Shambhala Sun | March 2014
The GPS in your car
can tell you the best road to take, but what helps you navigate life? What you
need, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, is a...
GPS of the Mind
The GPS in my car
never gets mad at me, no matter how many times I turn to avoid the torn-up
street she has recommended. She just says, “Recalculating” and directs me to
turn right, and then right again, until I am back where she wanted me—on the
street blocked by construction.
Again I select an
alternative route. She quietly but firmly repeats, “Recalculating,” and I say
back, “Hold on. Keep talking if you want. I know where I’m going. I’ll soon be
where you want me to be.” When I finally rejoin the route she was aiming for, I
almost expect her to say, “Good girl, Sylvia! You did it,” but she never does.
We drive together quietly until the next time I need to disobey her
instructions and she is right there again, firm but never impatient, ready to
straighten me out.
I am trying to
cultivate a mind like a GPS. My mind GPS would be ever vigilant to where I am and
unwavering in clarity about my destination, all the while never losing its
patience and never challenging my confidence.
My car GPS supplies
a running graphic of a tiny car driving along my intended route and showing
roads branching off from it that it hopes I’ll avoid. It offers advance
warnings—“In two miles, keep left”—so I can avoid mistakes.
My mind GPS would
help me choose, moment to moment, the route that cultivates and maintains
wholesome states in my mind. Any detour would immediately initiate a warning
signal: “Leading to Unwholesome! Slow down! Consider! Maybe you need to back
up! Or turn around!”
I especially value
the Return Home icon on my car GPS, which automatically routes me back to my
home address in California. The Return Home icon on my mind GPS would
automatically reroute me to Mindful (for clear seeing), Concentrated (for
confident stability), and Wise Effort.
Mind GPS is
particularly helpful in moments of hurt or confusion, when we are most likely
to take the wrong route. Here’s an example of how mind GPS works—how moment by
moment it calculates my mental position and guides me toward the wholesome and
away from the unwholesome.
I’m with someone
beloved to me—a close friend or family member—and suddenly they say something
that startles my mind. Perhaps I hear it as an unjust criticism. Or it sounds
cavalier. Or foolish. I feel my mind contract around the remark, notice the
unpleasantness of that contraction, and feel the impulse to protest arise in my
simultaneously (but actually next) I see a “rap sheet” unfurl in my mind
listing the many, many times this person has said or done something similar,
thus building the case for a protest. But if my mind GPS is alert and steadily
intending toward the wholesome, I also see the possibility of relaxing the
impulse to act.
This moment of ease
allows my mind to return to its normally wider view that includes the many
sterling qualities of this beloved person. The confusion in the mind
disappears. I can carry on the conversation as if nothing more significant than
a sneeze had happened.
When I make the
right choice at this fork in the road—avoid the route that leads to tumult and
take the one that builds closer bonds of connection—I feel, “Whew! Just dodged
a bullet. I could have messed up the afternoon, mine and the other person’s,
and I didn’t.”
Or imagine this
recent experience: I was standing on a New York City street corner on a cold
November evening buying gloves from a sidewalk vendor. I was shifting and
tapping my feet side to side trying to warm them.
“Back up a little,”
the vendor said to the person behind me. “Don’t crowd in so close.”
“Hey,” the man
behind me replied, “I’m just watching the old lady dancing.”
I felt tears in my
eyes. I paid for my gloves and left. “Old lady?” “Dancing?”
I continued down
the street toward Lincoln Center imagining my mind as a deflating balloon, my
sense of myself as chic and sprightly morphing into old and humiliated, and
then giving way to a list of self-critical remarks beginning with “You should
have remembered to pack gloves!”
I was just about to
start an internal lament about how the evening I was anticipating was ruined,
how the zest for it that I’d felt in my mind was all gone, when I thought,
“Stop! The remark happened back there. The ruining is happening now!”
I started to laugh
at this point, thinking how easy it is for my mind to run away with itself down
a road going no place good. It’s as if it becomes intoxicated by a whiff of
drama—“Such a sad story happened to me today walking down Broadway”—that it
forgets that clarity, the plain truth, is the antidote to confusion.
The plain truth is
that I am an old woman. And I was, so to speak, dancing at the vendor’s stand.
And I did forget to pack gloves.
Also, I was meeting
a friend I love for an evening of dinner and a concert on a cold night in New
York City, where all the trees on Upper Broadway are wrapped in strings of
white lights. It was an easy decision whether to embellish the glove story and
suffer or to take the other fork in the mental road and rejoice in my good
fortune at being alive and well in this moment.
In the end, I spent
a relatively short time wandering on a side road of discontent before rescuing
the evening, but I could have done it sooner. I could have avoided a lot of
struggle by addressing the pain immediately. I could have, at the moment when I
heard the remark and tears came to my eyes, acknowledged to myself, “I’m in
pain!” Instinctively, I would have taken some slow, deep breaths—always a comforter
to anyone in pain—while I was paying for my gloves.
Perhaps I would
have thought to myself, “Relax, sweetheart. These things happen. You got
startled. You’ll be fine.” Holding myself in compassion would have inhibited my
mind from making negative judgments about myself. And, as I walked on, had I
felt that an echo of pain was still reverberating as confusion in my mind, I
might have brought my attention to the people all around me and felt supported
by their company. I might have appreciated the lights in the trees on Broadway
and admired the skill of the people who had strung them all through the
Here is the short
formula for recovering from confusing distress. This is the time when the GPS
for the mind is the most useful, since it is when we are in most danger of
taking an unwholesome path.
Acknowledge the distress. “I’m in pain” always works for me, regardless of the
particular flavor of challenge.
2) Do something to
regain your balance. Deep breaths usually work well for me.
3) Notice how your
mind, awakened, sees possibilities clearly.
4) Choose the road
that leads to happiness. Pay attention to the present moment, without opinions.
5) Enjoy the relief
of a mind restored to ease. This builds confidence and makes it a habit.
Such moments of
restoring the mind to comfort happen to me all day long. Things happen. It’s
incredibly easy to become annoyed. Or dispirited. Or bewildered by lust,
restlessness, or doubt. The Buddha named these energies of confusion the five
“hindrances to clear seeing,” because they arise in the mind in response to
challenge and subvert clear decision-making.
Probably most of us
can recall an instance of finding ourselves eating a slice of pizza or a
Dunkin’ Donut and thinking, “How did this happen? I was walking along the
street on my way home and suddenly the smell of pizza (or doughnuts) wafted by
my nose. Apparently I veered into the store, and here I am eating.”
Although eating a
slice of pizza or a doughnut is usually a benign action, sometimes—for people
with certain allergies or illnesses—it isn’t. Other impulses, those motivated
by clearly unwholesome impulses such as greed, anger, or revenge, are never
mind GPS remembers that between every impulse and resulting action is the
possibility of careful reflection. It signals, “Slow down. Think. Where do you
want to go? Recalculate!” The experience that triggers the mind GPS into action
is always a moment of realizing something does not feel right.
“Where do I want to
go?” is the reference point for my practice. If I say, “I think my practice is
working,” I don’t mean that I never fall into dismay or never act
thoughtlessly. I do. It means I become aware, sooner than I used to, that I’ve
taken a wrong turn and am heading into confusion and distress. That moment of
clarity dispels confusion and I recognize, from the sense of peace and ease I
feel in it, that I’m back on the right track.
is the central teaching in the Buddha’s Discourse to His Son Rahula. He
advises Rahula to think before, during, and after every action about
motivation. “Is what I am about to do (am doing, or just did) for my benefit as
well as for the benefit of all beings?” And, of course, the Buddha goes on to
say that if the answer is no, then the action should not happen or should stop.
Amends should be made for any negative impact that has already happened.
I think it would be
easy to misunderstand this instruction as mandating moving very, very slowly
all the time and hesitating before any move. That would make ordinary,
relational, everyday life awkward. I think it’s actually much easier than that.
I think that the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula (and to us) can be understood
as, “Cultivate wholesomeness—generosity, patience, candor, kindness—and enjoy
the pleasure of their ongoing presence in your mind. Notice any arising of
unwholesome states in your mind and discourage them. Steady your attention.
(Concentrate!) Recognize these unwholesome states as painful, temporal, and
insubstantial and be attentive to their disappearance. (Be Mindful!) Choose to
maintain a clear and untroubled mind. (Make Wise Effort!)”
I think as human
beings we are born with prototype mind GPSs preset to aim generally in the
direction of feeling safe and happy. We do the best we can to make our way
through the inevitable challenges of our lives. My practice goal is refining my
attention and intention so I am more able to hear my GPS signaling me to notice
either “You’re in pain, Sylvia. Recalculate!” or “You are holding steady in a
good direction, Sylvia. Continue!”
Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a cofounding teacher of
Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of many best-selling books on
Buddhism and mindfulness, including
Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.