One's Own Mind
The other day I came across an interesting quote from the 11th Century Zen Master Foyan Qingyuan:
It is as though you have an eyeThis really resonated with me - our minds are amazing, can know countless things and can understand or make inferences about so many external things, but our own mind often understands little about itself. We pay little attention to the fickleness of our memory, or the innumerable biases, assumptions, mental habits or delusions that come along with this wonderful capability.
That sees all forms
But does not see itself.
This is how your mind is.
Its light penetrates everywhere
And engulfs everything,
So why does it not know itself?
The ability for us to reflect on our own mind - using our own mind - is of course one of the things we cultivate in our practice. This turning around from an outward looking stance to inward is what contemplation is all about. Mindfulness has become a trendy word but at root all it is is knowing our own mind, with our own mind. This reflexive ability is fundamental, and one of the big changes we experience once we start on a meditation path.
In the Sacitta Sutta the Buddha is talking with a group of monks and brings up this exact subject:
The Blessed One said: "Even if a monk is not skilled in the ways of the minds of others [i.e., not skilled in reading the minds of others] he should train himself: 'I will be skilled in reading my own mind.'
"And how is a monk skilled in reading his own mind? Imagine a young woman — or man — fond of adornment, examining the image of her own face in a bright, clean mirror or bowl of clear water: If she saw any dirt or blemish there, she would try to remove it. If she saw no dirt or blemish there, she would be pleased, her resolves fulfilled: 'How fortunate I am! How clean I am!' In the same way, a monk's self-examination is very productive in terms of skillful qualities: 'Do I usually remain covetous or not? With thoughts of ill will or not? Overcome by sloth & drowsiness or not? Restless or not? Uncertain or gone beyond uncertainty? Angry or not? With soiled thoughts or unsoiled thoughts? With my body aroused or unaroused? Lazy or with persistence aroused? Unconcentrated or concentrated?'
Now, I may be projecting here, but I read this passage as having some deep humor underlying it. It is as if The Buddha is saying, "hey - you know how bad you are at reading other people's minds - maybe you should try to read your own?" He then goes on to use a metaphor of an attractive young woman reflecting on her own beauty - which is an interesting one to use with a group of celibate monks! It feels like he is saying that this need for reflection is obvious to others, and yet the monks still need to be reminded of it's importance.
However you read the sutta the message is the same, that we should spend time reflecting on how our own mind is working. Of course this is true when we sit on the cushion, but it should be equally true in all other moments of our lives. Choosing to reflect on how our mind is as we walk, as we read the news, as we talk with a friend - all of these are moments where we can check what is really going on.
When we walk down a busy street we know to have our head up and eyes open to everything that is going on. What is not so obvious is that we should also be aware of what is going on in our minds at the same time - are we attentive or distracted, apprehensive or confident, angry with the crowds or enjoying the energy? Whatever we do there is another world going on in our mind, and self-examination is a critical tool in our development.
I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on these passages. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.
"Sacitta Sutta: One's Own Mind" (AN 10.51), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.051.than.html .