Read an Excerpt
Training the Mind (from Chapter 3)
Recently my wife and I took some friends to San Francisco. The day was beautiful, bright and sunny without being uncomfortably hot, and the air was so clear that we had a full view of the Berkeley hills across the bay. As we crossed the Golden Gate a light breeze was blowing, making the water dance with sunlight.
We went straight to the Marina for a walk. I like to watch sailboats under full, colorful sail, and I enjoy the birds sea gulls, curlews, and the unabashed pigeons that come and look you straight in the eye as if to say, What have you brought for me to eat?” But what especially fascinated me was a number of people running around the Marina lawns, stopping in turn at certain places to do a specific routine: jumping, bending, twisting, stretching. The city had put up exercise stations, it seems, so that men and women could come there regularly to keep fit. You start at Station 1 and do the recommended exercises; then you jog on to Station 2, and so on around the field.
I watched one man do an exercise over and over flexing and extending first one leg, then the other, again and again and again. I felt sure he had an objective in view; probably he was trying to develop certain muscles for a particular sport.
On the far side of the park, some other fellows were apparently trying to push their car to get it started. They’re just doing their stretches,” my wife explained.
With so many runners in this country today, we are familiar with scenes like this. Everybody knows about warming up and cooling down and all the rest. But what most people do not realize is that the mind needs to be stretched too. The purpose of warm-up exercises is to keep the body supple so that you do not strain a muscle. If you go out to run when your body is stiff, every muscle will complain; the real race will be to see which one quits first. Similarly, if you try to work with difficult people including yourself when your mind is stiff, you are bound to get tense. Your patience may snap; your digestive organs may go on strike. You may have trouble sleeping at night, and if you do succeed in falling asleep you may not want to get up. Meditation is warm-up exercise for the mind, so that you can jog through the rest of the day without getting agitated or spraining your patience.
At each station on the Marina course, I noticed, the signs not only give instructions in an exercise, they also explain its purpose. Do this to strengthen the muscles of the back.” This will help to flatten your stomach.” Just as there are certain exercises for toning a particular set of muscles, there are special exercises for developing a fit personality. Every provocation is an exercise for developing patience; every opportunity to retaliate offers a chance to harness your passions. The question is the same as in a physical fitness program: how much do you want to get in shape?
Every difficulty during the day can be looked on as an exercise station like those on the Marina. Often the breakfast table is Station 1. It has certain mental bars and rings and stands, and just as the athlete I saw was strengthening his leg muscles, you can use life’s inevitable annoyances to strengthen your love, patience, and respect.
Most breakfast trials arise from being rigid about what we like and dislike which, incidentally, is the source of much of the agitation in personal relationships. I don’t like that job, I don’t like her, I don’t like this, I don’t like that.” Listen to people and you can hear this refrain everywhere.
If we live alone, we may not hear these notes of pique as the ego expresses its little preferences. But breakfast with family or friends is a different story. You like your coffee strong; she likes hers light. He wants eggs and you can’t stand them. Isn’t there a king in an English nursery rhyme who turned his kingdom upside down to get breakfast his way? No one, my dear, would call me a fussy man; I simply like a bit of butter for my royal slice of bread.” If the ego could be king, most of us would sound too much like this to be attractive. Artistry in living begins with learning to be flexible for the sake of those around us.
For most people, the place of work is Station 2: office, factory, school, wherever you have to work with other people. There too the story is the same, for you don’t leave your dislikes at home. When you walk in, the receptionist is clipping her fingernails at her desk again, and somebody is sharpening his pencil with an unnerving rhythm. Even tiny things can irritate: Why does he have to sharpen his pencil like that? Why does she have to clip her fingernails now?” I am not exaggerating. When likes and dislikes are allowed free rein, any little thing can be upsetting; clicking nail clippers can sound like castanets. What an exercise for training attention! If you can get your mind off the Spanish dancing and completely onto your work, the distractions will disappear and you will find you have reached a new level of willpower, concentration, and flexibility.
With practice we can learn not to be bothered by life’s petty trials, which leaves us the vitality and resilience we need when the big trials come. We even have staying power left over when we go home. Then we can say, Sure, the office was terrible. That’s just why I want to show you how much I love you.” Anyone who can say that will be cherished everywhere. Nothing can disturb such a person’s love or loyalty.
A friend of mine worked for years as a machinist. Machine-tool technology can bring together very disparate individuals, and Ed found the differences trying. I reminded him, Differences are only natural where people work together. You don’t come from the same place or share the same family background. You had different parents, grew up with different values, faced different challenges. You shouldn’t be surprised to discover you have conflicting ways of doing things.”
I called up what little I knew about machine work. Don’t you have a polisher there?” I asked.
Sure,” said Ed. Several of them.”
When you go off to work tomorrow, don’t say you are going to fabricate flywheels. Say, I’m off to do more polishing.’ That is one function of the workplace that people never think of: it is a place where you can smooth and polish the rough spots of your personality.”
Smooth and polish,” of course, is a nice way of saying there is going to be abrasion. This is not pleasant, I agree. But it can be highly artistic once you get the hang of it. Isn’t lens grinding an accomplished art? A skilled worker can polish a piece of glass into a precise, powerful lens. Similarly, meditation can shape and polish personality into a lens that concentrates and magnifies the greatest of human resources.