Make Your Mind an Ocean

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Melbourne, Australia 1975 (Archive #329)

This introductory booklet covers the general topic of the mind through public talks, lunchtime lectures at two universities, and an evening lecture given to the general public. It is published in conjunction with Becoming Your Own Therapist.

See the Related Links for Chapter Four to access the audio recording and read along with the unedited transcript for that teaching.

Lama Yeshe teaching at Royal Holloway College, UK, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.
Chapter Two: A Buddhist Approach to Mental Illness

I was born near Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and educated at Sera Monastic University, one of the three great monasteries in Lhasa. There they taught us how to bring an end to human problems—not so much the problems people face in their relationship to the external environment, but the internal, mental problems we all face. That was what I studied—Buddhist psychology; how to treat mental illness.

For the past ten years I have been working with Westerners, experimenting to see if Buddhist psychology also works for the Western mind. In my experience, it has been extremely effective. Recently, some of these students invited me to the West to give lectures and meditation courses, so here I am.

We lamas think that the main point is that human problems arise primarily from the mind, not from the external environment. But rather than my talking about things that you might find irrelevant, perhaps it would be better for you to ask specific questions so that I can address directly the issues that are of most interest to you.

Dr. Stan Gold: Lama, thank you very much for coming. Could I start by asking what you mean by “mental illness”?

Lama: By mental illness I mean the kind of mind that does not see reality; a mind that tends to either exaggerate or underestimate the qualities of the person or object it perceives, which always causes problems to arise. In the West, you wouldn’t consider this to be mental illness, but Western psychology’s interpretation is too narrow. If someone is obviously emotionally disturbed, you consider that to be a problem, but if someone has a fundamental inability to see reality, to understand his or her own true nature, you don’t. Not knowing your own basic mental attitude is a huge problem.

Human problems are more than just emotional distress or disturbed relationships. In fact, those are tiny problems. It’s as if there’s this huge ocean of problems below, but all we see are the small waves on the surface. We focus on those—”Oh, yes, that’s a big problem”—while ignoring the actual cause, the dissatisfied nature of the human mind. It’s difficult to see, but we consider people who are unaware of the nature of their dissatisfied mind to be mentally ill; their minds are not healthy.

Q: Lama Yeshe, how do you go about treating mental illness? How do you help people with mental illness?

Lama: Yes, good, wonderful. My way of treating mental illness is to try to have the person analyze the basic nature of his own problem. I try to show him the true nature of his mind so that with his own mind he can understand his own problems. If he can do that, he can solve his own problems himself. I don’t believe that I can solve his problems by simply talking to him a little. That might make him feel a bit better, but it’s very transient relief. The root of his problems reaches deep into his mind; as long as it’s there, changing circumstances will cause more problems to emerge.

My method is to have him check his own mind in order to gradually see its true nature. I’ve had the experience of giving someone a little advice and having him think, “Oh, great, my problem’s gone; Lama solved it with just a few words,” but that’s a fabrication. He’s just making it up. There’s no way you can understand your own mental problems without your becoming your own psychologist. It’s impossible.

Q: How do you help people understand their problems? How do you go about it?

Lama: I try to show them the psychological aspect of their nature, how to check their own minds. Once they know this, they can check and solve their own problems. I try to teach them an approach.

Q: What, precisely, is the method that you teach for looking at our mind’s true nature?

Lama: Basically it’s a form of checking, or analytical, knowledge- wisdom.

Q: Is it a kind of meditation?

Lama: Yes, analytical, or checking, meditation.

Q: How do you do that? How do you teach somebody to check?

Lama: Let me give you an example. Say I have a good feeling about somebody. I have to ask myself, “Why do I feel good about this person? What makes me feel this way?” By investigating this I might find that it’s just because he was nice to me once, or that there’s some other similar small, illogical reason. “I love him because he did this or that.” It’s the same thing if I feel bad about someone; I don’t like him because he did such and such. But if you look more deeply to see if those good or bad qualities really exist within the person you may see that your discrimination of friend or enemy is based on very superficial, illogical reasoning. You’re basing your judgment on insignificant qualities, not on the totality of the other person’s being. You see some quality you label as good or bad, perhaps something the person said or did, and then exaggerate it out of all proportion. Then you become agitated by what you perceive. Through checking you can see that there’s no reason to discriminate in the way that you do; it only keeps you fettered, uptight and in suffering. This kind of checking analyzes not the other person but your own mind, in order to see how you feel and to determine what kind of discriminating mind makes you feel that way. This is a fundamentally different approach to analysis from the Western one, which focuses excessively on external factors and not enough on the part played by the mind in people’s experience.

Q: So you say that the problem lies more within the person and don’t agree with the point of view that it is society that makes people sick?

Lama: Yes. For example, I have met many Western people who’ve had problems with society. They’re angry with society, with their parents, with everything. When they understand the psychology I teach, they think, “Ridiculous! I’ve always blamed society, but actually the real problem has been inside of me all along.” Then they become courteous human beings, respectful of society, their parents, their teachers and all other people. You can’t blame society for our problems.

Q: Why do people mix things up like that?

Lama: It’s because they don’t know their own true nature. The environment, ideas and philosophies can be contributory causes, but primarily, problems come from one’s own mind. Of course, the way society is organized can agitate some people, but the issues are usually small. Unfortunately, people tend to exaggerate them and get upset. This is how it is with society, but anyone who thinks the world can exist without it is dreaming.

Q: Lama, what do you find in the ocean of a person’s nature?

Lama: When I use that expression I’m saying that people’s problems are like an ocean, but we see only the superficial waves. We don’t see what lies beneath them. “Oh, I have a problem with him. If I get rid of him I’ll solve my problems.” It’s like looking at electrical appliances without understanding that it’s the underlying electricity that makes them function.

Q: What kind of problems do we find below the waves?

Lama: Dissatisfaction. The dissatisfied mind is the fundamental element of human nature. We’re dissatisfied with ourselves; we’re dissatisfied with the outside world. That dissatisfaction is like an ocean.

Q: Do you ask the other person questions about himself or how he feels to help him understand himself?

Lama: Sometimes we do, but usually we don’t. Some people have quite specific problems; in such cases it can help to know exactly what those problems are so that we can offer precise solutions. But it’s not usually necessary because basically, everybody’s problems are the same.

Q: How much time do you spend talking with that person to find out about his problem and how to deal with it? As you know, in Western psychiatry, we spend a great deal of time with patients to help them discover the nature of their problems for themselves. Do you do the same thing or do you do it differently?

Lama: Our methods don’t require us to spend much time with people individually. We explain the fundamental nature of problems and the possibility of transcending them; then we teach basic techniques of working with problems. They practice these techniques; after a while we check to see what their experience has been.

Q: You’re saying that basically, everybody has the same problems?

Lama: Yes, right. East, West, it’s basically the same thing. But in the West, people have to be clinically ill before you’ll say that they’re sick. That’s too superficial for us. According to Lord Buddha’s psychology and lamas’ experience, sickness runs deeper than just the overt expression of clinical symptoms. As long as the ocean of dissatisfaction remains within you, the slightest change in the environment can be enough to bring out a problem. As far as we’re concerned, even being susceptible to future problems means that your mind is not healthy. All of us here are basically the same, in that our minds are dissatisfied. As a result, a tiny change in our external circumstances can make us sick. Why? Because the basic problem is within our minds. It’s much more important to eradicate the basic problem than to spend all our time trying to deal with superficial, emotional ones. This approach doesn’t cease our continual experience of problems; it merely substitutes a new problem for the one we believe we’ve just solved.

Q: Is my basic problem the same as his basic problem?

Lama: Yes, everybody’s basic problem is what we call ignorance—not understanding the nature of the dissatisfied mind. As long you have this kind of mind, you’re in the same boat as everybody else. This inability to see reality is not an exclusively Western problem or an exclusively Eastern problem. It’s a human problem.

Q: The basic problem is not knowing the nature of your mind?

Lama: Right, yes.

Q: And everybody’s mind has the same nature?

Lama: Yes, the same nature.

Q: Each person has the same basic problem?

Lama: Yes, but there are differences. For example, a hundred years ago, people in the West had certain kinds of problems. Largely through technological development, they solved many of them, but now different problems have arisen in their stead. That’s what I’m saying. New problems replace the old ones, but they’re still problems, because the basic problem remains. The basic problem is like an ocean; the ones we try to solve are just the waves. It’s the same in the East. In India, problems people experience in the villages are different from those experienced by people who live in the capital, New Delhi, but they’re still problems. East, West, the basic problem is the same.

Q: Lama, as I understand it, you said that the basic problem is that individuals lose touch with their own nature. How do we lose touch with our own nature? Why does it happen?

Lama: One reason is that we are preoccupied with what’s going on outside of ourselves. We are so interested in what’s going on in the sense world that we do not take the time to examine what’s going on in our minds. We never ask ourselves why the sense world is so interesting, why things appear as they do, why we respond to them as we do. I’m not saying we should ignore the outside world, but we should expend at least an equal amount of energy analyzing our relationship with it. If we can comprehend the nature of both the subject and the object, then we can really put an end to our problems. You might feel that materially your life is perfect, but you can still ask yourself, “Does this really satisfy me? Is this all there is?” You can check your mind, “Where does satisfaction really come from?” If you understand that satisfaction does not depend only on external things, you can enjoy both material possessions and peace of mind.

Q: Is the nature of each person’s satisfaction different or is it the same for people in general?

Lama: Relatively speaking, each individual has his or her own way of thinking, feeling and discriminating; therefore each person’s enjoyment is an individual thing. Relatively. But if you check more deeply, if you look into the profound, unchangeable, more lasting levels of feeling, happiness and joy, you will see that everybody can attain identical levels of enjoyment. In the relative, mundane world we think, “My interests and pleasures are such and such, therefore I have to have this, this and this. If I find myself in so and so circumstances, I’ll be miserable.” Relatively, our experiences are individual; each of us discriminates in our own way. But absolutely, we can experience an identical level of happiness.

Q: Lama, do you solve people’s problems by getting them to withdraw into meditation or cut themselves off from the outside world? Is this the way you treat people?

Lama: Not necessarily. People should be totally aware of both what’s going on in their own minds and how their minds are relating to the outside world, what effect the environment is having on their minds. You can’t close your life off from the world; you have to face it; you have to be open to everything.

Q: Is your treatment always successful?

Lama: No. Not necessarily.

Q: What makes it unsuccessful in certain cases?

Lama: Sometimes there’s a problem in communication; people misunderstand what I’m saying. Perhaps people don’t have the patience to put the methods I recommend into action. It takes time to treat the dissatisfied mind. Changing the mind isn’t like painting a house. You can change the color of a house in an hour. It takes a lot longer than that to transform an attitude of mind.

Q: What sort of time are you talking about? Months? Years?

Lama: It depends on the individual and the kind of problem we’re talking about. If you’re having a problem with your parents, maybe you can solve it in a month. But changing and overcoming the fundamental dissatisfied mind can take many, many years. The waves are easy; the ocean is more difficult. Thank you, that was a very good question.

Q: Do you have any process by which you select the people that you might try to help?

Lama: No, we have no process of selection.

Q: People just come to you?

Lama: Yes. Anybody can come. Irrespective of color, race, class or gender, all human beings have the same potential to solve their problems. There’s no problem that cannot be solved by human wisdom. If you are wise, you can solve them all.

Q: What about people who are not so wise?

Lama: Then you have to teach people how to be wise. Wisdom isn’t intuitive; you have to open people’s minds to it.

Q: Can you help children to solve problems in this way?

Lama: That’s definitely possible. But with children you can’t always intellectualize. Sometimes you have to show them things through art or by your actions. Sometimes it’s not so wise to tell them to do this or do that.

Q: Lama, what sort of advice would you give parents to help their children know their inner nature?

Lama: First I’d probably say it’s better not to intellectualize verbally. Acting correctly and creating a peaceful environment are much more likely to be effective. If you do, children will learn automatically. Even tiny children pick up on vibrations. I remember that when I was a small child, when my parents argued, I felt terrible; it was painful. You don’t need to tell children too much but rather behave properly, peacefully and gently, and create a good environment. That’s all; especially when they’re too small to understand language.

Q: How important is the body in human happiness?

Lama: If you want to be happy, it’s very important for your body to be healthy, because of the close link between your physical nervous system and your mind. A disturbance in your nervous system will cause a disturbance in your mind; changes in your body cause changes in your mind. There’s a strong connection between the two.

Q: Do you have any advice with respect to diet or sexual behavior in keeping the body healthy?

Lama: Both can be important. Of course, we’re all different, so you can’t say that the same diet will suit everybody. As individuals, our bodies are habituated to particular diets, so radical dietary changes can shock our systems. Also, too much sexual activity can weaken our bodies, which in turn can weaken our minds, our power of concentration or penetrative wisdom.

Q: What is too much?

Lama: Again, that depends on the individual. It’s not the same for everybody. Each person’s power of body varies; check through your own experience.

Q: Why are we here? What is our reason for living?

Lama: As long as we’re attached to the sense world, we’re attached to our bodies, so we have to live in them.

Q: But where am I going? Do I have to go anywhere?

Lama: Yes, of course, you have no choice. You’re impermanent, therefore you have to go. Your body is made up of the four ever-changing elements of earth, water, fire and air. When they’re in balance, you grow properly and remain healthy. But if one of them gets out of balance with the rest, it can cause chaos in your body and end your life.

Q: And what happens then? Do we reincarnate?

Lama: Yes, we do. Your mind, or consciousness, is different from your physical body, your flesh and blood. When you die, you leave your body behind and your mind goes into a new one. Since beginningless time we’ve been dying and being reborn into one different body after another. That’s what we understand. Lord Buddha’s psychology teaches that at the relative level, the characteristic nature of the mind is quite different from that of the physical body.

Q: Do we live in order to continually improve ourselves? When you’re an old man, will you be better than you are now?

Lama: You can never be sure of that. Sometimes old men are worse than children. It depends on how much wisdom you have. Some children are wiser than adults. You need wisdom to make that kind of progress during your life.

Q: If you understand yourself better in this life, do you improve in the next?

Lama: Definitely. The better you understand the nature of your mind in this life, the better your next life will be. Even in this life, if you understand your own nature well today, next month your experiences will be better.

Q: Lama, what does nirvana mean?

Lama: Nirvana is a Sanskrit word that means freedom, or liberation. Inner liberation. It means that your heart is no longer bound by the uncontrolled, unsubdued, dissatisfied mind, not tied by attachment. When you realize the absolute nature of your mind, you free yourself from bondage and are able to find enjoyment without dependence upon sense objects. Our minds are bound because of the conception of ego; to loosen these bonds we have to lose our ego. This might seem strange to you, that you should lose your ego. It’s certainly not something we talk about in the West. On the contrary, here we are taught to build our egos; if you don’t have a strong ego, you’re lost, you’re not human, you’re weak. This seems to be society’s view. However, from the point of view of Buddhist psychology, the conception of ego is our biggest problem, the king of problems; other emotions are like ministers, ego is king. When you reach beyond ego, the cabinet of other delusions disappears, the agitated, bound mind vanishes, and you attain an everlasting blissful state of mind. That’s what we call nirvana, inner freedom. Your mind is no longer conditioned, tied to something else, like it is at the moment. Presently, because our mind is dependent upon other phenomena, when those other phenomena move, they take our mind with them. We have no control; our mind is led like an animal with a rope through its nose. We are not free; we have no independence. Of course, we think we’re free, we think we’re independent, but we’re not; we’re not free inside. Every time the uncontrolled mind arises, we suffer. Therefore, liberation means freedom from dependence upon other conditions and the experience of stable, everlasting bliss, instead of the up and down of our normal lives. That’s nirvana. Of course, this is just a brief explanation; we could talk about it for hours, but not now. However, if you understand the nature of inner freedom, you realize that transient sense pleasures are nowhere near enough, that they’re not the most important thing. You realize that as a human being you have the ability and the methods to reach a permanent state of everlasting, unconditional joy. That gives you a new perspective on life.

Q: Why do you think that the methods of Buddhist psychology offer an individual a better chance of success in achieving everlasting happiness whereas other methods may have great difficulty in doing this and sometimes never do?

Lama: I’m not saying that because Buddhist methods work we don’t need any others. People are different; individual problems require individual solutions. One method won’t work for everybody. In the West, you can’t say that Christianity offers a solution to all human problems, therefore we don’t need psychology or Hinduism or any other philosophy. That’s wrong. We need a variety of methods because different people have different personalities and different emotional problems. But the real question we have to ask of any method is can it really put a complete stop to human problems for ever? Actually, Lord Buddha himself taught an amazing variety of psychological remedies to a vast range of problems. Some people think that Buddhism is a rather small subject. In fact, Lord Buddha offered billions of solutions to the countless problems people face. It’s almost as if a personalized solution has been given to each individual. Buddhism never says there’s just one solution to every problem, that “This is the only way.” Lord Buddha gave an incredible variety of solutions to cover every imaginable human problem. Nor is any particular problem necessarily solved all at once. Some problems have to be overcome gradually, by degrees. Buddhist methods also take this into account. That’s why we need many approaches.

Q: Sometimes we see patients who are so grossly disturbed that they need large doses of various drugs or just a lot of time before you can even communicate with them. How do you approach someone with whom you can’t even communicate intellectually?

Lama: First we try slowly, slowly to become friends in order to earn their trust. Then, when they improve, we start to communicate. Of course, it doesn’t always work. The environment is also important—a quiet house in the country; a peaceful place, appropriate pictures, therapeutic colors, that kind of thing. It’s difficult.

Q: Some Western psychologists believe that aggression is an important and necessary part of human nature, that anger is a kind of positive driving force, even though it sometimes gets people into trouble. What is your view of anger and aggression?

Lama: I encourage people not to express their anger, not to let it out. Instead, I have people try to understand why they get angry, what causes it and how it arises. When you realize these things, instead of manifesting externally, your anger digests itself. In the West, some people believe that you get rid of anger by expressing it, that you finish it by letting it out. Actually, in this case what happens is that you leave an imprint in your mind to get angry again. The effect is just the opposite of what they believe. It looks like your anger escaped but in fact you’re just collecting more anger in your mind. The imprints that anger leaves on your consciousness simply reinforce your tendency to respond to situations with more anger. But not allowing it to come out doesn’t mean you are suppressing it, bottling it up. That’s also dangerous. You have to learn to investigate the deeper nature of anger, aggression, anxiety or whatever it is that troubles you. When you look into the deeper nature of negative energy you’ll see that it’s really quite insubstantial, that it’s only mind. As your mental expression changes, the negative energy disappears, digested by the wisdom that understands the nature of hatred, anger, aggression and so forth.

Q: Where did the very first moment of anger come from? The anger that left imprint after imprint after imprint?

Lama: Anger comes from attachment to sense pleasure. Check up. This is wonderful psychology, but it can be difficult to understand. When someone touches something to which you are very attached, you freak out. Attachment is the source of anger.

Dr. Gold: Well, Lama, thank you very much for coming and visiting with us. It’s been very, very interesting.

Lama: Thank you so much, I’m very happy to have met you all.

Prince Henry’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, 25 March 1975