“What a person considers and reflects upon for a long time, to that his mind will bend and incline. This is why we practice.”
This is one of my favorite statements from the Buddha. It’s a powerful reminder that no matter what is going on in our external environment, we do still have agency in our lives, in a very straightforward and meaningful way — we can train our minds to default to the path of love.
So often, we dwell on the negative, or practice judgement, or worry obsessively about the future or the past, or harbor anger and hatred or even simple irritation toward another. When we inhabit these mental spaces, we are carving deeper and deeper the pathways in our brain for this type of thinking, making it more likely that we will continue to think this way automatically in the future.
That’s why it’s called a “rut” — we are literally priming the neural pathways in the brain to have a particular type of response to the world, following the well-worn footsteps we’ve often unknowingly left in the sand of the mind.
So if we instead put some effort into cultivating forgiveness, lovingkindness, patience, non-judgement, understanding and love, we are strengthening THOSE pathways in the mind, and our thoughts are more likely to fall into THOSE ruts, trace those outlines, follow those stream beds. If we’re going to create ruts anyway — if that is what the brain does — we might as well carve them out of love!
Certainly, then, we would like to transition our thinking from defaulting more frequently to the negative side of things to defaulting more frequently to the positive. But we will never be successful at this unless we understand our thinking in the first place, and observe firsthand the suffering and patterning and habits we are causing and creating ourselves. This is one of the main reasons to practice meditation — to begin to know the mind, to befriend the mind, to start having enough space around our thinking that we can (at least sometimes) NOTICE we are going down an old harmful road, and, in that moment, choose a more healthy path.
This is NOT, by the way, a prescription for ignoring or avoiding our emotions or pain or feelings or reality. It’s also not the same as the law of attraction where one tries to magnetize certain experiences or things into one’s life using positive thinking. Quite the opposite, this is about looking squarely in the face of what’s actually happening, noticing what kind of thinking we are creating about it, and seeing if that type of thinking is something we really want to be “doing” to ourselves. This is like considering whether to choose a bowl of steamed kale or a can of Coke once we truly understand the health benefits/hazards of both (sorry if you love Coke!)
The questions are: What kind of life do we want to live in this moment, how do we want to feel about our choices in the next moment after they’ve been made, and how do we want our choices in this lifetime to affect others? So often, making healthy, helpful (to self and other) choices starts with awareness. When we are aware of our motivations and the workings of the mind, we simply have the tools and capacity to love better.
Perhaps something here resonates with you, speaks to you, calls to you. If so, consider setting an intention for the New Year around your meditation practice, or around some beautiful and healing quality of heart or mind you would like to cultivate this year, or around some harmful “thought rut” you would like to understand better and perhaps let go of or at least allow to have less of a stranglehold on you going forward.
Let us “bend and incline” our hearts and mind toward love, peace and freedom from suffering for all beings, this year and always.
May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace!