Spiritual training can result in almost miraculous effects. People training in all different kinds of traditions have discovered that is possible to utterly transform their experiences; they have been able to rise above pain, find optimism in the midst of calamity, suffer injustice with grace, maintain equanimity while surrounded by chaos, and summon immense energy and strength. They do this primarily by redirecting their minds.
A Christian might be able to find the strength and motivation to bear her pain by thinking of how she shares the experience of great physical suffering with Christ. A Muslim might feel optimism in the midst of great personal difficulties because he knows they are the way Allah is testing his faith. In some religions people find substantial patience when they face injustice by taking real solace in the fact that the perpetrators of the injustice will face punishment after death. A Buddhist might maintain equanimity in the midst of chaos by focussing her mind on the direct experience of her breath, rather than on fears of what is to come or anxiety about a lack of control. Someone training in a martial art (most of which have a strong spiritual aspect) might be able to summon the “strength” to perform incredible physical feats by focussing his mind on a spot in his lower abdomen.
All of these examples reflect an important truth about human experience: the nature of our experiences depends in a large part on how we relate to those experiences in our minds. To put it another way, the state of our mind influences to a great extent whether we experience something as positive, negative or neutral, manageable or overwhelming, meaningful or pointless, connecting or alienating, ennobling or humiliating. Say what you like about spiritual or religious practice, the careful and systematic attempt to change our views and the ways our minds work has a profound effect on our lives – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Science is gradually catching up to religion as it laboriously proves this effect, but those of us who have undertaken a spiritual discipline understand the importance of mind training and don’t need to wait for proof.
The tricky part of this whole scenario is that experiencing the power of redirecting the mind can lead – consciously or unconsciously – to a belief in the fallacy that, “It’s all in the mind.” The spiritual practitioner who believes this is likely to believe that nothing outside of the mind “matters.” For example, one need not work for justice, because if one looks at injustice the right way it is tolerable as being all part of God’s compassionate plan. One need not cultivate harmonious relationships with other people, because there is a technique for dealing internally with the anger from others that means it doesn’t really hurt. One need not be bothered by any amount of pain or physical disability, because one can turn the mind in such a way as to be untroubled by it. This last example has been taken to extremes by people who believe that by using the power of their mind they can literally make physical pain, illness and disability disappear.
Perhaps, once we taste the power of mind training, we become intoxicated with that power – our own power – and then with the delusion that we can rule the world.
This is why most spiritual traditions also strongly emphasize humility and good behavior. No matter how full of grace or how enlightened we are, there are rules to be followed. Do not kill, do not steal, do not be critical of others, do not be greedy, do not be arrogant. These rules tie us to reality, which is infinitely complex and much more subtle than our delusions. In reality, mind training has great power to change the nature of our subjective experience and therefore our choices, but there is much more to the universe than our personal experience of it. Everything around us also influences our mind, and there are physical, biological, chemical, social, cultural and economic causes and conditions (just to name a few) that are not going to be miraculously transformed just because we change how we subjectively relate to them.
In Tibetan Buddhist teachings there is a very clear warning against the fallacy of “It’s all in the mind.” Before launching into a list of prescriptions for behavior like, “Do not speak on the defects of others,” and “Discard all expectations of reward,” Se Chilbu (in A Commentary on the “Seven-Point Mind Training) warns us to:
“…[relinquish] all behaviors that disregard the law of karma [moral cause and effect] and its results. This includes ignoring the minor precepts with the assertion ‘Since I am training the mind, nothing can harm me’ and behaving in ways that contradict general Dharma conduct, saying, ‘If I have this mind training, I don’t need anything else.’”
In Zen we try to ground practitioners in the precepts, the guidelines for moral and ethical behavior, from the beginning. We constantly return to them, and to the need to take care of lives, no matter how much “liberation” we may achieve through our mind training. It is only in the midst of delusion that it appears “nothing matters.” When our practice matures we might acknowledge the immense power of mind training by saying, “Yes, now go have some breakfast.” Life goes on, and if we don’t take care of it, what has been achieved by our spiritual practice except an ability to disassociate from suffering? Enlightened beings know it is possible to transform our experience through mind training, but work for the happiness of all beings without discriminating about what is inside, and what is outside, the mind.