Dharma Points: Peaceful, Spacious Mind

By Nelle Oosterom

Look at your hands. What do you see?

Most of us will say that we see fingers, nails, skin, perhaps rings on our fingers. The content of our hands.

But now look again. Do you notice that there is something else present besides fingers, nails, skin? There is something between the fingers. Space.

In a similar manner, when we look at the mind, most of us look at the mind’s contents — the running thoughts, the stories, and the feelings associated with them. But what we tend to overlook are the intervals of space between the thoughts. Sometimes it can even feel like there is no space between thoughts. But if we pay careful attention, we will notice that sometimes the running commentary of the mind pauses, as if to take a breath. There may even be times, such as early in the morning upon first waking up, when the mind can seem rather quiet. The plans, the worries, the memories, haven’t had a chance to rise up yet. There is relative peace, if only for a moment.

This relative peace, this silent mind, is something that each of us can take note of in our daily lives — just like we can train ourselves to notice the space between objects. Have you noticed that the space around an object is what makes the object stand out? Do you notice the individual trees in a forest? Not so much. Do you notice a tree when it is standing alone in a field? Do you notice how clearly you can see its branches, its leaves? There is clarity. The difference is in the space around the object.

Similarly, our minds can be dense with self-referential thoughts and feelings, such as: What do people think of me? How can I get people to notice me? How can I get what I want? How can I avoid what I don’t want? This is good for me, this is bad for me, this is boring to me, and so on. All these unnoticed thoughts, judgments, anxieties, desires, aversions, and so on fill the mind to such an extent that we have little sense of being present to what is happening in the now. We are dense.

In our density we are not aware of our present moment experience of taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing, and we are not seeing our thoughts. We are attached to the content of our self-referential thoughts. In fact, we believe our thoughts about self are actually self. We think the voice inside our heads that tells us who we are, what to do, what not to do, what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s going on, what’s past, what’s future — we think that voice inside our head is who we are.

But what happens when that inner voice stops talking? What happens when the mind is silent? Who are we then? This is something to investigate.

Dr. Thynn Thynn is a retired medical doctor, artist, and dharma teacher from Burma who now lives in the United States. In her book, called Living Meditation Living Insight: The Path of Mindfulness in Daily Life there is a chapter called Peace-Mind.

Here is what Thynn Thynn says about peace mind. “If you just stopped thinking for a while and sat back to reflect on your own mind, you would be surprised to realize that you are at peace. Even if you agree with me, you might argue that this peace is only temporary. So be it. But let us look into this peaceful, tranquil state, temporary or otherwise, since it is already with us — without our having to make any effort at all at being peaceful.

“You were born with this peace-nature of the mind; otherwise you would not be what you are, would you? You did not run around meditating to bring about this peace to yourself; you did not learn from someone or some book to make possible this peaceful state in yourself. In other words, ‘you’ had nothing to do with it. Peace is a natural mind state, in every one of us. Peace has been there since the day we were born and it is going to be there until the day we die. It is our greatest gift; so why do we think we have no peace of mind?

“Then why is it that we supposedly never are at peace? It is simply because we never allow ourselves to be so. We enjoy battling with ourselves and our emotions so much that the battle becomes second nature to us. And we complain that we have no peace of mind.

“Why don’t we leave aside all these complicated ideas for a while and simply contemplate this peaceful nature of ours — since we are fortunate enough to have it — instead of frantically trying to find peace of mind someplace else? How can we find something elsewhere, when it is already in ourselves? Probably that is the reason why we often do not find it. We do not have to do anything to have this peace, do we? Mind is by itself peaceful.”

What strikes me as I contemplate this view of peace of mind is that it is so different from what we normally think it is — or at least what I was conditioned to think of as peace of mind.

Like many people, I suppose, when I first started following the path of mindfulness and vipassana, and for many years thereafter, I thought peace of mind was something you had to attain, that it was something to strive for, something that existed outside of myself that I had to somehow find and bring into myself. I found it  almost impossible to imagine that it could be something I already possessed.

Looking back, I realize that a lot of the mysterious-sounding terms used in Buddhist and other eastern teachings — such as Buddha nature, the deathless, the unconditioned, nibbana, nirvana — are pointing to something similar — if not the same — as this inherent peace of mind. 

The term “birthright” is sometimes used to describe this beautiful natural peace within us. We didn’t do anything to make it happen. We can hide it from our perception but we can’t do anything to make it go away. It is not born and it does not die. It is our true nature.

In the Buddha’s discourses, there is a passage that also seems to point to our inherently peaceful nature. It’s called “The Island”

“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvellous, Nibanna, Purity, Freedom, The Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.”

Now, we may think to ourselves that all this talk of Nibanna and inner peace is very fine and well but we have real lives to live in real bodies, real problems to solve, and that requires some thinking, doesn’t it? Our minds can’t be still and quiet all the time. Or can they?

Again, it is important to make a distinction between the nature of mind and contents of mind. The contents are always changing, moving, coming, and going. The nature of mind is changeless, unmoving, unconditioned by anything that moves through the mind.

This nature of mind is sometimes compared to a movie screen. The movie plays on the screen, the actors play their parts, the movie ends. But the screen does not end. It remains — open and spacious — just the way it was before the movie started. It remained just what it was even as the movie was playing on its surface. What was playing on its surface was a passing show.

We can also imagine our thoughts and emotions as being like waves on the surface of the ocean. The waves arise and pass away, but they do not change the nature of the ocean.

What plays on the surface of our pure and peaceful mind is the same. It comes and goes without changing the nature of mind, which is peace, silence. The essential mind has no narrator calling the shots, running the show. It is essentially quiet. It is essentially a refuge.

When we understand this, realize this, really know this as true, the content, the movement of the ordinary conditioned mind becomes less important to us. Yes, we still solve problems, we still communicate with people around us, we still take care of ourselves and others and our world — but these movements of mind now take place within pure awareness, within the context of inner peace. And that means we are less inclined to follow our thoughts the way a donkey follows a carrot on a stick. Instead we watch our thoughts like a guardian in a watch tower. The guardian discriminates between useful thoughts and useless or even harmful thoughts. The harmful thoughts may not go away immediately upon being noticed, but they will lose their power. And this allows us to live more within the nature of our peaceful mind. We’ll notice more the space between the thoughts and their associated feelings. We’ll live more fully within this space.

In meditation, in our quiet moments, we have an opportunity to see that there are spaces in between our thoughts, spaces in between the moments when we are lost in clinging. We see that even in the midst of our deepest sorrow, there are moments, when sorrow is not present. That is a moment of peace. Peace is our inherent nature. Our true refuge is found within ourselves. Not within our changeable egoic selves. But within the silence of our spacious, peaceful, sky-like self.

Remember the Buddha’s words: “Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

Nelle Oosterom is the Chair of Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group. She was introduced to vipassana in 1995 and is currently enrolled in the Community Dharma Leader program at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California.