Grab the Reigns! Training the Mind to Find Happiness
–by Joanna Holsten, Original Story
But I felt a bit stuck in life. While I had many happy parts of my life, I didn’t feel a baseline of contentment. External things would unglue me more easily than I would like, and negative thoughts and emotions would too often creep into my mind. I had no idea how to feel more consistently content, but I thought there must be a way. I tried many things to find a more peaceful state – including sheer willpower, increasing positive experiences or things around me, and other self-help strategies. Some of these things provided small gains, but the results were fleeting.
After moving to California, I started to meet people who practiced meditation. Something was different about their disposition. They seemed calm at their core, and imbued with a kind of grounded optimism. Sensing that this might be what I was missing, I asked about their experiences with meditation. They described their discovery of meditation as a pivotal experience in their life. “Maybe this is not such a waste of time after all,” I thought. I find that when people describe experiences as life-altering, even if I don’t understand why, I must learn more. Similar curiosities led me to study aboard in college and volunteer in Africa. People said these experiences would change me. Maybe they even described how, but I didn’t fully understand until I went myself.
Still unsure about exactly what meditation was, I dove in. I registered for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. While this was still months away, I realized that I should start learning about what I signed myself up for. What is meditation? I asked the friend that recommended the retreat and about how to prepare. She suggested a book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham (2003). I didn’t get too far into the book before realizing that it was a very concrete and practical explanation of meditation. It explained that the mind was like a wild horse and you were on its back. Without awareness of this arrangement, let alone training, the wild horse/the mind would go wherever it wanted to go, and you had no choice but to come along for the ride. My mind would lead me through negative thought patterns and harmful emotions in response to relatively minor stimuli, and I was just an oblivious passenger trying to hold on.
As the book explained it, the promise of meditation was that with consistent practice you could learn to lead the wild steed. You could form a mutual relationship with the horse, but you have to patiently come to know it, and work with it to overcome engrained patterns. Like a wild horse, my mind was responding to circumstances and experiencing thoughts and emotions based on patterns I was often unaware of. Sometimes I grasped these patterns on an intellectual level, but the understanding didn’t necessarily provide me with practical tools to recondition my responses. For example, when someone would express anger toward me, I felt scared, internalized the situation to develop negative self-concepts, or struck back defensively. But this pattern, could be just that, a pattern. I didn’t have to respond that way. I could lead my mind to different reactions. I didn’t have to just remain powerless on top of the wild horse.
Every other day I would add another 5 minutes to my total time. To build these skills and develop strength in leading the horse, I would have to practice regularly. Weight lifting was used as another helpful metaphor in the book; you can’t expect to walk into a gym, be able to lift the largest weight, and walk out all finished with your training. In the same way you can’t expect to meditate for a week and be able to handle your strongest emotions with peace.
Joanna Holsten blogs at “Let’s Live Nice,”which documents her journey towards a more critically compassionate life, exploring ideas and actions for a world with less suffering and more happiness.