The whole point of transforming our heart and mind is to find happiness. We all have the natural desire to be happy and the wish to overcome suffering. This is a fact, so we can make it our starting-point. Before developing this point in more detail, however, let us look very briefly at the nature of experience. Broadly speaking, our experiences fall into two categories. One type of experience is more connected with our bodies, and occurs mainly through our sense organs, while the other type is more related to what can be called `the mental consciousness’ or `the mind.’ So far as the physical level of experience is concerned, there is not much difference between ourselves and other animal species. Animals, too, have the capacity to feel both pain and well-being. But what perhaps distinguishes us human beings from other forms of life is that we have far more powerful mental experiences in the form of thoughts and emotions.
The fact that there are two broad categories of experience has some interesting implications. Most importantly, if a person’s basic state of mind is serene and calm, then it is possible for this inner peace to overwhelm a painful physical experience. On the other hand, if someone is suffering from depression, anxiety, or any form of emotional distress, then even if he or she happens to be enjoying physical comforts, he will not really be able to experience the happiness that these could bring. So this shows that our state of mind, in terms of our attitudes and emotions, plays a crucial role in shaping the way we experience happiness and suffering. The to jong teachings on transforming the mind offer a series of methods by which we can channel and discipline our mind, and so create the basis for the happiness we are seeking.
We all know that there is an intimate connection between physical well-being and emotional well-being. We know, for example, that physical illnesses affect our state of mind, and that, conversely, a greater degree of physical well-being contributes towards greater mental ease. Since we commonly recognize this correlation, many of us engage in physical practices and exercises to help bring about that physical well-being which will contribute to our mental refreshment. There are also certain traditional practices that are aimed at training our energy patterns; these are called prana yogas, or `yogas of the wind energy.’ These days, yogic exercises have become very popular in the modern world, too, and this is precisely because many people have found that through yoga they can achieve a degree of physical health that leads to better mental health. The approach that is suggested by the to jong teachings is slightly different, however. They concentrate directly on the development of the mind itself, through the transformation of our attitudes and ways of thinking.
The key to transforming our hearts and minds is to have an understanding of the way our thoughts and emotions work. We need to learn how to identify the opposing sides in our inner conflicts. With anger, for example, we need to see how destructive anger is, and, at the same time, realize that there are antidotes within our own thoughts and emotions that we can use to counter it. So, first, by understanding that afflictive thoughts and emotions are destructive and negative, and, second, by trying to strengthen our positive thoughts and emotions, which are their antidotes, we can gradually reduce the force of our anger, hatred and so on.
The way to examine how thoughts and emotions arise in us is through introspection. It is quite natural for many different thoughts and emotions to arise. When we leave them unexamined and untamed this leads to untold problems, crises, suffering and misery. This is why we need to adopt the conscious discipline we spoke of earlier: in order to reduce the power of a negative emotion like anger or hatred, we need to encourage its antidote, which is love and compassion.
It is not enough to recognize that this is what is required, just as it is not enough simply to wish that love and compassion should increase in us. We have to make a sustained effort, again and again, to cultivate the positive aspects within us, and the key here is constant familiarity. The nature of human thoughts and emotions is such that the more you engage in them, and the more you develop them, the more powerful they become. Therefore we have to develop love and compassion consciously in order to enhance their strength. We are, in fact, talking about a way of cultivating habits that are positive. We do this through meditation.
MEDITATION: A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
What do we understand by meditation? From the Buddhist point of view, meditation is a spiritual discipline, and one that allows you to have some degree of control over your thoughts and emotions. Why is it that we don’t succeed in enjoying the lasting happiness that we are seeking? Buddhism explains that our normal state of mind is such that our thoughts and emotions are wild and unruly, and since we lack the mental discipline needed to tame them, we are powerless to control them. As a result, they control us. And thoughts and emotions, in their turn, tend to be controlled by our negative impulses rather than our positive ones. We need to reverse this cycle. ‘
The idea of bringing about such a fundamental change in ourselves may at first sight seem impossible, yet it is actually possible to do this through a process of discipline such as meditation. We choose a particular object, and then we train our minds by developing our ability to remain focused on the object. Normally, if we just take a moment to reflect, we will see that our mind is not focused at all. We may be thinking about something and, all of a sudden, we find that we have been distracted because something else came into our head. Our thoughts are constantly chasing after this and that because we don’t have the discipline of having a focus. So, through meditation, what we can achieve is the ability to place our minds and to focus our attention at will on any given object.
Now of course, we could choose to focus on a negative object in our meditation. If, for example, you are infatuated with someone, and if you focus your mind single-pointedly on that person, and then dwell on their desirable qualities, this will have the effect of increasing your sexual desire for that person. But this is not what meditation is for. From a Buddhist point of view, meditation has to be practiced in relation to a positive object, by which we mean an object that will enhance your ability to focus. Through that familiarity you become closer and closer to the object and feel a sense of intimacy with it. In the classical Buddhist literature this type of meditation is described as shamatha, tranquil abiding, which is a single- pointed meditation.
Sbamatba alone is not sufficient. In Buddhism, we combine single-pointed meditation with the practice of analytic meditation, which is known as vipasyana, penetrative insight. In this practice we apply reasoning. By recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of different types of emotions and thoughts, together with their advantages and disadvantages, we are able to enhance our positive states of mind which contribute towards a sense of serenity, tranquility, and contentment, and to reduce those attitudes and emotions that lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. Reasoning thus plays a helpful part in this process.
Whatever forms of meditation you practice, the most important point is to apply mindfulness continuously, and make a sustained effort. It is unrealistic to expect results from meditation within a short period of time. What is required is continuous sustained effort.