So I’m not making a lot of progress in reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living, because every three pages he says something amazing and I want to go write a blog post about it. Today, what inspired me is the idea of minding the gap.
In London, there’s a gap between the subway platform and the train, such that when you get on the train you have to pay attention as you step over the gap. There’s also a gap between one thought and the next thought in our minds. Most of the time, we coast right along from one thought to the next to the next, not even noticing the gap in between, just the way that a frequent subway traveler steps right onto the train without looking at her feet. But the gap is still there, and being mindful of it can help us be safer on the subway and more present in our daily lives.
Rinpoche tells us that it can be a form of meditation just to notice the gap between our thoughts. He writes,
Watching thoughts is a bit like running to catch a bus. Just as you reach the bus stop, the bus is pulling away, so you have to wait for the next bus to come. In the same way, there’s often a gap between thoughts – maybe it lasts for just a split second, but still, there’s a gap. That gap is the experience of the complete openness of natural mind. (163)
When we meditate, we can just rest our minds in conscious awareness. Thoughts will come and go – there’s no way to stop them. We just pay attention to the thoughts and notice the gaps between them, and see what it feels like in that gap. The complete openness of natural mind! Sounds nice. Rinpoche goes on to say that, when you practice paying attention to that gap, you can start to extend it, to put a little more time between one thought and the next, spending a little longer resting in your natural mind. Like any other type of meditation, recognizing and resting in the openness of our natural mind will help us develop calm, peaceful attitudes that we can carry throughout the day.
Rinpoche uses another metaphor that I like a lot: that of watching TV or a movie. He writes, “On the TV or movie screen, lots of things may be going on, but you are not actually in the movie or on the TV screen, are you? There’s a little bit of space between yourself and whatever you’re watching” (165). In the same way that movies and TV shows (and commercials!) play on our TV screens, thoughts play across our minds. We can become very wrapped up in our thoughts, just as we’d get wrapped up in a good movie, forgetting that we’re not actually part of the action. Then we hear a noise, the phone rings, or we run out of popcorn, and suddenly we’re back in the living room in the present moment, not a part of the movie after all.
Our thoughts sweep us up and carry us away in the same way that movies do, but if we’re able to take a step back from the Thought TV and come back to the present moment, acknowledging the gap between our thoughts and us, we can avoid getting all worked up. After all, movies are really fun to watch, but they can be intense, scary, and upsetting too – and it’s the same with our thoughts. Sometimes part of the fun is getting caught up in all the emotion, but our goal in meditation is to keep our minds calm and peaceful. That doesn’t mean we have to stop having thoughts and emotions, or stop enjoying the thoughts and emotions we have. We’re going to have thoughts and emotions no matter what. But if we can mind the gap between one thought and the next, between our thoughts and ourselves, we can learn to live with a little more peace and calm. It’s one more technique we can use in our meditation practice and our yoga practice.