So here I sit on an airplane, heading out West on a business trip, reading an excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s new book, A Profound Mind. Like many of his texts, one can be steadily following along until His Holiness takes a sharp turn into a deep concept. Suddenly you’re reading the same passage four or five times, slowly deconstructing a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase — trying to understand the meaning, knowing that it’s in there, waiting for you to find it.
All was well as I tried to grasp an explanation of the correlation between emptiness and form (In the Heart Sutra, Buddha said “Form is empty, emptiness is form”). I was reading with a level of single-pointed focus that, admittedly, is not the norm for me. That’s when it happened.
Did I bring business cards?
I maintained my focus as I quickly tapped out a message to my assistant on my iPhone. I’ll have her send them to me via FedEx. Good enough. Back to reading…or so I thought. When I turned back to my magazine, I struggled with a paragraph on what the Dalai Lama calls the “mere ‘I,’ ” or the concept of “me” after it is stripped away from our innate identification as human beings.
And then, right in front of my mind’s eye, chaos broke out in my head: first, I realized that I had also forgotten the power supply for my laptop. No worries, I thought, I’ll ask my spouse to drop it off at the office so that it can go into that FedEx package. But now the floodgate had been opened…emotions started to run alongside the torrent of words pouring through my brain. Cue some anxiety about the fact that I can’t pick up the phone — at this very second, no less! — to call my office and make it happen. Here comes frustration…followed by restlessness. How about I mentally kick myself for losing my focus, too?
I look back down at my magazine, a quarter-page photo of His Holiness staring back at me. It’s as if his gaze is saying that I shouldn’t blame myself, that I’m only human, that I should keep working at creating space in my mind to put some distance between me and the monkeys in there.
That’s when I realized how frequently I’ve been in this same situation lately — the situation where I find myself aware of the subtle inner workings of my mind, as they are actually happening. A few days ago at work, a co-worker who frequently irritates me e-mailed a document, and as soon as I opened it, I saw that he (again…grrr) did the thing that drives me crazy.
But this time, as if it happened in slow motion, I saw the frustration coalesce in my chest and then boil upward when I realized it would take a good deal of extra time to edit his work. I actually had a moment in there to decide how I would react. And that’s just one example of many over the last couple of months from both work and home. Last night, after my spouse didn’t respond in the way I wanted after I said something, I again saw a sliver of space between thoughts, giving me a moment to make the decision against my typical instinctive reaction.
I’m still stunned each time it happens — after all, I’m 40 years old (think “old dog, new tricks”). I attribute the creation of this “internal space” to the fact that I’m blessed to have an extremely wise, powerfully effective teacher. I consider his entire lineage, in fact, to be my teachers — his masters are, in a very real and special sense, my masters, all the way back to the literal Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. The profound changes I have seen in my life during the past year, since I started studying intensely under my teacher, are amazing…and yet there is so far still to go!
I’m writing about these changes not to boast, but to provide some personal evidence that practice coupled with study and instruction can bring about positive changes in your mind and in your life. The path is laid out pretty clearly for each of us, and the toughest part for me has always been gaining enough traction to see results.
While my motivation will always be the end of suffering for sentient beings, the direct experience of these subtle changes in how my mind operates gives me a renewed commitment. This, in turn, seems to “unlock” parts of the masters’ teachings: reading His Holiness’ explanations of the profundity of the human mind is a different experience today than it would have been a year ago.