes their minds feel calm and clear, and at other times, their minds feel stressed, distracted, or lethargic. They may feel frustrated that that calm, clear and centered mind doesn’t remain, and they may even question the validity of their practice.
What we are talking about here are the different mind states that our minds experience as our lives unfold, and our desire that the mind states we find agreeable stick around, while those we dislike, keep their distance. Of course, our Buddhist practice teaches us that all conditioned things are impermanent, and ultimately uncontrollable. Mind states fall into this category of “conditioned things.” They are the result of causes and conditions. We could try to track down the causes of the mind states we like and those we don’t like, and try to maintain the appropriate conditions, but it is very hard to control all of the conditions that might lead to a specific mind state, and all that effort would probably only increase our stress.
Fortunately, this is not what we’re asked to do with our insight practice. The Satipatthana Sutta, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, is probably the most important scriptural text for the practice of insight meditation. The four foundations referred to are four domains of experience that we are urged to bring mindfulness to. Those are body, feeling, mind, and dhammas. Mind here refers to mind states. Here is this section of Bhikkhu Analayo’s translation of the text:
For the purposes of our present reflection, it is important to note that the Buddha is not telling the monks to get rid of the angry mind, or the lustful mind, or the distracted mind, and replace it with something better. He is not saying that when there is a concentrated or unsurpassable mind there, that we should try to keep it in place. The instruction is simply to see the mind state that is there, to know it with mindfulness, and not to cling to it, whatever kind of mind it might happen to be. He is challenging us to change the way we relate to our mind states. Rather than trying to pursue and maintain the mind states we like, we are counseled to not cling to any mind state, and simply bring mindfulness to the fact that it is there. The ultimate freedom the Buddha teaches is not to make one’s happiness dependent on any conditioned thing, including the presence or absence of any particular mind state.
In practice this can be difficult to do, because some of these mind states, like angry, lustful, or distracted, feel incompatible with mindfulness. Also, focusing on an unpleasant experience is really no fun. Instead, I suggest just bringing bare knowledge to the fact that the mind state is there, as the Buddha suggests, and bringing most of our mindfulness and curiosity to how we are relating or responding to that mind state. Are we bemoaning its presence and trying to make it go away? Are we rejoicing in it and hoping it lasts as long as possible, or are we simply aware that it is there.
One of the central tenets of Buddhist practice is that we don’t regard anything we experience internally or externally as me or mine. We cease trying to assert ownership of any aspect of subjective experience. If we are trying to get rid of something, that is a good sign that we have assumed ownership of it. We never say, “I need to get rid of that overgrown bush in my neighbor’s yard.” We only try to retain or get rid of things that we believe we own.
It’s easy to forget that we don’t own things. Where I live, we are fortunate to have a nice large open space in our yard where different animals can come and go. Sometimes a large flock of swallows will come into the yard – maybe 20 or 30 of them – and they swoop through the yard, just a few feet above the ground, presumably catching insects that have recently hatched. It’s really an amazing sight to see. But then they leave without a word, and I’m left to wonder where my sparrows have gone. There are other times when skunks come into the yard. They rip up all the grass looking for grubs and creating a real mess. I find myself saying, how can I get rid of these skunks.
Of course, neither the swallows nor the skunks belong to me, and if they could talk, they would probably say that the yard doesn’t belong to me either. I can’t make the swallows come or the skunks leave, but I can watch them come and go. And, while we can’t control the animals that come and go in our yards, we can sometimes increase the likelihood that they will show up by creating conditions that they enjoy – maybe by putting out food that they like. The food that positive mind states are most attracted to is mindfulness. So, while we can’t hold on to the swallows or drive away the skunks, we can do our best to maintain mindfulness so the swallows will be more likely to drop in for a visit.