I promised in my last posting that I would say something about the mind's default settings, the ones that we get at birth and the very ones that cause us so much grief. What I'm going to do instead is talk about one very old method used by many spiritual practitioners from many traditions that will gradually reset those default settings. Tibetans call it "exchanging self with others," or it's sometimes called "tonglen," or "metta" meditation, and though they're all distinct practices within themselves, they all issue from the same conviction: that the mind can be transformed from its current state of confusion into one of clarity and harmony.
Here's the point: you don't have to keep the mind that you were given, and in fact, you probably shouldn't. You need to tune it up. But it takes a lot of work and sustained effort, which is pretty much what happens whenever you try to uproot old and destructive habits and replace them with new, more life-giving ones.
Like a lot of Tibetan meditations, you're going to have use your imagination, which is the most effective tool we have for causing long-term beneficial changes in the fundamental perceptual apparatus that we carry around with us.
So--imagine yourself at the center of a radar that has 7 concentric circles. If you're at the center, then the next ring is occupied by your parents, whether living or not. In the third ring, place your teacher, and he or she doesn't have to wear red robes or have a shaved head—anyone who's realigned the way you think about things will do. In the fourth ring, find your loved ones, those who are always friendly to you and who return your kindness and love without hesitation. In the fifth ring, place those who aren't so friendly to you, or who will go out of their way to bring you discomfort, or hurt you in some way, or who are jealous of you, or who say distasteful things about you. In the sixth ring, you find all of those folks you don't know, but see every day, walking down the street, driving a car, bagging your groceries, walking by, jogging . . . people you see, but don't know. And finally in the seventh circle, place all living things.
Beginning with the first circle, generate for yourself a series of very clear and strong wishes or prayers and visualize yourself receiving them. Wish that you might find authentic happiness, that you might cultivate the kind of deep satisfaction that allows you to find peace in every moment. Realize that this is one of your deepest needs and desires, and that it is your birthright to wish for happiness, to be happy, and that you do, in fact, wish this for yourself. Release your Western guilt for a moment, as you privilige your own well-being. Let this feeling, this wish, sink in quietly. Realize its power. This shouldn't be hard to do because each of us wants deeply to be happy, though many of us have little idea as to how to attain it.
And then do the same thing, slowly, completely for the six remaining circles of living beings: your parents, your teachers, your loved ones, your adversaries, those who remain strangers to you, and all living things. The point is to visualize these people in their human fullness as you address these wishes to them. And the further point is to export that same strong feeling you have for your own happiness to each of those in each of the circles.
But here's the test—try for one hour, or one half-hour, or 4 hours, or one day, to place all those people you meet in the appropriate place on your radar. If you encounter someone who introduced you to a central idea that has had a continual impact on your life, she occupies, for example, the third circle of teachers. As you greet her, repeat silently to yourself the wish that she find happiness and fulfillment. Or do the same for your best friend in the fourth circle whom you meet for coffee, or for the library employee who just checked out your books and whom you don't really know, and who accordingly belongs in the sixth circle, or this person who doesn't like you and who resides in the fifth circle. Each person that you meet falls into one of these categories (some in more than one), and each is deserving of this kind of loving attention from you. See them, recognize them, and direct these powerful wishes toward them.
Do it. Then watch what changes within you.
By doing this on a regular basis—and it is an ancient practice that has been proven effective for millennia—you gradually change the most fundamental aspects of your sense of self and society. And this is so because we're removing old habits of perception that cause us problems, and we're installing new ones that work better. We're updating our minds.
And what rises from these updates gradually is a lightness, a kind of alleviation of the burden of self. And this in turn lessens our fear, our anxiety, our worry, our guilt. It begins to dissolve our insistence that things be this way or that way.
But remember these are old habits that we're breaking, and if they die at all, they die hard. So we have to practice and practice.
But it's good work if you can get it, right?