Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Watching Mind-Spin (Sister Kovida)


Watching Mind-Spin

This is based on a dhamma talk by Sister Kovida.

The first thing I do when I meditate is just very simply turn my attention inwards, just that very simple act of turning attention inward. So, it’s not a type of meditation that begins with an agenda to change the experience of my mind, change what I’m feeling, stop my thoughts, and this is not a criticism of meditations that do that, but it’s something different. We have a sense of both having a feeling, or having a physical sensation, or having a busy mind, and with the attention turning inwards, we can begin to attend to the feeling at the same time as experiencing it, the content as well as the sense of the mind chewing over it. Quite often, whatever is going on in our bodies or in our minds, if we have an idea about meditation, it’s to quiet it down, make it peaceful and then we’re on track with our meditation. The kind of practice I’ve been trained in, and what I do, is instead turning attention to the mind just as it is. Normally, through our day, we’re stimulating our minds quite a lot. Everything we put into our minds, reading newspapers, doing our jobs, all the engagements and relationships, all of these contacts if you imagine your mind like a pool of water are like the pebbles being thrown into the water. We experience all sorts of things that send ripples through our minds, churn up our minds, or settle our minds, we’re moving through things which affect us in all sorts of ways. When I turn attention inwards, simply to notice my mind just as it is, I can begin to see how it’s affected, how it’s rippling.

The way I’m describing the mind might be a bit unfamiliar to some of you, describing it a bit like an instrument or an object. Whereas mostly, our minds feel very personal, they’re who we are, they’re what we are. What’s quite interesting about turning in to see the mind, for instance there might be a mind-state where I feel agitated, I feel worried, and I’m just in that dynamic of worry. I’m in that sense of agitation, wobble, fear, and the thoughts that go with it, and then just turning attention, and just letting, not trying to change or get rid of that feeling or sensation, it’s possible to simply feel the mind is this way, right now the mind is this way. Quite often when we experience mind states like worry or doubt or fear, we come in with another reaction, another pebble in the pond, to fix it, sort it, move with it, or move it away, and with this act of turning inwards, we are not adding a further ripple, it’s more like receiving, making space for what’s here. And that has a really interesting effect. One effect it has I find in my own mind is that it’s settling, it’s not trying to fix the worry, but just simply not reacting to it. The mind can actually start to relax. And I also then begin to recognize what’s driving me, what’s feeding the worry.

Wanting things to be a certain way and not being in control of conditions can feed worry. Just recognizing that is helpful. Recognizing the struggle to have things a certain way, and the uncertainty because I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, just recognizing that is a very effective policy without adding more turbulence. And it begins to become possible to see what’s spinning, where my mind’s got attached or invested. One way our minds, very characteristically, get invested is by having an attachment to how we want to be seen, an idea of ourselves, what we should succeed at, how we should avoid failure, how we think others see us. These are very sensitive areas. We are deeply conditioned around them, and they are very habitual. As I turn inwards and see these patterns, see these ways my mind has landed and invested in a particular situation, reacted to a particular situation, I begin to see behind that, the belief, the thought, the idea about myself and the situation, that are feeding those perceptions, that are feeding those feelings.

So it’s a way of seeing and then understanding the cause and effect process that arises in our mind. We’ll do a bit of meditation now. Even if you’ve done meditation before which many of you have, I would like to suggest you don’t do the meditation technique you would normally but make yourself comfortable and just shut your eyes. Keeping it very simple, spend a few moments just noticing what it’s like for you to be sitting here in this room, a very general overall sense of how you are, just taking a few moments to tune in to yourself. It helps to let your attentiveness be very relaxed, not trying to focus on anything in particular, just mindful of what you notice.

Our minds will be stirred up from whatever we’ve been doing through our day, and when we don’t add more in, it just naturally starts to settle in a very… natural peaceful way, not trying to have anything, not trying to get rid of anything. If the mind feels sleepy, just feel, it’s ok just to allow that… not running off with it but simply… noticing it…

simply noticing sitting here in this room…

feeling the sense of your physical body, your weight on the chair… your feet touching the ground… just the sense of sitting, and letting your awareness be relaxed and open.

not trying to have anything, not trying to get rid of anything…

feeling drawn to the sounds outside the room, just notice if your attention is drawn, what that feels like… whatever mind state you’re experiencing, just letting it be there, noticing it in a very open relaxed way, just letting it be as it is.

if you need to move, just be aware of the need to move, you can let yourself move, but connect with the movement

being with the body, being with the mind, just letting it be just as it is

reminding yourself to allow the mind, the mind state to be as it is, not trying to change it

ask yourself, can I let this be here? this feeling, this mood, can I let this be here?

letting your attention be very broad and relaxed

like if you are sitting on the banks of a lake

(background noise of a birthday party)

Happy Birthday dear …
Happy Birthday to you!


and just again coming back into connection with the sense of sitting, the sense of weight sitting in the chair, the sense of your feet touching the ground, the sense of your whole body, and in your own time open your eyes, experiencing the light… and have a little stretch.

Sometimes I use the metaphor for watching the mind as like observing an animal in its natural habitat, and if your job was to analyse and research it, you would try to minimize interfering with it, to see it just as it is. So how we watch, how we attend is very important, the attitude we have towards ourselves. Quite often if something’s unpleasant, the mind state’s unpleasant, it’s very natural to want to get rid of it, if we’re feeling dull it’s very natural to want to feel brighter, or if we’re feeling agitated, to want to feel peaceful. We’re actually conditioned very deeply to want pleasant and get away from unpleasant. But it’s often that very habit that creates a lot of turbulence in our mind, that habit to get away from what we don’t want and try to get what we want. Particularly if a mind-state I’m experiencing is quite hard to stay with, I’ll investigate my attention, how I’m being with it, is there hardness of rejection in how I’m being with this experience? Am I being with it in order to get rid of it? And just asking that question, “do I want to get rid of this?” acknowledges the truth of it, and makes more space for it being there. I’m not telling myself I should like it, I should be ok with it, be nice to it, I’m not telling myself to be peaceful, I’m just acknowledging the truth of what’s arising in the mind, so there’s an unpleasant mind state and there’s aversion, there’s two contractions. And there’s something a little bit magical about awareness — just noticing what’s happening seems to have a certain effect when we do that in a very true way, just noticing, just aware. You naturally wake up and become more connected and more open, with a brightness to your attention. And what’s interesting is that then it’s possible to make peace even though… there’s a birthday party happening next door! It’s a peace that is not conditional on our life experience being a certain way.

Quite often we try to get away from our mind, so it’s going almost against the grain to turn towards the mind. A lot of the time, our attention is out there, or we’re engaged in activities which are distracting, or we’re simply in the mood or mind-state we’re experiencing and running with them. And often we feel we don’t have a lot of choice about these thoughts. And that’s because most of them are the result of habits and ways of being which we’ve built up that just keep re-arising, not to judge or denigrate the mind because of that but just a natural quality of our mind that they’re conditionable. Our minds get trained in particular ways. And that’s why we can train awareness or attentiveness, another aspect of the mind.

This practice of turning attention inwards enables you to see these habitual tendencies, first see them and then understand what’s arising in association with them. I’ll give you a simple example. A long while ago when I was living at the monastery, I was doing walking meditation in a big field on a hill, quite a windy place. In walking meditation, you choose a path about thirty paces long and you stand at one end, then walk the length, turn round and walk back, and I was doing a similar practice to what we were doing right now, just noticing what’s arising in mind and body. So I determined to walk for an hour, and it was just as the light was turning. About twenty minutes into the meditation it got dark and started to rain, and it was getting cold. What seemed like it would be quite a nice pleasant thing, walking in the balmy evening, suddenly became unpleasant, cold. And so I was standing at the end of the path and I thought, “aww, maybe I’ll go in, maybe I’ll stop”. Just as I had that thought, I noticed my mind having that thought. So, I decided before I go in to spend a few moments just noticing that thought, instead of going automatically with the urge, to just stand there feeling the aversion, the sense of wanting, pulling away, I don’t want, I don’t have to be with it, I could go in, the mind starts rationalizing, might catch cold, got to be up early, the mind concurring with the feeling of wanting to get away. So I decided to stay with it a couple more lengths of the path, walking, just staying with the sense of feeling of the movement, and then I had this little fantasy of being back in my room having a hot drink. See how the mind goes with the urge to get away! Then I stopped, and this urge and the unpleasantness were even stronger by contrast with the pleasant idea. I thought, oh, this is really interesting, it’s really seeing cause and effect, the rain is still the same, but it felt a lot worse now that I’d imagined the positive experience of being back in my room. It’s not wrong to desire that. This practice is not about controlling or getting rid of desire, but understanding desire, any desire, positive or negative. Because desires aren’t ours. It’s simply a process of cause and effect, and the only way is to understand that process. As I noticed this, my mind started to be more at peace with what was happening at the present moment. As I noticed how my mind was pulled, I came back to the here and now of what was happening, just feeling the contact. There’s all this stuff arising and this sense of peace, not being pulled around by my mind going here and there. Then, I felt one raindrop touch my cheek and it was cold and it turned warm, and it was very pleasant and I felt very alive at that moment. There is a certain peace that I’ve only ever experienced by coming out of the reactive level to conditions, and I haven’t experienced it through having things the way I want them.

So I think I’ll stop there. If you have any questions or comments, I’d be very interested. Has what I’ve said made sense?


  1. A well written and nicely constructed description of this simple meditation. As my teacher would say, Yes! Just notice that. Just notice . . .

    I have heard it said that, at the end of his searching, when all else had failed, the Buddha sat under his tree, made his great vow, and simply sat with this basic technique of just noticing.

  2. Thanks for reading, Jon! Yes, I think this not wanting to have, not wanting to get rid of, just noticing is a very useful meditation especially when we're finding it difficult to meditate.

  3. Serious stuff, dear Jamintoo.

    I reflected on this with you, and it makes perfect sense.

    Thank you for this in depth analysis.


  4. Thanks Catherine. The "I" in this talk is Sister Kovida. I've just written up her words.


  5. Oh wow. I have to come back for this one. It's quite long and I'm quite tired! It's been flagged, Okei...:)

  6. Lol, you've read this article in different words on Nancy's site. That version clearly spoke more directly...so you can unflag this;-)

  7. Psychoanalysis vs. Buddhism

    "So in order to cope
    we create defenses in lots
    of ways—repression,
    denial, reaction
    formation, intellectual
    control, and so on. We all
    have styles, and some
    range of skill, but we tend
    to specialize in one style
    more than another, and
    that is the basis for our
    character. But though it
    may be necessary at
    times to shut off or not
    notice our feelings using
    defense mechanisms, this
    also causes suffering—
    because in order to do
    this we are blinding
    ourselves to most of what
    is going on in the world of
    our experience.

    In the parallel
    Buddhist analysis, we are
    also blinding ourselves to
    a good deal of our
    affective experience, to so
    much of what is actually
    going on in the moment.
    We do this thinking that it
    will make us feel better,
    under the influence of
    desire and aversion. We
    are trying to hold on to
    feeling good, and stay
    away from feeling bad.
    This is the basic Buddhist
    analysis of what leads to