The Butterfly Mind

By Rob Nairn


First 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.

Here 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 away.

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.

So our 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.

So 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.


Interestingly, 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 of ways.

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 ourselves.


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 was.

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.

What 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.

If 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 reactivity.

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.

What we 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.

We 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.


It 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.
The Buddhist principle is to be everybody's friend, not to have any enemy.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Meditation means simple acceptance.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Only the impossible is worth doing.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Whenever we see something which could be done to bring benefit to others, no matter how small, we should do it.
Chamgon Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Freedom is not something you look for outside of yourself. Freedom is within you.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Hasten slowly, you will soon arrive.
Jetsun Milarepa
It doesn’t matter whatever comes, stop judging and it won’t bother you.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Whatever obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Every sentient being is equal to the Buddha.
Chamgon Kentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche