Thinking: Winning the Battle of the Mind

The ignorant are trapped
by their thinking.
The realization of this
is the key
to enlightenment.

(The Tao is Tao, 121)


This essay is an effort to explain some of the principles and techniques involved in dealing effectively with your thoughts and emotions in real life.

What I will describe is less a method than an approach. It is subjective and far from comprehensive. It covers mainly my own experience. I am far from perfect, so my approach will not be perfect either. But I will nevertheless share it with you in the hope it may be a guide to you, or at least of some comfort, for it is good to know that there are kindred spirits out there sharing your problems.

Please read my suggestions critically, try them out if you want to, and make up your own mind about them. It is essential that you find your own approach and techniques that will assist you personally in your effort to deal with your own mind.

The crucial battle

Most religions emphasize it. We know it. There is no sidestepping it. Our battles are won or lost in our minds. It is what Buddhists call "Right Thinking" as an essential part of the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. "Right Speaking" and "Right Action" are impossible without it. Yet, particularly to people who have grown up in societies where the focus is mostly on the external and the materialistic, this is a very difficult challenge. How do you control your thoughts?

Often sincere people fail in their effort to win the battle in their minds, because they do not know how, and they lack the assistance of experienced people. This has improved somewhat in the last few years during which various meditative disciplines have been introduced to the West.

Holistic approach

In a society segmenting all aspects of life, people tend to see their mental and spiritual development as separate from the rest of their lives. This is a fateful error. You cannot separate your thinking from whatever you are doing. You will only progress if you take up the challenge on all levels of development simultaneously.

You cannot, for instance, practice a profession which breaks all rules of compassion and expect to be able to switch off during meditative sessions to become more compassionate. To be able to really develop, you will have to change your profession, or, if possible, change the way you are practicing it. Few have the luxury or courage to do so.

In the same way, you cannot decide that you are first going to learn to contain your thoughts before you start with any other form of development. This does not work either. You must quite simply take up the challenge on all levels simultaneously. You must immediately start working on reducing your ego, improving the way you deal with people, resetting aims and evaluating priorities, to name just a few aspects. The approach is essentially holistic. You develop as a whole.

Meditative principle

There is a general misconception amongst Westerners that meditation is all about silencing your thoughts to a point where they become non-existent.

The idea is not so much to rid yourself of your thoughts than not to hold on to them. A "thoughtless" state over an extended period of time is quite simply neither possible, nor desirable. The idea is to be in control of your thoughts, and not to be controlled by them. You will only be truly free from your thoughts if they do not bother or manipulate you; you are not free from them if you have to fight to suppress them all the time. In fact, it is then that they run your life totally. As far as I am concerned, you are totally controlled by your thoughts if you have to spend every moment of your life trying to ban them from your mind.

Choosing a meditative form

You must choose your meditative methods according to your needs as well as your temperament and style. For example, passive methods do not appeal to me personally. This has something to do with my temperament. I would hasten to add that I am not saying that the more passive methods are not beneficial to many people of a different temperament. Of course they are. Some people would even argue with justification that these methods might even be good for someone of my temperament, for they will teach me much about disciplining my own mind. My only rather meek answer would be that I do not want to make it too difficult for myself. It is difficult enough as it is.

For example, I have tried the method of counting my breath, and I have found that it could be helpful, and it is an effective method to calm down in crises. Practicing it for days or weeks on end does not work with me. I am bored to distraction by it.

I prefer meditative methods that include movement, like Tai Chi Chuan, which I have been practicing for many years now. To me, Tai Chi alone does not suffice. I do Tai Chi in conjunction with other forms of meditation, of which my favourites are meditative thinking about all aspects of life, and meditative walking.

It is important to find methods of meditation that suit you and that you enjoy most of the time. One warning, though. What I have said so far could easily encourage people to switch methods faster than they can find them. What I would like to point out is that there is no form of meditation which acts as a quick-fix solution to problems. Do not give up a method until you have really tried it long enough. All methods I know and have tried need time and patience. The "counting your breath" method, for example, is not a method that can be tried for a week, and then be given up. You have to practice it for a considerable time before you find out if it is beneficial to you. I started benefitting from Tai Chi only after at least a year of daily exercise.

Even the word "beneficial" is problematic. Many forms of meditation, for example Zazen, is not even supposed to be "beneficial" in the conventional sense of the word.

Often many of these forms of meditative exercise are only successful under the supervision of some master or teacher. Unfortunately, there are quite a number of less knowledgeable teachers posing as masters of various meditative disciplines, particularly in the West. There is a deluge of publications and tapes on the market. Finding ones of quality also often presents considerable problems, often depending on trial and error.

Many meditative forms are designed for people who have the luxury of spending long periods in retreats. But who has this luxury today? Who can spend long periods of time in isolation? You have probably experienced it yourself. It is when you need spiritual revitalization most that you do not have time. That is the reason you are run down in the first place. Once you are exhausted mentally and spiritually, you seem to have fallen into a chasm from where there is no escape.

In our modern hectic world - which most of us cannot escape because we have no choice but to struggle for survival out there - we need meditative exercises that work in our everyday environment of stress and competition.

Listening to your thoughts

As calmness returned,
her thoughts tiptoed in,
like apprehensive guests,
ready to leave
at the first sign of disapproval.

Like intruders afraid of the light,
her negative emotions receded,
as she called them by their names.

At last,
all unwanted guests gone,
she was
surrounded by

(The Tao is Tao, 127)

The endless stream

When you "listen" to your thoughts, you will discover that they move through your mind in an endless stream, one thought following the other, by association, or evoked by external stimuli, or sometimes seemingly randomly. Your mind is almost like a radio receiver of thoughts, but the radio does not seem to have control buttons. You can neither switch off the radio, nor switch to another station, or so it seems at first.

A listening attitude

The first step in dealing with your thoughts is to adopt a listening attitude, to become aware of your thoughts entering and leaving your mind. It is not that difficult. At the moment I have the luxury of being able to walk to my work. It is a brisk walk of about a mile, and it takes me about ten minutes to negotiate. During this walk, I tune in to my inner self, and listen to what is going on in me. Even when you are forced to throw yourself into commuter traffic, as I was forced to several years back, you have ample opportunity to tune in to your thoughts. What you need to do is switch off the car radio, for in this exercise you do not need any unnecessary distractions.

Finding beautiful thoughts

Thoughts and emotions are closely linked. Their separation is artificial. Emotions create thoughts, and thoughts evoke emotions. Mostly, it is difficult to say which caused which.

While I am walking to my work, I would tune in to my thoughts and emotions. I would do so without clinging to any of the thoughts entering my mind. I would allow them to enter and leave. At the same time I would enjoy my environment around me, using every opportunity to allow beautiful thoughts to enter my mind.

Let me give you an example. I pass a tame goose every morning. He is a magnificent, spoiled goose, who has been adopted as a downy gosling by people who adore him, and he has his own little pond which was specially constructed for him. Whenever he sees me, he gives me a goose honk, and looks at me regally, the way only a goose can look at you. I love that goose. It is a delight to see him every morning. He makes me smile.

Finding beauty in your environment fills you with beautiful thoughts and emotions.

Getting rid of negative thoughts

I am continuously listening to my thoughts moving through my mind, and I am on the lookout for negative ones. Negative thoughts have a way of camouflaging themselves, I find. It is almost as if they are afraid of their true nature, and want to hide their negativity from you. They would often come to you in a very respectable guise, but in such a way that you would "cling" to them. You would not allow them to leave, but invite them to stay in your mind. They would then preoccupy you to the exclusion of other thoughts. Often they take the form of daydreams. The trick lies in exposing them for what they really are.

Let me give you an example. You would find yourself daydreaming about a situation. Colleagues are talking about you in awe. "Wow," the one would say, "I didn't know he was that good!" The colleague being spoken to would be your rival, and would pull a sour face. This is a pleasant daydream. So it repeats itself. It might even create new dreams of self-grandeur. For that is what it is. You are busy pumping up your ego, and you are giving your feelings of animosity and rivalry free play in your mind. The moment you recognize this, your daydream will pop like a soap bubble.

So, the first step in combating negative thoughts and emotions is to identify them and to label them appropriately. Do not call them "your" thoughts or emotions. They are not really part of your true nature. Say to yourself, "These are thoughts of jealousy."

Once exposed, negative thoughts tend to slink out of your mind as if ashamed of themselves.

They disappear even faster when they are laughed at. They cannot survive ridicule. I would often chuckle at thoughts entering my mind. "You again," I would chuckle at a silly emotion, shaking my head in disbelief, and it would dissolve instantly. Humour has a wonderful way of solving problems, particularly "serious" ones.

Always in tune

What I have found is that after some exercise, you can be continuously aware of your thoughts and emotions in all situations.

"But," you might object, " doesn't this kill all spontaneity and intuition in you? Doesn't everything become terribly contrived?"

This is a good point. When you practice this at first, you might have spells where you have difficulty "being natural", but this will not last long. Being aware of your thoughts becomes such a natural part of you after a while that your spontaneity returns, but it will have lost some of its dangerous characteristics. Spontaneity is an instant reaction without control. Spontaneous reactions are only good if they are positive reactions. Negative spontaneity can be devastating.

Spontaneity and intuition are not synonymous. In fact, being aware of your thoughts without clinging to them brings you even in closer contact with your intuitive side.

Turning the negative into positive

You have probably often experienced daydreams of revenge. You would react in your mind to a particularly painful sequence of events, in which you have been humiliated or hurt or betrayed. You would now daydream how you return the insult in kind. Your victim would be the person who had hurt you. You would rehearse what you would say when you next meet that person. You would cut that person down to size, or humiliate him.

Dreams have ways of becoming reality, particularly daydreams. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. Thoughts become attitudes, and attitudes are the determinants of action. If you should nurture your animosities, they only become worse, and you will end up acting in hatred.

Let us look at a concrete example. A colleague with a reputation for meanness and backstabbing has hurt your pride. She has deliberately highlighted a mistake you have made, and added her bit to it. In your mind, you now tell yourself, "Just let her do it again, and I'll rip her apart." Your hurt has now turned into hatred. Hatred is nothing else but the commitment to hurt, break down or destroy. Your whole attitude now becomes predatory. And, as it happens in life, this colleague, flushed with success and exceedingly stupid, confronts you again. But this time you are "ready" for her, and you climb into her with venomous intent.

It is incredible how hatred can show you where to hurt others. So that remark about her being "unloved" and "insecure, desperately searching for admiration" must have hurt her most. The fact that some colleagues, ex-victims of the same colleague, congratulate you on "cutting her down to size" might even strengthen you in the illusion that you have acted in self-defense and therefore justly. Hatred can be so devious. It is a master of camouflage. People who act in hatred are seldom aware of the fact that they are acting in hatred. They will give this detestable emotion many flattering names, but seldom its true one.

Hatred is incredibly infectious. It easily becomes pandemic. How do you prevent being infected by it? Again, you must win the battle in your mind. Your mind becomes infected first. You allow hatred and its accompanying thoughts to settle into your mind. You cling to them and expand on them. They take over. Hatred is the great equalizer. It endeavours to turn all people into perpetrators of hatred. The moment you hate, you become a multiplier of hatred. You are spreading the disease.

"But," you would object, "it is certainly not that easy to control your thoughts!" And you would be right. Your development must be holistic. If you are incredibly greedy, you will not be able to get rid of jealous thoughts. If you have too much ego and are therefore preoccupied with other people's opinion of you, you will have too much pride, and thoughts of pride and revenge will take over in your mind. You are vulnerable because too many negative emotions and qualities control your life.

However, practicing this control of your thoughts really helps you to get rid of negative tendencies in you. It assists you in attaining the necessary distance to your own thoughts.

The challenge

But let us return to our example. The problem you have after you have been hurt is to win the battle in your mind. You should see to it that your hurt pride does not become hatred. There are many other possible ways in which you can handle this situation. You can play through these unpleasant scenarios in your mind. But see to it that you act in your scenarios the way someone filled with compassion and wisdom will act. It can be amazing what it can show you. You might then see that there are many possible ways to deal with your hurt. You might even see that your hurt is the result of what is perhaps your own over-sensitivity, which again might be the product of your inflated ego.

One attitude to adopt to difficult people, which is suggested by many Buddhist texts, is to see these people as a challenge. They present to you an opportunity to develop spiritually. You should not let the puniness of small-minded people affect you negatively. You should treat them with compassion.

"Easier said than done," you could again counter. "How could you act with compassion if you do not feel it? Are you then not being false?"

There is a terrible misconception that you are only sincere if you act according to your emotions. This misconception is also the reason why emotion is given undue weight in religion. The truth is that you should act according to your convictions - even if they go against those emotions trying to control your mind. If, for example, you know that you should act in compassion, but the emotions in you do not agree, it could only be because there is something wrong with these emotions. Be patient. Compassion has a way of getting rid of destructive emotions. Practice the right scenarios in your mind - the ones where you act wisely and compassionately - and the negative emotions in you will flee. Taking up the battle in your mind is a way of reducing your ego. It is the first step in fighting those negative qualities controlling you. The next step is to act correctly. The correct emotions will follow.

There is a danger involved in this kind of exercise, of course. It can happen that you alienate yourself from your emotions. You could have your repressed emotions causing tremendous wear and tear in you. It would be ideal if you had real friends of similar convictions that you could talk to and express your frustrations to.

Unless you are totally devoid of ego - and who is? - you will sometimes experience situations where you have been forced to eat too much humble pie. I find that, sometimes, in tense situations, where I have been forced to eat more humble pie than I can digest, I would end up with a great deal of aggression that has to be worked off somehow. That is where meditative activities could be of great help. Or some creative activity, where you could get rid of the destructive energies eating into you. But no matter what methods you use, they should assist you to ban negative thoughts and emotions from your mind, and, ideally, replace them with positive ones.

The difficult road

The compassionate road is not an easy one. It is probably easier to use other people as punching bags, if you have the stomach for it, than to become a punching bag yourself.

Another discovery you will make as you increase your awareness of your mental processes, is that you also become more sensitive to the mental processes and emotions of other people. It becomes increasingly difficult to treat people meanly. Which is good, isn't it?

Even if you could be mean to people without it bothering you much in the past, you would now suffer acute pangs of remorse at the least meanness from your side. It is like the difference between the sensitivity of the eye and normal skin. Whereas a small speck of dust would not bother the skin, it is agony to the eye. Your sensitivity about the way you treat people turns from that of sensitivity of the skin to the acute sensitivity of the eye.

It has repercussions. Sometimes you have no choice but to be hard on people to educate them. Sometimes compassion dictates to you that you should take less pleasant measures. Some people leave you with no choice. I have often experienced this with students, even with some colleagues. They would react negatively or not at all to your efforts to solve problems in a friendly and non-aggressive fashion. Then you would revert to more forceful tactics, and immediately they would respond positively. You also get people who would take over your life if you did not draw unequivocal lines on the ground. As you grow more sensitive, you should not lose your ability to act forcefully when it is necessary. Becoming sensitive and being dedicated to non-aggressive action should not turn you into someone who is weak.

I have experienced that when my approach is essentially friendly and peaceful, I would sometimes be confronted by people who interpret my non-aggression as weakness, and try to take advantage of me. You have no choice but to let them realize that you are not weak. Sometimes you have no choice but to do it the hard way. But do not become impatient here. Try everything else first, and only go over to more vigorous methods of defense if you are sure no other method will work. Be sure that what you are defending is not just your own ego. Remain as compassionate as possible. Once you have really developed spiritually, it will really hurt you more than it hurts them if you have to act severely. That is the downside of the road you have taken. Don't worry. The reward is worth its price.

Weakness and the ego

You are weak when you cannot act firmly because you are too dependent on other people's opinions. You have probably experienced people who cannot disagree and always go along with everyone because they do not want to get into anyone's disfavour. These people are trapped by other people's eyes. They are like leaves blown about by the wind. This kind of weakness is not sympathetic, it is destructive. These people often fail you when you need them most. You cannot depend on them when you have made the wrong choice, for they will not tell you. A true friend is like a mirror. If you look at him, he should reflect the reality of yourself to you.

The less ego you have, the more independent you become. In fact, I have found as a teacher that compassion, real compassion, is only possible when you have acquired the necessary detachment and distance from your students. Your emotions should play as small a role as possible. The moment you either love them or hate them, you live in a dangerous zone, for it means that you are controlled by your own emotions. Compassion is less a feeling than a form of constructive action or non-action.

Your increase in sensitivity as you develop spiritually will find some relief in the fact that your ego is shrinking as you develop. It is good to remember that you cannot truly develop unless you reduce your ego.

No comfort zone

Emptiness is not a comfort zone. It is like being out in the open, facing the storms head on. Living close to the Tao is living close to reality and being on intimate terms with suffering. It also means you sometimes have to suffer more than you would care to.

Enlightenment is not a form of escape. You need courage for this. Do not worry. Compassion has a way of supplying you with the courage to face the challenge.

Avoid repressive measures

Those desperate for peace
drive all thoughts from their minds,
locking themselves behind iron gates,
from where there is no escape.
The Taoist sage has peace
and remains unattached to thoughts
which may come and go
as they please.
His gates being wide open,
the Taoist sage wanders
in total freedom
wherever the Tao leads him.

(The Tao is Tao, 122)

You cannot repress your recurring negative thoughts. You have no choice but to deal with them. Some are easy to handle, and they would disappear the moment they have been labeled. Some, however, might be so painful that you prefer not to deal with them. These thoughts are often the most dangerous ones, for if you do not deal with them, you are in fact turning your back on real problems.

But let me use a concrete example to explain.

I had a colleague who once insulted me quite badly. She was suddenly unreasonable and derogatory, and that in spite of the fact that I had always been friendly and helpful towards her. I was not prepared for this, but, thankfully, the suddenness of her attack perplexed me so much that I did not react. But I felt hurt and abused, and afterwards my feelings were so unpleasant that I repressed them. I did not allow myself to deal with the problem - the memory of it was too unpleasant. I shooed thoughts of the incident from my mind. My repressive measures would have explosive results. The very next day, she again became aggressive towards me. This time I was less tongue-tied, and being ill prepared for it, I exploded, cutting her down verbally, leaving her in a dejected state, weeping bitterly.

What I did was totally wrong, of course. It was the result of my previous repression of my thoughts and emotions. It is no use trying to repress thoughts demanding attention, particularly not when they deal with what is an ongoing problem. You have no choice but to deal with some problems when they knock on your mind's door. Not dealing with them turns you into a ticking time bomb.

If I had dealt with the problem in my mind before I cut her down, I would have recollected that she had been very nervous the preceding days. If I had been more caring and sensitive towards her, I might have asked her about it, and she might just have told me that her son, who had been paralysed in an accident a few years previously, had suffered a serious relapse a few days previously. If I had known what her problem was, I would have been more prepared. I would have realized that she was using me as a punching bag to get rid of her aggression, because she thought I was the kind of person who could take it. But she was wrong. I realized I had failed her. Of course I was not going to give myself all the blame. But I was to blame too. For lack of compassion.

After I had established why she had been so offensive and had suffered such a breakdown, I reenacted the scene in my mind, this time acting like a wise and compassionate person. I then played the scene in my mind of what I would tell her the next day. By this time, of course, my hurt and my anger had totally disappeared, and it was replaced by sympathy and friendship. And I was disgusted that I had so much ego that I had failed my friend. Winning the battle in your mind can change your emotions.

I went to her the next day, and apologized. She immediately responded with her own apology, and then we two sat down and had a real conversation, in which she expressed her anxiety and fears. It is mostly never too late to make amends, but it would have been preferable if I had reacted correctly from the start.

Winning the battle in your mind can change your emotions and your actions. It can prevent many mistakes, and it can help you to make amends where you have been wrong.

Not winning the battle in your mind is too terrible to contemplate.

Unwelcome guests

Thoughts are like guests. When you make them feel welcome, they would appear at your doorstep again and again. If you do not want them to visit you again, you had better make them feel unwelcome. In the case of negative thoughts entering your mind, the best thing you can do is to ignore them once you have identified them. Ignoring them is the most effective way of making them feel unwelcome. After a while, even the most persistent uninvited guests will stop pestering you. I find this method is very effective in getting rid of negative thoughts.

I grew up in an aggressive environment, where being aggressive is part of being male. You are not supposed to choose the gentler approaches to solving problems. For this reason, my mind was regularly controlled by aggressive thoughts, emotions and daydreams. It was the most difficult aspect of my cultural conditioning to get rid of. And the battle was all in my mind. The worst part of my education was that I was conditioned to relish this quality in me and to be proud of it. What this meant was that aggressive thoughts were given heroic welcomes into my mind. Violence was seen as an easy, quick-fix option. I loved movie scenes with the hero solving problems in violent ways. Clint Eastwood's "make my day" scene filled me with delight. Violent men defending justice were my heroes.

It is terrible what cultural conditioning can do to you. Welcoming negative thoughts into your mind is like keeping bad company. You are bound to act badly yourself. Negative thoughts bar positive ones from entering your mind. They create a permanently negative attitude in you. You have probably met people who are forever negative and unpleasant, always ready to react aggressively at the least provocation.

It took me many years to get rid of most of the aggression in me, and I am still on the lookout for any signs of aggressive thoughts. I can mostly notice them long before they appear at my door. But when I am exhausted, they have a way of catching me off guard. One way to get rid of aggressive thoughts, I have found, is to identify them and then to let them know that you hate their guts. With time, most of them will stop knocking on your door.

It is also important to anticipate situations that might evoke aggression. Being prepared for such situations is important. In my effort to understand my reactions, I would identify situations that tend to cause aggressive reactions in me. In my mind, I would simulate these situations, and I would then react in the correct, non-aggressive way. It is a kind of mental drilling exercise. It is a form of meditation.

After I had reacted aggressively in a real situation, I would reenact the situation in my mind, this time reacting correctly. It is important that you condition yourself to react correctly almost "instinctively". The best reaction should come first, and not aggressive action. Often the best reaction is not to react at all.

It is also important to be on the lookout for negative thoughts knocking at your door after some particularly negative experience. Notice them, deal with them, get rid of them.

What I have also found is that negative thoughts hate the company of positive emotions. So what I do if I have a negative thought refusing to leave is to invite a particularly friendly and positive emotion in. It often works. To give you a concrete example. If I should feel nasty about a colleague who had been unfair towards a student, I would think of my favourite goose honking a greeting at me, and I would smile and my aggressive thoughts would leave me.

Of course, I would still talk to my colleague who had insulted the student, i.e. if it were necessary, but I would do this without being aggressive. If you are not aggressive, it is easier for you to decide what constructive steps you can take. If you are angry, you cannot be constructive. In fact, you usually end up being destructive. If you have got rid of your own aggression, you are better able to make up your mind, in my case whether I should discuss the matter with my colleague. If I were angry, I would probably not even consider being patient and silent until the right opportunity arose, and I would not wait until my colleague was ready to be spoken to. Anger has no patience.

Bitterness is nothing else but the inability to get rid of negative emotions, which are often thoughts of having been hurt in some way. I have once heard someone say, "I will forgive him, but not forget what he has done to me." This is extremely ignorant. Forgiveness, real forgiveness, is only possible if you have eliminated the negative feelings you have towards a person. It is difficult yet possible to someone who has reduced his ego.

The ego is the source of aggression, anger and hatred. The less ego you have, the more capable you are to react with compassion, to make amends, and to forgive and to forget.

Hurling insults
at the Taoist sage
is like
throwing stones
at empty space.

The Taoist sage
clings to nothing
and therefore
has nothing to lose.
He cannot be hurt,
because he has accepted

(The Tao is Tao, 78)

Critical thoughts

Negative, undesirable thoughts do not include critical thoughts which remind you of where you are neglecting your duties, or reprimand you for what you have done wrong, or encourage you to make amends. Critical thoughts of this nature are your best friends. Suppressing them would be turning your back on reality.

Dwelling in emptiness and silence does not mean that your conscience has gone silent.

Being aware of your self-critical thoughts and reacting to them appropriately are essential to your spiritual development.

Beautiful thoughts: Welcome guests

Another way of "cleaning up" your mind is to dwell with the beautiful thoughts of inspirational people.

It is a form of meditation. You ponder on truths or questions until you understand them thoroughly. It is of course preferable to do this in a quiet environment where you are undisturbed. For example, you can take a statement like "To turn your back on reality is to reject emptiness". You can now try to work out what it means. You can even write it down, if you feel it is of benefit. Remember to always try to establish some link to real-life situations. Also consider what the implications are as far your own behaviour is concerned.

The world is rich with wonderful texts filled with wise and profound prose and verse, which serve to inspire and show you the way. In many Buddhist and particularly Zen and Taoist texts, you are shown a direction, but you have to find the way yourself. They are often wonderfully vague, almost defying explanation. Texts like the Tao Te Ching, Shodoka or Faith in Mind are full of texts just beyond your understanding. They encourage you to think and to find out, and to discover for yourself the truths they imply.

I think it is true that when you fill your mind with these profound thoughts, you cannot else but be transformed. It is like being close to good friends who encourage you to change. It is as if you are listening to your true self speaking to you.

These texts represent the collective wisdom and experience of many enlightened people, and their words point the way. I have found that you can read these texts again and again, and each time they acquire new meaning as you grow in understanding.

It is important that you not only understand these texts intellectually, but that you apply their great truths in your everyday life. Only then will you reach spiritual insight and true understanding. The worst thing you can do is turn your meditation into an intellectual exercise.

I have met "esoteric" people who actually use these profound texts as a way of fighting boredom - a kind of intellectual bungee jumping exercise. Once they have experienced what they consider to be a momentary intellectual or emotional thrill, they would move on to new areas. They are thrill seekers, they do not really apply these things to their lives, and they do not reach any insights of significance. Their preoccupation with esoteric texts is part of their materialism - it is part of their attachment to illusions of permanence. They use "wisdom" or mysticism to inflate their egos. In a way, it only increases their ignorance.

Filling your mind with wisdom and compassion creates an environment where base thoughts do not feel at home. Not that you will ever be truly free of their visitations. This world is so filled with stimuli luring you into new forms of ignorance that you should never drop your guard.

Meditation brings your knowledge and your emotions into harmony with your actions. If you have enough patience, you will find it transforms your emotions and your actions in a very real way.

Exhaustion: Leaving the door open

Exhaustion can be a great enemy, and should be avoided at all costs. Having said that, I know that we often do not have a choice. People often have professional and other obligations they cannot simply refuse to fulfil. So they often work to a point where they are exhausted. It is strange, isn't it? Our whole economic system is geared to hard work, because we are often greedy. In the process of fulfilling our ambitions, we, however, become so run down that we cannot enjoy the fruits of our hard labour. Worse even is that we do not have time to deal with the things that really matter, and often our relationships suffer because of it.

When you are exhausted, you quite simply do not have the nerves to face crises, or even everyday challenges, calmly.

I find when I become exhausted, I become aggressive. A colleague of mine confessed to me that when she becomes tired, her compassion deserts her.

When exhausted, one can become more vulnerable to opinion, the ego often uses the opportunity to inflate itself again, and one can easily end up being nervous, unloving, even obnoxious.

I have found that if I am overworked and exhausted, I sometimes lack the strength to chase all unwelcome thoughts from my mind. I often lack the courage to deal with some of those persistent thoughts requiring attention. My tendency is then to try to repress most of the unpleasant thoughts, but often with little success. If I find that negative thoughts are threatening to take over my mind, I know that I am in urgent need of a holiday. But most of us do not have the luxury of determining our own holidays. We often have the freedom to work or to make money, but not to care for our own spiritual well-being.

Animosities and vanities not only have a better chance of taking over your mind when you are run down, but they easily thrive in this atmosphere. In a state of mental exhaustion, you can regress at such speed that you can lose in a day what you have gained in months. I know. I have experienced it myself.

The only cure for this is to avoid becoming exhausted at all costs. Do not let your ego drive you into taking on too many commitments.

What could help is to change your daily routine to include enough rest, if it is at all possible. Often simple measures will do the trick. Like going to bed early and getting enough sleep.

External influences

External stimuli can cause many negative and destructive thoughts to enter your mind.

There has been much controversy about the influence of the television and the film industries on young minds. Even if experts differ on exactly how much negative influence is exerted by the media, most of them agree that young minds are as endangered as never before. The informational revolution and Internet have increased the chances of young minds being corrupted and perverted. It is clear to almost everybody that something will have to be done to protect younger minds against this invasion of destructive emotions and thoughts. Education will have to play a crucial role here.

Little is said about the perverting and corrupting influence the media can have on adult minds. It is a fallacy to think that older minds are immune to negative influences. And I am not only talking about obvious mental cases who copycat crimes in films or in newsreels. I am talking about "normal" people like you and me.

The influence of the media on you can be so subtle that you do not notice what it is doing to your mind. It is essential that you become sensitive to negative influences on your mind. If a film induces you to delight in the suffering of others, even if those others happen to be unsympathetic characters, then it has a negative influence on your mind. Many films make you an accomplice to greed or even murder. They manipulate the audience's emotions so that they start hating certain characters in a film and actually rejoice when a character dies a horrible, "justified" death. It is a kind of superficial, fake karma with a Hollywood gloss. Of course it would not inevitably turn most of the audience into potential murderers, but it often causes a subtle change of attitude with regards to, for example, violence, sexuality or the value of life.

How do you combat these negative media influences?

  • Be selective in what you watch.
  • Do not expose yourself unnecessarily to stimuli that have a negative influence on you.
  • Rather watch films that inspire, educate and appeal to your noble side.
  • Inform yourself about films before you watch them.
  • Switch off your television set if a film does not meet with your approval.
  • Halve your time in front of your television set. Most people watch hopelessly too much television anyway.
  • Do not watch television just because you are exhausted. Many people just collapse onto a couch in front of the television when they are exhausted, and allow anything to invade their minds. You are at your most vulnerable when you are exhausted. Link this to alcohol, which reduces your resistance to negative influences, and you become as vulnerable as a child.
  • Find alternative activities to watching television, like reading, or meditating. Anything to break your addiction to television. Often that is exactly what it is. An addiction.

Of course, one could go too far in trying to protect oneself from negativity by isolating oneself too much from reality. You have to be honest with yourself about what influence external stimuli have on you, and you must be willing to act according to your convictions.

Facing reality

One extreme reaction is to "switch off" totally when negative stimuli enter your mind. This is a very real problem at a time when news programs sometimes rival horror films. People have a way of becoming immune to horror, and you cannot blame them if they do. People can even eat their dinner while watching horrific pictures on newsreels.

Again, I must warn that you should not use your control of thoughts to isolate yourself from reality. Some thoughts entering your mind are ugly because they reflect an ugly reality, and they deserve your attention.

I live in a country where 5% of the population earns 70% of the total income, and where, in spite of its mineral wealth, 60% of the population live below the poverty line. The average poor Namibian has to survive on about one US dollar per day. 52% of Namibians between the ages of 16 and 25 are HIV positive. These are ugly thoughts based on ugly facts, and I may only ban them from my mind at the risk of losing my compassion. Controlling your thoughts should never become a way of building a wall around your affluence, so that you can enjoy your relative wealth, undisturbed by the misery around you.

My advice? Leave your comfort zone and do something about the misery around you. Spiritual development can never be escapist. Alleviating suffering is an act of the purest spirituality.

Avoid "spiritual materialism". One form of this kind of materialism is to use your ability to control your thoughts as a means to manipulate and control other people. Another form is to become too attached to happiness, which is often seen as a commodity in our society. Attachment often turns whatever is thought to be happiness into dissatisfaction and greed. In fact, what people call happiness is often just a momentary gratification of their own greed, which does not last long, because greed has its own destructive momentum: it is, after all, fueled by the ego.

Moments of retreat

the ignorant.
The Taoist sage
is shaped
by silence.

(The Tao is Tao, 65)

It is good to have moments of retreat during the course of a day. These moments can be brief, and their duration depends on how much time and opportunity you have available. It is good if they become part of the routine of the day, that is if you have any routine. If not, you must improvise, and use those lucky solitary moments when you have a spell of quiet.

Weekends may provide opportunities to recuperate from the stresses of the week. This will, of course, only happen if you really do something to revitalize your spirit. A change of scenery - going out into nature - can help you to get rid of those thoughts plaguing you. To "switch off" and enjoy fresh air is an effective form of recuperation.

Preparing for the day

The Tao fills with thoughts
those minds not attached to concepts.

(The Tao is Tao, 7)

The best opportunity for moments of meditation is early in the morning before the day really starts. This, of course, requires discipline. It is not always easy, for if you have had a late night, it sometimes does not work. Being too tired and dozing off does not help you much, and can only leave you with a feeling of failure and discontent.

One of the best forms of preparation for the day is to get enough sleep.

Many forms of meditation can be used. My wife prefers yoga. I prefer Tai Chi. But you may use any form of meditation you prefer.

These may not even be formal methods. Sometimes, early in the morning, I take my German Shepherds, and we go walking in the dark along the beach in fresh, salty air, with only the stars above us. But I am extremely fortunate of course. I live close to a breathtaking ocean and the oldest desert in the world.

Part of my meditation is walking to work in the morning.

If possible, having a quiet, relaxed, friendly breakfast is also a way of preparing for the day. My wife and myself make a point of having a leisurely breakfast together, taking our time and sharing thoughts. Getting up a bit earlier for this is worth its while.


When possible, use at least ten to twenty minutes during lunch time to be alone and to meditate.


In the evening, I love reading literature that stimulates me to think about important spiritual aspects. And I go for long walks. Or I would cook for fun. My own pasta! And an evening meal watching the sun setting.

If you have a garden, and you love gardening, then get your hands in the dirt.

Become creative. It focuses your mind and closes the door to negative thoughts.

Writing as meditation

Often, I would write my thoughts down while meditating. Do not underestimate to what profound insights you can come when you are formulating your thoughts on paper. Keep a diary or a journal. I carry a small notebook with me, and I would often write down my thoughts. It is incredible how much you can learn from your own thoughts if you allow your thoughts to teach you.

Calming down techniques

After the curse
and before his reaction,
anger faded into
The sage in harmony with the Tao
does not allow external discord
to disturb his silence.

(The Tao is Tao, 118)

Calming down techniques can be of great help in the heat of stress and performance.

I often use breathing exercises any time of the day when I feel I need to calm down. There are, of course, many methods of breathing exercises that can be used.

My exercise is quite simple. I would breathe in slowly, filling my lungs, but I would do this in a very relaxed way. I would then exhale slowly, concentrating on my breath. Or I would breathe in and out while focusing on any object, like a picture on the wall. Once you have finished exhaling, do not start breathing in immediately, but wait with empty lungs in total relaxation before you repeat the process. Try it. You will find that for a moment it is almost as if your mind has become empty with your lungs, and there is a real pause - a refreshing moment of emptiness - before the next thought enters your mind. With enough exercise, you can prolong these refreshing moments of silence in your mind. It is wonderful and revitalizing, and it has a calming effect on you. I do this exercise particularly when I become impatient. When I notice my impatience, I would breathe in deeply and just enjoy exhaling and relaxing. Much of my impatience would disappear. What is good about this form of meditation is that you can even do it in company without anybody really noticing what you are doing.

Another exercise is to count your breath. Inhale and exhale in total relaxation, counting your exhalations. Take your time. Count up to ten. Then start all over again. What actually happens is that for a moment the flow of thoughts in your mind will stop. Do not worry if it does not work immediately. Just practice until it does. And it does. This kind of meditative technique slows down your overheated brain. It takes the nervousness out of your thinking.

I also use Tai Chi to calm down. The good thing about Tai Chi is that you do not need much space. Alone in an office, or any private space, like a corner of a building or a garden somewhere, would suffice. One shorter round of say 64 figures lasting ten minutes could do the trick. It also relaxes the body and you become less stressed and tense.

Another technique is to take a verse of say the Tao Te Ching, and read it and contemplate on it for a few minutes. I often do this, and it focuses me again on the things that really matter. It is good to carry a small pocket edition of it around with you.

If your neighbourhood permits, going for a ten minute walk around the block could do you a world of good. Do this while breathing in deeply, and exhaling slowly and in a relaxed fashion. Fill your mind with positive images and relax.

Longer Retreats

If you can take the time and afford it, longer retreats of at least a few days or a week can do wonders to revitalize the spirit.

Retreats have the advantage that they isolate you from everyday hectic and stress, and allow you to devote uninterrupted time to yourself.

You get many kinds of retreats. You can organize your own private retreat, and take all your favourite books along, and use your time to meditate and rest. Or you can be active in nature: climb mountains, swim, hike, that sort of activity.

Some people prefer to go to organized retreats. The benefit of these retreats is that you can learn a lot from others and from the teachers or trainers in charge. For example, a Zazen retreat can be of great benefit, for with the right teacher, you can learn a lot, particularly if you are still a beginner.

Where I live, such retreats do not exist. If you are lucky enough to live in an environment where retreats are held, you should certainly use the opportunities available.

On the road to enlightenment

Thinking: a hindrance or a help?

Analytical thinking,
which divides and dissects,
does not satisfy the needs
of the spirit,
for the spirit finds peace
in unity,
which exists only
in emptiness,
where thinking has no influence.

To step into the realm of the spirit
is to abandon thinking.
Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.

(The Tao is Tao, 17)

D. T. Suzuki once called thinking the most dubious activity ever invented by man. Many other spiritual leaders have echoed the same sentiment.

In Christian mythology, man has lost paradise because he has eaten of the fruit of the "knowledge" of good and bad. Buddhists and Christians agree that man has lost his innocence because he has started thinking. Thinking has alienated him from his true nature.

A cat acts like a cat because it is a cat; it has never lost its innocence. Has the human being ceased being human because he has started thinking? Some philosophers would argue that the human being is human because he thinks, and that it is in his nature to acquire distance from himself. His "fall" is inevitable.

The dualistic, rational world is an invention of the human being, and it has to a certain extent alienated the human being not only from the rest of the universe, but also from himself.

The irony is that whereas man has been alienated from his own true nature by his thinking, he now needs thinking to regain "paradise lost".

So thinking is a hindrance, but it also provides us with the chance to repair some of the damage done by it.

The limitations of language

Our problem is that most of our thinking is restricted by language, which is limited in its ability to express spiritual truths, particularly truths lying beyond the rational and the dualistic world of subject and object. Language is effective in an analytical, rational environment, and it is also reasonably effective in expressing the emotional, irrational side of the human being. It is when we come to the spiritual that it quickly reaches its limits.

In fact, language easily creates misunderstandings and misconceptions when dealing with the non-dualistic world of the spirit. Language becomes even more lethal when people confuse language with what it is trying to depict. Often the religious confuse the word with reality:

Stupid ones, childish ones,
They suppose there is something in an empty fist.
They mistake the pointing finger for the moon.
They are idle dreamers lost in form and sensation.


Can we as human beings escape the limitations set to us by our thinking? Does thinking go beyond the dualistic world?

These questions are difficult to answer, aren't they?

The effort to answer these questions often leads to even more confusion. Some would try to answer them by remaining silent. One explanation is that in Emptiness, in Tao, neither thinking nor non-thinking exists or non-exists. When I first heard this explanation, it really stimulated my thinking, but to no avail. The trouble is that the language used here is very unsatisfactory. It is an ingenious but vain effort to express the inexpressible. Often the via negativa is utilized to overcome the shortcomings of language. The Tao is "explained" with lists of negations, which tell you what the Tao is not. It does help a bit, but, somehow, it does not bring you all that much closer to the Tao.

The enlightened tell you that you will advance through language to a point beyond which thinking does not count. It is a point where knowledge is irrelevant and even wisdom is transcended.

Only silence
can explain
the inexplicable.

Who can think the unthinkable?
Only the sage
in total harmony with Tao.
Yet his thinking
is an act of complete faith
beyond concepts.

(The Tao is Tao, 94)

Leaving the burden behind

It is true. There is a point where you have to leave your thinking behind. It is crucial to recognize this point.

It is "an act of complete faith/ beyond concepts".

Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.

It is vital to know the limitations of thinking. Thinking is a vehicle with which you return to your true nature, but it does not take you all the way. It is like crossing a river with a boat. Once you have reached the other side but not your destination, you will have to discard the boat. If you insist on carrying the boat with you, it will become a great hindrance. Even if you have fallen in love with your boat, you will have to leave it behind. You have no choice on the way to enlightenment. Clinging to truth and insight becomes a hindrance when you approach your true nature.

There is a point beyond which only "spiritual experience" will bring you "further". At this point, concepts and ideas are obsolete.

Dai-O Kokoshi, in his breathtaking poem On Zen, has come much closer to what I am trying to say:

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth;
Indeed, it has no form, much less a name;
Eyes fail to see it;
It has no voice for ears to detect;
To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature,
For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air;
It is not Mind, nor Buddha;
Absolutely quiet, and yet illuminating in a mysterious way,
It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.
It is Dharma beyond form and sound;
It is Tao having nothing to do with words.

It is ironic. On our spiritual journey, thinking is used to finally destroy itself.

Only when our thinking has committed suicide, will we reach harmony with the Tao.

As the rivers solidified
and the mountains shifted,
his mind moved
and the leaves rustled in the wind.

(The Tao is Tao, 18)


Jos Slabbert 2001
Postal Address: P.O. Box 4037, Vineta, Namibia
Fax No.: 09264 64 46 1014 E-Mail:

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