Thinking: Winning the Battle of the Mind
The ignorant are trapped
(The Tao is Tao, 121)
Article from True Tao Website below:
Heaven says our mind is like chimpanzee, jumping up and down non-stop and running like wild horses, running here and there, ending nowhere. The sky is like the cover of the coffin and earth is the coffin. There is nowhere we can run and escape, the only thing we can do is to seek for the Truth and practise the Truth to escape from this sea of sorrows. We have to understand our mind and let Tao lead us to the Truth to win the battle of the mind. Do not let your life live in vain.
TA Chew Home Page
This essay is an effort to explain some of the principles and techniques
involved in dealing effectively with your thoughts and emotions in real life.
What I will describe is less a method than an approach. It is subjective
and far from comprehensive. It covers mainly my own experience. I am
far from perfect, so my approach will not be perfect either. But I will
nevertheless share it with you in the hope it may be a guide to you, or
at least of some comfort, for it is good to know that there are kindred
spirits out there sharing your problems.
Please read my suggestions critically, try them out if you want to, and
make up your own mind about them. It is essential that you find your
own approach and techniques that will assist you personally in your
effort to deal with your own mind.
The crucial battle
Most religions emphasize it. We know it. There is no sidestepping it.
Our battles are won or lost in our minds. It is what Buddhists call
"Right Thinking" as an essential part of the Eightfold Path to
Enlightenment. "Right Speaking" and "Right Action" are impossible
without it. Yet, particularly to people who have grown up in societies
where the focus is mostly on the external and the materialistic, this is
a very difficult challenge. How do you control your thoughts?
Often sincere people fail in their effort to win the battle in their minds,
because they do not know how, and they lack the assistance of experienced
people. This has improved somewhat in the last few years during which
various meditative disciplines have been introduced to the West.
In a society segmenting all aspects of life, people tend to see their
mental and spiritual development as separate from the rest of their
lives. This is a fateful error. You cannot separate your thinking from
whatever you are doing. You will only progress if you take up the
challenge on all levels of development simultaneously.
You cannot, for instance, practice a profession which breaks all rules
of compassion and expect to be able to switch off during meditative
sessions to become more compassionate. To be able to really develop,
you will have to change your profession, or, if possible, change the way
you are practicing it. Few have the luxury or courage to do so.
In the same way, you cannot decide that you are first going to learn to
contain your thoughts before you start with any other form of development.
This does not work either. You must quite simply take up the challenge
on all levels simultaneously. You must immediately start working on
reducing your ego, improving the way you deal with people, resetting
aims and evaluating priorities, to name just a few aspects. The approach
is essentially holistic. You develop as a whole.
There is a general misconception amongst Westerners that meditation
is all about silencing your thoughts to a point where they become
The idea is not so much to rid yourself of your thoughts than not to
hold on to them. A "thoughtless" state over an extended period of time
is quite simply neither possible, nor desirable. The idea is to be in
control of your thoughts, and not to be controlled by them. You will
only be truly free from your thoughts if they do not bother or manipulate
you; you are not free from them if you have to fight to suppress them all
the time. In fact, it is then that they run your life totally. As far as I am
concerned, you are totally controlled by your thoughts if you have to
spend every moment of your life trying to ban them from your mind.
Choosing a meditative form
You must choose your meditative methods according to your needs
as well as your temperament and style. For example, passive methods
do not appeal to me personally. This has something to do with my
temperament. I would hasten to add that I am not saying that the more
passive methods are not beneficial to many people of a different
temperament. Of course they are. Some people would even argue
with justification that these methods might even be good for
someone of my temperament, for they will teach me much about
disciplining my own mind. My only rather meek answer would
be that I do not want to make it too difficult for myself. It is
difficult enough as it is.
For example, I have tried the method of counting my breath,
and I have found that it could be helpful, and it is an effective
method to calm down in crises. Practicing it for days or weeks on
end does not work with me. I am bored to distraction by it.
I prefer meditative methods that include movement, like Tai Chi
Chuan, which I have been practicing for many years now. To me,
Tai Chi alone does not suffice. I do Tai Chi in conjunction with
other forms of meditation, of which my favourites are meditative
thinking about all aspects of life, and meditative walking.
It is important to find methods of meditation that suit you and that
you enjoy most of the time. One warning, though. What I have
said so far could easily encourage people to switch methods faster
than they can find them. What I would like to point out is that there
is no form of meditation which acts as a quick-fix solution to problems.
Do not give up a method until you have really tried it long enough.
All methods I know and have tried need time and patience. The
"counting your breath" method, for example, is not a method that
can be tried for a week, and then be given up. You have to practice
it for a considerable time before you find out if it is beneficial to you.
I started benefitting from Tai Chi only after at least a year of daily exercise.
Even the word "beneficial" is problematic. Many forms of meditation,
for example Zazen, is not even supposed to be "beneficial" in the
conventional sense of the word.
Often many of these forms of meditative exercise are only successful
under the supervision of some master or teacher. Unfortunately, there
are quite a number of less knowledgeable teachers posing as masters
of various meditative disciplines, particularly in the West. There is a
deluge of publications and tapes on the market. Finding ones of
quality also often presents considerable problems, often depending
on trial and error.
Many meditative forms are designed for people who have the luxury
of spending long periods in retreats. But who has this luxury today?
Who can spend long periods of time in isolation? You have probably
experienced it yourself. It is when you need spiritual revitalization
most that you do not have time. That is the reason you are run down
in the first place. Once you are exhausted mentally and spiritually,
you seem to have fallen into a chasm from where there is no escape.
In our modern hectic world - which most of us cannot escape because
we have no choice but to struggle for survival out there - we need
meditative exercises that work in our everyday environment of stress
Listening to your thoughts
As calmness returned,
her thoughts tiptoed in,
like apprehensive guests,
ready to leave
at the first sign of disapproval.
Like intruders afraid of the
her negative emotions receded,
as she called them by their names.
all unwanted guests gone,
(The Tao is Tao, 127)
The endless stream
When you "listen" to your thoughts, you will discover that they move
through your mind in an endless stream, one thought following the
other, by association, or evoked by external stimuli, or sometimes
seemingly randomly. Your mind is almost like a radio receiver of
thoughts, but the radio does not seem to have control buttons. You
can neither switch off the radio, nor switch to another station, or so
it seems at first.
A listening attitude
The first step in dealing with your thoughts is to adopt a listening
attitude, to become aware of your thoughts entering and leaving
your mind. It is not that difficult. At the moment I have the luxury
of being able to walk to my work. It is a brisk walk of about a mile,
and it takes me about ten minutes to negotiate. During this walk, I
tune in to my inner self, and listen to what is going on in me. Even
when you are forced to throw yourself into commuter traffic, as I
was forced to several years back, you have ample opportunity to
tune in to your thoughts. What you need to do is switch off the car
radio, for in this exercise you do not need any unnecessary distractions.
Finding beautiful thoughts
Thoughts and emotions are closely linked. Their separation is artificial.
Emotions create thoughts, and thoughts evoke emotions. Mostly, it is
difficult to say which caused which.
While I am walking to my work, I would tune in to my thoughts and
emotions. I would do so without clinging to any of the thoughts
entering my mind. I would allow them to enter and leave. At the
same time I would enjoy my environment around me, using every
opportunity to allow beautiful thoughts to enter my mind.
Let me give you an example. I pass a tame goose every morning.
He is a magnificent, spoiled goose, who has been adopted as a
downy gosling by people who adore him, and he has his own little
pond which was specially constructed for him. Whenever he sees
me, he gives me a goose honk, and looks at me regally, the way
only a goose can look at you. I love that goose. It is a delight to see
him every morning. He makes me smile.
Finding beauty in your environment fills you with beautiful
thoughts and emotions.
Getting rid of negative thoughts
I am continuously listening to my thoughts moving through my mind,
and I am on the lookout for negative ones. Negative thoughts have a
way of camouflaging themselves, I find. It is almost as if they are
afraid of their true nature, and want to hide their negativity from you.
They would often come to you in a very respectable guise, but in such
a way that you would "cling" to them. You would not allow them to
leave, but invite them to stay in your mind. They would then
preoccupy you to the exclusion of other thoughts. Often they
take the form of daydreams. The trick lies in exposing them
for what they really are.
Let me give you an example. You would find yourself daydreaming
about a situation. Colleagues are talking about you in awe. "Wow,"
the one would say, "I didn't know he was that good!" The colleague
being spoken to would be your rival, and would pull a sour face.
This is a pleasant daydream. So it repeats itself. It might even create
new dreams of self-grandeur. For that is what it is. You are busy
pumping up your ego, and you are giving your feelings of animosity
and rivalry free play in your mind. The moment you recognize this,
your daydream will pop like a soap bubble.
So, the first step in combating negative thoughts and emotions is to
identify them and to label them appropriately. Do not call them
"your" thoughts or emotions. They are not really part of your true
nature. Say to yourself, "These are thoughts of jealousy."
Once exposed, negative thoughts tend to slink out of your mind as
if ashamed of themselves.
They disappear even faster when they are laughed at. They cannot
survive ridicule. I would often chuckle at thoughts entering my mind.
"You again," I would chuckle at a silly emotion, shaking my head in
disbelief, and it would dissolve instantly. Humour has a wonderful
way of solving problems, particularly "serious" ones.
Always in tune
What I have found is that after some exercise, you can be continuously
aware of your thoughts and emotions in all situations.
"But," you might object, " doesn't this kill all spontaneity and intuition
in you? Doesn't everything become terribly contrived?"
This is a good point. When you practice this at first, you might have
spells where you have difficulty "being natural", but this will not last
long. Being aware of your thoughts becomes such a natural part of you
after a while that your spontaneity returns, but it will have lost some of
its dangerous characteristics. Spontaneity is an instant reaction without
control. Spontaneous reactions are only good if they are positive
reactions. Negative spontaneity can be devastating.
Spontaneity and intuition are not synonymous. In fact, being aware
of your thoughts without clinging to them brings you even in closer
contact with your intuitive side.
Turning the negative into positive
You have probably often experienced daydreams of revenge.
You would react in your mind to a particularly painful sequence
of events, in which you have been humiliated or hurt or betrayed.
You would now daydream how you return the insult in kind. Your
victim would be the person who had hurt you. You would rehearse
what you would say when you next meet that person. You would
cut that person down to size, or humiliate him.
Dreams have ways of becoming reality, particularly daydreams.
They become self-fulfilling prophecies. Thoughts become attitudes,
and attitudes are the determinants of action. If you should nurture
your animosities, they only become worse, and you will end up
acting in hatred.
Let us look at a concrete example. A colleague with a reputation
for meanness and backstabbing has hurt your pride. She has
deliberately highlighted a mistake you have made, and added
her bit to it. In your mind, you now tell yourself, "Just let her do
it again, and I'll rip her apart." Your hurt has now turned into
hatred. Hatred is nothing else but the commitment to hurt, break
down or destroy. Your whole attitude now becomes predatory.
And, as it happens in life, this colleague, flushed with success
and exceedingly stupid, confronts you again. But this time you
are "ready" for her, and you climb into her with venomous intent.
It is incredible how hatred can show you where to hurt others.
So that remark about her being "unloved" and "insecure,
desperately searching for admiration" must have hurt her most.
The fact that some colleagues, ex-victims of the same colleague,
congratulate you on "cutting her down to size" might even strengthen
you in the illusion that you have acted in self-defense and therefore
justly. Hatred can be so devious. It is a master of camouflage. People
who act in hatred are seldom aware of the fact that they are acting in
hatred. They will give this detestable emotion many flattering names,
but seldom its true one.
Hatred is incredibly infectious. It easily becomes pandemic. How
do you prevent being infected by it? Again, you must win the battle
in your mind. Your mind becomes infected first. You allow hatred
and its accompanying thoughts to settle into your mind. You cling
to them and expand on them. They take over. Hatred is the great
equalizer. It endeavours to turn all people into perpetrators of hatred.
The moment you hate, you become a multiplier of hatred. You are
spreading the disease.
"But," you would object, "it is certainly not that easy to control
your thoughts!" And you would be right. Your development must
be holistic. If you are incredibly greedy, you will not be able to
get rid of jealous thoughts. If you have too much ego and are
therefore preoccupied with other people's opinion of you, you
will have too much pride, and thoughts of pride and revenge will
take over in your mind. You are vulnerable because too many
negative emotions and qualities control your life.
However, practicing this control of your thoughts really helps you
to get rid of negative tendencies in you. It assists you in attaining
the necessary distance to your own thoughts.
But let us return to our example. The problem you have after you
have been hurt is to win the battle in your mind. You should see
to it that your hurt pride does not become hatred. There are many
other possible ways in which you can handle this situation. You
can play through these unpleasant scenarios in your mind. But
see to it that you act in your scenarios the way someone filled
with compassion and wisdom will act. It can be amazing what
it can show you. You might then see that there are many possible
ways to deal with your hurt. You might even see that your hurt is
the result of what is perhaps your own over-sensitivity, which
again might be the product of your inflated ego.
One attitude to adopt to difficult people, which is suggested by
many Buddhist texts, is to see these people as a challenge.
They present to you an opportunity to develop spiritually.
You should not let the puniness of small-minded people affect
you negatively. You should treat them with compassion.
"Easier said than done," you could again counter. "How could
you act with compassion if you do not feel it? Are you then not
There is a terrible misconception that you are only sincere if you
act according to your emotions. This misconception is also the
reason why emotion is given undue weight in religion. The truth
is that you should act according to your convictions - even if they
go against those emotions trying to control your mind. If, for example,
you know that you should act in compassion, but the emotions in you
do not agree, it could only be because there is something wrong with
these emotions. Be patient. Compassion has a way of getting rid of
destructive emotions. Practice the right scenarios in your mind -
the ones where you act wisely and compassionately - and the negative
emotions in you will flee. Taking up the battle in your mind is a way
of reducing your ego. It is the first step in fighting those negative
qualities controlling you. The next step is to act correctly. The
correct emotions will follow.
There is a danger involved in this kind of exercise, of course. It can
happen that you alienate yourself from your emotions. You could
have your repressed emotions causing tremendous wear and tear in
you. It would be ideal if you had real friends of similar convictions
that you could talk to and express your frustrations to.
Unless you are totally devoid of ego - and who is? - you will
sometimes experience situations where you have been forced to
eat too much humble pie. I find that, sometimes, in tense situations,
where I have been forced to eat more humble pie than I can digest,
I would end up with a great deal of aggression that has to be worked
off somehow. That is where meditative activities could be of great
help. Or some creative activity, where you could get rid of the
destructive energies eating into you. But no matter what methods
you use, they should assist you to ban negative thoughts and
emotions from your mind, and, ideally, replace them with positive ones.
The difficult road
The compassionate road is not an easy one. It is probably easier to
use other people as punching bags, if you have the stomach for it,
than to become a punching bag yourself.
Another discovery you will make as you increase your awareness
of your mental processes, is that you also become more sensitive to
the mental processes and emotions of other people. It becomes
increasingly difficult to treat people meanly. Which is good, isn't it?
Even if you could be mean to people without it bothering you much
in the past, you would now suffer acute pangs of remorse at the least
meanness from your side. It is like the difference between the
sensitivity of the eye and normal skin. Whereas a small speck of
dust would not bother the skin, it is agony to the eye. Your sensitivity
about the way you treat people turns from that of sensitivity of the
skin to the acute sensitivity of the eye.
It has repercussions. Sometimes you have no choice but to be hard
on people to educate them. Sometimes compassion dictates to you
that you should take less pleasant measures. Some people leave you
with no choice. I have often experienced this with students, even
with some colleagues. They would react negatively or not at all
to your efforts to solve problems in a friendly and non-aggressive
fashion. Then you would revert to more forceful tactics, and
immediately they would respond positively. You also get people
who would take over your life if you did not draw unequivocal
lines on the ground. As you grow more sensitive, you should not
lose your ability to act forcefully when it is necessary. Becoming
sensitive and being dedicated to non-aggressive action should not
turn you into someone who is weak.
I have experienced that when my approach is essentially friendly
and peaceful, I would sometimes be confronted by people who
interpret my non-aggression as weakness, and try to take advantage
of me. You have no choice but to let them realize that you are not
weak. Sometimes you have no choice but to do it the hard way.
But do not become impatient here. Try everything else first, and
only go over to more vigorous methods of defense if you are sure
no other method will work. Be sure that what you are defending is
not just your own ego. Remain as compassionate as possible.
Once you have really developed spiritually, it will really hurt
you more than it hurts them if you have to act severely. That is the
downside of the road you have taken. Don't worry. The reward
is worth its price.
Weakness and the ego
You are weak when you cannot act firmly because you are too
dependent on other people's opinions. You have probably experienced
people who cannot disagree and always go along with everyone
because they do not want to get into anyone's disfavour. These
people are trapped by other people's eyes. They are like leaves
blown about by the wind. This kind of weakness is not sympathetic,
it is destructive. These people often fail you when you need them
most. You cannot depend on them when you have made the wrong
choice, for they will not tell you. A true friend is like a mirror.
If you look at him, he should reflect the reality of yourself to you.
The less ego you have, the more independent you become. In fact,
I have found as a teacher that compassion, real compassion, is only
possible when you have acquired the necessary detachment and
distance from your students. Your emotions should play as small a
role as possible. The moment you either love them or hate them,
you live in a dangerous zone, for it means that you are controlled
by your own emotions. Compassion is less a feeling than a form of
constructive action or non-action.
Your increase in sensitivity as you develop spiritually will find some
relief in the fact that your ego is shrinking as you develop. It is good
to remember that you cannot truly develop unless you reduce your ego.
No comfort zone
Emptiness is not a comfort zone. It is like being out in the open, facing
the storms head on. Living close to the Tao is living close to reality and
being on intimate terms with suffering. It also means you sometimes
have to suffer more than you would care to.
Enlightenment is not a form of escape. You need courage for this.
Do not worry. Compassion has a way of supplying you with the
courage to face the challenge.
Avoid repressive measures
Those desperate for peace
drive all thoughts from their minds,
locking themselves behind iron gates,
from where there is no escape.
The Taoist sage has peace
and remains unattached to thoughts
which may come and go
as they please.
His gates being wide open,
the Taoist sage wanders
in total freedom
wherever the Tao leads him.
(The Tao is Tao, 122)
You cannot repress your recurring negative thoughts. You have no
choice but to deal with them. Some are easy to handle, and they
would disappear the moment they have been labeled. Some, however,
might be so painful that you prefer not to deal with them. These
thoughts are often the most dangerous ones, for if you do not deal
with them, you are in fact turning your back on real problems.
But let me use a concrete example to explain.
I had a colleague who once insulted me quite badly. She was suddenly
unreasonable and derogatory, and that in spite of the fact that I had
always been friendly and helpful towards her. I was not prepared
for this, but, thankfully, the suddenness of her attack perplexed
me so much that I did not react. But I felt hurt and abused, and
afterwards my feelings were so unpleasant that I repressed them.
I did not allow myself to deal with the problem - the memory of it
was too unpleasant. I shooed thoughts of the incident from my mind.
My repressive measures would have explosive results. The very
next day, she again became aggressive towards me. This time I
was less tongue-tied, and being ill prepared for it, I exploded,
cutting her down verbally, leaving her in a dejected state, weeping bitterly.
What I did was totally wrong, of course. It was the result of my
previous repression of my thoughts and emotions. It is no use
trying to repress thoughts demanding attention, particularly not
when they deal with what is an ongoing problem. You have no
choice but to deal with some problems when they knock on your
mind's door. Not dealing with them turns you into a ticking time bomb.
If I had dealt with the problem in my mind before I cut her down,
I would have recollected that she had been very nervous the preceding
days. If I had been more caring and sensitive towards her, I might have
asked her about it, and she might just have told me that her son,
who had been paralysed in an accident a few years previously, had
suffered a serious relapse a few days previously. If I had known
what her problem was, I would have been more prepared. I would
have realized that she was using me as a punching bag to get rid
of her aggression, because she thought I was the kind of person
who could take it. But she was wrong. I realized I had failed her.
Of course I was not going to give myself all the blame. But I was
to blame too. For lack of compassion.
After I had established why she had been so offensive and had
suffered such a breakdown, I reenacted the scene in my mind,
this time acting like a wise and compassionate person. I then
played the scene in my mind of what I would tell her the next
day. By this time, of course, my hurt and my anger had totally
disappeared, and it was replaced by sympathy and friendship.
And I was disgusted that I had so much ego that I had failed
my friend. Winning the battle in your mind can change your
I went to her the next day, and apologized. She immediately
responded with her own apology, and then we two sat down
and had a real conversation, in which she expressed her anxiety
and fears. It is mostly never too late to make amends, but it would
have been preferable if I had reacted correctly from the start.
Winning the battle in your mind can change your emotions and
your actions. It can prevent many mistakes, and it can help you
to make amends where you have been wrong.
Not winning the battle in your mind is too terrible to contemplate.
Thoughts are like guests. When you make them feel welcome, they
would appear at your doorstep again and again. If you do not want
them to visit you again, you had better make them feel unwelcome.
In the case of negative thoughts entering your mind, the best thing
you can do is to ignore them once you have identified them. Ignoring
them is the most effective way of making them feel unwelcome.
After a while, even the most persistent uninvited guests will stop
pestering you. I find this method is very effective in getting rid
of negative thoughts.
I grew up in an aggressive environment, where being aggressive is
part of being male. You are not supposed to choose the gentler
approaches to solving problems. For this reason, my mind was
regularly controlled by aggressive thoughts, emotions and daydreams.
It was the most difficult aspect of my cultural conditioning to get rid
of. And the battle was all in my mind. The worst part of my education
was that I was conditioned to relish this quality in me and to be proud
of it. What this meant was that aggressive thoughts were given heroic
welcomes into my mind. Violence was seen as an easy, quick-fix
option. I loved movie scenes with the hero solving problems in
violent ways. Clint Eastwood's "make my day" scene filled me
with delight. Violent men defending justice were my heroes.
It is terrible what cultural conditioning can do to you. Welcoming
negative thoughts into your mind is like keeping bad company.
You are bound to act badly yourself. Negative thoughts bar
positive ones from entering your mind. They create a permanently
negative attitude in you. You have probably met people who are
forever negative and unpleasant, always ready to react aggressively
at the least provocation.
It took me many years to get rid of most of the aggression in me,
and I am still on the lookout for any signs of aggressive thoughts.
I can mostly notice them long before they appear at my door. But
when I am exhausted, they have a way of catching me off guard.
One way to get rid of aggressive thoughts, I have found, is to
identify them and then to let them know that you hate their guts.
With time, most of them will stop knocking on your door.
It is also important to anticipate situations that might evoke
aggression. Being prepared for such situations is important.
In my effort to understand my reactions, I would identify
situations that tend to cause aggressive reactions in me. In
my mind, I would simulate these situations, and I would then
react in the correct, non-aggressive way. It is a kind of mental
drilling exercise. It is a form of meditation.
After I had reacted aggressively in a real situation, I would
reenact the situation in my mind, this time reacting correctly.
It is important that you condition yourself to react correctly
almost "instinctively". The best reaction should come first,
and not aggressive action. Often the best reaction is not to
react at all.
It is also important to be on the lookout for negative thoughts
knocking at your door after some particularly negative experience.
Notice them, deal with them, get rid of them.
What I have also found is that negative thoughts hate the company
of positive emotions. So what I do if I have a negative thought
refusing to leave is to invite a particularly friendly and positive
emotion in. It often works. To give you a concrete example. If I
should feel nasty about a colleague who had been unfair towards a
student, I would think of my favourite goose honking a greeting
at me, and I would smile and my aggressive thoughts would leave me.
Of course, I would still talk to my colleague who had insulted the
student, i.e. if it were necessary, but I would do this without being
aggressive. If you are not aggressive, it is easier for you to decide
what constructive steps you can take. If you are angry, you cannot
be constructive. In fact, you usually end up being destructive. If
you have got rid of your own aggression, you are better able to
make up your mind, in my case whether I should discuss the matter
with my colleague. If I were angry, I would probably not even
consider being patient and silent until the right opportunity arose,
and I would not wait until my colleague was ready to be spoken to.
Anger has no patience.
Bitterness is nothing else but the inability to get rid of negative
emotions, which are often thoughts of having been hurt in some
way. I have once heard someone say, "I will forgive him, but not
forget what he has done to me." This is extremely ignorant.
Forgiveness, real forgiveness, is only possible if you have
eliminated the negative feelings you have towards a person.
It is difficult yet possible to someone who has reduced his ego.
The ego is the source of aggression, anger and hatred. The less ego
you have, the more capable you are to react with compassion, to
make amends, and to forgive and to forget.
at the Taoist sage
at empty space.
The Taoist sage
clings to nothing
has nothing to lose.
He cannot be hurt,
because he has accepted
(The Tao is Tao, 78)
Negative, undesirable thoughts do not include critical thoughts
which remind you of where you are neglecting your duties, or
reprimand you for what you have done wrong, or encourage you
to make amends. Critical thoughts of this nature are your best
friends. Suppressing them would be turning your back on reality.
Dwelling in emptiness and silence does not mean that your
conscience has gone silent.
Being aware of your self-critical thoughts and reacting to them
appropriately are essential to your spiritual development.
Beautiful thoughts: Welcome guests
Another way of "cleaning up" your mind is to dwell with the
beautiful thoughts of inspirational people.
It is a form of meditation. You ponder on truths or questions until
you understand them thoroughly. It is of course preferable to do
this in a quiet environment where you are undisturbed. For example,
you can take a statement like "To turn your back on reality is to
reject emptiness". You can now try to work out what it means.
You can even write it down, if you feel it is of benefit. Remember
to always try to establish some link to real-life situations.
Also consider what the implications are as far your own
behaviour is concerned.
The world is rich with wonderful texts filled with wise and
profound prose and verse, which serve to inspire and show you
the way. In many Buddhist and particularly Zen and Taoist texts,
you are shown a direction, but you have to find the way yourself.
They are often wonderfully vague, almost defying explanation.
Texts like the Tao Te Ching, Shodoka or Faith in Mind are full of
texts just beyond your understanding. They encourage you to think
and to find out, and to discover for yourself the truths they imply.
I think it is true that when you fill your mind with these profound
thoughts, you cannot else but be transformed. It is like being close
to good friends who encourage you to change. It is as if you are
listening to your true self speaking to you.
These texts represent the collective wisdom and experience of many
enlightened people, and their words point the way. I have found that
you can read these texts again and again, and each time they acquire
new meaning as you grow in understanding.
It is important that you not only understand these texts intellectually,
but that you apply their great truths in your everyday life. Only then
will you reach spiritual insight and true understanding. The worst
thing you can do is turn your meditation into an intellectual exercise.
I have met "esoteric" people who actually use these profound texts
as a way of fighting boredom - a kind of intellectual bungee jumping
exercise. Once they have experienced what they consider to be a
momentary intellectual or emotional thrill, they would move on to
new areas. They are thrill seekers, they do not really apply these
things to their lives, and they do not reach any insights of
significance. Their preoccupation with esoteric texts is part of
their materialism - it is part of their attachment to illusions of
permanence. They use "wisdom" or mysticism to inflate their
egos. In a way, it only increases their ignorance.
Filling your mind with wisdom and compassion creates an
environment where base thoughts do not feel at home. Not that
you will ever be truly free of their visitations. This world is so
filled with stimuli luring you into new forms of ignorance that
you should never drop your guard.
Meditation brings your knowledge and your emotions into harmony
with your actions. If you have enough patience, you will find it
transforms your emotions and your actions in a very real way.
Exhaustion: Leaving the door open
Exhaustion can be a great enemy, and should be avoided at all costs.
Having said that, I know that we often do not have a choice.
People often have professional and other obligations they cannot
simply refuse to fulfil. So they often work to a point where they
are exhausted. It is strange, isn't it? Our whole economic system
is geared to hard work, because we are often greedy. In the
process of fulfilling our ambitions, we, however, become so
run down that we cannot enjoy the fruits of our hard labour.
Worse even is that we do not have time to deal with the things
that really matter, and often our relationships suffer because of it.
When you are exhausted, you quite simply do not have the
nerves to face crises, or even everyday challenges, calmly.
I find when I become exhausted, I become aggressive. A
colleague of mine confessed to me that when she becomes
tired, her compassion deserts her.
When exhausted, one can become more vulnerable to opinion,
the ego often uses the opportunity to inflate itself again, and
one can easily end up being nervous, unloving, even obnoxious.
I have found that if I am overworked and exhausted, I sometimes
lack the strength to chase all unwelcome thoughts from my mind.
I often lack the courage to deal with some of those persistent
thoughts requiring attention. My tendency is then to try to repress
most of the unpleasant thoughts, but often with little success.
If I find that negative thoughts are threatening to take over my
mind, I know that I am in urgent need of a holiday. But most
of us do not have the luxury of determining our own holidays.
We often have the freedom to work or to make money, but not
to care for our own spiritual well-being.
Animosities and vanities not only have a better chance of taking
over your mind when you are run down, but they easily thrive in
this atmosphere. In a state of mental exhaustion, you can regress
at such speed that you can lose in a day what you have gained in
months. I know. I have experienced it myself.
The only cure for this is to avoid becoming exhausted at all costs.
Do not let your ego drive you into taking on too many commitments.
What could help is to change your daily routine to include enough
rest, if it is at all possible. Often simple measures will do the trick.
Like going to bed early and getting enough sleep.
External stimuli can cause many negative and destructive thoughts
to enter your mind.
There has been much controversy about the influence of the
television and the film industries on young minds. Even if experts
differ on exactly how much negative influence is exerted by the
media, most of them agree that young minds are as endangered as
never before. The informational revolution and Internet have
increased the chances of young minds being corrupted and
perverted. It is clear to almost everybody that something will
have to be done to protect younger minds against this invasion
of destructive emotions and thoughts. Education will have to
play a crucial role here.
Little is said about the perverting and corrupting influence the
media can have on adult minds. It is a fallacy to think that older
minds are immune to negative influences. And I am not only
talking about obvious mental cases who copycat crimes in films
or in newsreels. I am talking about "normal" people like you and me.
The influence of the media on you can be so subtle that you do
not notice what it is doing to your mind. It is essential that you
become sensitive to negative influences on your mind. If a film
induces you to delight in the suffering of others, even if those
others happen to be unsympathetic characters, then it has a
negative influence on your mind. Many films make you an
accomplice to greed or even murder. They manipulate the
audience's emotions so that they start hating certain characters
in a film and actually rejoice when a character dies a horrible,
"justified" death. It is a kind of superficial, fake karma with a
Hollywood gloss. Of course it would not inevitably turn most
of the audience into potential murderers, but it often causes a
subtle change of attitude with regards to, for example, violence,
sexuality or the value of life.
How do you combat these negative media influences?
Of course, one could go too far in trying to protect oneself from
negativity by isolating oneself too much from reality. You have
to be honest with yourself about what influence external stimuli
have on you, and you must be willing to act according to your convictions.
One extreme reaction is to "switch off" totally when negative stimuli
enter your mind. This is a very real problem at a time when news
programs sometimes rival horror films. People have a way of
becoming immune to horror, and you cannot blame them if they
do. People can even eat their dinner while watching horrific pictures
Again, I must warn that you should not use your control of thoughts
to isolate yourself from reality. Some thoughts entering your mind
are ugly because they reflect an ugly reality, and they deserve your
I live in a country where 5% of the population earns 70% of the
total income, and where, in spite of its mineral wealth, 60% of the
population live below the poverty line. The average poor Namibian
has to survive on about one US dollar per day. 52% of Namibians
between the ages of 16 and 25 are HIV positive. These are ugly
thoughts based on ugly facts, and I may only ban them from my
mind at the risk of losing my compassion. Controlling your
thoughts should never become a way of building a wall around
your affluence, so that you can enjoy your relative wealth,
undisturbed by the misery around you.
My advice? Leave your comfort zone and do something about the
misery around you. Spiritual development can never be escapist.
Alleviating suffering is an act of the purest spirituality.
Avoid "spiritual materialism". One form of this kind of materialism
is to use your ability to control your thoughts as a means to
manipulate and control other people. Another form is to become
too attached to happiness, which is often seen as a commodity in
our society. Attachment often turns whatever is thought to be
happiness into dissatisfaction and greed. In fact, what people
call happiness is often just a momentary gratification of their
own greed, which does not last long, because greed has its own
destructive momentum: it is, after all, fueled by the ego.
Moments of retreat
The Taoist sage
(The Tao is Tao, 65)
It is good to have moments of retreat during the course of a day.
These moments can be brief, and their duration depends on how
much time and opportunity you have available. It is good if they
become part of the routine of the day, that is if you have any routine.
If not, you must improvise, and use those lucky solitary moments
when you have a spell of quiet.
Weekends may provide opportunities to recuperate from the stresses
of the week. This will, of course, only happen if you really do
something to revitalize your spirit. A change of scenery - going
out into nature - can help you to get rid of those thoughts plaguing
you. To "switch off" and enjoy fresh air is an effective form of recuperation.
Preparing for the day
The Tao fills with thoughts
those minds not attached to concepts.
(The Tao is Tao, 7)
The best opportunity for moments of meditation is early in the
morning before the day really starts. This, of course, requires
discipline. It is not always easy, for if you have had a late night,
it sometimes does not work. Being too tired and dozing off does
not help you much, and can only leave you with a feeling of failure
One of the best forms of preparation for the day is to get enough sleep.
Many forms of meditation can be used. My wife prefers yoga.
I prefer Tai Chi. But you may use any form of meditation you prefer.
These may not even be formal methods. Sometimes, early in
the morning, I take my German Shepherds, and we go walking
in the dark along the beach in fresh, salty air, with only the stars
above us. But I am extremely fortunate of course. I live close to
a breathtaking ocean and the oldest desert in the world.
Part of my meditation is walking to work in the morning.
If possible, having a quiet, relaxed, friendly breakfast is also a way
of preparing for the day. My wife and myself make a point of having
a leisurely breakfast together, taking our time and sharing thoughts.
Getting up a bit earlier for this is worth its while.
When possible, use at least ten to twenty minutes during lunch time
to be alone and to meditate.
In the evening, I love reading literature that stimulates me to think
about important spiritual aspects. And I go for long walks. Or I
would cook for fun. My own pasta! And an evening meal watching
the sun setting.
If you have a garden, and you love gardening, then get your hands
in the dirt.
Become creative. It focuses your mind and closes the door to
Writing as meditation
Often, I would write my thoughts down while meditating. Do not
underestimate to what profound insights you can come when you
are formulating your thoughts on paper. Keep a diary or a journal.
I carry a small notebook with me, and I would often write down
my thoughts. It is incredible how much you can learn from your
own thoughts if you allow your thoughts to teach you.
Calming down techniques
After the curse
and before his reaction,
anger faded into
The sage in harmony with the Tao
does not allow external discord
to disturb his silence.
(The Tao is Tao, 118)
Calming down techniques can be of great help in the heat of stress
I often use breathing exercises any time of the day when I feel I need
to calm down. There are, of course, many methods of breathing
exercises that can be used.
My exercise is quite simple. I would breathe in slowly, filling
my lungs, but I would do this in a very relaxed way. I would
then exhale slowly, concentrating on my breath. Or I would
breathe in and out while focusing on any object, like a picture
on the wall. Once you have finished exhaling, do not start
breathing in immediately, but wait with empty lungs in total
relaxation before you repeat the process. Try it. You will find
that for a moment it is almost as if your mind has become empty
with your lungs, and there is a real pause - a refreshing moment
of emptiness - before the next thought enters your mind. With
enough exercise, you can prolong these refreshing moments of
silence in your mind. It is wonderful and revitalizing, and it has
a calming effect on you. I do this exercise particularly when I
become impatient. When I notice my impatience, I would
breathe in deeply and just enjoy exhaling and relaxing. Much
of my impatience would disappear. What is good about this
form of meditation is that you can even do it in company
without anybody really noticing what you are doing.
Another exercise is to count your breath. Inhale and exhale in
total relaxation, counting your exhalations. Take your time.
Count up to ten. Then start all over again. What actually happens
is that for a moment the flow of thoughts in your mind will stop.
Do not worry if it does not work immediately. Just practice until
it does. And it does. This kind of meditative technique slows down
your overheated brain. It takes the nervousness out of your thinking.
I also use Tai Chi to calm down. The good thing about Tai Chi is
that you do not need much space. Alone in an office, or any private
space, like a corner of a building or a garden somewhere, would suffice.
One shorter round of say 64 figures lasting ten minutes could do the
trick. It also relaxes the body and you become less stressed and tense.
Another technique is to take a verse of say the Tao Te Ching, and read
it and contemplate on it for a few minutes. I often do this, and it focuses
me again on the things that really matter. It is good to carry a small
pocket edition of it around with you.
If your neighbourhood permits, going for a ten minute walk around
the block could do you a world of good. Do this while breathing in
deeply, and exhaling slowly and in a relaxed fashion. Fill your mind
with positive images and relax.
If you can take the time and afford it, longer retreats of at least a
few days or a week can do wonders to revitalize the spirit.
Retreats have the advantage that they isolate you from everyday
hectic and stress, and allow you to devote uninterrupted time to yourself.
You get many kinds of retreats. You can organize your own private
retreat, and take all your favourite books along, and use your time to
meditate and rest. Or you can be active in nature: climb mountains,
swim, hike, that sort of activity.
Some people prefer to go to organized retreats. The benefit of these
retreats is that you can learn a lot from others and from the teachers
or trainers in charge. For example, a Zazen retreat can be of great
benefit, for with the right teacher, you can learn a lot, particularly
if you are still a beginner.
Where I live, such retreats do not exist. If you are lucky enough to
live in an environment where retreats are held, you should certainly
use the opportunities available.
On the road to enlightenment
Thinking: a hindrance or a help?
which divides and dissects,
does not satisfy the needs
of the spirit,
for the spirit finds peace
which exists only
where thinking has no influence.
To step into the realm of the
is to abandon thinking.
Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.
(The Tao is Tao, 17)
D. T. Suzuki once called thinking the most dubious activity ever
invented by man. Many other spiritual leaders have echoed the
In Christian mythology, man has lost paradise because he has eaten
of the fruit of the "knowledge" of good and bad. Buddhists and
Christians agree that man has lost his innocence because he has
started thinking. Thinking has alienated him from his true nature.
A cat acts like a cat because it is a cat; it has never lost its innocence.
Has the human being ceased being human because he has started
thinking? Some philosophers would argue that the human being is
human because he thinks, and that it is in his nature to acquire
distance from himself. His "fall" is inevitable.
The dualistic, rational world is an invention of the human being,
and it has to a certain extent alienated the human being not only
from the rest of the universe, but also from himself.
The irony is that whereas man has been alienated from his own
true nature by his thinking, he now needs thinking to regain "paradise lost".
So thinking is a hindrance, but it also provides us with the chance
to repair some of the damage done by it.
The limitations of language
Our problem is that most of our thinking is restricted by language,
which is limited in its ability to express spiritual truths, particularly
truths lying beyond the rational and the dualistic world of subject
and object. Language is effective in an analytical, rational
environment, and it is also reasonably effective in expressing
the emotional, irrational side of the human being. It is when we
come to the spiritual that it quickly reaches its limits.
In fact, language easily creates misunderstandings and misconceptions
when dealing with the non-dualistic world of the spirit. Language
becomes even more lethal when people confuse language with
what it is trying to depict. Often the religious confuse the word
Stupid ones, childish ones,
They suppose there is something in an empty fist.
They mistake the pointing finger for the moon.
They are idle dreamers lost in form and sensation.
Can we as human beings escape the limitations set to us by our
thinking? Does thinking go beyond the dualistic world?
These questions are difficult to answer, aren't they?
The effort to answer these questions often leads to even more
confusion. Some would try to answer them by remaining silent.
One explanation is that in Emptiness, in Tao, neither thinking nor
non-thinking exists or non-exists. When I first heard this explanation,
it really stimulated my thinking, but to no avail. The trouble is that
the language used here is very unsatisfactory. It is an ingenious but
vain effort to express the inexpressible. Often the via negativa is
utilized to overcome the shortcomings of language. The Tao is
"explained" with lists of negations, which tell you what the Tao is
not. It does help a bit, but, somehow, it does not bring you all that
much closer to the Tao.
The enlightened tell you that you will advance through language to
a point beyond which thinking does not count. It is a point where
knowledge is irrelevant and even wisdom is transcended.
Who can think the unthinkable?
Only the sage
in total harmony with Tao.
Yet his thinking
is an act of complete faith
(The Tao is Tao, 94)
Leaving the burden behind
It is true. There is a point where you have to leave your thinking
behind. It is crucial to recognize this point.
It is "an act of complete faith/ beyond concepts".
Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.
It is vital to know the limitations of thinking. Thinking is a vehicle
with which you return to your true nature, but it does not take you
all the way. It is like crossing a river with a boat. Once you have
reached the other side but not your destination, you will have to
discard the boat. If you insist on carrying the boat with you, it
will become a great hindrance. Even if you have fallen in love
with your boat, you will have to leave it behind. You have no
choice on the way to enlightenment. Clinging to truth and insight
becomes a hindrance when you approach your true nature.
There is a point beyond which only "spiritual experience" will bring
you "further". At this point, concepts and ideas are obsolete.
Dai-O Kokoshi, in his breathtaking poem On Zen, has come much
closer to what I am trying to say:
There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
Indeed, it has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it;
It has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quiet, and yet illuminating in a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.
It is ironic. On our spiritual journey, thinking is used to finally
Only when our thinking has committed suicide, will we reach
harmony with the Tao.
As the rivers solidified
and the mountains shifted,
his mind moved
and the leaves rustled in the wind.
(The Tao is Tao, 18)