Thoughts on maintaining a clear mind

Imagine the mind is a crystal clear lake, upon which feelings and emotions cause ripples on the surface.

Keep calm and clear-headed, neither craving nor avoiding. So calm that light travels through the water completely unimpeded.

Freedom from anger

Anger suddenly arises when something happens to us that we didn’t want to happen. The root cause, as identified in Buddhist psychology, is attachment – our attachment to people, to outcomes of events, to products, to reputations and so on. A simple example is when a machine we purchase doesn’t work as we expected. We get angry because we spent our good money on something that didn’t work as we expected. More complex examples include – unjustified criticism, the withdrawal of love, or someone taking the credit for our work. As a result of these actions, anger quickly arises, followed by action and we feel justified because ‘these things shouldn’t happen to me’.

Outside our control

However, often the events which trigger anger are outside our control. Consider for the example the anger that suddenly arises when someone jumps in front of us in a queue. We don’t have control over this person’s actions, yet we typically respond with anger. In this situation, if we respond with a sarcastic comment, there is the risk of an argument that can quickly get out of control. Suddenly we find ourselves acting in a way that is not appropriate and we end up looking foolish. If we do nothing, our anger turns back on us. We feel weak and frustrated, and question our own confidence and abilities.

So becoming angry does not make us feel better or lead to a positive outcome. It is, in fact, a sign that we have lost control and are about to act in an irrational and most likely inappropriate way. We have allowed old habits to take control and predictable, unsatisfactory results will follow. Instead, we need to find a way to liberate ourselves from this harmful emotion.

 Breaking the chain

The way to break this chain of events leading to inappropriate behaviour, is to use some of the skills we have learned in our mindfulness training – to bring what we are practicing into the world away from the cushion.

In our practice we learn to recognise the subtle signs of the arising of this emotion. We learn to identify the tightening of the mind and the disturbance to a calm state. We also learn how to return to a relaxed body and calm mind so that emotions and other objects of the mind are allowed to pass by without sticking.

So now, when external circumstances cause a feeling of anger to begin to arise, our first step is to relax our body. Start by identifying and relaxing parts of our body that are holding most of the tension – usually our neck or shoulders. Move attention to these parts of the body, feel the tension and relax the muscles. Notice the tension start to soften and notice how our breathing begins to slow down.

Next, move the focus from the body to the breath. Just pay attention to the sensation of the breath as it touches our skin while passing through the nostrils. The anger now moves to the background and starts to dissolve. Anger is a strong emotion, so allow a few moments for the anger to dissipate fully.

Acting from a calm mind

Now, after establishing a calm mind, it is time to consider appropriate action.

Is it within our control?

First, consider if we have any control over the situation. If we don’t, it’s simple – just accept and let go. Let the urge to act drop away in exactly the same way that in our practice we allow thoughts and other mind objects to move and not become attached. Trying to change situations where we have no control will ultimately only hurts us and achieve nothing positive.

Is it important?

Next, consider whether this action or event is important. Remember your list of things that matter and consider whether the action or result of the action that has caused anger to rise is important. If they’re not, then again it’s simple – accept and let it go.

Is it the right time for action?

If however, we can see that the implications are important and that it is within our control to take action, then appropriate actions must be considered and then acted on, but only from a calm mind. When ready, in your own time, consider the options and take what you consider is the right action. To help you in this, it’s a good idea to recall your guiding principles .

Freedom from anger

So when we become aware of the rising of anger, let’s remember our practice and take action to establish a calm mind. From this calm place, we have the opportunity to choose a response that is appropriate to the situation, that is in keeping with our guiding principles and which advances the achievement of one or more of the things that are important.


In harmony with nature

Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48.2

Acting from a calm mind

The ability to act from a calm mind is one of the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation. As the ability to objectively observe thoughts, feelings, and emotions develops, we are able to calm the urge to act.  Our mind is then able to settle into a quiet and calm place.

Through practice, we are able to access this place during our daily lives. This is because we know how it feels to have a calm mind and we also know how to get there.  This is through relaxing the body, calming the mind, focusing attention and allowing emotions to subside. We have now created the potential to take actions from a calm state.

Avoiding an emotional response

One benefit of this practice is that we are no longer at the mercy of our emotions. Our habitual emotional responses were developed over a long period of time. They are often formed during early childhood from observing parents or others that we respected and admired at that time. But who we are now, is not who we were in the past. The situation may appear to be similar, but we have changed. Therefore responses that may have worked in the past are no longer appropriate. Acting from a calm mind gives us the opportunity to clearly see the situation for what it really is. We can then choose a more appropriate action (or to choose not to act).

Seeing what’s important

Also, when our mind is calm, we are able to see the bigger picture and to question our motivation for the urge to act in a particular way. We have the time to remember what is important  – what really matters. We are then able to let go of what is not important and formulate actions that will help us to achieve appropriate goals.

Coming from a calm mind also allows us to empathise with others caught up in the present situation. We have the opportunity to practice forgiveness.

Where to from here

Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher and the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180AD wrote that “The nearer one comes to a calm mind, the closer one is to strength”.  So remember – body relaxed, mind calm, attention focused on what is in front of us. We are now able to make wise choices from a position of strength.


Impermanence and the origin of actions

The Impermanent nature of mind

As we sit with a relaxed body, a calm mind and focused attention, we witness the arising of thoughts and memories and feelings and emotions. We see that our mind is in a constant state of flux.

We notice too that if we return to our focus point, these mind objects simply disappear without having to be acted on. In this way, we become aware of their temporary nature. We are seeing the impermanent nature of our mind.

It is worth considering that if we define ourselves by our thoughts, feelings, and emotions at any given time, if we believe that this is who we are, then our understanding of ourselves is not solid. This is because who we are at this moment is not who we are in the next.

The urge to act

As we practice mindfulness meditation and we sit with a relaxed body and a calm mind and focused attention, we can begin to examine this process in more depth. We can see that distractions are caused by a spark that originates from our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We can see that our once quiet mind is being disturbed and is reacting to these sensory inputs by creating feelings – this is good or this is not good.

Next, our mind recognises the object, and we see thoughts and memories arise. This creates an emotional response related to the object. The emotion then prompts a desire to act. We feel a pull, a tightening of mind as the intention grows stronger.

As an example, our mind may be distracted by a smell. We experience a pleasant feeling as we associate the smell with a memory of pizza. This is then followed by a desire to eat. We then begin planning how to satisfy this desire.

Another example could be the sound of young children crying outside our window. We experience an unpleasant feeling and then a memory of an episode from our childhood of fighting with a friend. We wonder where our old friend is these days and this is followed by an urge to contact them. We start trying to remember where we kept their address and start to worry that maybe we’ve lost it.

Then we remember where we are. We remember that we have chosen to practice by placing our attention on the sensation of the breath. We coax our attention back to this focus point and the feelings, thoughts, memories, emotions, and intention to act fade away and then disappear of their own volition.

We return to the process of training our mind.

Taking our practice outside

In our busy daily lives, we are drawn to act without ever being consciously aware of where the intention to act has come from. While meditating, however, we have the opportunity to observe the arising of the motivation for the action  – the sense input, followed by the feeling, followed by the arising of thought and emotions, followed by the desire to act. As our practice strengthens, we are gradually able to take this ability into the world away from our cushion. We have the opportunity to recognise the feeling, observe the thought or emotion, feel the pull of the desire to act and then choose not to act. In this way, we begin to loosen the grip that desires that have become habits have on our day to day behaviour.

We are able to choose a more appropriate response that is not simply based on habits. We are experiencing the freedom that is at the heart of mindfulness meditation.

Where to from here

Many of our actions are habitual and are linked to life stories that formed in our childhoods. Understanding more about the way habits and life stories are formed will help us to respond in more appropriate ways.

Setting long-term goals

Taking a long-term view on the direction we want our lives to move in, helps guide us to identify, and ultimately achieve, our long-term goals. It also allows us to test whether our short term goals (connected to our list of the things that matter) are really the right ones.

Asking the big questions like what gives my life meaning or what would make my life worthwhile is a valuable exercise, but it’s not easy. That’s because the considerations are so deeply tied into what society is telling us should be our goals. It’s also complicated by philosophical theories and religious and family values.

For these reasons it can be more restrictive and confusing than liberating.

Another way of looking at this is to identify what we place a high value on. These are the things that bring joy and happiness to our lives, and hopefully through us, to the lives of those we care about. When these are closely linked to our short-term goals, we can be confident that we are making the right daily decisions.

Let me share with you some of my list of things that have a high value so you know where I’m coming from.

What I value above all else

I know I’m making the right choices when:

  1. my body is flexible and my mind is calm
  2. I’m able to spend time with family and friends
  3. my work gives me pleasure
  4. I can afford to be generous with time and money
  5. I have free time to pursue my personal interests

I could also express this as being free, self-sufficient and liberated.

Of course, just making a list doesn’t make it happen. There are plans to be made, obstacles to be identified and overcome and tasks to be completed. What it gives us though are some worthwhile long-term goals, and the ability to know when we are on track to reach them. It also lets us know when we are off-track.

The consequences of actions

One more point needs to be made. When we make decisions and take actions (or refrain from taking actions) based on greed or anger or fear, we are sure to attract negative reactions. The same is true for setting goals.

There is bound to be a degree of selfishness (greed) in our long-term goals. We need to recognise this and accept that all our decisions and actions have consequences. We therefore need to minimise the negative effects our decisions will have on ourselves and others. We can do this by using what we achieve,  (for example time and money) wisely, and in ways that do not harm others. With making decisions comes responsibility.

What’s next

Now it’s your turn. Create a list of what you value the most. Work on the list and revise it over the next few days. Finally match your list to the things that matter.

Remember to review your list often