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Paying Attention to Our Thoughts

The third part of transformation involves paying attention to our thoughts—how we think and what we think about. When we start paying attention to our thinking, we find that we actually generalize quite a lot. This generalization involves the aspects of exaggeration and underestimation. It is important to note that Buddhism recognizes the opposite of exaggeration, which is very hard to translate, but which is something like “diminution” or “minimization.” We always believe that whatever we think, it corresponds to the truth. For instance, whenever we experience something unpleasant we have to find someone to blame, whether it is ourselves or somebody else. However, sometimes things just happen, and no one is to blame.

We need to pay attention to how we generalize, because we generalize about people in so many different ways. For example, if someone was in a relationship with a person who treated them badly, they tend to generalize and think that everyone they become involved with in the future is going to treat them badly as well. In Buddhism, specificity is very important—we must pay attention to the uniqueness of each circumstance and situation.

It should also be noted that from the Buddhist perspective there is rarely ever such a thing as a pure thought. Not pure in the sense that it is unsullied by defilements and obscurations, but pure in the sense that it is not tainted by some kind of emotional overtone. Thoughts and emotions almost always go together, so that when we are attracted to a certain thing we tend to exaggerate all of its positive qualities and minimize all of its negative ones. This does not mean that thoughts cause emotions or that emotions bring about thoughts; they simply arise together.

In other words, the construction of who we believe we are, what the world is like, how we should behave and how we should interact, is an ongoing exercise that we are undertaking all the time. By paying attention to our thoughts we can learn how we are contributing to the world we live in. Buddhists do not believe that we are spectators who have simply been thrown into a world that is pre-made or pre-given. We are participants in a continuous project of constructing and reconstructing the world in which we live. This is called vikalpa in Sanskrit and namtok in Tibetan. The basic point is that it is never a finished project. Everyone is contributing to the so-called “common world” that we live in. Even the natural world is to a large degree affected by our human mind.

Although we are always in a state of transition, transformation does not mean some kind of dramatic transition from a static state of existence to some other elevated state that is completely divorced from the previous one. Transformation, in the Buddhist context, is connected with taking notice of what is happening. If we do not take any notice of what is happening, we do not grow. However, if we begin to notice everything that is taking place within our minds and bodies and the world around us, we will inevitably grow as individuals. In that way, the spiritual path is not completely divorced from our worldly affairs. In fact, dealing with worldly affairs can be as much a part of the spiritual path as sitting in meditation or doing prayer.

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche is president and director of Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice

Taming the Mind, Transforming Ourselves, Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, September 2002.

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