To live a life of inner progress to enlightenment, the mind needs to be pacified, purified and transcended. What begins with pacifying the mind—producing calm on its surface—develops into a deeper process called purification. Normal mental activity keeps our mind occupied with finite affairs, sometimes trivial, sometimes significant. But those who have rendered the inner life tranquil and harmonious tell of an enhancement of experience which has its source in the deepest level of our being. This enhancement is characterised by peace, joy and a sense of knowing, independent of external factors.
Can such a mental condition really be brought about? Surely the mind is active by nature, and needs to be so in order to survive in the world of nature. Thus our mind is destined to remain as active as it is right now.
But this is not completely the case. Even through such simple exercises as deep breathing, the mental activity can be calmed down, and there are ways of holding ourselves back from the flow of thoughts, so that thoughts do not ramify due to our interest.
We may suggest that two kinds of thought visit our mind. There are those thoughts that are relatively superficial, and will pass on quickly if we allow them to. For instance, we hear the horn of a car; but we have no reason to go on thinking about it, unless it has a special meaning for us. Or we may be within earshot of a conversation, but unless its content bears on our own interests, we would probably give it no further thought. Much of our mental traffic is of this kind.
We may fancifully call this kind of ephemeral mental activity ‘parakeet thoughts’. Small green parakeets have proliferated in some urban areas in recent years, and flocks may be viewed flying from one treetop to another. These fast-moving creatures appear suddenly, perch for a second or two, and then are gone from sight. Thus like parakeets, the thoughts dart into our mind, squawk briefly, so to say, and then they are gone before you have a chance to give them attention. Similarly, when we meditate, we can learn not to follow the ephemeral pictures and suggestions. How? By negating them consciously, with such formulas as: ‘Not wanted. Pass on. You are passing illusions.’ Thus we hold back from engaging with these passing images, and they go their way.
Then there are more troublesome thoughts. These include thoughts to do with our desires, fears, hopes, worries. They are often related to our self-image—our private self-assessment. Such thoughts cling to us if they are allowed to. They don’t want to be told: ‘Keep moving!’ We can call these ‘pigeon thoughts’. This is because pigeon thoughts love to stay around, especially if we give them the food of our attention. These old emotionally-linked preoccupations are rooted in our memories and seem to have a life of their own, capable of increase, as more and more past associations revive in our mind. It is like those pigeons. Put down food for one or two of them, and within seconds there will be a small colony.
This kind of self-absorption may at times be necessary, but it has no relevance to our meditative quest and much of its content is best forgotten. How can we liberate our meditation practice from this kind of distraction—from these pigeon thoughts? This is part of the process we have referred to as the purification of the mind. As a short-term tactic we can also confront such thoughts with the powerful negation of ‘not wanted, not wanted’. This is to treat the pigeons as if they were parakeets—to meet them with indifference.
But the real strategy is based on what we do with our mind outside the special time of meditation. Will power and technique are not enough. What will neutralise these deeper disturbing factors is the power of attraction—the higher attraction—for the teachings on Self-knowledge, with their promise of bliss, liberation, peace and perfection. And if this becomes our main interest in life, the old grievances and unfulfilled desires will lose their radiance, like a small torch compared with the daylight sun.
So our strategy is to allow our attention to be captured by interests of the highest quality, that are in harmony with our ultimate quest. Then our mind will naturally develop the refinement, discrimination and will power it needs, to keep its focus on the highest value.