Thought of the week

Guarding the gates of the senses

You should gather in body, mouth and mind, and guard the sense gates” Buddha

“What you dwell on, you become”

Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind.” The Dhammapada

The quotes above encourage us to be careful of what we pay attention to. The mind we have tomorrow is conditioned by the mind we have today. In the first part of the quote from the Dhammapada, we are told that experience is preceded by mind, a clear indication that your current mind-state will significantly affect your experience of the world.

What conditions are you establishing for your mind?

Before looking at how this thinking has affected my behaviour it is worth looking at what the sense gates are. We normally consider that we have 5 senses; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing. In Buddhism we also consider the mind a sense gate. The thing these all have in common is that they are the route through which we experience the world. It is through the input from these senses that our view of the world around us is built. This view can have little to do with reality but does form the basis of how we relate to experiences, how we process and react to them. Our state of mind literally changes our relationship with reality.

When looking at my own life, I realise that developing greater awareness of my mental states has created better conditions. Some of these changes appear to have flowed quite naturally, whereas others have required conscious effort on my part. A couple of examples illustrate this.

Before I became a Buddhist my favourite genre of films had always been Sci-Fi horror (Alien, Predator etc.) and reckless action films (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon etc.). The one thing connecting these types of “entertainment” was a high body count and significant collateral damage. No one told me to stop watching this type of film but as time passed I just became less interested in them, less able to see the body count as just expressions of the “action”, less willing to suspend disbelief and accept that the countless deaths portrayed didn’t matter or have any effect on me. I must admit my taste in film and TV series has changed dramatically in the last few years, I am much more likely to be found on Disney+ than on Netflix. (if you haven’t seen Encanto yet, I urge you to do so, it’s brilliant).

The second example took a little more work. I had a long-standing habit of getting up in the morning, grabbing a coffee, turning on my computer and reading the news on the BBC and Guardian websites. It felt important and valuable to keep informed of what is going on in the world. It took me a long time to realise that news has a flavour or leaning towards the negative, dramatic or often outrageous. This input, often leading to righteous anger or ill-will towards individuals or groups, was how I was setting my mind up for the day. It was how I was conditioning my mind every morning. No wonder my metta practice seemed difficult, that my mind felt distracted and I often felt restless when trying to meditate.

So, I decided to make some changes. I don’t read the news before meditation anymore, I only visit these sites once a day and keep an eye on my reactions when I do read difficult news. It is no cure-all for my distracted mind but I can already see the fruits of this decision in my meditation practice. Remember restlessness is one of the five hindrances to meditation so anything we can do off the cushion to reduce its occurrence on the cushion is going to help with our practice. It has with mine.

The Second Arrow

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

As long as we are alive, we can expect painful experiences- the first arrow. To condemn, judge, criticize, hate, or deny the first arrow is like being struck by a second arrow. Many times the first arrow is out of our control, but the arrow of reactivity is not.

Before becoming a Buddhist whenever something went wrong, I got injured or hurt there were always two questions that arose in my mind; “why me” and “who’s fault was it”. These questions are both matters of the second arrow, they are nothing to do with the experience of pain or suffering I am going through but lead to long, unhelpful trains of thought.

A simple example of this “optional” suffering is; I was walking down the street and saw a good friend approaching, I said “hi” as she came past me but she didn’t respond. The first arrow here is an immediate emotional response, my feelings are hurt, this only lasts moments in direct experience. What happens after, possibly for days, is that I wonder what I have done to offend my friend, why is she angry with me, maybe I develop some ill will towards her for making me feel bad, I get anxious about seeing her again, scared to find out what has gone so wrong between us.

I see her again a few days later and nervously mention that chance encounter, she tells me she had earbuds in listening to music, was miles away and didn’t see me.

All that extra suffering for nothing.

For more teachings on the second arrow…

The two arrows - from dukkha to insight

In these challenging times, how do we respond to difficulty and suffering without piling on extra levels of distress and reaction? A central question in all our lives, it’s also a central concern of the Buddha’s teachings. These are recordings from Adhisthana in 2020.

In July 2019 Satyalila gave a series of three talks in Bristol - ‘Responding to the Burning World’. Each talk takes a classic Buddhist parable or sutta as its starting point - the Burning House, the Raincloud and the Two Arrows and explores how these Dharma teachings can help us to develop the resilience to respond creatively to the world as we find it today.