The Butterfly Mind
WHY IS THE MIND UNSETTLED?
we need to ask why it is necessary to settle the mind, and what is the
unsettled mind. Mostly, it is the mind we have always lived with, the
one that can't remain on the cushion. It can't remain in this room or
anywhere near this place most of the time. We sit down, focus on the
external meditation support, and we form an intention. Our intention is
to remain present with the meditation support.
Then a very
interesting thing happens. Something within us, within seconds, perhaps
a split second, overrides that intention. In an instant, we are no
longer with the meditation support, instead we are thinking about
something. Now that is quite interesting if we sit back and look at it.
we are, these 'self-deterministic' human beings who are supposedly able
to guide our destinies through the universe, but we can't even carry
out an intention to keep the mind in one place for more than a few
seconds at best! Something else overrides that intention and we are
What overrides that intention? Habit. What sort of habit?
The habit of having a butterfly mind. An unsettled mind. A mind that
prefers to be in constant movement and activity. When we try to
meditate we discover how distracted and unsettled our minds really are.
It's usually quite a healthy shock to new meditators.
mind zaps away, out of this room. We could be in Trafalgar Square, New
York, or down at a Cape Town beach within an instant of starting our
meditation. Quite possibly it takes a little bit of time before we
catch up with it and bring it back into this room. Then it's gone
again! Then we catch up with it and bring it back into this room.
that is the unsettled mind. It is the mind that, of its own accord,
moves away. When our mindfulness is weak we don't even realise that it
has moved. It's as though we fell asleep. We sit there and think, 'Ah,
now I'm going to meditate... I wonder what we will have for supper
tonight?' We're gone! Now we realise that if we don't learn to settle
the mind we are unlikely even to begin meditating.
HOW WE KEEP THE MIND UNSETTLED
what we don't understand is that we are continually strengthening the
tendency of the mind to be unsettled, and we are doing it in a variety
One is, we continually seek entertainment. It may be
through TV, radio, a book, a conversation or drinking coffee. If we are
denied all those external forms, all we have left to fall back on is
the entertainment of the mind's imaginative activity. And that is
limitless! It can run videos forever! It does it because we want it to.
At a certain level, we most certainly want it to. It's boring and
tiresome just to be here watching the breath. So we definitely want to
be doing something else.
Quite often we won't let our minds
settle because we are afraid that if we do manage to switch off the
eternal video we will uncover what we have spent so much of our lives
burying and keeping hidden. What we don't realise is that our intention
to remain present and mindful is overridden by another intention which
doesn't reveal itself. It is another of those surreptitious hidden
reefs. That intention comes into action the moment the mind spots the
possibility of doing something more interesting than meditating. So if
we put our mind on sound and the sounds are entertaining or strong,
like the sound of an aeroplane, then we can really get off on that
because we may not like it. Or if it is something nice like a bird, we
can get off on that. If it is the wind in the trees we can stay with
that pretty well but after a while there isn't much juice left in these
external possibilities. So our minds now want something different.
Something begins to emerge on the outer edge of our mental vision and
presents itself as a preferable option. Then this deeper level of
intention says, 'Yes!' and we're there. This is one way how we unsettle
UNSETTLING THROUGH REACTIVITY
Then there are
more rigorous ways of unsettling the mind. We start meditating and go
through maybe five or ten minutes of being quite diligent in bringing
our minds back to the focus. Then, deep down, a memory stirs of
something somebody said to us some weeks ago. We had an argument which
perhaps we lost. We didn't like that so there is quite a strong
residual emotional element left. This surfaces somewhere in the back of
our minds and sends a tremor through the whole body. Perhaps a feeling
that we didn't like this unresolved blow to our pride, or whatever it
Now a new thing happens. We hook into that memory and rerun
it. We rerun it with all its emotional impact and this does more than
the bland entertainment cycle we've just talked about. This really gets
us stewed up because we completely invoke all that old business, it
hooks onto a whole lot of other related emotion in our minds and before
we know it, there is a good old turmoil going on. So there is no
tranquillity in our meditation. We've managed to get our minds pretty
turbulent. Now we're steamed up! We're ready to go and punch somebody.
This is frustrating because here we are sitting meditating and nobody
has even picked a fight with us, and we're ready to go and punch
somebody. What have we done? Thoroughly unsettled our minds.
we begin to see is that there are these sorts of mechanisms in
operation. Although they are relatively superficial within the
meditation context they are going on in our daily lives. So if, in
meditation, we spot our unsettlers, we can begin to identify them in
life. We begin to see how continually through the day we are unsettling
our minds through our reactivity.
When we are driving a car, for
example, and somebody speeds, suddenly appearing over the hill and
nearly crashing into us, we get a big fright. Then we get angry. Then
we go through a really big scene in our mind about how other people
shouldn't drive so fast and go through red traffic lights. Then
somebody pulls in front of us, changing lanes quickly. Now we are even
more angry! The piece of road in front of us, that space there, belongs
to us. They should know that! They shouldn't get into it quickly, or at
least without asking our permission. So by the time we get to work we
are really not in a fit state to do much except growl at people.
we go back over this whole business in the traffic we begin to see that
it is a self-generated turmoil. It is just an indulgence in reactivity.
And there are very definite alternatives. The moment we got into the
traffic, and the other guy was speeding, we could see what we were
doing. We could know that 'OK, this is what happens in traffic. I do it
myself sometimes. When I am in a hurry, I speed up over hills and I go
through red traffic lights.' I'll bet most of us have done that! So
that person isn't doing anything different from what we have all done.
It is just our ego territorial compulsion that is making us buy into
If we see this we can let it go. If the guy pulls in
front of us, we just slow down and let him go. If he wants to change
lanes, we just slow down and let him go. Slowly, it's no big deal. The
stress of driving through traffic falls away and we are just adjusting
to and accommodating the needs of other human beings.
see from this example is that through our reactivity and our projection
we're keeping our minds unsettled and we are convinced that it is the
fault of other people. The traffic example is easy to deal with because
it is so obvious, but this is going on in many areas of our lives. We
are doing this constantly because we are not aware of our expectations,
assumptions and reactivity. We have probably done this so consistently
through our lives that we no longer realise we are doing it.
may say, If only I could go away to a really nice quiet holiday spot, I
would be much more at ease. Then I would be much more peaceful and
happy.' Unfortunately we wouldn't because we take with us our built-in
tendency to unsettle and stress ourselves out. What we have to learn is
that if we begin to understand how we unsettle ourselves, we can free
ourselves and relax wherever we are. Not always, but pretty well
anywhere. The point is that each time we unsettle the mind we
strengthen the tendency for it to be unsettled. This means it will
remain unsettled for a long time after the specific incident is past.
ln addition, because the strong tendency is there, it will unsettle
itself of its own accord, even when we don't want it to. We can' blame
it because we set the causes in motion ourselves.
HOW TO SETTLE THE MIND
is important that we come to our meditation understanding that we are
inherently inclined to unsettle our minds. External things do not
generally unsettle our minds; internal things do. We are responsible
for this inner environment. So we sit and meditate and then see the
first unsettling action. The mind is wanting to take off somewhere. Now
comes the important moment. The normal tendency is to grab the mind and
wrench it back, an act of violence similar to a parent in a supermarket
with little Annie, who wants to take stuff off one of the display
stands. The tired, overwrought, frustrated father grabs hold of her and
yanks her back. Of course, straight away there is a scream and a
scuffle and a fight.
That is what happens to our mind if we
treat it that way. If we wrench the mind back from its preferred course
of activity we are going to create inner turmoil, adding stress,
tension and resentment to our unsettledness. We will feel an internal
resistance building up in the mind. So don't attempt to settle the mind
forcefully - it won't work. Try to be the kind parent: return to the
meditation support gently, kindly. That's the first principle of
settling - know there is no need to chase off after any thought, but
when the tendency to do so arrives, simply turn gently away from the
temptation and return to the support.