We should rest in mind, not search for it; why search for what we already are?
When Self-liberation appears within,
Engage not in logic and speculation
Lest meaningless activities involve you.
Son, rest yourself without wandering thoughts.
Do you understand, Venerable Monk from Weu? (The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, 242)
This is a stanza from a doha, or spiritual poem, sung by the Tibetan saint Milarepa to the future leader of his lineage, Gampopa. The doha has four other stanzas, and in each one Milarepa recommends resting as the corrective measure for problems on the Buddhist path. This recommendation, from a great and accomplished meditator, highlights the importance of relaxation for those seeking the true nature of mind. This mind is what we really are, so using mind to hunt for an idea of itself is like “riding a water buffalo, looking for a water buffalo,” as the old Buddhist saying goes. We should rest in mind, not search for it; why search for what we already are?
Resting helps us not only to experience mind, but also to relate to the thoughts that arise in it. As any meditator knows, memories, plans, and other mental events often zing in and steal our awareness. Certain thoughts, such as thoughts on topics like money and sex, have particular allure. (A much-quoted study found that young men think about sex every seven seconds.) The longer we attach to these persuasive thoughts, the more energy they gain. As a result, our mind fills with highly charged chains of thought that obscure our awareness, in turn allowing other unobserved thoughts to enter. A cycle begins that completely excludes us from the meditative state.
I’ve tried many approaches to deal with these distractions, virtually none of which work. One that does is neutralizing them through resting. If we learn to relax, it cuts our thoughts’ momentum or energy, allowing us to see them as they arise in mind. This increased awareness prevents them from “chaining” into persuasive monologues, and we relax further, developing a cycle that works in our favor.
In my experience, however, accessing this cycle in the everyday world is extremely difficult. Most of the activities we consider “relaxing,” such as entertainment, stimulate rather than rest mind. If I watch a movie or sporting event at night, I often wake the next morning with scenes still swirling in my head.
Far more serious are the pressures of trying to make a living or raise children. Crises are constantly arising, causing us to “think long and hard” about what to do. In my many years as a physician, I never found a way out: I never felt like I could rest completely, because of preoccupation with my own and my patients’ welfare. Despite having the support of daily meditation and retreats, I remained psychologically “on call.”
At times, an inability to rest threatened my life. In my mid-forties, I moved with my wife and young son to a town in Northern Colorado. There I began practicing rheumatology, a medical subspecialty that diagnoses and treats arthritis and related diseases. I did well for several years, until luck and the American way brought a competitor into my area, causing a significant drop in my income. I remember shopping with my wife and son for a Christmas tree the year the new physician arrived, thinking it would be the last tree I bought in the place I had grown to love.
I did have one alternative, however: to take up practicing general medicine along with rheumatology. I knew from experience the stress this would entail. General medicine practitioners are the physicians of first resort for their patients, open to calls day and night about any physical or psychological problem they may suffer. General medicine represented a much larger time and energy commitment than rheumatology, and I wasn’t certain I could face the day-to-day pressures it posed. My choices, as I saw them, were to practice general medicine and accept the demands it represented, or uproot my family and look for another population in need of a rheumatologist. My preoccupation with this dilemma left me unable to rest my mind during the day, or to sleep at night. I became exhausted; joy left me, and I began thinking that death would be better than the life I lived.
None too soon, I finally diagnosed myself with major depression—an illness I had unknowingly struggled with for decades—and began taking medication. After several weeks of therapy, my depression lifted, and I gained the confidence to practice general medicine along with rheumatology, allowing myself and family to remain in our home. Everything turned out well, but I never lost the memories of those dark days when, unable to rest my mind day or night, I contemplated suicide.
As this story indicates, life is inherently stressful. The source of our stress is the attempt to align a turbulent, complex world with the narrow wishes of a self or ego. Maintaining this doomed project takes vast amounts of effort, as does managing the distress we feel when our efforts fail. I was especially vulnerable because of an undiagnosed illness, but the lesson applies to others as well.
We cannot rest unless mind does. The occurrences of mind are like a movie that we spend most of our time watching. Whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy, the movie distracts us, preventing us from resting in the mind that is our true nature. Of course, when seen correctly the movie has the same nature as the mind it arises in, but we’ll have to see the nature of the underlying mind first before we know that. We can only do that by resting, and allowing what obscures it to dissipate.