Training the Squirrel-Chasing Mind

Sometimes training the mind in meditation is compared to training a dog to “stay.” While there’s some appeal to this image, I’m not sure that it holds up when examined closely. Yes, there is the quality of coming back to the breath that is similar to a dog coming back to its master. But does the mind really respond like a pet?

Meditation training has several layers. The first is simply to stay in our seat—probably the closest parallel to animal training. Even that behavior is more complicated than simply getting a treat for doing the right thing. We stay in our seat because we understand and trust in the value of meditating.

Mind training develops the habit to come back to the breath, or whatever meditation object we are using. This too, with its repetitive form, has a similarity to training a pet, but to think that it will result in a mind that obeys us like a dog is to set ourselves up for disappointment. Sometimes the mind will become calm and concentrated, but it’s just as likely to run off chasing a squirrel.

The training deepens when we learn to observe our thinking, the movement of mind, the squirrel chasing. This isn’t so much a discipline as a shift in viewpoint. Through instruction and practice, we learn to separate ourselves from the thoughts. We learn to shift from identifying with and reacting to each thought, to seeing how they are moving, what they are telling us, and what is creating them.

This brings us to a third element of training, our response to the pet that refuses to be trained. It does no good to beat the dog that runs away. You only wind up with a frightened, broken animal. So it goes with our minds as well. Forgiveness and kindness must be our constant response to the squirrel-chasing mind. Only then will it relax and stop pulling on the leash.

Today, notice how you are responding to thoughts that arise in meditation. Can you let them go and come back to the breath without creating conflict in the mind? Are you still judging yourself, or pulling too hard on the leash?

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