by Jeff McMahon
A friend of mine is being tormented by a mockingbird singing in the dead of night. The bird sings in a tree outside her window, wakes her up. She knows she only has so much time to sleep, she gets tense, she can’t sleep.
The bird goes on singing cheerily. She hates that bird. She’s starting to hate all birds.
The standard Western response is to shoot the mockingbird. But the Buddha taught us that the problem is not outside in the tree, the problem is inside in the mind.
“The hostile multitudes are vast as space— What chance is there that all should be subdued?” writes Shantideva, an Eighth Century Buddhist monk. “Let but this angry mind be overthrown, and every foe is then and there destroyed.”
As much as the disturbance seems to be located in the tree outside, it’s the mind that decides whether the mockingbird’s song is a bother or a lullaby. The disturbance is located in the mind.
If we eliminate the mockingbird in the tree, a very tempting prospect, we have not really eliminated the disturbance—we have just avoided it, for now.
There will be another mockingbird, or something worse—like, dread fate, an ice-cream truck—and our minds will be no better prepared.
In fact, our minds will be worse prepared, because we have reinforced the belief that the disturbance is outside. When the next mockingbird comes, we’ll greet it with immediate exasperation, we’ll long for it to be gone from the tree, we’ll fall into the same pattern. Over and over again.
“Our problems can’t be solved by eliminating each and every outer cause,” says Pema Chödron in her book “No Time to Lose.” “Nevertheless, people everywhere take this approach: ‘It’s the world’s fault; it’s too rough, too sharp, too alien. If I could get rid of these outer woes, I’d be happy.”
Chödron’s book is a translation of Shantideva’s “Way of the Boddhisattva.”
In a chapter on taming the mind, Shantideva teaches:
“To cover all the earth with sheets of leather—
Where could such amounts of hide be found?
But simply wrap some leather around your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth has been covered.”
Pema Chödron explains this metaphor in her commentary:
“The analogy suggests we’ve been walking barefoot over blazing hot sands, thorns and stones, and our feet are bruised and bleeding. Suddenly, we come up with a way to end our suffering: we’ll cover the surface of the whole world with leather! This is, of course, impossible. But what if we wrapped leather around our feet? Then we could walk anywhere without a problem.”
Chödron says, “If you want to protect your feet, wear shoes, and if you want to protect yourself from the world’s provocations, tame your mind. The antidote to misery is to stay present.”
I learned this lesson when a drummer moved in downstairs from me. I had already led a lifetime of intolerance of noisy neighbors. And now, here comes the ultimate noisy neighbor, a drummer.
But this time, I had a yoga practice. This time, I had read Shantideva. This time, I had read Pema Chodron.
This, I reckoned, is going to take a powerful tolerance and acceptance practice.
When the drumming started, I was ready. I noticed the disturbance in my mind, as Pema advises, and instead of lamenting or fighting it, I just let it be. I examined it. When the tide of irritation began to rise, I noticed its texture and its tone.
I neither tried to suppress the irritation nor indulged it by shooting the drummer. When I examined the irritation I became aware of the undisturbed someone who was doing the examining. I noticed the watcher who watches the mind. I saw that the irritation was not me, that it was separate from me, that it had the quality of coming and going, and that I didn’t have to go along with it. I had a choice.
Suddenly the irritation was gone, even as the drumming continued.
After that, the practice became contagious. Once I knew how to keep the drummer from bothering me, I looked forward to NOT being bothered by the drummer.
Then when the drummer started drumming, instead of thinking “Oh no, the drummer again,” I started thinking, “Oh good, it’s the drummer. Time to practice.”