If you sit still doing nothing for just a few moments, your mind will start to wander in all different directions, and this happens also after a while when you otherwise try to concentrate on a task. A beloved child has many names, and this also goes for this well-known phenomenon. The Buddha called it the “monkey mind”, likening it to the monkey constantly jumping from one tree branch to another. A western everyday name is of course “day-dreaming”, and the neuroscientists are talking about “mind-wandering”.
A cornerstone in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that everything is impermanent and that our attachment to person, things or phenomena as they are, is thus a cause of suffering – as all this will eventually change. The way to get out of this suffering is to rid ourselves from these attachments.
One of the genetically strongest fears we have is to be abandoned by the group. Humans are flock animals, and the safety of the group has been vital for our survival throughout evolution. If you challenged the prevailing norms in the early hunting tribe, you’d risk being expelled from the group, and this was often the same as a death sentence.
In our stressed out western world, where so much of our lives circle around money, possessions and surface, more and more people are looking for alternative values in life that instead emphasize simplicity, harmony and balance.
The focus is often on ancient Asian practices, which are dusted off and usually dressed in a western costume. Concepts like meditation, mindfulness and yoga are tossed around, and variations of these themes are practiced in yoga studios, with focus on body movements, as well as used in various stress reduction programmes that include both meditation and mindfulness exercises.
Life can be complex, frustrating, and hard to understand, and trying to always be in control is a futile exercise. Another approach is instead to cultivate an open mind which is free from all preconceptions and expectations. This is a state which the great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki has called the beginner’s mind.
In his book Zen mind, beginner’s mind, Suzuki writes “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few”.
Every single experience of what has happened to you took place within your own mind as reflections and interpretations of sensory information that have reached you from the external world around you. While this flow of sensory information is partly beyond your control, you still have a choice of what you expose yourself to. Reading books, meeting new people, experiencing nature are all within the range of your possibilities, and are all bringing you new sensory information, and thus novel experiences.
We would like to think that our different memories are quite accurate, but in fact, the memory is extremely unreliable. When we pick up a memory, we can not just “put it back” from where we retrieved it as it once was, but instead it has to be re-stored. In that process, it is not saved in the same state as it used to be, but is being distorted by our current mood, but also according to our wishes and expectations.
What is the most versatile tool you could think of? You may say a Swiss Army Knife, which in one package provides you with a knife, a saw blade, a pair of scissors, a bottle opener, a screwdriver and several other appliances.
There is a similar multi-purpose tool for the mind and that is meditation.
There is an old Taoist story about a farmer and his horse that is likely well over 2000 years old. The story teaches us to accept things the way we are.
One day the farmer’s only horse ran away. His neighbours immediately came over to commiserate, “We are so sorry about the loss of your only horse”. But the farmer just said: “Who knows what’s good or bad. We’ll see.”