I recently read “Training of the Mind” by Anada Mettya aka Allen Bennett. Meditation and Mental Discipline is a hot topic right now and there is a lot of info out there: both good and, well…not so much. This piece was written in 1908, but holds up remarkably well. What follows is my commentary on this essay. you can read “Training of the Mind” here and here.
At first glance “Training of the Mind” appears to be a short essay that is a relatively easy read. In reality, though short and written in understandable language, it is extremely dense. Every line seems to open up opportunities for analysis and contemplation. This is both a positive and a negative. It is a positive characteristic because there’s no annoying fluff and filler that can plague writing on this topic. It is also informative and offers practical instruction. On the downside, you can find yourself chasing rabbits and never get to the practical “doing” part of mental training. You can get mired in trying to understand and interpret every phrase and every line separately instead of first reading the whole thing and getting the overview. This piece will suck you in and if you’re not careful, you’ll get stuck in your head and never come out. Several times I had to put it down, take a breath, start over, and just read.
As I said above, the language used in this piece is refreshingly un-obtuse. It is a stark contrast to the High English syntax and word choice that occur in some of the texts I have read. This makes it so much relatable than other offerings. The reader doesn’t feel as if they have to have an advanced degree to benefit from the information presented. This helps to lessen the frustration of trying to process the sheer amount of information that is present.
The first passage that really struck me was when the author states that the Buddhist Philosophy was “to be intellectually grasped and comprehended” then “applied to every action of our daily lives.” I find it frightening that so many current religions/movements look down upon intellect right now. This comes as a welcome and refreshing change. At the same time, these philosophies are not supposed to be so difficult that they can’t be understood. It is a balance that is tough to accomplish. Then there’s the doing part: These philosophies are to be “applied”. Not just thought about and fought over, but put into action. This is a very important step. All too often people, myself included, can get stuck in the thinking phase. We plan and analyze and try to find the absolute perfect way of doing something. We obsess over it so much that we end up not actually ever doing the thing we originally wanted to!
I also appreciate that the author took the time to reassure the reader that, yes, this is hard, and they are going to mess up, but that’s ok. He writes “we should not despair of ever being able to walk in the way we have learned.” It is difficult, but don’t give up. You’ll get there eventually. He also reminds us that even in when we mess up, we learn. He says, “He who does his best, he who strived, albeit failingly, to follow what is good…will grow daily the more powerful from his striving.” It is nice to have thsese words of encouragement and the recognition of the difficulty of the process right at the beginning of the work.
Next we come to the three rules:
Avoid doing evil
Purification of our Thoughts
The last bit is the hardest and the subject of the essay. In the author’s words: “the most important of all”.
Next, we look at Citta – “thought –stuff” and Sankh ra – tendencies. The author states that our tendencies and thoughts replicate themselves in kind. The more we think of “good” things, the more we train ourselves to think of “good things”. The more we think of “bad” things the more we train ourselves to think about “bad” things. Most of this is unconscious which makes it insidious.
So, how can we train ourselves to tend more towards the good and less towards the bad? In the author’s opinion, you can use the good to replace the bad.
Let’s say that you want to be less angry. According to this method, you would practice and concentrate on mental states that are the opposite of angry, like calm. By doing this over and over, your thoughts and tendencies will be trained towards Calm rather than Anger. Now, you will be sorely disappointed if you think this a quick fix. This process has to be repeated over and over and over again. It takes time (Remember those encouraging words at the beginning of the essay – this is why they are there) but it is worth the effort. Metteya goes so far as to say that it is the “key to the entire system of the Purification and culture of the mind.”
The essay then introduces the metaphor of the steam engine. This choice reflects the time in which the essay was written. There aren’t too many people in the present day who readily identify with the workings of a steam engine, but the metaphor still works well as an illustration of how concentration benefits the mind.
The author first introduces the concept of neutral energy. In the case of the engine, this energy is steam. The steam itself is not “good” or “bad” by default. It just is. The shift comes from what is done with the energy. Take electricity for example. The current running through transmission lines, household wiring, and powering our modern-day world is not, in and of itself, good or bad. The application of said energy can be, however. Using electricity to run lifesaving machines or pump water would be considered a good use. The shock received from an experiment with a fork and an outlet, not so much. Metteya takes this concept a step further and posits that it is not just the final usage of the energy that is important. The smooth and efficient operation of the system through which it runs is just as important, if not more so. He suggests that the goal is using the energy as efficiently as possible. If all the moving parts of the system are not in sync, well maintained and fitted, efficiency suffers, and power is lost. “Mental concentration” is the mind’s version of steam. Concentration can be used for good or ill. A “good” tendency with little focus will always be less successful than a “bad” tendency that has full focus.
Taking the metaphor further, if the physical system stops working well or breaks down completely, the operator normally takes steps to return it to its optimal operating parameters.
First, you have to troubleshoot and figure out where the problem is. Then you have to bring everything back into balance through adjusting the way the parts of the system interact. All the parts have to be working together and as efficiently as possible towards the same end result. This is true of the mind as well. How many times have you started to work on a project then your brain takes you way off course and you end up reading about the courtship rituals of seahorses? In modern times the things that can pull our focus away are exponentially greater than when the essay was written. (Wikipedia and Google are great tools, but they will suck you in if you’re not careful.) So, you have to figure out where your inefficiencies are or where the system is breaking down.
Next, you have to figure out how to fix it. Metteya refers to the slide-valve of a steam engine in this section. This was the mechanism that controlled how much steam was let into the system at a time. It had to fit and function perfectly. Like anything man-made, there were small flaws that invariably allowed leaks. Engineers would fix this by letting the power of the steam itself refine the surface until it would seal perfectly. Though the metaphor is a bit archaic, it is a fantastic way to describe how we can use the mind and concentration or focus to refine helpful thought processes.
We can cheer ourselves up, or calm ourselves down to a certain extent, but the process is hit and miss and often exhausting. In other words; not very efficient. By focusing and using “Mental concentration” we can further develop our ability to self-regulate. As we focus intently on helpful tendencies and thought patterns, the pathways in our brains that work together to create those states become more and more refined. This refinement can come from other types of “pressure” as well. External struggles and obstacles can also serve as a source of energy for refinement. We grow stronger and more efficient through the overcoming of those obstacles, like a blacksmith tempering metal.
So, we figured out where the problem is and how to go about fixing it, but what about the root cause? How do we create these tendencies and thought patterns in the first place? According to Metteya we develop these through associations. He used the example of a child learning to speak but it can be applied to all behaviors and proclivities.
First, we experience something. We then notice what happens next. Our mind links the experience with what happens. Said another way, we perceive a cause and effect relationship between the two things (A caused B). the more we experience A causing B, the more that relationship is reinforced. These relationships get imbedded in our brains until they become second nature and BAM! We’ve trained ourselves to believe that every time A happens B will result.
Most of the time this happens after repeated experiences, but sometimes an experience can be so intense that it can create and imbed a new cause/effect relationship immediately. Unfortunately, this happens most often with trauma. For example: Molly is driving home from work. At a certain intersection, another vehicle runs a red light and there is a collision. Molly is badly injured. Even though she recovers and is not afraid to drive, she now avoids that intersection because she is afraid that going through it will lead to another accident.
So fast forward into the future. We want to get result B. Our mind searches for a memory of an experience of B sees that it is caused mostly by A so in order to get B we need to do A. At this point the troops rousted and our systems start the process of making A happen in the physical world. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. It is great for learning to talk or walk, as illustrated in the essay, but, unfortunately, this mechanism can lead to decidedly unhelpful things. If a person’s mind has been trained through repeated experience associates receiving attention and love by giving to charity, then they will seek to gain attention and love by doing just that. This can be seen as a “good” result. If, however, a person’s mind has been trained through repeated experience to associate receiving attention and love with being ill, that person will most often seek attention and love by being, or acting, ill. While this does get a “good” result, the method can, and will, eventually cause harm to the person as well as the people around them.
This leads us to “samm sati” or what Metteya calls “the accurate reflection upon things.” Discernment is, unfortunately, an ability that is rarely taught or developed. It is the ability to see what really IS rather than what our minds THINK IT IS. So many conflicts arise because we believe that the way we have perceived something is the truth.
For example: Imagine you are walking through a park and you see a man grab a woman and pull her towards him aggressively while the woman cries out. What is your automatic reaction? Most of us would assume that the man was in some way hurting the woman. That is the pattern we have learned. So, you yell or move to intervene, and the couple looks really annoyed with you. As it turns out, the reason that the woman was crying out was that she tripped and was falling backward. At the moment you saw what you perceived to be an aggressive action, was the man pulling her forward, so she would fall into the thorny rose bushes along the side of the path.
What we perceive is not always the whole truth and sometimes isn’t the real truth at all. This concept also applies to our awareness of ourselves. We have been trained to think and act certain ways almost automatically, so we must take a look at those beliefs and actions, or reactions, and see if the impression we have made is, in fact, truth or merely partial or false perception of the truth. For example: If every time you tried to make friends as a child you were laughed at or ignored, you would associate approaching people with the feeling of humiliation. “If I talk to Bob he will laugh at me and I will be embarrassed.” And so not wanting to be embarrassed, you may stop trying to make friends. It may go even farther. “People laugh at and heckle people that are bad or stupid. People laugh and heckle me, so I must be bad and stupid”. In order to break out of these patterns and develop the positive tendencies we first have to honestly acknowledge that they exist. Then we have to look at things from an unbiased perspective. “Do I experience humiliation or embarrassment EVERY time I try and talk to someone?” or “Is it actually true that I am bad and stupid?” To say this work is hard is a vast understatement. It can be gut-wrenching at times, but it is necessary to move forward.
Once again Metteya recommends mental focus as a way to accomplish this work. He readily admits that developing mental discipline is hard work and takes time. I adore the metaphor he used. He says that the mind is like a calf that has been allowed to run whenever and wherever it wants to. Suddenly it is tied to a pole and therefore limited in its movements. For quite a while it will try to run chaotically as it always has but eventually it learns that if it goes too far it will be yanked back inside the new boundaries, sometimes rather unpleasantly. After a while, it will settle down and not fight so hard. This is one of the best metaphors I have seen for this process. I also think that Metteya’s point about the pole being the act of sitting down to meditate is very important. When we do things with intention, or with thought and purpose, we start to form new patterns. We let our minds know that what we are doing is important and should be paid attention to. The simple act of sitting down and deciding to meditate creates an anchor point for our rambling minds. The more we do this, the more the importance is reinforced and the stronger the anchor becomes.
This leads to Metteya discussing “best practices” of sorts. If internal intentional decisions aid us in developing mental discipline, so to do external cues. For example: Metteya states that noise is one of the biggest distractions at the beginning of the practice so a quiet place to meditate should be sought out. He stresses the importance of timing, posture, and the feel of the chosen spot as well. Basically, for best results, you should have a room dedicated to your mental discipline practice that is quiet and where you will not be disturbed. You should meditate stilling up on a rather empty stomach and not fall asleep. All of which are great suggestions. He does acknowledge that not everyone will have a separate room reserved only for meditation. This is very true. A lot of people meditate in their kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms. Basically, wherever they can find a quiet, undisturbed moment. I believe that is the most important thing when establishing a practice. Don’t try to find the perfect spot with the perfect cushion when the light at the perfect level at the perfect space between meals. If you strive for perfection you will never start doing the work. Start with what you have and go from there.
Next Metteya address the question of what to meditate on. He laments the lack of qualified instructors to assign mantras and instead encouraged the student to come up with a simple phrase to represent his goal. If you wish to do mantra meditation I think this is a great idea. Just make sure you don’t spend so much time “perfecting” your mantra that you never start actually doing the meditation. In this section, Metteya writes out a meditation on the Four Sublime States. It is beautiful and something that I would encourage people to try it. The most important thing at this point is to start. As the Nike slogan goes “Just Do It”.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we so fear embarrassment, failure, making mistakes, and being wrong? Metteya writes, “so much of our lives is made of our little hates and loves and fears; because we think so much of our wealth and those we love with earthly love, and of our enemies, and of all the little concerns of our daily life”. We get so wrapped up in our perceptions that we never look at the bigger picture or question the truth of the perceptions. Notice that he states that our have, loves, and fears are “little”. Even though they may feel like the most important or insurmountable things in our worlds, if seen under the microscope of discernment and intelligence, they break down and become conquerable, or at least manageable. So why do we have them in the first place? Metteya says” “We think we have but one life and one body; these we guard with great care…we think we have but one state in life and so we think very much of how to better or positions, how to increase our wealth.” We are afraid of running out of time to accomplish all that we want to. We want to leave a good impression or legacy behind. He then encourages us to remember that we have, and will live any lives, so the fear of not be able to accomplish everything in the correct one is invalid. He also encourages us to gradually discover and explore our past lives to see what experiences we have already had as well as reinforce the idea that what is not accomplished in this life may be accomplished in the next, or future life. For people that believe in rebirth or reincarnation, this is a great way to assuage the fear of running out of time. I fear, though, it won’t prove very helpful for the large percentage of people that do not believe in the birth/death/rebirth or reincarnation cycle.
At the end of the essay the importance of practice in reinforced. “No amount of reading or talking about these things is with a single moment’s practice of them. These things are to be done”. Once again, the doing is the most important part. Without action, nothing will happen, and you will be in the same place you are now with the same fears, the same dreams, the same hopes, wondering why you haven’t made any progress. If you act, you will make progress. It may painfully slow but there will be forward movement and as long as you are moving forward, you are growing.