“We are what we think, having become what we thought,” begins the collection of verse entitled the Dhammapada, the most accessible of ancient Buddhist texts. This emphasis on the state of our minds is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Buddhist approach. Mind is both the problem and the solution. It is not fixed but flexible. It can be changed. But much of the time we are not even aware of what we are thinking and we are certainly not in control of it. The everyday mind runs on by itself and more often than not we are at the mercy of our immediate reactions. If someone cuts us off in traffic or looks at us in a nasty way, we get angry. If we have a drink, we want another one. If we taste something sweet, we want more even if we are full. If someone offends us, we repeat it over and over to ourselves, rubbing in the hurt. The Dhammapada delights in describing how out of control our minds can be and how much better it feels to do something about it. “Like an archer and arrow, the wise man steadies his trembling mind, a fickle and restless weapon. Flapping like a fish thrown on dry ground, it trembles all day,” it comments. The Buddha was more like a therapist than the founder of a religion. He saw, from his own experience, that self-awareness makes self-control possible. If we want to change what we become, the Buddha taught, we have to change the way we think. “A disciplined mind is the road to Nirvana,” is the Dhammapada’s insistent refrain.

Mark Epstein

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