Many years ago when I first moved to India, I went to see a Buddhist teacher to get a personal instruction. We chatted for around thirty minutes, and then he told me at the end of each day to sit quietly and review all my actions, thoughts, feelings and emotions for that day. Think of what was good and what was not good: the things that were less good I should make a conscious effort to avoid doing again, and the good things I should make a conscious effort to continue doing. I wasn’t very impressed at first as I was looking for something a bit more magical, but after carrying out the instructions for a few days, I started to get the point. What he was asking me to do was take responsibility for my actions, and start to understand what is driving me to make those actions. I think it was the one single thing that has helped me the most in my life, and I am forever indebted to this teacher.
Gautama Buddha gave his son, Rahula, similar advice. He asked him what a mirror is for, and his son answered for reflecting. Gautama Buddha then states:
‘In the same way, Rahula, bodily action should be done with reflection and consideration; verbal action should be done with reflection and consideration; mental action should be done with reflection and consideration.
‘Purify bodily action through repeated consideration and review; purify verbal action through repeated consideration and review; purify mental action through repeated consideration and review’.
Gautama Buddha was talking about reviewing our actions of body, speech and mind, and this is what I am also suggesting here. Do daily reviews before you go to bed. Find a quiet place to sit and work through your day. You do not have to be sitting on the floor, but from my experience, I think it is better to be sitting in an upright position, so you do not fall asleep.
So that you are present in the moment, do the three breath-calming techniques. This entails taking three deep breaths. When you breathe in, take a really deep breath that goes right down inside, and when you breathe out, be sure you expel all of the air inside you. If you do this three times you will feel relaxed, focused and present in the moment.
Now start to look at your actions of body, speech and mind from that day. Look at the good and not-so-good situations. Be honest with yourself, or there will be very little benefit. Try and get into a habit of reviewing your thoughts, feelings and emotions on a daily basis.
We go through life at such breakneck speed and never take time to stop and examine our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We just seem to accept them. We say things like, ‘I have always been an angry person’, ‘I’ve been jealous since I was a kid’, or ‘I hate this and love that’ —we never look at why that is or try to change it. This daily review will help you stop and look at what is driving these emotions and feelings. It will help you to respond instead of react to situations.
If we do stop and look, we may be surprised at what is driving us. It could be a throwback from your childhood and, because you are now an adult, it has become an outdated way to be. So use this review session as a mechanism for change, but remember change can only come through understanding. The review session is a way for us to understand our inner workings.
When you look back and find a situation in which you didn’t act in a helpful way, look at what thoughts, feelings and emotions surrounded that act. What drove you to act in such a way? Was it jealousy, pride, fear, anger, pleasure or pain? Once you know the driving force, you can begin to rehearse a better way to act. This will be your antidote should the situation arise again. A word of warning here: be sure you are not replacing one negative way of acting with another. We are not rearranging the furniture here; we are having a clear out, exchanging our old furniture for new.
After some time you will become more skilled at spotting unhelpful thoughts, feelings and emotions as they arise. You will then be able to implement the antidote before you do an unhelpful act. But this takes time, so for now use the daily review to look back over the day and see what worked well and what didn’t. What we are trying to do is embrace the things that worked and leave the things that didn’t work by replacing them with helpful ones.
Another word of warning: do not identify with the negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. Don’t think, ‘I am unhappy’ or ‘I am depressed’. Think along the lines of, ‘There is unhappiness’ or ‘There is depression’. If we personalise what is going on, it will be extremely hard for us to let it be or try another strategy.
So if we want change, we must look at our thoughts and the feelings, emotions and actions that stem from them. Do not underestimate the power of your mind. The mind is extremely good at gathering, storing and analysing information. It then uses this information at a later date. This means the mind is conditioned by the past, and so it will always try to re-create what it knows and is familiar with, even if it is painful. This means we are always operating from outdated concepts and beliefs that make our lives an elaborate illusion.
Because the mind is conditioned, it follows that our thoughts stem from old habits, training and social conditioning. We actually believe we are creating new possibilities, but when we take the time to watch our thoughts, we find we are just recycling old patterns that have been learned from teachers, religions, parents, friends, society and so on. The thought may have passed its sell-by date and is no longer serving us, but if we don’t stop and look, we will not be able to change the harmful ones or reinforce the helpful ones. We will just continue to blindly follow them. This is one reason why people who have an addiction keep repeating their destructive behaviour. Their mind is conditioned and it just re-creates what is familiar and, for them, safe.
It seems we do not give much importance to our thoughts. We tend to attach the most importance to physical actions, less to speech, and least of all to our mental actions. Beating a person seems to us a more serious action than speaking to him insultingly, and both seem more serious than the ill will we have toward that person.
This is the wrong way round. The most important is our thoughts because, as I have stated above, our actions spring from them. It doesn’t matter how many mantras you recite; how many prostrations you do; where you go on a pilgrimage; what so-called higher practice you follow; what language you chant your prayers in; or who your teacher is—if you haven’t become fully aware of your thoughts, these practices are not going to give you the change you desire. That change can come about only when we become aware of what thoughts are arising, and how we deal with these thoughts.
So this is why it is important for us to become aware of our thoughts. In this way we can start to weed out the negative ones and plant positive ones. It isn’t easy because our mind is lazy and will constantly try to return to its default mode, which it feels comfortable with. However, we have to persevere and bring it out of its comfort zone. This can sometimes be painful, but stick with it as it is going to be worth it in the end.
As it can be painful sometimes, you should be gentle with yourself. This daily review is here to help you, so don’t push yourself too hard. Work slowly, as you will not be able to change everything at once. The things that drive us have built up over the years, in fact since the moment we were born, so they are not going to loosen their grip instantly. Look upon yourself as a tree that is deeply rooted in the ground and be patient. Training the mind is similar to potty training a baby. You constantly have to keep showing it a better way to act.