1: Mind

The sky is overcast, suggesting the possible need for an umbrella, so as I am about to leave my apartment I take out my iPhone to check the weather app. Before I can click on it I notice that I have email, so I click on mail and see a message informing me of a Facebook post by an old friend from college. Clicking on Facebook I see my friend’s post, but am soon diverted by a video of a black bear cavorting in someone’s swimming pool. After watching the bear for a minute, my attention drifts to vacation photos posted by someone I barely know. After Facebook there are apps telling me about the news, sports scores, and stock prices. I leave without my umbrella, having long ago forgotten why I ever took the iPhone out of my pocket, and don’t remember until I feel the first drops of rain on my face. Even when not staring at a five-inch screen I am lost in thoughts and only occasionally aware of where I am or what I am doing. T.S. Eliot wrote more than 60 years before the introduction of the iPhone that “We are distracted from distraction by distraction.” Today he might have written that “We are distracted from distraction from distraction from distraction, ad infinitum.”

Distraction is the very opposite of mindfulness, which can be defined as the practice of open, unbiased attention to outer and inner experiences as they occur in the moment. It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced 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, by watching. The Buddha, The Dhammapada [I]

Though he never cultivated mindfulness within the context of a Buddhist practice, Shakespeare was extraordinary mindful of his natural surroundings, his fellow creatures, and interior mental states.

Were he not mindful of his surroundings Shakespeare could not have written as he did. We see this in Hamlet when Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia.

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, 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.[ii]

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.

Shakespeare must also have been mindfully attentive to the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech. His close observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, but loveable old reprobate, Falstaff; the silly, prattling, amoral Nurse of Romeo and Juliet; the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night; and the officious, meddlesome, and garrulous Polonius of Hamlet. In character after character Shakespeare gives us personalities that are as vivid convincingly real as the people we know.

In the following lines from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses praise the very quality of mindfulness, the “watchful state,” that the Buddha praises and that the playwright exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plotus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep… (III.iii.205-207)

The watchful state misses nothing. It discerns every grain of the gold of Plotus, the Greek god of wealth. From such a “watchful state” Shakespeare excels not only at depicting nature and outward human behavior, but more importantly, at depicting interior mental states, the thoughts and feelings that will control us if we do not first tame them. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world. The Buddha, The Dhammapada [iii]

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

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

And:

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. Meditators can learn to tame the mind by watching thoughts and feelings as they arise, noting them without attachment or aversion, and letting them go. In this way mental states are mastered before they can take over and lead to harmful actions. For most of us it can be extremely difficult to master our mental states in this way, but we have to try because, as the Buddha teaches:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts. The Buddha, Dhammapada [iv]

Shakespeare’s plays amply illustrate the truth of this teaching.

Consider the case of Othello. At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona. While Desdemona’s father levels accusations of witchcraft at him, the state sides with Othello and sends him to defend Cyprus from a Turkish fleet. By the time he reaches Cyprus the Turks have been destroyed in a storm, and his bride has arrived to join him. But just as things seem to be going as well as possible for the all-sufficient Moor, the malevolent ensign, Iago, plants in his mind the false notion that Desdemona is already 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 “the green eyed monster,” jealousy, 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 thoughts 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, simply 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, Lear 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 the consequences of his foolish action. Under the weight of suffering too great 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 in order 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 the murder of King Duncan while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. A doctor is summoned 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 take care of our own minds. No doctor can do it for us. Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the utter futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to control their thoughts and are soon overcome by destructive emotions that cause enormous suffering for themselves and others. Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist master, Geshe Langri Tangpa:

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.[v]

________________________

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

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

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

[iv]Ibid. 13.

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

 

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