…I’ve a great fear of becoming just another scatterbrain. I try to meditate most days but in minutes I'm somewhere else, thinking about everything except what I'm doing. I'd love to have a calm mind like a lake, I can imagine it would be a wonderful thing to have. What’s wrong with my mind? In school I had enough concentration to do well in all the subjects, but now I jump from one thing to another like a bee. Could you tell me how to get hold of this mind and pin it down? I read all the things you write about meditation. I'd love to be able to enjoy it. Thanks Donagh. Donal.
Take a swarm of honeybees. Apart from the bees there is no swarm; the swarm is nothing but bees. The mind is nothing but its contents, and these contents are constantly passing through; they are just traffic. So forget about the mind; it is nothing, it is only a word; so you will never pin it down.
A student came to a meditation teacher and asked, “Can you pacify my mind?” The teacher said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it for you.” A few days later the student came back and said, “I can't pinpoint my mind, I can't find it anywhere.” “There!” said the teacher, “I have pacified it for you.”
Lots of things are not things but only words. Don’t imagine the mind as a thing. Provisionally you could imagine it as a place. That's not as bad as calling it a thing. A place, at least, stays put, no matter what happens there, no matter what traffic comes and goes.
But don’t even look at the place; look instead at the traffic. If you look at it without getting involved with it – without passing judgment on every passing thought, without being carried away by it – you will soon find that you are less agitated, more peaceful. Don’t ask how that happens, just get out of the way.
Somewhere down the line you will realise that while you can be a spectator of most things, you can't be a spectator of everything. (Who would be doing the spectating?)
Try another story, or rather a koan. You are sitting in that inner place, watching things go by. A buffalo passes your window. The head and horns pass by, the neck, the flank, the hind legs go by. But the tail does not go by. Why not?
I don’t want to do your thinking for you. Still less do I want to do your meditating for you; but hold onto that tail! You are holding onto what cannot be objectified. There is something in you that cannot be put ‘out there’ to be looked at. Swift wrote about "the tribes of Answerers, Considerers, Observers, Reflectors, Detectors, Remarkers." The outsider, the observer, the critic: these, it seems, were in commanding positions even in the 18th century. I can't imagine what he would say to us today. Television had not been invented in Swift’s time, but today we talk (oxymoronically) about ‘Reality TV’.
No, reality cannot be put out there like a television programme. There is something in reality that is irreducible to passing images. Could that be the buffalo’s tail? Better hold onto it then. That tail is part of the buffalo; it is all buffalo. Your hold on that tail is your hold on the buffalo; it is your hold on reality.
There is nothing here for the ego to take pride in. The ego would like to preside over everything; it would like to preside over the local council, it would like to preside over the supreme court if it could. But look! It is presiding instead over a buffalo’s rear end! Hold on to that tail. Buffalos, like cows I suppose, are not noted for their attention to hygiene; their bathroom skills are negligible. Still, hold on! This is your hold on reality; this is your path to God!
Many of the Christian mystics are inclined to be very high-minded, and metaphors of climbing abound. Look at the titles of the classics: St Bonaventure’s Ascent of the Mind to God, John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection…. There was even a 7th-century mystic whose name was ‘Ladder’! – St John Climacus (klimax is a Greek word for ladder).
OK…. But hold onto that tail. It will keep you earthed. It will help keep you from floating away in thoughts and images. Meditation is counter-cultural. Everything around us says ‘up’, but you say ‘down’. Many Christian mystics, I said, were inclined to be high-minded. But not all; not all of them are on an upward flight. The author of the 14th-century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “We have to take particular care with those two words ‘in’ and ‘up’. The misunderstanding of these two words has caused much error and wrong in would-be contemplatives.”
Stay with that tail. Don’t think about the mind. Look at what passes through it, if that gives you a sense of non-identification with that traffic. Then stay with the awareness that there is something in you that doesn’t pass by your window. That's the right road; let it take you where it will.
I hope these few words are of some help, Donal.