What to do When Your Mind Starts to Growl
Sylvia Boorstein is a psychotherapist, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and the author of many books, including Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness. We spoke with her recently about the relationship between mindfulness and compassion, dealing with difficult emotions driven by the news cycle, and the importance of not clinging too tightly to our political views.
Sam Mowe: Early Buddhist texts indicate that the practice of paying attention—mindfulness—eventually leads to compassion and concern for others. Can you briefly describe how that process works?
Sylvia Boorstein: As you practice meditation, you come to see that things are ephemeral. You see that we can’t count on things being comfortable because everything’s always changing, which leads to anguish and suffering because we think we can’t bear what’s happening. One mark of an awakened mind is that it notices that it shares this condition of being human with all other human beings on the planet. Because who knows what’s going to happen to them next? If I really look around, I can see that everybody is like me in a certain way. Everybody’s got a body, genes, and stories and they’re making the best of their life in one way or another.
I’m really moved by our shared experience of life in this way. It makes me look around and really see the people in front of me. Everybody’s got something going on. I often imagine that everybody’s walking around with a bubble over their head—like you see in comics—where they have a big bubble around some thoughts, and then little bubbles coming down to their head. In the comics, this means they’re not saying this particular thought, they’re just thinking it.
There’s a different scene in each person’s bubble. In one bubble there’s a war, in another bubble there is an erotic scene, in this bubble is an ice cream cone, and in that bubble is a palm tree in Hawaii. There are delightful bubbles and painful bubbles, and they’re floating all around us.
Each of those bubbles is a different reality. If we notice that everybody’s struggling the best they can with their own reality, it makes us tenderhearted. Everybody’s got something going on and pretending it’s mostly all right. They get up in the morning, they show up to work, and they do their jobs. It’s a really big deal to be a person and do a decent job of it, don’t you think?
The philosopher and teacher Krishnamurti once said, “There’s no need to meditate if you just look around and see people. Everybody is suffering.”
In Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake, you suggest that it goes both ways—that in the same way that paying attention leads to compassion, acting compassionately can lead to mindfulness and wisdom. Can you say more about this?
I used to say, “You have to meditate because looking around doesn’t always move you enough to take action.” But now 20 years have gone by since I last said that, and I think that simply paying attention to the people around you is not a bad strategy. Maybe looking around is the meditation of choice these days. I think we need just enough meditation to not let the mind fall apart from overstimulation or bewilderment. Otherwise, the main meditation that we need is to simply look around and see how people are suffering.
How can a person know whether an action is truly skillful and compassionate unless they develop wisdom first? You might have the best of intentions but make things worse in the big picture.
All the wisdom we need is contained in the insight that everything is impermanent and subject to loss and therefore we’re all vulnerable and struggling with what we cannot change. The cause of suffering is the imperative in the mind that things be different from how they are while they can’t be different from the way they are. Things could be different tomorrow if we all work on it, but right now this is the way things are.
I think we often know what a skillful action is. One part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path is called “wise effort.” This is how wise effort works: First, you notice when you’re about to act. Then, you ask yourself, “Am I choosing to act on behalf of cultivating a skillful mind state or an unskillful mind state?” If it’s skillful, go ahead and do it. If it’s unskillful, don’t do it.
That sounds incredibly challenging. How can I monitor my motivation for taking every single action I will take on any given day?
It’s helpful to understand how the mind works. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and you’re on your way to an appointment. All of a sudden, the aroma of pizza wafts across the crowd and you smell it. Then you actually start to salivate a little bit because it’s coming on lunchtime and you like pizza. The thought arises, I could just stop and get a piece of pizza. These are each sequential steps, although they seem like they’re all happening together at the same time. Even though you feel pulled toward the pizza, you can keep walking because there is a moment between the impulse and the action.
That’s one of the great evolutionary achievements for human beings. Cats and lions pounce. They don’t think in terms of whether pouncing is the right thing to do. People can think it over.
Even though we can choose whether to take a certain action or not, we can’t choose our emotional reactions to certain kinds of information. For example, I’m often distressed by the news that I’m reading these days. Are you able to control your emotional responses to the news?
The whole idea is to decide what you should do, not control what emotions arise. Perhaps this is not a helpful metaphor, but let me tell you about my very old rescue dog. He’s very sweet and friendly, sits in your lap all the time, but if he’s annoyed, you can feel him start to growl. And the growl usually culminates in a bark and aggressive-looking behavior. My mind is more or less like my dog. Most of the time it’s affectionate, pleasant, cheerful, friendly, and all of that. However, if something arouses my dismay and I don’t like it, a growl starts to rise in my mind. But just like my dog, I can give my mind a good pat and say, “It’s all right.” You can inhibit the growl.
Similarly, I can be really awake in the middle of an alarming phenomenon. There is still enough space to ask, “What should I do now?” I think we’re actually quite good at doing this kind of thinking when the chips are down, even in perilous situations. People can get tunnel vision and get very clear about what will or won’t work in a given situation. So it’s actually good to have a mind that growls so you can figure out what needs to be done in a tough situation.
Getting back to the daily news cycle, I have been experiencing a lot of growling emotions—sadness and anger—but it isn’t clear what, if anything, can be done about them.
Yes, lately I’ve had to remind myself that not everybody who votes differently from me is racist, xenophobic, idiotic, or anything else that I sometimes imagine them to be. This relates to what I was saying earlier about people having different thought bubbles over their heads—people who voted differently than I did have their own different reasons; their understanding is different.
Whatever their reasons may be, there is no reason to harass my own mind with antipathy. The Buddha said that whatever the mind ponders and whatever it dwells on, by that it is shaped. I don’t want my mind to be an oven for bitterness. Instead I want to calm down and figure out what I can do.
I have two basic responses to what you just said. The first is that, fundamentally, I agree with you that people who vote differently from me are not evil or backward people. On the other hand, I’m quite confident that my politics are more enlightened than those who voted differently from me.
Here’s what I would say to that: People who are able to change their minds are healthier people. They live longer. Instead of thinking of people with different views as the enemy, it’s better for your health if you think, Their ideas are different. I don’t actually understand them, but their ideas are different. They arrived at their ideas because their parents felt that way, or their school district taught them to think a certain way. They didn’t pop out of their mothers with the ideas they have; they came about their ideas in the same way that you came about yours.
There’s a line in the Metta Sutta, a traditional Buddhist text, that says: By not clinging to fixed views, the pure-hearted one is not born again into this world. It’s best to not cling to a fixed view about who’s better and who’s worse or the idea that you can’t be happy unless another person changes their mind.
We all live in a political society. An important point to remember, regardless of your views, is to take care of your health, which includes mental health. You should be able to look at the situation straight on and say, “I really don’t like this, but I will do everything I can to work to change it in a way that’s lawful. In the meantime, it is what it is.” You don’t have to experience anguish and suffering about it.
There’s a well-known metaphor in the Buddhist tradition about getting shot with an arrow. If somebody shoots you with an arrow and you’re in a lot of pain, you shouldn’t waste your time asking, “Why would anybody do this to me?” Or thinking, I’m going to go get them back. Those kinds of responses are a second arrow. The second arrow is when you hit yourself. You might not be able to avoid the first arrow, but you can certainly avoid the second. A friend of mine says that equanimity is the ability to say, “This is what’s happening now. Let’s see what happens next.”
All of life is an opportunity to be an activist for peace. The kind of conversation that is appropriate in social settings where people are discussing current events is a chance to reframe the concerns being voiced so that they are nonadversarial. Initiating and promoting petitions that support reconciliation is another way to practice peace. Phoning senators and congressmen on the national and state level is another way to practice peace. Speaking out at town meetings and marching in peaceful demonstrations is another strategy. Everyone can discover their own formula for balancing out-in-the-world-activism with their meditation “downtime” so that they can keep the mind energized with goodwill. —Sylvia Boorstein