Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness (2016)
Realization: Revealing Our Pristine Mind
7. THE SECOND ASPECT OF REALIZATION
Who We Are Not
WHEN WE HAVE ordinary, unenlightened perception, we see and perceive thoughts and emotions as just who we are. We think that our ordinary mind—our thoughts and emotions and the swirl of events in our mind—actually make up the “I” we speak of when we refer to ourselves.
Once we have directly perceived our Pristine Mind, that direct perception gives us a chance to experience the second aspect of realization: that thoughts and emotions are just mental events, not who we really are. When we see who we are, we automatically see who we are not.
The more we remain in that pristine state of mind, the more we perceive all mental events—whether happy or sad, angry or desirous, positive or negative—as just passing across our mind. This aspect of realization is a direct, personal, firsthand experience of that reality, not just something we learn intellectually.
Once we have become really familiar with the experience of Pristine Mind realization, no matter what kind of thought or emotion or other mental event arises, we no longer identify with it. We see any agitation in our mind as just a passing event. We think, “I know my mind is innately pristine. These experiences are just events passing through.” We perceive them that way. We do not have to say this out loud to ourselves. We just begin to naturally see things that way once we have had some degree of realization of this truth.
THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS ARE LIKE CLOUDS IN THE SKY
Once we realize the nature of the sky, once we realize and perceive that the sky is always naturally blue, then we automatically realize that clouds, rainbows, pollution, fog, and other things that appear in the sky are all just passing events. We see this automatically once we realize the nature of the sky as it truly is behind the cover of clouds.
In the same way, once we perceive and experience the natural state of mind, the pristine state of mind, we appreciate that all thoughts, emotions, and experiences are just events passing across our consciousness. They are not who we are. Our natural state of mind—who we really are—is our Pristine Mind, which has been obscured by our preoccupation with mental events.
And once we have really seen it for ourselves, we will always be aware of it. Once we realize the sky is blue, we don’t forget that realization just because the sky is sometimes cloudy. If it is a rainy day, we automatically know that clouds and torrents of rain are temporary. Later it will clear up because the true nature of the sky is clear, blue, and beautiful. We always have that realization.
Similarly, once we develop some certainty in our recognition of the natural state of mind, whether we are meditating or not, when any events occur in our mind—whether happy or sad, good or bad, positive or negative, whatever thoughts or emotions occur—then we always know, “This is just an event occurring in this moment. It is not me or who I am. It will pass.” That’s just how we will always perceive things to be. If we have the first aspect of realization to some degree, then the second aspect of realization comes automatically, and it allows us to treat all thoughts and emotions like rainbows, like clouds. We are no longer distressed by them in the way that we once were.
MENTAL EVENTS ARE LIKE INTERNAL DEMONS
If we do not know that our mind is pristine and that all our thoughts and emotions are just mental events, we are unable to deal with them effectively. As long as we believe our mental events are “me,” as long as we believe “I think, therefore I am,” they hold sway over us. When we believe that mental events are the source and framework of our sense of self, then they are like a dictatorship that we always need to obey and always treat as the established order, just the way things are. We do not have a choice. It’s a totalitarian state. In this state our thoughts, emotions, and belief systems dictate our life and control us because we think they make up who we are. This misunderstanding is the cause of suffering for many people; they cannot overcome their suffering, because they believe their mental events are their identity. To them it is an unrecognized given that their thoughts and feelings are their entire being.
Oftentimes we bombard ourselves with negative thoughts like “I’m not good enough. No one understands me. No one loves me.” Those thoughts create much of our suffering. Such thoughts are internal “demons” because they create so much mental turmoil.
Until you know how to experience and abide in Pristine Mind, your thoughts and emotions are like monsters or demons taking control over your mind. These thoughts and emotions, especially those involving desire, anger, pride, and jealousy, can be pictured as having multiple hands and mouths, always hungry, always grasping, always wanting to devour or destroy something external, projecting that changing these external circumstances will provide some comfort. Your thoughts and emotions are always searching for some thing, some place, some situation, some person, some circumstance to occupy your mind. They constantly project onto objects, thinking, “Without this, I’m not happy. If I don’t get rid of that, I won’t be happy.” If you believe your thoughts and emotions, and accept their way of finding a comfort zone, then for the rest of your life you will always be looking, searching, yearning. Where does that voracious appetite for gorging or annihilating external circumstances originate? Nowhere but your own thoughts.
The Essence of Secrets Tantra says:
Thoughts are the real demons. Demons come from your own mind.
When you know that your mind is pristine, then even the name “demon” no longer exists.
Most people’s problems spring from their own thoughts. Their thoughts, their mental events, create unhappiness, disturbance, and chaos in their relationships and in other areas of their lives. That’s why thoughts are the real demons, because they are the cause of suffering, chaos, separation, and conflict in so many areas of our lives. They may not be the external demons we can picture with horns, fearsome gazes, forked tongues, sharp teeth, and giant claws, but thoughts are much more destructive than the most gruesome demon.
Generally, we identify with our mental events and carry them with us throughout our lives. We just keep accumulating mental events without any respite. We overvalue and even cherish our own thoughts. Some people even take pride in their thoughts. But as long as we cherish and protect our ordinary thoughts, there is no liberation, there is no freedom from our suffering, because the thoughts we take so seriously dictate our experience. In such a thought-created world, it does not matter if we are rich and famous. It does not matter if we can travel into outer space. It does not matter if we live in the White House. We are always the victim of our own thoughts and the experiences they create for us.
As long as we believe our mental events are who we are, we cannot control them. They demonize our life with thoughts such as “He doesn’t like me” or “People don’t appreciate everything I do for them!” or “Why do bad things always happen to me?” We are filled with judgments, worries, needs, and fears.
However, when you know how to access Pristine Mind and you remain in Pristine Mind, then your thoughts lose their power. They slowly vanish, and your mind becomes comfortable and fearless because your demonic thoughts have disappeared. Your mind is so tranquil, so blissful.
When we know our mind is pristine, there are no internal demons attacking us. We find that our life in Pristine Mind is stable, with no necessity to thrash about in the thought-based confusion of ordinary mind. Therefore, the way to tame and pacify our internal demons is to know that our mind is pristine and see that our thoughts are only mental events.
Once you have rediscovered your Pristine Mind and you have become familiar with it, then even if you are distracted by external sights, sounds, or perceptions, they don’t affect the essential beauty of your existence. Your mind is pristine, so you experience the pristine nature of everything. Mipham Rinpoche describes this by saying that external conditions, distractions, and all kinds of mental events become your allies—they are no longer the enemies of your natural mind. Then, when you abide in your Pristine Mind, you remain happy; and when you have the inevitable distractions of life, you are also happy.
Once you know how to rest in Pristine Mind, and can maintain that state by relaxing and remaining within it, then all external experiences arise as extensions of that pristine experience. They have no effect on your fundamental comfort.
The solution to every problem is knowing how to remain in Pristine Mind. Focusing on a statue or image of the Buddha, or praying to God, or finding satisfaction in external distractions may be helpful in some ways and for some time, but finding your pristine awareness is everlasting. The only thing that is truly yours is your own pristine awareness.
A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE GIVES US A CHOICE
Once we realize our pristine state of mind, our attitude toward mental events shifts. Now, when mental events occur, we realize they are just passing events; they are not who we are, nor do they possess any independent reality of their own. That reflects a shift in our perception. We no longer feel compelled to tolerate thoughts and emotions or be controlled by them. We see that they are transitory. We do not define ourselves by them, because our attitude has changed. Then our experience of life no longer has to be shaped by those mental events.
They do not have the power to pull us along in their direction. We can stand on our own and have some independence from them. We have a choice to say, “No, I do not agree to let that be my experience. You have controlled me for too long. Now I know that you are just travelers passing through. I do not need to invite you in.” When we discover this truth, that we truly have power over how we experience life, it is a wonderful, liberating experience.
This liberation is caused simply by the shift in our attitude toward mental events. As we have seen, our subjugation to mental events is the source of suffering, unhappiness, problems, and conflict. But with the realization of Pristine Mind, we develop a different attitude toward mental events. Part of that attitude is recognizing that we can change our internal experience of life. This is a great reward for us—far better than winning even a great honor like the Nobel Prize.
When we see, hear, and feel things that evoke negative reactions, it’s because our mind is distorted by its lack of realization about mental events. How do we know that our mind is distorted? Fear, anxiety, anger, stress, jealousy, cravings, and egocentrism are some of the many symptoms of mental distortion. The undistorted mind no longer experiences these thoughts and feelings, even when the outer stimuli are the same.
With realization, we do not act as if thoughts and emotions are negative or bad, because we do not see them that way. We simply no longer see them as powerful. It is when we do not know their real nature that they seem negative, powerful, controlling, or demonic. Once we know their true nature, and know that we can be free of them, they are less threatening. We realize and experience that what were once our internal demons are just passing events, nothing more, nothing less, like scattered showers, mist, or even thunderstorms. But if we hold on to these mental events, whether positive or negative, they become bigger and bigger until they completely overcloud our Pristine Mind.
That habit of holding on to mental events is happening every moment of every day—the idea that some bad thing happened, that memory from long ago, that news we just saw on TV. While these experiences are just projections of our own distorted mind, the tighter we cling to them, the more real they feel and the more they dominate our experience of the world. Without the realization that these mental events are really not part of our fundamental nature, we do not recognize our choice. Through meditation we begin to realize that we do have a choice that we never dreamed possible before that moment of realization. When we have realization and can experience the natural state of mind, everything we see becomes like a dream, a show, or a movie. In the same way that we can just watch a movie, we can just watch whatever mental events arise in our mind. We see them, but we do not get stuck in them.
Once we have the first realization, that our mind is pristine, then we can let go of those mental events, knowing that they are separate from our natural, permanent mental state. Do we want to remain immersed in those patterns and events and the experiences they subject us to? Do we want to hold on to them and the suffering they cause us? Or do we want to just observe them and let go of them? There is space between our mental events, on the one hand, and who we are, our natural mind, on the other, just as there is space between clouds and the blue sky above them. We can separate who we are from these mental events and let the events pass away.
When I was young in Tibet, I often watched clouds in the sky. I was in charge of taking my family’s yaks out to graze up in the high mountain grasslands near where we lived. The sky in Tibet is so brilliant, clear, and blue that we would stay outside most of the time, especially in the summer. Sometimes I watched the sky all day. I could see the clouds slowly appear, gather, grow, and slowly disappear. Those clouds appeared because of certain conditions in the atmosphere. But when the conditions changed, the clouds dissolved.
Similarly, when thoughts, emotions, or other mental events appear in our mind, it is because certain conditions have arisen. When we remain in Pristine Mind, the conditions are not hospitable for mental events, and so they are much less prominent in our experience. The more we meditate, the more thoughts and powerful emotions slowly fade away and dissolve like clouds in the sky, revealing the pristine state of mind.
The more we focus on a mental event, the bigger it becomes, just as small clouds can grow until they eventually cover the entire sky in an enormous cloud cover. Then the rain falls.
Pristine Mind gives us a different experience, one that is always there if we attend to it. But we must realize that it exists before we can take advantage of it. That realization comes with sustained practice of Pristine Mind meditation.
CHANGING OUR MENTAL DIET
While many of us have become conscious of the kinds of food we take into our body, we are less conscientious about the kinds of mental events we put into our mind. This is the cause of much suffering and prevents much joy.
One woman who came to speak with me described a number of problems that seemed insurmountable. She’d had an unhappy childhood with parents who treated her poorly, was fearful about everything, and felt that nobody liked her. Several healing rituals were already being performed for her that were supposed to remove the bad energy left by many years of mistreatment. She thought these rituals might help but asked me what else she could do to feel better.
This woman unfortunately had a really poor mental “diet.” While external methods can remove the causes of illness and help us heal physically, true mental healing requires us to change from the inside, to shift our perception and thereby transform our experience even of uncomfortable circumstances and events. As long as we perceive and think in ways that make us suffer, as this person was doing, we cannot heal. Changing our mental diet yields the only genuinely helpful results.
If we always eat bad food, it upsets our stomach; until we change our eating habits, it will not clear up our stomach problems. In the same way, if we still have those negative thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions based on past experiences, external healing practices can provide only temporary relief at best. As long as our negative thoughts are still there, they continue to poison our life. Mental healing requires changing internally. The experience of realization that occurs in Pristine Mind is exactly what causes this shift. Without having to forcibly remove negative thoughts from our mind, our realization allows us to let those negative thoughts dissolve like all other mental events. Once we shift internally, healing begins. When our thoughts, attitudes, and our beliefs improve, healing occurs. Those changes are required for us to truly heal.
People generally define themselves based on temporary thoughts that form in their mind. They say, “I’m an angry person. I’m a sad person. I have so many problems. I’m depressed. I’m impatient. That’s just who I am.” We do not need to define ourselves so negatively. Once we understand the fleeting nature of these kinds of negative mental events, we can stop doing so. Instead, we will know inside ourselves, “These are just mental events. They are all passing. They are all temporary and superficial. They are not powerful. They come and they go; nothing more, nothing less.” It is much healthier and more accurate to treat them this way.
Difficult, unpleasant experiences can be simply released, and positive, joyful, productive, good feelings and experiences can be enjoyed. We can choose between the mental events we like and the events we do not like. After we realize that our Pristine Mind is who we really are, and that our mental events are not who we are, we have the power to choose our own mental events.
Once we have Pristine Mind realization, it is like arriving for the first time in a free country, away from the dictatorship of our thoughts. We can choose our own thoughts, emotions, and experiences. If we like them, we can let them stay and increase that positive experience. If we do not like them, we just let the passing mental events dissolve.
CLEARING OUR MENTAL CLUTTER
In our ordinary mind, we live like someone with a hoarding disorder. We have, figuratively speaking, a wonderful house in the hills overlooking a bay with panoramic views of expansive bridges, and in that house a spacious living room with many windows and a comfortable couch from which to enjoy the view; it is a beautiful, comfortable, and wonderful experience. But if we collect all our trash in that house year after year—old newspapers, rotting food, and moldy clothes—it becomes challenging to even walk from the kitchen to the living room because it is so full of junk that we have collected.
This is exactly what we are doing with our mind when we identify with our thoughts and emotions and other mental events; we are hoarders—mental hoarders. We have this beautiful Pristine Mind with five amazing senses that are like beautiful windows to the world. When our mind is pristine, everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is viewed from the pristine perspective.
However, if we store clutter and garbage in our mind, and if we constantly add more clutter and garbage, we are distorting our view of the world. It adds clutter and sluggishness to our mind when we save negative thoughts, bad habits, unhealthy belief systems, and other toxic information in our mind.
As the years pass, we accumulate more bad habits, heaps of negative emotions, and piles of negative thoughts. Then, in whatever direction our mind turns, there will always be something waiting to upset us. That is what it is like in our ordinary mind, which has been collecting self-defeating habits and distorted beliefs year after year.
One of our habitual tendencies is to question every new idea that we are presented with, although we don’t bother questioning our old, ingrained thoughts and beliefs. But new ideas and old ideas are all the same from the viewpoint of Pristine Mind. Ten-year-old mental garbage is no more special than new garbage. But in our ordinary mind, we identify with the thoughts and beliefs we have accumulated, and we think, “That’s who I am.”
Life is very hard when we identify with our mental clutter. But when, through the realization of Pristine Mind, our mental events cease to define us, then we are no longer a mental hoarder. Our mind is not holding on to useless material. Our mind is clean and beautiful.
What is it like if we take out all the clutter that we have been hoarding year after year, clean the house, put in new furniture, and decorate it with beautiful arrangements of flowers and artwork? After we do that, the view is so beautiful that it is a joy to behold. We wonder why we didn’t do this a long time ago. And when other people visit us, they feel refreshed and comfortable, and enjoy coming to our home.
If we take the debris away by simply understanding that these thoughts and emotions are passing mental events and not things to amplify by focusing on them, then our own experience becomes very comfortable, blissful, and pristine. Our very own experience becomes consistently comfortable and refreshing. We have created the right mental environment in which to experience the world.
And we have the kind of mind that makes other people happy when they are with us, just like when we have a beautiful house and they say, “Oh, what a beautiful home you have! Thank you for having us here.” When we realize our Pristine Mind, other people enjoy us. They appreciate our presence and feel more comfortable around us. Everyone feels happier when our mind is more beautiful. For this to happen, we must clear away the mental debris we have hoarded for so long.
As we cultivate our Pristine Mind through meditation, we are doing just that. The rewards in terms of human happiness for us and for everyone with whom we come in contact are immeasurable. When we learn and experience all of this, we realize how unfortunate it has been that while we have known how to clear out the clutter from our house, we have not known how to do this for our mind. It is infinitely more important to know how to keep our mind clean than our house. With a house, at least we can move out, but with a mind there is nowhere else to go.
Knowing that our mind is pristine, and not clinging to mental events, is the way to clean our mental house. If we are doing that each moment, each day, it means we are keeping our mental house clean, our mind pristine. Once we develop these two realizations—that the nature of our mind is pristine and that mental events are just passing events—then we know how to clean our mental house and restore it to its original state.
When we realize our mind is pristine, our experience completely changes and we feel so much better. We feel mentally and emotionally refreshed, vibrant, and happy. However, as long as we hold toxic mental events in our mind, we tend to feel that many of our life situations are tremendously difficult. These burdensome situations keep returning no matter how often we think we have laid them to rest. Once we know how to let them pass, how to let go of those experiences and remain in Pristine Mind, we become natural again. We can return to our normal state of mind.
One of the most important things you can learn right now is how to recognize a passing mental event, remain in the present moment, and allow the mental event to dissolve. Are you aware that you can actually do that right now? When you begin to experience the separation that exists between the mental event passing through your mind and the actual mind itself, your Pristine Mind, then you begin to see for the first time that you do truly have the option to choose your experience. You learn how to do just that, and it changes your life.
Until that time, however, while people may know how to clean their house, they have difficulty understanding how they can clean their mind. But people can choose to be in an enlightened mind rather than an ordinary mind. That’s really what we are talking about here—choosing to live in an enlightened mind that is immeasurably richer than any ordinary mind. We are talking about nothing less than that.
There is a Tibetan saying: “Beings of hell actually cling to their own place.” It doesn’t matter that it is a place of horrible torment; they are used to it and have grown attached to it. They are reluctant to leave it. Do not become attached to your own inner hell. Know that there is a much better experience available, already inside you, and find it!
ATTENTION: THE POWER SOURCE OF MENTAL EVENTS
Sometimes we might question whether experiencing Pristine Mind and recognizing that thoughts and emotions are just passing events can really help us avoid all the suffering we go through. When we are unhappy, angry, or stressed, we feel as if those moods are real, palpable experiences, not mere thoughts or feelings that we could simply walk away from.
Suppose we do recognize that these mental states are just passing events—is that really enough to help us move out of our mental and emotional turbulence? It’s understandable that we might doubt that it could be so easy. We feel as if the negative mental events are in our heart, in our head, throughout our body, in our very chemistry. But the only reason we have those strong physiological reactions and sensations is that we took that thought or emotion very seriously—that is, we validate the experience and give it significance as if it were real. Our attention is absorbed in that experience. In doing so, we are the creators of its significance.
When we take thoughts and emotions seriously, we give them power. It can feel as if they are physiological, but they are actually just happening in our mind. The physical sensations, such as a pounding heart, are secondary reactions; they are actually energy waves caused by those strong mental events. When something happens in our mind and we take it seriously and hold on to it, it creates big waves of energy that flow from our mind and cause a physiological effect. Those thoughts and emotions themselves do not have any inherently physical property. We are supplying that experience with our own mind.
Some thoughts and emotions, then, are more powerful than others because we take some more seriously and feed them with more attention than others. The more seriously we take an emotion, the more powerful it becomes. Some emotions are less powerful because we pay less attention to them. The same emotion can be powerful at one time and weak at another because on one occasion we take it more seriously and pay more attention to it, and on another occasion, we don’t take the emotion as seriously or pay as much attention to it.
Our attention is the only reason thoughts and emotions are powerful. They do not have any independent power. Our attention and focus on them feed their power. Taking mental events seriously and paying attention to them make mental events powerful. The more seriously we take them, the more we recharge their energy.
Once we realize thoughts and emotions are events passing across our Pristine Mind, once we direct our attention to remaining in Pristine Mind instead of to those thoughts or emotions, once we no longer take those mental events seriously, then they no longer have power. If they do not have power, they no longer have much impact on a mental, emotional, or physical level.
Again, this is not a theory I am propounding to you. You do not have to accept what I am saying on blind faith and then hope for some magical change in how you feel. What I am saying is empirically the way it works. With sufficient meditation practice you will see this for yourself. You will experience it and then know it for yourself.
When we have any kind of strong emotional reaction to an occurrence, we can observe what happens: The more we think about what happened—with thoughts like “Whoa, this is really bad,” or “Something is really wrong”—the more we pay attention to these reactions and take them seriously, the worse everything gets. We may even panic.
For example, if we are with a child and we encounter a dangerous situation, and we panic, then the child panics too. We take it seriously, so the child takes it seriously. But if we do not panic in that situation, the child does not panic. He or she is able to remain calm as well.
Our own mind reacts the same way as the child. If we do not take our thoughts and emotions seriously, then we do not have as strong a reaction to them. They do not make us panic or overreact. Knowing that thoughts and emotions do not have any inherent power is tremendously helpful. This allows us to deal skillfully with all mental events—whether they are beliefs, thoughts, or emotions. The next time we experience a troubling thought or emotion, if we do not pay much attention to it, or if we get distracted by something else, we will see that the mental experience disappears.
In general, why do mental experiences disappear? Our attention influences our experience. When we do not pay much attention to them, mental events dissolve. That’s their nature: they are sustained by our focus and attention on them. Mental events do not have their own reality. Again, this is an empirical, observable fact, not just a theory.
An important reminder: Throughout this book, when I say that mental events have no inherent reality, I am not condemning thoughts, emotions, or beliefs. I am not saying, “Please do not have any thoughts or emotions. Thoughts and emotions are bad. Do not ever have any thoughts. Do not have any emotions.” Instead, I am saying that mental events have power if we pay attention to them. I am suggesting that instead of giving power to mental events, we should recognize and abide in our natural state of mind. When we do that, our thoughts and emotions slowly and naturally decrease by themselves, without any deliberate effort, and become more manageable.
When our state of mind becomes more pure, negative thoughts and emotions naturally drift away without any need for us to use any techniques to counteract them, because they just subside naturally. All we need to do is remain in the natural state of Pristine Mind. Then, without our having to prevent them, stop them, or condemn them, they naturally subside. That is their nature. And this is our liberation.
FREEDOM FROM THE CHAINS OF BELIEFS
Beliefs come in many forms. They can be about how we feel about ourselves, our religious and political points of view, our ideas about how to raise children, or our ethics and morality. In politics, for instance, we hold convictions about the role of the government. We may feel these convictions are based on facts, but the “truth” of these facts depends on our point of view. Our thoughts and emotions may change all the time, but we tend to hold on to our beliefs much more tightly.
We tend to be reactive and emotional when something challenges our beliefs, because our mind is held together by those beliefs. We use this rigid structure as a defense against the uncertainties of life. We try to achieve a sense of security through the conviction with which we hold our beliefs.
We hold on to our beliefs tightly, thinking, “This is permanently, definitely, absolutely the truth.” We are strongly attached to our beliefs, and we identify with them. That’s why it feels threatening when someone has a different belief or when our beliefs are contradicted or challenged.
Beyond our habitual need to identify ourselves through our connection to exterior circumstances, in our ordinary mind we are controlled more by our beliefs than by any other form of mental event. Each culture, each religion, each political party, each individual has different beliefs and opinions about right and wrong, proper and improper. When circumstances do not match our expectations, we can become threatened, angry, and even aggressive. But once we are more relaxed about our beliefs, if we are not invested in our beliefs as if they defined our identity—if we don’t consider our beliefs to be who we really are—then the threat recedes and we free ourselves from the chains of beliefs.
Once we see that all activities of mind are just mental events, then we see that belief systems, too, are just mental events. When we establish contact with our Pristine Mind, we do not feel such a need for the illusory security of a belief system. We gain openness, freedom, and insight into the nature of the world. It doesn’t mean that we will necessarily change our beliefs, but it will make us more open to examining our own beliefs—even our most basic assumptions about our lives—to see if other points of view have any validity. With access to our Pristine Mind, we still retain beliefs, but we recognize them as mental events, so we are more flexible in our interactions with those who disagree with our beliefs.