Last Updated: November 1st, 2018
Dazzling hues of pink and orange light up the slowly drifting clouds. The setting sun illuminates the mountain in front of me, casting an orange glow on the otherwise dull brown rock. As if the sharpness setting on a monitor has been turned up, the edges of the peak stand out from the sky in high-definition radiance.
Absorbing the beauty, I walk slowly in the present moment, finding no need to distract myself with other thoughts. This is perfection, and I’m grateful to experience it. As I walk past rows of multi-coloured flowers through the courtyard of the Oriental guesthouse deep in the Indian Himalayas, the perfection continues.
I walk past a woman whose unusual appearance triggers a judgment in my mind. Yet only the beginning of a judgment. I start to think, “Oh, she looks…” but I don’t finish the thought. It would have been negative.
When not dwelling in presence, I would have caught the subconscious thought only after it entered my consciousness, or not at all. If I’d caught it afterwards, I would have acknowledged the judgment and laughed at myself. Better than not catching it at all and letting it reinforce my conditioning, or what Buddhists and Hindus refer to as samskaras.
Samskaras become more ingrained when acted upon, as the groove of a bicycle track is worn deeper into a dirt road with continued use, making us more likely to act on them in the future. The effects of some samskaras, such as addictions, are obvious. After spending a drunken night and forgetting what happened, then hearing about whatever we did from a friend the following day, we see all too clearly the effects of our conditioning. The roots of samskaras are believed to lie far below our conscious awareness. We can see the effects of our actions, but we have a hard time controlling the force of the conditioning itself, which is exactly why kicking an addiction or abandoning a habit proves so difficult.
The more subtle the samskara, the more difficult it is to change. Personality traits and judgmental behaviour are two such examples. Whereas addictions affect our personality in dramatic ways (in the drunkenness example, alcoholism can cause anger, which can lead to a fight or mean-spirited talk), subtle behavioural traits such as judgment shape our personality in a different way.
The Buddha outlined three aspects of sila (morality) that are the foundation and prerequisite of a proper meditation practice: action, speech and thought. It’s obvious how action and speech can affect us—when the angry drunk gets into a fight or uses hurtful words that can be as harmful as fists. Thought, while subtle, can be just as harmful, in the sense that it is the root of speech and action. Even if a thought is caught and never acted on, it has a subtle energetic impact on the object of the thought, the thinker, and the world in general. To prevent our thoughts from affecting our own and others’ well-being, we can catch them in the field of awareness through mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness is to be in the present moment, not to get caught up in the past or the future, which is it’s opposite—forgetfulness. Mindfulness is remembering to be aware of life’s perfection and to be grateful for whatever comes, good or bad.
Mindfulness helps us deal with thoughts in two ways: First, if we clear our minds and dwell in the present, we become aware of ourselves and our interactions. When a thought enters, we catch it, we accept it and ask ourselves where it came from, and then we let it go. Second, quite simply, if we keep a clear mind absorbed in the present, judgments and other thoughts mostly just do not exist. When they do come up, we are more likely to catch them before they form into a full thought.
It is through this state of mindfulness that samskaras change. As samskaras change, we change at the deepest level. No matter how entrenched the conditioning, given time and practice we gain control over the mind so it works for us, not us for it.
While sitting down to eat my meal, I reflect on the silliness of my mind’s wanderings. It’s just a thought, I think to myself. That too is just a thought. Oh I give up, thinking to myself with a laugh, and go back to gazing at the mountains in the present moment. With nothing on my mind but perfection, I eat my meal and flash a smile towards the woman as she leaves.