A thought arises and we grab hold of it. We generate another thought in response to that one, perhaps embellishing our thought in pursuit of something we desire, or perhaps changing the subject in an effort to push away an unwanted experience. 

And on and on and on it goes, one thought tumbling after another, all spurred on by “needs” of our afflictive emotions. We want to attract this thing we’re thinking of, and push away that other thing. All those internal conversations you have going on, oh, once in a while. The endless problem-solving, as you try to figure out how you can get that promotion, push that difficult person out of your way, make someone like you back, etc., etc., etc.—that’s not letting well enough alone. That’s not tranquil abiding, [how I translate shamatha meditation]. We sign up for samsara every moment, involved with the movie, jumping in and starring in it, trying to produce, direct, rescript, and recast it as it flows by. We could stop at any frame, but we don’t even notice that there are separate frames, or even that it’s a movie. 

Let’s look at this chain reaction in slow motion. You’re sitting there, meditating, breathing, and gazing peacefully. The thought of your manager at work pops up. Yesterday she told you she didn’t like your clever idea. You see her face in your mind’s eye. You hear her dismissive tone.  Now is the moment you could simply be aware of that thought and let it pass. But in a less-than-mindful moment, with frustration (the little brother of anger and aversion) in your heart, you jump to the next link in the chain reaction. You think of what you’d say back to her, trying different sentences and imagining how she might respond. Then you decide maybe it would be better to go over her head and talk to her manager or to get your fellow workers to join you in putting your idea forward. The more you spin these scenarios, the more agitated, and less peaceful, you feel. 

You see how this plays out: now you’ve got a whole movie going on, and you’re the star. And there is nothing tranquil or abiding about this production. 

And maybe, at some point in your revved-up agitation, you remember: “Oh, yeah, I was meditating.” 

The drama started not with the image and words of your manager, actually, but with your following after that thought. And in that moment you went from peace to samsara. This is how we sign up for samsara every minute, every day. 

We commonly say, “You made me mad.” Well, my lama, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, was sent to prison by the Chinese at age 13 for being a religious leader. He probably felt like saying that to the guards when he first got to prison. But then he learned that, whatever the guards did or whatever situation he was in, his own reaction was quite another thing. This uncoupling of outer goings on from our reactions to them is key to our finding peace. If we’re dependent on everything being just right in our outer world, it’s going to be a long wait (and by long, I mean infinite), so we’ll never find happiness. Gaining the ability to respond as we wish is the only way I can imagine that we can be happy all the time. It’s also the way to true freedom. 

If we don’t have a personal stake in (or any ego about) what happens when faces or words pop up, then they very quickly vanish, without any drama. In Vajrayana we sometimes speak of a thief coming to an empty house. There’s no point in staying. So if we become a dispassionate observer—not numbed out but simply without indulging in that “personal stake”—these thoughts, appearances, even feelings can come and go in an endless flow, and we haven’t lost our seat. Under these circumstances, gradually the flow of thoughts will naturally slow down.

We can experience the true nature of our minds, see to the depths, only once the waters have been stilled.

Even in the early stages of shamatha practice, I could experience a bit of stillness in the pause between breaths. I found I would lengthen that pause a little, to savor that lovely stillness. You might try that yourself, without pushing or making a big effort out of it. Just a little pause.

In the gap between two thoughts,
Thought-free wakefulness manifests unceasingly.

Excerpted from Wisdom & Compassion: Starting with Yourself, part two of Lama Tsomo’s Ancient Wisdom for Our Times series. Both this new release, which came out September 13, 2021, and part one, Why Bother?, revisit Lama Tsomo’s first book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?, by turning the text into smaller workbooks that are easier for meditation practitioners to incorporate into their daily teaching and personal practices.