Taming the Wild Horse of the Mind

In Buddhism, the mind is often compared to a wild horse never touched by anyone. It runs freely, chasing one thought after another, one sensation after the next. With great effort we might catch it for a minute before it runs away again. But the good news is that with enough patience, commitment, and knowledge, a wild horse (and a mind) can eventually be tamed and trained.

As human beings, we share certain qualities with every other person on earth—for example, we breathe, eat, and drink. And we think. We think a lot. In fact, we think all the time. It’s been said that more than 20,000 thoughts run through an ordinary person’s mind in the course of a single day—one thought right after another, like waves pounding on the surface of the ocean. Sound exhausting? It should. But the deeper problem is that these thoughts racing through our minds lead to negative feelings, which cause the majority of our anxiety, frustration, weariness, anger, fear, and general emotional turmoil. We’re completely controlled by our thoughts and ensuing emotions.

Meanwhile, we all share another quality just as basic but largely overlooked, which is a deep desire for peace and happiness. The fact is everyone on earth wants to be happy. Even people who on the surface seem unlikely candidates for this trait nevertheless possess it. Without any knowledge of how to train our “wild horse” mind, however, we can never achieve a true state of peace and happiness. To our defense, we don’t fail for lack of trying; the typical human tendency is to tirelessly pursue happiness. Unfortunately, this only causes greater suffering because instead of seeking happiness from within, we rely on the outer world to satisfy our cravings and soothe our ills. We shop, dine, socialize, watch television, surf the net, work to make more money, shop some more. We indulge in the myriad ways available to keep ourselves satisfied, entertained, and distracted. But even if we become wildly successful and reach the point of possessing all we ever wanted, we still feel troubled and dissatisfied—because we want even more. Acquiring the objects of our desire is said to be similar to drinking salty water—the more we partake, the more we crave. In short, despite our dependence on the material world to fulfill our needs, it inevitably disappoints. To coin a wise old country song, we’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

Meditation improves the immune system. It reduces stress and anxiety, as well as the risk of heart disease and cancer. It may stave off the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

When we finally recognize that true happiness doesn’t exist outside of ourselves and that it’s a state of mind accomplished only by working from within, we become curious about the methods through which lasting peace and happiness can be achieved. And this is where meditation comes in.

Most people believe that meditation consists of just sitting still and forcing our thoughts to stop—emptying our minds like draining a sink—when in truth it’s quite different. Though there exist infinite ways to meditate, every truly authentic method is a process of training the mind to refine away negativity (such as anger and jealousy) while cultivating positive qualities (such as love and compassion). When this process takes place, we experience greater peace, happiness, and wellbeing. A common misconception is that this sense of wellbeing is the actual purpose of meditation, when it’s actually a byproduct of the qualities perfected through practice. “Meditation uncovers the innate positive qualities of our mind,” says Khentrul Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan meditation instructor who teaches throughout the United States, “It’s a process of blending the mind with any skillful method that changes it in a positive way. Whatever our practice, this is what’s taking place. The sole purpose is not to quiet the mind. But by pacifying the thoughts and emotions that busy the mind, the mind becomes utterly pliable.”

Meditation is most commonly known for the formal training in which we sit in specific postures and focus on one subject; however, all authentic styles of meditation combine formal sitting with instructions on incorporating the practice into every moment. In fact, the most profound effects are achieved not on the meditation pillow itself, but when we learn to practice informally throughout the day. Sometimes called mindfulness meditation or post-meditation practice, this includes the process of transforming adversity and carrying it onto the path—turning perceived problems into opportunities to train the mind. Again, this is commonly misapprehended as a blank state of mind, as if by meditating during the day we’d all be walking around like zombies. People frequently say, "If I'm driving my car or working and trying to meditate, I can't do them together." In this case, the best answer is that more instruction from a qualified teacher is required.

These days, just about anyone can call him or herself a meditation instructor. This is fine if all we’re interested in is the basic technique of observing our breath so our thoughts settle and we’re able to manage our immediate concerns and find peace in the midst of chaos. For some people, however, meditation is one element of a much larger spiritual path in which the goal is to attain not just temporary happiness and peace, but ultimate happiness and peace. This path has different names (nirvana, liberation, heaven, enlightenment), yet regardless of what it’s called, it’s the pursuit of freedom from ordinary, worldly experience. If this is what we’re after—something more profoundly life changing—then we need a qualified teacher, one who has a kind heart (a quality often regarded as the most important factor) and who has received the lineage of teachings from an authentic teacher and actually realized and integrated these teachings so it isn’t merely rote knowledge. Once we’ve found such a teacher, we can then research the wide-ranging, different styles of meditation and, depending on our purpose or goals, select what to study and practice.

The most common meditation practice—and the one many people believe to be the entirety of meditation—is known as shamatha, or “calm abiding.” This practice entails holding the mind singularly focused on one object, such as the breath. Thoughts begin to subside and as a result, peace is experienced. Though an authentic meditation common to many traditions, it’s not one that leads to the goal of ultimate liberation. But even for practitioners on a greater path, shamatha is the fundamental basis for all forms of meditation. With this as our basis, we can then explore other kinds of practice—for example, meditations on loving kindness, the equality of all beings, compassion, contemplation, mindfulness, emptiness, and patient forbearance.

When practiced correctly, meditation, no matter what kind, brings about both immediate and long-term benefits. Countless studies conducted on the neural and physical effects of various meditative practices have shown profound results. Meditation improves the immune system. It reduces stress and anxiety, as well as the risk of heart disease and cancer. It may stave off the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It increases attention span, memory, and creativity. Meditators sleep better and function better on less sleep than non-meditators. Recently, at the suggestion of the Dalai Lama, neuroscientists have also taken great interest in studying monks who are longtime meditators—wiring them with brain-scanning equipment and requesting they meditate on different subjects, such as “loving kindness.” The studies have indicated that when meditating in this way, the area of love in the brain shows enormous activity.

“Through loving kindness and compassion,” says Khentrul Rinpoche, “we can overcome many obstacles, such as sickness. It is the unsurpassed protection. But to just agree with this isn’t enough—you must change your mind.”

It’s true that our mind is a lot like a wild horse—untamed, but within our control. It’s a choice: we can let it run away with us or train it and ride it to freedom.

While no replacement for instructions from a teacher, here are some basic suggestions on how to begin establishing a daily practice.

First select a suitable time to sit. Though morning is often considered the best time for meditation, you should choose the time best for you. Next find a quiet space where you’re unlikely to be disturbed, and begin by sitting with your back straight in a comfortable and relaxed position on a chair or cross-legged, on a pillow. (Later, once you’ve gained stability of meditative mind, you’ll no longer be affected by external circumstances and your environment won’t matter. At first, however, it matters.)

Once you’re sitting, begin by generating a positive intention. This is by far the most important factor of meditation, because no matter how much effort you put into practice, you’ll only succeed in calming your mind and cultivating positive qualities through meditation if you free yourself, as much as possible, from your negative emotions. So sit for a moment and in whatever way you can, cultivate love and compassion—indeed, make this the reason for meditating. Ideally you will wish to benefit others through the work you’re doing on yourself and cultivate a true desire for all other beings to find happiness and freedom from suffering. Developing a kindhearted intention will set the space for the meditation and help your mind settle.

Keep your eyes open, not sharply focused but simply resting on the space in front of you. Now, slowly, without any hurry, begin to notice your breath. Take your time. If you simply sit down and forcefully grab your mind as if to say, "Meditate on this!" you’ll only succeed in making yourself miserable. As your mind settles, begin to pay more attention to your breathing. Focus the mind one-pointedly on your breath, and notice the sensation of breathing in and breathing out. Feel your mind slowly settle. Be patient and take it easy—this is an opportunity to let go, relax, and attend to the present moment. Don’t push too hard, but at the same time, don’t become too relaxed (or you might get distracted or drowsy).

At first, it can help to count your breaths, each full inhalation and exhalation equaling one count. Count to ten, breathing naturally. After a few breaths, your mind will probably wander. When it does, gently bring it back. After counting to ten, let your mind rest for a moment, then begin again.

Do this in short, five to fifteen minute sessions, with a short break. For example, if you meditate for fifteen minutes, take a break from the focus every five minutes (without allowing your thoughts to spin off and get wild), for about a minute. Taking a short break will keep your mind fresh, and it will be less likely to wander off without your noticing. This technique, called "short sessions many times," is likened to a leak in a house—with each small, seemingly insignificant drop, the bucket underneath will eventually fill.

And the time came when the risk it took to remain in a tightly closed bud became infinitely more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” –Anais Nin