By John Lee Pendall
At some point along the way, I got it in my head that my mind should never wander, but that is a misunderstanding of the teachings.
I felt like I was supposed to be, well, present and attentive to my surroundings. That’s important, especially in the beginning, but it kind of neuters the mind a bit. It’s unnatural to be “here” all the time. Our minds wander for a reason, and it isn’t always because of undisciplined attention.
Have you ever read the more psychedelic Sutras like the Vimalakirti, Lotus and Flower Garment Sutras? The fantastical imagery in those books gives us two possibilities:
1) They actually did take place on alternate planes of reality
2) everyone involved was immersed in active imagination. I’m going to go with the second option because it also includes the first one.
I’ve always had an active inner world. I can close my eyes and practically be somewhere else. I neglected that part of myself for a long time. It seemed like I was supposed to leave it behind. Then, in the wake of a cathartic depressive episode, I cut myself some slack.
Instead of focusing on the here and now when I was at work, I let my mind wander.
I imagined that I was in a woodland paradise, sitting with the Buddha. I focused on it deeply, calling up as much detail as possible. We were watching the water while engulfed in the most vibrant sunset. Birds sang and flew about—birds that have never existed in this world.
I asked Buddha, “What are you doing here?” “Watching the water,” he replied. Then, everything seemed to ripple and flow for a moment—me included—just like the stream. That was a highly symbolic representation of emptiness. I returned to that paradise often throughout the night as my hands straightened products on the shelves. The body is an amazing machine; we don’t give it enough credit. It takes very little self involvement for it to perform most routine tasks.
I realized that it’s unhealthy to stifle imagination and mind wandering, especially if our minds are wandering toward the Dharma. What we can do is bring mindfulness, concentration and equanimity into those moments as well. It might be helpful to break mind wandering up into skillful and unskillful.
Unskillful mind wandering happens against our will. It’s random, disorganized, and prone to affliction. Skillful mind wandering is guided by intention and sharpened by concentration. It’s like walking down a sidewalk drunk versus sober. It can be tough staggering home from the pub at two in the morning. You trip, stumble and roll your way along. When we take the same path sober, it’s easy and orderly.
So, don’t make the same mistake I did and think that being mindful and paying attention mean solely occupying the here and now. The mind has no boundaries, no hindrances. It can create, destroy, reveal, conceal, float and sink with or without the “objective world’s” involvement.
Practice is like learning to walk.
It all starts with us wanting to walk and watching others walk. We study them and study ourselves. Then we try over and over again to stand up and put one foot in front of the other. Eventually, after falling down dozens of times, we can do it.
Buddhisms teaches us how to walk, it doesn’t necessarily tell us where to walk.
By all means, wander and dream, just bring practice into your wandering and dreaming. Forcing yourself to be grounded and centered is a fool’s errand. When you’re always clear about what’s happening, then wherever you are is the ground and the center.
Always be clear about what’s happening—that’s Buddhadharma in a nutshell.Buddhisms teaches us how to walk, it doesn't necessarily tell us where to walk. ~ John Lee Pendall Click To Tweet
Editor: Dana Gornall