Training the Untrained Mind — An Excerpt from The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton

Training the Untrained Mind

An Excerpt from The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton

Mind training is essential to Buddhism. In essence, it is the path the Buddha advocated in his Fourth Noble Truth. And yet, as I’ve said, mind training is not necessarily a religious or spiritual practice. It does not rest on accepting certain religious beliefs or adopting particular terminology. It can be used successfully as an entirely secular practice, or it can be incorporated as a deliberate spiritual practice within any religion, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or something else. You can be a businessperson, schoolteacher, or a stay-at-home mom or dad and still practice mind training. Naturally, the ideas behind mind training, or the explanations of mind the Buddha presented in his first three Noble Truths, are equally essential no matter our place in life. Training and theory go hand in hand. So, as you read the rest of the book, keep practicing the mind training methods this chapter describes, and as you practice, keep reading to steadily improve your understanding and success.

As we begin, I want to share a wonderful and amusing historical anecdote that captures what the practice is all about and how transformative it can be. From the seventh century, Buddhism flourished in Tibet, but in the ninth century, it declined as a result of a ruthless Tibetan king who aimed to destroy Buddhism in his country. Then, in the early eleventh century, Tibetan Buddhism began a regeneration. This was marked by increased travel between Tibet and India, as key Tibetans traveled to India for instruction, and many Indian masters were invited to Tibet. Foremost of these Indian masters was Lama Atisha, a well-known scholar and practitioner who was one of India’s principal teachers of mind training. Lama Atisha was invited personally by the current king to spearhead the reestablishing of Tibet’s rich Buddhist cultural and religious tradition. Initially, Atisha committed to staying in Tibet for three years, but he was so well-loved by Tibetans that he remained for a total of twelve years, finally passing away in Tibet.

One reason for Atisha’s long initial commitment was because travel from India to Tibet was not easy. You had to negotiate hot, disease-infested jungles, eighteen-thousand-foot Himalayan passes, and inhospitable tribes and bandits. The trip took months to prepare and months to complete, involving dangers and hardships we can barely imagine today. Among the party traveling to Tibet was Atisha’s personal cook, who was known as a very difficult person to get along with. And indeed, the Tibetans found him rude, crass, and unfriendly. But even worse, the cook’s terrible behavior did not merely extend to the Tibetans but even to Atisha himself. The Tibetans just could not understand why Lama Atisha would keep such an unsavory person as his cook. Wasn’t travel hard enough?

However, Atisha never showed any sense of intolerance, anger, or embarrassment over his cook’s behavior. Then as now, traveling can sometimes bring out the worst in people, and the Tibetans were impressed that Atisha showed only affection for the cook.

Finally, though, they couldn’t stand it, and they asked Atisha why he did not fire the man and send him back to India. Lama Atisha replied, “He is not just my cook; he is my teacher of patience.”

With that one simple statement, Lama Atisha demonstrated to the Tibetans and to us the entire concept of transforming one’s inner experience through mind training.

Embracing Our Problems

It would be a mistake to interpret Lama Atisha’s remark as a glib attempt at humor. He was not making the best of a bad situation. Atisha was speaking the truth: he regarded the cook as his teacher, and he deliberately chose to keep this difficult man close to him. Amazingly, Lama Atisha chose to make his life harder than it needed to be.

This exemplifies the first aspect of mind training. Rather than being another way to avoid or escape problems, mind training freely embraces problems. Not only that, as Lama Atisha indicated, we must actively seek and engage our problems, rather than wait for them. Only in this way can we learn how to avoid suffering. In his case, Lama Atisha’s “problem” wasn’t the cook; it was his own feelings of anger or frustration stimulated by the cook’s behavior. In his response to his Tibetan traveling companions, Atisha did not deny that the cook was insufferable. Instead, he was indicating the primary thrust of mind training: it is a method of handling any emotion that disturbs us so that we retain our balance and sense of inner peace.

There are numerous techniques to help us do this, but they revolve around a few basic principles: training our mind not to be “attached to” or “influenced by” our emotions, desires, or perceptions, and learning to transform negative emotions into their positive counterparts. In Lama Atisha’s case, through his cook, he was practicing replacing anger with patience.

An important distinction with mind training is that it is not “reframing” or just a faith-based feel-good trick. Therapists, for ex-ample, use reframing as a common technique in therapeutic practice, and sometimes it can be quite helpful for the client. Looking on the bright side, seeing the glass as half full, identifying the beneficial lessons in an otherwise hurtful relationship: This can be a good, positive approach. But this is not mind training, and “reframing” has limited long-term usefulness. Oftentimes, reframing can feel contrived. Someone, some other, higher authority or code of belief, tells us how to feel, and so we try, even if we lack real conviction. Reframing can sometimes be illogical; it denies the truth of one’s experience. We may be asked to imagine that a person who deliberately hurt us didn’t really mean to hurt us. In mind training, the intentions and motivations of others, although relevant, are not the primary focus. We are concerned with our point of view and its accompanying response.

Similarly, when a terrible accident occurs, we are sometimes asked to see it as “God’s will” or “punishment for our sins” or the workings of “karma.” Not only does this fail to explain events, but it overlooks the real problem: how we should deal with our feelings of grief, rage, and disbelief. I consider it “reframing” when we are asked to take the goodness of the universe on faith. Don’t get me wrong: faith is important. Indeed, the reasons for events often escape human understanding, and the world is unpredictable. Ultimately, these difficult, existential truths are what mind training helps us to cope with. Ultimately, in Buddhism, mind training is a spiritual practice in the sense that its goal is to awaken our inner potential.

However, that is not where the beginner starts. Instead, we start by accepting the counterintuitive notion that we must use our problems to solve our problems. Problems provide the resistance that helps us exercise our minds. When problems appear, instead of avoiding them, we confront, understand, and eliminate all of those unhelpful emotions and thoughts that arise because of them and that have run our life since the day we were born. In truth, we are merely “retraining” the mind. Just the idea that we can change and transform our everyday existence is quite encouraging by itself. It is in this way that, in training our mind, we become our own therapist and are, by my definition, spiritual practitioners. When we work with transforming our mind at more advanced levels, we actually look forward to confronting our problems, just like Lama Atisha. Why? Because we understand that the problematic conditions of the world will never go away. It is simply the nature of life. All we can do is get better at handling them. We understand that even if we are calm and happy today, something will happen tomorrow to challenge us and throw us off. Perhaps it will be an unexpected bill, or a medical problem, or a painful buried memory lying under the surface of our conscious mind that arises at the drop of a hat…like a rear-end collision that comes out of nowhere while we sit at a red light. The rather unconventional, “in your face” Buddhist approach of mind training is to courageously confront all of our dirty little secrets and difficult emotions whenever they come up until we’ve changed the nature of our relationship with them. Then, instead of being bossed around by our worst tendencies and disturbed emotions, we become the boss of our own mind.

KARUNA CAYTON, psychotherapist and author of The Misleading Mind, spent twelve years working with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and studying with Buddhist masters. His Karuna Group practice applies Buddhist psychology to individual and organizational clients. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at

Excerpted from the book The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them ©2012 by Karuna Cayton.

Printed with permission from New World Library.

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I am currently reading ‘The Misleading Mind’ by Karuna Cayton and can tell you this, so far, it is a great book. It seems like the author will be able to reference real life scenarios for the 4 Noble Truths, and I have hopes he will lead that same process into the Noble Eightfold Path; something that seems rare for non-monastic authors these days. High hopes for the rest of the book!

I plan on my own review as soon as I am able to get through the rest; life has not been allowing me to read as much as I would like to lately. I will do my best to post the review soon.

Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner (a book review)


Brad Warner’s new book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, discusses a topic I’ve honestly never seen covered in detail in the Buddhist world. I’m sure there are some that touch on the topic, but not like this. When I’d heard even the name I knew I was in for a good time.

The book arrived and instantly it began to challenge me. Even the cover is done in a fashion that made me think, ‘Is this really a “Buddhist” book’? The Vegas style logo, the girls half-dressed across the bottom, laid out on a bright pink (of course) design. I don’t know if that was intentional, but if so, well done. Grabs the attention and starts your lesson.

Brad wastes no time in getting to the meat of the topic; beginning with “The Piece of Ass Chant”, a tongue in cheek translation of a very well known chant. He relates something we recognize and know to the topic at hand. “Most of us don’t take sex as lightly as we take eating. But we do often come to it with very little awareness of how very special it is.” This is a great point to begin with and sets the tone for the adventure we’re about to embark upon.

Next, we get a virtual bamboo stick upside the head and go directly in for “Are Buddhists Allowed To Jack Off?” Turns out that this was a question asked of Brad during a talk he gave. This chapter is excellent and easy to relate to for those who of us who grew up Christian and the baggage that path seems to pile on sex. I’m not meaning this in a negative, but often in the biblical sense it is seen as a form of cheating. Brad discussed the different view Buddhism takes on the topic, “Right Action” coupled with a healthy dose of the “Middle Way”. Which is to say, if you do it too much you’ll go blind. Kidding. I’ll quote what he says, as it is a great example of many areas discussed: “Not being a total sex freak doesn’t mean you have to swing the completely opposite direction and try to live your life as a sexless robot. Deal with the sexual desires you have in the most reasonable way you can.”

Throughout the book Brad has chapters devoted to [Sexual Angles on Buddhism] where he’ll get a bit more serious into the Buddhist’y type info and you know, as I read on, I thought they were less and less necessary. This isn’t to say they weren’t good, but rather, as I read on I saw that my view was just that, my view, my practice, my path to figure out. Another reason I’m a Buddhist — I am responsible for everything about my own path. So, as I read through the book, I appreciated when he goes into a more Buddhist-like explanation, but, I also appreciate that there really is not “wrong” way or “right” way to discuss the topic (within reason of course).

Also, Brad offers his hilarious footnotes throughout the book which may be a bit for some readers, but I quite enjoy them. I think the approach works for this topic, if you stay too serious about this topic, you’ll start getting — well,,, too serious. Not sure if that makes sense but read the book and I think you’ll see my point.

Brad interviews ‘The Real Porno Buddhist’, adult star Nina Hartley, who has a fascinating perspective on the topic. Not only is she a porn star, but, also grew up with Zen priest parents and spent a lot of time in Zen centers. They go into a perspective of how one can be ok with certain aspects of sexual activity as a Buddhist and what is ‘ok.’ She presents a very well rounded outlook but I’ll be honest, I’m not positive being a porn star as well as a Buddhist would really work; but, this is due to my own outlook on things, and my own life experiences.

From there the book gets a bit more serious in my opinion. He goes into STDs, AIDS, when ‘Spiritual Teachers go Bad’, and the big topic of abortion. There are real world examples offered of both a negative and positive background that really work to make you think. The perspective on abortion is a good chapter that I would recommend anyone read. It really does make the case for what is different between a Christian outlook on the topic vs. a Buddhist outlook. I have to agree with what is stated but rather than sum it up here, recommend you read the book; even if it just this chapter.

I enjoyed Brad’s new book; there really is no other ‘Buddhist book’ I’ve seen that covers these topics in length. I recommend it as a read; I’m not positive I would personally loan a copy to Venerable, but again, that’s likely just my own hang up I guess.

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Special thanks to Kim from New World Library for sending me the book to review. I truly appreciate the opportunity.

…joining palms