Resting the Busy Mind, by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Sometimes we’re angry but forget why. We may not be sure of the real reason for our anger, but our gut feeling says our anger is justified and we hold on to it. We start to think of justifications for our anger: the time our friend forgot to call, insulted the family dog, was late for the movies, never picks up checks, and constantly complains. Suddenly, we have lots of reasons to be angry. The list is endless. That cheers us up, and our busy minds are satisfied for a moment.

Whether it’s anger or passion or just our “to do” list, the mind always seems to be actively involved with something. One instant, it runs outward toward something it sees and wants, the next moment, it retreats inward toward some engrossing thought. Then it’s back to our friend and the anger that’s becoming so familiar. Our minds are always busy keeping track of this and that in our inner and outer worlds. It’s like having a job and a family — between the two, there’s hardly any break. One thought leads to another, and that thought leads to a third. At some point, we lose track and can’t remember how we got to where we are. When the mind goes around and around like this, it’s like water that’s stirred up all the time. It never has a chance to settle and become calm and clear. You can even have trouble sleeping because your mind is not at rest.

Image by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

If you know your mind is busy and full of thoughts, then that’s actually not too bad. But often that’s not the case. Sometimes we’re juggling five or six trains of thought and the emotions attached to them. With so much going on, the mind starts to get agitated and confused. We can’t see clearly how disturbed our minds have become. We also can’t see that there’s no logic to our confusion. Still, we remain very diligent and patient when it comes to holding on to our thoughts. We try to keep them all alive, to keep up the steady stream of thoughts. If the stream starts to slow down or stop, we immediately try to revive it. We even have gadgets to help us hold on to our thoughts — pocket PCs, Palm Pilots, notebooks, iPhones — so we can record anything. It’s all there: your emails, texts, schedules and shopping lists. That’s not always a bad thing, but with all this going on, it’s easy to see how our minds never get any rest.

Our problem is that this busy mind can lose its connection to its real nature. When we take time to look beneath all this activity, we discover a sense of spaciousness and awareness, peace and happiness, that doesn’t change from moment to moment. It’s always there for us. The Buddha taught that this is the actual reality of our minds. To reconnect to that reality, we need to slow down and relax — totally let go and rest our minds. Then there is the possibility of the mind clearing up, calming down, and tuning in to its basic state of peace and happiness.

So how do we rest and relax our minds? There are a number of things that can help. You can nourish and relax your body with a healthful diet and exercise, especially yoga. You can take breaks, go for walks, listen to music, and disconnect for a while from the cyber-, info-, and techno- worlds. But what can help the most is the practice of meditation where you are just watching your thoughts and resting your mind on the coming and going of your breath. This style of meditation is simple, can be practiced anywhere, and has a strong impact on our well being. Once we become comfortable with the basic technique, which is described in many places, we can take a closer look at our thoughts.

The first thing you’ll notice is how many thoughts you have, how they’re always shifting and changing, and how the mind chases after them. The practice is simply to notice when your mind wanders off and bring it back to the present, again and again. The way you come back is by letting go of the thought you’re following. Once you notice it’s there, you don’t hold on to it. Then you’ve cut the momentum of the stream of thoughts instead of encouraging it. There’s a sense of relief when you’re not being dragged around by your thoughts. It doesn’t matter whether the thoughts are positive or negative. If a good thought appears, you don’t need to improve it or rejoice in it; just let it be as it is. If a bad thought pops up, you don’t need to get upset about it or try to block or change it. You can just let it be as it is.

The way to really rest our busy minds in meditation is to let go of all thoughts about our thoughts. We can simply relax as our thoughts come and go. The more relaxed we become, the more we can see the mind’s spacious, wakeful quality, which we’ve been more or less blind to. When we see this, we are seeing what the Buddha called our “enlightened potential,” which everybody has.

What this means is that we can find our own happiness and peace of mind just as we are in this very moment, because it is within us. We don’t have to change our thoughts or change ourselves into someone else. We don’t need to think that who we are, this “me,” is not good enough, smart enough, or lucky enough to be happy. We don’t need to be Mother Theresa, Bill Gates or the people in the Vogue magazine ads to be happy. If we think we do, we don’t have to chase after that thought. We can just let it go like any other, and rest our busy mind.

© 2010 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a widely celebrated teacher known for his skill in making the full richness of Buddhist wisdom accessible to modern minds. A lover of urban culture, Rinpoche enjoys writing poetry and creating art of various kinds in his leisure time. Based in the United States for the past 20 years, he devotes much of his energy to his vision of a genuine American, and Western, Buddhism, free from the cultural trappings that sometimes distort the Buddha’s essential message of wakefulness. Born in 1965 in northeast India, Rinpoche received comprehensive training in the meditative and intellectual disciplines of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of many of the greatest masters from Tibet’s final pre-exile generation. Among the many organizational roles he juggles, he is the founder and principal teacher of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist practice centers. His new book, Rebel Buddha, (Shambhala Publications) forthcoming in November 2010. For more information please visit Rinpoche on Facebook, Twitter and his website.

More by Rinpoche in the Shambhala Sun (links open in new windows):

  • The Wisdom of the Body and the Search for the Self
  • Erring and Erring, We Walk the Unerring Path
  • This Very Mind, Empty and Luminous
  • What the Buddha Taught
  • 6 Comments

    1. Zach
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I believe that our minds are typically busy beyond explanation, and that my agitation is sometimes caused by hundreds of primary sources, nevermind secondary or smaller sources. The obvious two or three things that I might be mulling or agitated over comprise less than 1% of the source.

    2. Lynne
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Great reminders of the simplicity and spaceousness of the present moment. Continuously letting go of whatever thoughts arise without judgement or commentary is a relief! Allowing my spaghetti mind to relax into space is delicious!

    3. Craig
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Thank you – bringing your mental self "back home"…

    4. Paul Brennan
      Posted May 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing this useful reminder :-) Good dharma.

    5. Tanya
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      How wonderful to have Rinpoche on SunSpace! Thank you, Shambhala Sun.

    6. Posted May 9, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Congratulations, Rinpoche. A very helpful teaching for the busy minds of the world. They should be grateful.

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