Don’t believe everything you think

Every time we open the news app on our phone or sign into Facebook or Twitter, every time we turn on the TV, we are bombarded by how bad things are. There is so much wrong in the world, so many people suffering, and it is easy to get agitated or even enraged. But if we allow ourselves to be churned up in response to all the terrible news, we can feel helpless, hopeless. We don’t know what to do or how to help.

Too often, we also fall into the trap of polarization. There’s “my side” and the “other side.” There are blue and red political parties, people who look like me and people who don’t, men and women, straight and LGBT, citizens and refugees. But if we keep on thinking it’s “those other people” who are the cause of our unhappiness, we’ll never be able to figure out how to actually calm things down so that we can all flourish in this world and be joyful and safe.

Happiness and suffering are both creations of our own mind. Of course, the outer conditions play a certain role, but in the end, the real source of our emotions is our mind. If our mind is strong, if our mind is peaceful, no outside situation can disturb us, since nothing external can actually cause us as much pain as our own thoughts. All our sensations of joy and agony, happiness and pain, are experienced by our mind. And they are also created by our mind.

If we can genuinely connect with and understand our own mind, then we can have a better understanding of others, who may think differently from us. And when we have a little better understanding of others, then we can genuinely engage in activities that can benefit us, our families, and the wider world.

No One to Blame

There is no one to blame here. Happiness and suffering, joy and pain, are dependent on whether our own mind is calm or agitated. When our mind is quiet, we have more capacity to relate with our world and our experiences with a sense of gentleness. We feel that we’re all in this together. When our mind is not calm, then everything around us becomes more irritating or infuriating. There is no sense of gentleness or understanding. Our mind becomes more agitated, more distressed, and we completely lose perspective. We’re so focused on the heat of blaming others that we can’t experience the gentle breeze of compassion or empathy. Then we experience more pain or we cause suffering for others.

There’s a story about two couples: one couple was deeply in love and happy, and the other couple was having a hard time. Both couples ended up in the same restaurant, and both ordered the same food. One member of each couple ordered soup, and the other ordered salad. When the dinners came, the soup eaters both started using their forks instead of their spoons. In the couple having a hard time, the salad eater looked at their partner and thought, “What a jerk, eating soup with a fork!” In the other couple, the ones having a good time, the salad eater thought, “How cute and funny, so special, eating soup with a fork.” Was anything different about the external circumstances of these two experiences? No. Both couples were eating the same meal. So you can see how our minds create our world and create our experience of joy or pain. You can think your partner’s a jerk and that gives you pain, or you can think your partner’s cute and that brings you happiness.

First, you have to notice what your mind is doing when it reacts to everything going on around you. Second, you have to take some control over it. You have to tame your jumpy, emotional mind, and then you have to train it, like domesticating a wild horse.

Taming the Wild Mind

When you watch wild horses running, they’re very beautiful, but you can’t ride them. Our minds are naturally beautiful, like wild horses, but they’re not tame. Just like a wild horse, that sometimes seems to run and run for no apparent reason, our mind runs and runs, but we don’t know where it’s running or why it’s running. Our minds are running because everyone else’s mind is running! And this unpredictability and our strong emotional reactions to the news, or to our partner—all of our thoughts and emotions—create all kinds of problems for ourselves and the world.

If we start paying attention to our mind’s wildness, by being mindful of the thoughts and emotions running through us all the time, we can find a little calmness. We can begin to tame the wild horse. We won’t let it start running just because everyone else is running. If we don’t react with anger in response to someone else’s anger, we can then remember to be a little compassionate. If we keep thinking that we’re right and the other person (or political party or sports team or nation) is wrong, then we’re unable to help things get better.

We need to know our mind’s strengths and weaknesses if we’re going to have any possibility of transformation: changing our anger or overcoming our fear and anxiety. If we can transform our own emotions, then we can genuinely engage in compassionate activities that can truly benefit the planet and its inhabitants instead of fooling ourselves.

To know our own mind is not that hard, but to know someone else’s mind is very difficult. But usually we think about it the other way: we think we know other people’s minds very well, and we don’t bother getting to know our own mind. We think we know what our coworkers are thinking; we think we know what our partners and children are feeling; and we think we know how to fix their problems. We can’t fix our own problems, but we see other people’s mistakes or weaknesses so clearly, we think we have all the answers. And that’s actually a very clear sign that we don’t know our own mind. When we feel that way, it’s like a text message saying, “hey, you should get to know your own mind first.”

The Mind Can Be a Master Manipulator

Our mind thinks other people cause our suffering and unhappiness. That’s what we think, right? If only politicians would do this or that, if only certain religions would do this or that, if only rich or poor people would do this or that, then we’d be happy. This is what we call delusion. We project a thought onto someone else and then we believe in it. We talk about it, blog about it, tweet about it, and that makes it more and more real. But this is just a thought process; it’s not true. But we believe that it’s true, and then we make it more solid, and our misery and the misery of others increases.

Our mind is so skilled in all these manipulative games that we are not only good at making other people believe our delusions, but we are also good at making ourselves believe our delusions. It’s amazing.

But it’s just a house of cards. One thought believes that something is true, and then another thought-card depends on that card, and a third card is dependent on the second false card, and so on. The whole structure of our beliefs is built on these false cards of thoughts. Once you pull one out, everything collapses. There is nothing real there, nothing true. As the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

If you analyze what you believe in, if you examine your justification of your anger or the basis of your patriotism, they are not as solid as they appear to be. The very, very bad thing, the very bad person, is not as bad as your mind is telling you. And those you think are really, really good are not necessarily that good. I am not only talking about bad things, but also about good things. Our strong attachments to our thoughts and beliefs affect us in both directions, bad and good.

Getting to the True Nature of the Mind

Sometimes we feel that something is absolutely positive, like some food, some belief system, or our current partner. We feel absolutely good and positive about it: this food is healthy, this religion is going to help me, my sweetheart is going to love me forever. But sometimes that food kills you in the end. Sometimes the belief system is lying to you, stirring you up for its own purpose. Sometimes the love of your life becomes the hate of your life. This shows once again that what we think, feel, and believe is not based on what is going on outside our mind, but on what goes on inside.

Some people worry that if they analyze their thoughts too closely, or if they achieve too much calmness, their thoughts, even their selves, will disappear. I can guarantee that no matter how much you meditate or analyze your thoughts, they will still be there when you get up from your cushion or your chair. But they will begin to change a little bit when you work with your mind, as you notice that thoughts and emotions are not as solid as you once believed.

Ultimately, there is no need to worry. We can afford to relax. We can enjoy the process of taming and training our mind. The actual nature of our mind is completely awakened and completely free, with a quality of clear light. We are full of genuine wisdom, full of genuine love and compassion – wisdom, compassion, and awakening are not outside of us or separate from us. Everything we need to make positive changes in the world is already available. This is the true nature of our mind, the true nature of everyone’s mind.

This article was previously published on Huffington Post. Copyright © 2017 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.