faceless cartoon character wandering aimlessly

Are You Keeping an Eye on Your Mind or Losing It?

In this digital age, the world outside is moving so fast. Not only that, but it’s also chaotic. And it’s quite a challenge for our minds to keep up. So much information is dumped on us all the time, at high speed. How can our poor little mind process it all?

Maybe you’ve had the experience of noticing when you’re not aware. I certainly have had this experience, realizing that I’m not looking at my mind. I’ve had a couple moments of clarity, seeing how my mind is almost totally absorbed in the world outside. At those times, I can see that my mind doesn’t really exist as “my mind” at all. There’s nothing here that’s “me.”

We get so absorbed in the objects outside us, paying too much attention to all those external details. And we worry so much about others, don’t we? What do they think about me? Am I wearing the right clothes? We worry about others’ thoughts, others’ labels. We worry about their concerns and cares regarding us and everything else. If we look, we can see clearly that, in those cases, our mind becomes totally controlled by others. It’s the exact opposite of what we want. We like to think we’re in control and we want to maintain that sense of control. But in reality we are doing just the opposite. We are losing total control of our mind.

When we are constantly watching other people’s mental projections, others’ thinking, in a sense we are making their projections run very well. It’s like you’re servicing your neighbor’s car but leaving your own car to get run-down. Your neighbor on your right, and your neighbor on your left––both of their cars are running very well. But your car is just sitting there totally ignored, getting rusted. In this way we are actually contributing to all the chaos we see in the world. Do you know about the “butterfly effect,” in chaos theory? We are like that butterfly, adding our little bit of wind to help create the big whirlwind of chaos the world is constantly brewing.

Here’s another example: we all have smartphones and we pay quite a lot of attention to our smartphones. We spend a lot of money to buy that smartphone. Not only to buy the phone, but the cover to protect it. We’re so worried that our phone may get damaged, so we put this cover on it. The smartphone company, meanwhile, is trying to make the phone as slim and slick as possible. They put so much time and money into designing this thing––the chips inside, the screen outside. Then as soon as we get this smartphone, we put a huge cover on it. Our adding that cover is expressing a kind of fear. 

Therefore, you can see how much we protect our phone. And how many times a day do we check, Where’s my phone? You may leave your phone sitting somewhere for a minute, say in a changing room in a store or on a table in a restaurant. Even if you’re only five steps away, you freak out. Shoot! I left my phone! Then we go right away as fast as we can, to grab the phone.

But how about our mind? Have we ever had any thought or worry about losing our mind? We’ve left our mind unattended for years and years, not just for three minutes. Forgetting our phone for three minutes kind of freaks us out. But leaving our mind unattended for years does not freak us out at all. Amazing. But if we lose our mind, who’s going to take care of our phone? Did we ever think about that? What a sad situation that would be. So for that reason, obviously, we must pay close attention to our mind.

And we expect our mind to be smart, don’t we? We think it should be smarter than the smartphone. If we buy a smartphone and our mind is a stupid mind, so to speak, and then it’s useless. We expect our mind to be smart, compassionate, loving, effective, productive, and we expect our mind to achieve our goals. But how can our mind achieve all that when we don’t service it? It’s like a car in that sense. If you don’t service your car, it’s going to break down.

We need to take care of our mind in order for it to function well. If we expect our mind to  accomplish all our goals, then we need to pay more attention to it.

The engine of thoughts is always running

In terms of our mind, the most common thing we experience is our thoughts, isn’t it? What is constantly running through our head? Thoughts. We see and hear things outside too, of course, but that’s only momentary. Even if it’s a jackhammer coming from your neighbor’s bedroom, that noise is still momentary. But what is constantly running in the background is our thought processes. So many thoughts. Even while we’re thinking about one thing, another thought is already running. We might be watching something very beautiful that we’ve always wanted to see and this is our only chance to see it––like Cirque de Soleil. But when you finally go to see it, you’re thinking about something else, and you’re missing the whole thing. 

That engine of thoughts is constantly running. Do our thoughts appear in an orderly way? Are they well organized? No. And when we act on those thoughts, do our actions appear organized and orderly, just as we planned? Hardly. We have so many plans about how we’re going to talk to her, or him. But when we take that action, it rarely goes according to plan. 

There’s a certain sense of order in our thoughts, of course, and our actions also make sense sometimes. And sometimes we know exactly what’s going to happen next as a result of our actions––that same old drama––but we still do it anyway. 

On the other hand you can see that there’s no real order. It’s chaos. It’s like chaos theory in mathematics, that looks at certain systems that are very sensitive. One tiny change at the starting point may make the whole system behave completely differently after a while. That’s the chaos theory of outer phenomena.

If we look at the inner phenomena of our thoughts or emotions, it works in a similar way. The starting position is very important. When you’re first starting to have thoughts about something, even though the thoughts may seem to be so minute, so harmless, they have a big effect at the end. And so the interesting thing here is that even though our mind, our thoughts, seem to appear chaotic, without any sense of order, if you look closely there is actually a pattern there. There is a pattern in our thought processes, a pattern of how our emotions are manifesting. 

We’re very focused on maintaining awareness of other people’s thoughts, but when it comes to our own thoughts we have no clue what they are. Why? We just aren’t paying attention. We’re not looking at our own thoughts and thought patterns.

The whole process can seem quite chaotic and disturbing sometimes. It can seem difficult to take in all these thoughts and emotions. But if we can see their patterns clearly, with some sense of awareness, that’s where we will find sanity. That’s the beginning of discovering sanity within our own mind. 

Often when we talk about sanity, about wakefulness and this positive reality of our mind’s nature, we have a misunderstanding. We’re imagining it as some kind of glowing, shiny entity. Very beautiful, calm and peaceful, and everything is perfect. But there’s no such thing. Why? Because sanity and chaos, or sanity and insanity, only exist in dependence on each other. If there’s no sanity, there is no insanity. How can you have insanity without sanity? So we must recognize the importance of insanity.

The American feminist writer and activist, Rita Mae Brown, said “The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four people are suffering from mental illness. Look at your three best friends. If they’re okay, then it’s you.”

That’s kind of contemplative, isn’t it? And it’s also spiritual. It shows that you’re looking at yourself and your patterns. So maybe you can try that experiment with your three best friends.

A Few Questions to Ask Yourself

Here are some questions to help you practice watching your thoughts. Try to look at thoughts without judging them. Just stay curious and see what you notice.

1. When you look at your thoughts, what do you usually notice first?

2. What is a thought you often notice you are thinking?

3. How frequently does this thought occur to you? (It’s fine to guess)

4. What is one interesting thing you notice about this thought?

5. Does this thought bring its “friends”? Does it tend to multiply into more thoughts?

6. When you stay with this thought and relax without trying to change it, what happens?

7. Right now, are you looking at your phone, or your mind?


This article is based on a program presented by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Naropa University in 2019, called “Sanity within Chaos: Connecting with Our Natural State of Calmness and Ease.” The full audio of that program is available from Sounds True here.