1: Mind


According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine:

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.[i]

 Mindfulness is often cultivated through meditation, but we can practice it in any situation. The Buddha taught mindfulness and praised the mindful observer:

Mindful among the mindless,                                                                                                                  Awake while others dream,                                                                                                                             Swift as the racehorse.                                                                                                                                             He outstrips the field. [ii]

The alternative to mindfulness is to be so preoccupied with thoughts and emotions, including memories, plans, hopes, fears, resentments, and worries, that we barely notice what is going on around or within us. The problem is not with the thoughts and emotions, which are sometimes necessary and often unavoidable. The problem is with our tendency to let them take over our minds, with each thought leading to the next in a continual cascade of distraction. Thus distracted, we are under the control of a “monkey mind” that keeps jumping from one thought or emotion to another.

Shakespeare must have had his own thoughts and emotions, but they did not prevent him from creating a body of work grounded in mindful observation of natural surroundings, the behavior of other people, and interior mental states. Attention to natural surroundings would have come early as young Shakespeare explored the gardens, meadows, and forests around Stratford, carefully observing the shapes, colors, movements, sounds, and smells of the rural countryside. The impressions made on his mind remained with him years later when he sat down to write poems and plays that contain 57 species of birds and 108 flowers, weeds, and trees, along with memorable evocations of weather and landscape.

To give an example, in Hamlet Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia with the following description.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. (IV.vii.190-191)

The essayist, William Hazlitt, has observed that:

The leaves of the willow are, in fact, white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear “hoary” in the reflection of the brook.[iii]

Details such as the white undersides of willow leaves reflected in a brook bring nature convincingly to life. Only a mindful observer would notice such details, remember them, and turn them into poetry.

We can also imagine Shakespeare in the marketplace or the tavern as he attends to the expressions and conversations of the people around him, soaking up their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech. His observation of human behavior has given us the dissolute but lovable old reprobate, Falstaff, the prattling and unprincipled Nurse of Romeo and Juliet, the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night, and the meddlesome and garrulous Polonius of Hamlet. In character after character, Shakespeare gives us personalities that are as vivid and convincingly real as the people we know.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses commend the quality of mindfulness, the watchful state that the Buddha praises and the playwright demonstrates:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep,
Keeps place with thought and almost, like the gods,
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles. (III.iii.205-209)

The watchful state misses very little. Nothing is too minute or too vast for it. It discerns each particle of the gold of Plutus, the Greek god of wealth. It penetrates to the depths of the ocean and the depths of the mind, to the cradle of thoughts and emotions. From his watchful state Shakespeare plumbed the depths of his mind to observe the range of human qualities latent in all of us. In Sonnet 109 he writes of a mind inhabited by “All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood.” By observing the frailties and strengths within, he was able to imagine the interior lives of the great variety of characters that populate his plays.


Taming the Mind

The “frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,” give rise to thoughts and emotions that will control us if we do not learn to tame them. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.[iv]

Hamlet testifies to the power of the mind to shape our experience when he tells his visiting fellow students, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that:

there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (II.ii.268-269)


I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. (II.ii.273-275)

Hamlet’s bad dreams arise from a mind that is not yet fully tamed. Buddhist teachers sometimes liken an untamed mind to a glass of muddy water, and a tamed mind to a glass in which the mud has settled to the bottom and the water is clear. Shakespeare hits upon a strikingly similar analogy in Troilus and Cressida when he has Achilles say that:

My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred,
And I myself see not the bottom of it.  (III.iii.308-309)

Most of us rarely see to the bottom of our minds, so much are they stirred by distracting thoughts and emotions. But meditators can, with some effort, learn to tame their “monkey minds” by watching thoughts and feelings as they arise, noting them without attachment or aversion, and letting them pass. A variety of meditation techniques can be used, such as returning the attention to the breath or an object each time a thought or emotion arises. The point is to master thoughts and emotions before they can lead to harmful actions. Especially dangerous are negative emotions, such as jealousy, anger, and avarice. If we habitually fall under their control, we will be sure to regret it. As the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much                                                                                           As your own thoughts, unguarded.[v]

Although Shakespeare could not have been familiar with Buddhist meditation practices, his plays amply illustrate the Buddha’s teaching about the perils of an unguarded mind. Consider the case of Othello. At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona. While Desdemona’s father accuses him of witchcraft, the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish invasion. By the time he reaches Cyprus, a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things are going well for the all-sufficient Moor, the malevolent Ensign, Iago, plants in his mind the false notion that Desdemona is cheating on him with Lieutenant Cassio. The state of the Moor’s mind goes rapidly downhill as the scheming Iago spins a web of circumstantial evidence that makes it appear more and more likely that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

Even as Othello writhes in agony under the spell of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster,” he knows it is his mind and not outer circumstances that causes his suffering:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all… (III.iii.389-395)

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! (III.iii.397-400)

Manipulated by Iago and unable to control the emotions that are tormenting him, Othello suffocates his guiltless wife and then learns of her innocence. Looking on her body, he laments:

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! (V.ii.330-331)

If ever a living character could be said to suffer the pains of hell, it is Othello, who ends by stabbing himself to death.

Then there is King Lear, who plans to enjoy a happy retirement from the stresses of monarchy after dividing his kingdom among three daughters. His plan gets off to a bad start when he asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most.” Two wicked and insincere daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate protestations of love, while his youngest child, Cordelia, says that she loves him according to her bond as a daughter. At this, the disappointed Lear allows anger to take over. In a rage, he banishes Cordelia, along with his loyal servant, Kent, who defends her. Lear realizes his mistake when the wicked daughters, having gained power, begin to treat him slightingly, take away his retinue, and leave him out in a terrible storm. Like Othello, he knows that his suffering is of the mind and that it is worse than any physical suffering:

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude! (III.iv.6-14)

Lear’s mental suffering continues long after the outward storm abates. When Cordelia returns and takes him into her care, he wakes to say:

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (IV.vii.46-48)

Lear’s mind, deluded by many years of deference and flattery, is unprepared for harsh treatment. Under the weight of suffering too great for him to bear, he descends into madness.

Finally, there is Macbeth. Fresh from victory in battle Macbeth meets three witches who tell him that he shall be “king hereafter.” Tantalized by the prospect of royal power, Macbeth conceives a plot to kill King Duncan and seize the crown. Upon returning home he thinks better of it, but Lady Macbeth spurs him on. After murdering the visiting Duncan and claiming the crown, he commits more murders to consolidate his position and then suffers the mental consequences of his actions:

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III.ii.41)

Lady Macbeth’s mind is also in turmoil as she relives Duncan’s murder while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. Her doctor arrives, and Macbeth asks:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? (V.iii.50-55)

The doctor replies:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. (V.iii.56-57)

And Macbeth responds:

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it. (V.iii.58)

He fails to understand that we must look after our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to watch their minds and are overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous suffering. Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tongpa:

In my every action, I will watch my mind,
And the moment destructive emotions arise,
I will confront them strongly and avert them,
Since they will hurt both me and others.[vi]


[i]Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness, Mindful: Healthy Living Healthy Life, 11 Jan. 2017 (01 Mar 2019) https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/

[ii]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9.

[iii]Hazlitt, William, Shakespeare and Milton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1923), 2.

[iv]Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala,1993), 1.

[v]Ibid. 13

[vi]Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15Jun2016)http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Eight_Verses_of_Training_the_Mind




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