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.
Cruising With the Mind GPS
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 mind.
Seemingly 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 branches.
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.
1) Stop! 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.
Recalculating to Balance
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 benign.
A well-functioning 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.
Deliberate choosing 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!”
Copyright © March 2014 by Shambhala Sun magazine. Reprinted with permission.