It was on a rhododendron trail in Bhutan in 1986 that I had my first meditative insight. I was practicing walking meditation—not that I knew it! We had been on the trail for about a week, away from all media (except my Walkman, on which I sometimes listened to a song or two at night). We would pass through an occasional village, and rarely saw anyone on the trail. Rain (at the lower elevations) and snow (higher up) meant that the trails could be treacherous, more challenging than usual.
It wasn’t supposed to be raining. The trip had been planned to start at the end of rainy season—but it was raining, and continued to rain and snow for the first 2 weeks of what was supposed to be a 3 week trek. (That’s another story—how it got stretched out to four.) So on we walked, rain, snow, or sun.
For the most part I was very happy. Even though the high peaks surrounding us were mostly obscured by the clouds, the terrain was beautiful, the culture fascinating, and the company warm and friendly. We were being well cared for by our Bhutanese staff, who set up and took down our tents, cooked our meals, boiled water at night for our bottles which we used to warm our feet, and brought us bed tea in the morning to coax us out of our bags.
But you know how the mind works—I wanted some things to be different: if only the rain would stop and I could see the clouds, if only that annoying person would not walk near me, if only I had brought a different pair of gloves—these thoughts were sprinkled in among the ones of gratitude and appreciation. It was in this context that the insight arose.
As I walked down through the puddles and rhododendron roots, I would occasionally trip. Not unexpected, wouldn’t you say? But then I realized that what would come just before I tripped was one of those aversive, negative thoughts. “I wish it would stop raining.” TRIP! “The porridge was too thin this morning.” TRIP!
How was I able to make that connection? Generally our thoughts are like a river, flowing continuously but barely noticed. When we seclude ourselves from sense stimuli and continually bring the mind back to a single object of awareness (like my feet on the trail), the mind quiets down and concentration naturally develops. Since not much else is going on, we can notice more easily our thoughts and the influence they have on our bodies and emotions (and vice versa).
Fast forward almost thirty years. In yoga last week we were doing a challenging balance pose. I was doing OK, a little wobbly but upright, when a thought went through my mind, something like “I’m not very balanced today,” and immediately the wobble amplified and I lost my balance. Again it was clear that the thought preceded the physical response.
Someone else had this insight 2500 years ago: the Buddha. He said, “All experience is led by mind, made by mind.” Have you had similar experiences and insights?
Photo: Lacking the protruding rhododendron roots, this muddy trail in Bhutan was actually easier!