A key part of my daily spiritual practice is watching video talks of my favorite teachers. Most days that means Mickey Singer, Eckhart Tolle or Ram Dass.
I highly recommend this to any of you traveling the path. It’s so easy. Just go to YouTube, search up your favorite teachers and watch. And listen. It’ll help ground you in your day.
Lately I’ve been watching Ram Dass talks from the 1980s. This is the period after his hippy-dippy, long beard in long white robe phase of the 1970s and before his stroke in the mid 1990s. These talks are deep, eloquent and achingly honest.
In last week’s talk, Ram Dass expounded on the particulars of the mind. Here’s what he said:
“The thinking mind is a beautiful servant, but a lousy master.”
A common question I’m asked
When I was teaching online meditation classes, I would talk about how thinking unwanted thoughts was at the root of much of our suffering. And that many spiritual traditions, Buddhism and Hinduism chief among them, directed the lion’s share of their teachings toward reducing and slowing down our thought factory minds.
This inevitably elicited the question: “But wait. Are you saying that thinking is bad for us? That’s crazy.”
The brilliant thinker, Dr. Dan Fisher
Who asked this question among my students? People like my roommate and best friend at Princeton, Dr. Danny Fisher, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a 3.9 GPA. In other words, a guy with a high-performing noggin who did a shit ton of thinking. Bottom line, when you tell a guy who has a Ferrari that he shouldn’t drive much, you’re going to get push back.
But that’s not what Ram Dass is saying, nor am I. Because thinking can be our servant. Our friend.
But here’s the key word: Intentional. When Danny was studying for final exams in medical school (by the way, he got into Harvard Medical School but chose the University of Michigan because he got a full scholarship — sorry, I like to brag about my friends), he directed his thinking to learning the material at hand. No daydreaming. No perseverating. Just focused, intentional thinking.
Likewise, when we sit down to write a memo at work or stroll down the aisles at the grocery store straining to remember what we need, that is intentional thinking.
That is when the thinking mind is a beautiful servant. When we, our conscious selves, are sitting in the proverbial director’s chair, asking our thinking minds to serve our interests.
Our minds are lousy masters
Now for the second clause of the sentence: “…but a lousy master.” In other words, when our minds occupy the director’s chair, all hell breaks loose and we suffer.
Brooding about the snide, passive-aggressive comment that snotty mom lobbed your way at school drop-off this morning. Worry-thinking so much about your finances on the drive home from work that you can’t even remember the drive. Waking up in the middle of the night and just thinking…about everything under the sun, your thoughts completely out of control.
That, my friends, is the mind acting as a lousy master.
The key to spiritual growth and awakening is doing the work necessary to keep our conscious self in the driver’s seat of our life. Our thinking minds are going to kick us out of that seat and become the master of the car. A lot.
But we just keep working on noticing when that happens. And we gently tap that egoic thinking machine on the shoulder and say, “Sorry, pal. Get in the backseat.” Over and over and over.
Gradually, over time, our minds shift from master to servant. That’s the path…
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