Mind Management and the Dhammapada

(Based on a class lecture by the author to his senior management students at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur, one of the top business schools in the India.)

Mind management can mean numerous things and can have several dimensions. It can mean building self-confidence, self-motivation and drive, improving self-image and avoiding defeatist habits of the mind like laziness, procrastination and so on. It could also mean emotions management, which would then involve managing negative emotions like anger, jealousy, hostility and fears and developing positive emotions like love, ardor, passion and so on. 

The whole wide area of emotional intelligence can fall under mind management. Again the term could be used to describe training the mind in perception, thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation and so on. Other ways of looking at mind management are as development of calmness, focus, centeredness and serenity, as getting into the flow-state, as developing the higher powers of the mind like intuition, etc. 

While some would say mind management is development of self-mastery, assertiveness and so on, Tibetan mind management traditions would say that it consists of stilling the sem or sempa, the lower or ordinary mind, which is “the mind that thinks, plots, desires, manipulates, that flares up in anger, that creates and indulges in waves of negative emotions and thoughts, that has to go on and on asserting, validating, and confirming its ‘existence’ by fragmenting, conceptualizing, and solidifying experience; and, after stilling it and transcending it, rising to the higher mind which they call rig or rigpa, “the primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.”

While all these and many more are valid ways of looking at mind management, here we shall look at it from the standpoint of what the first verse of the immortal Buddhist classic, the Dhammapada, says about it. 

“All that we are,” says the verse, “is the result of what we have thought: It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.” [Dhammapada 01]

The verse reminds us of that old story about the ancient fabler Aesop. The story tells us that one day Aesop was sitting at the gates of Athens when a man who was coming to the city met him there. Stopping near Aesop, the man asked him, “Tell me, Sir, what kind are the people of Athens?’ Aesop looked at the man, thought for a moment and answered, “The worst kind! The very worst possible in the world!” “All right,” said the man, “but I have business there, and it cannot be avoided.” And the man entered the city with a sigh.

Not five minutes later another newcomer who was going to the city stopped Aesop and asked him the same question. Again Aesop took a look at the man and answered, “The best kind! You will find Athens is filled with the most wonderful people in the world!” The man entered Athens beaming, jauntiness added to his steps.

Now this was strange. Aesop had told the first man the people of Athens were the worst kind and the second man they were the best people in the world! Both within five minutes of time! One of the friends who were with Aesop asked him why he gave such completely contradictory answers to the two visitors. Aesop told him, “To the first man, the people of Athens are going to be evil, because he expects them to be evil, as I could learn from the tone of his question. And to the second, the people of Athens are going to be wonderful, because he expects them to be so. As for the people of Athens, they are like people everywhere – neither all bad, nor all good.”

The world we live in is created by us, created by our mind. Whether our world is populated by good people or bad people is decided by us. Our expectations, our interactions with them, our perceptions of them, make them what they are to us. 

If we are lonely, if we are friendless and disliked, it is because we have made it so. If we are well loved, with lots of friends, people coming to us always, again it is because we have made it so. 

And we can be lonely, friendless and disliked in the middle of our own family, in our workplace, in our neighborhood, in the society, everywhere. Just as we can be loved and cherished, surrounded by people who love us in the family, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the society, everywhere. It all depends on what we make the world we live in. 

The bird of paradise cleans its living place for itself and its mate, removing every fallen leaf and every small twig lying there. The pig turns any place it lives into a sty. 

And not only is the world we live in created by us, but what we are, too is decided by us. 

We are made of our thoughts. Our self-image, our personality, our inner world, are all products of our thoughts. As we think, so we become. 

If we constantly entertain angry thoughts in our mind, over time we turn into angry people. Entertain jealous thoughts in our mind, and over time we turn into jealous people. Our thoughts turn us into an intolerant person, a vengeful one, rigid and unyielding and so on. 

Anthropologists speak of two completely differing cultures: The Anxious Dobuan of Melanesia and the Cooperative Zuni of New Mexico. Speaking of the Dobuans, Anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her Patterns of Culture says:

[In the Dobuan world] nothing happens from natural causes; all phenomena are controlled by witchcraft and sorcery. Illness, accident, and death are evidence that witchcraft has been used against one and call for vengeance from one’s kinsmen. Nightmares are interpreted as witchcraft episodes in which the spirit of the sleeper has narrow escapes from hostile spirits… Crops grow only if one’s long hours of magical chants are successful in enticing the yams away from another’s garden. Even sexual desire does not arise except in response to another’s love magic, which guides one’s steps to his partner, while one’s own love magic accounts for his successes.

Ill will and treachery are virtues in Dobu, and fear dominates Dobuan life. Every Dobuan lives in constant fear of being poisoned. Food is watchfully guarded while in preparation, and there are few persons indeed with whom a Dobuan will eat… To the Dobuans, all success must be secured at the expense of someone else, just as all misfortune is caused by others’ malevolent magic. Effective magic is the key to success, and a man’s success is measured by his accomplishments in theft and seduction. Adultery is virtually universal, and the successful adulterer, like the successful thief, is much admired. 

The Dobuan is hostile, suspicious, distrustful, jealous, secretive, and deceitful. He lives in a world filled with evil, surrounded by enemies, witches, and sorcerers. Eventually they are certain to destroy him. Meanwhile he seeks to protect himself by his own magic, but never can he know any sense of comfortable security. 

Compare the Anxious Dobuan to the Cooperative Zuni. Here is what Ruth Benedict says about him:

Cooperation, moderation, and lack of individualism are carried into all Zuni behavior. Personal possessions are unimportant and readily lent to others. The members of the matrilineal household work together as a group, and the crops are stored in a common storehouse. One works for the good of the group, not for personal glory. 

The magical forces in Zuni world are never malevolent and often helpful… Violence and immoderation is distasteful, and even disagreements are settled without open bickering. Unlike most Red Indians, the Zuni rejects alcohol because it tempts men to immoderate, undignified behavior… Responsibility and power are distributed; the group is the real functioning unit.

The Zuni have no sense of sin. They have no picture of the universe as a conflict between good and evil, nor any concept of themselves as disgusting and unworthy. Sex is not a series of temptations but part of a happy life.

The Dobuan’s distrust-filled, hostility-filled, anxiety-filled neurotic world is created by him – both his inner world filled with distrust, hostility, anxiety and neurosis and the outer world in which he lives, filled with the same negativities. And so is the Dobuan’s world of serenity, cooperation, acceptance, understanding and benevolence – inner as well as outer. What the Dobuan is, is his own creation; what the Zuni is his own creation too. 

And that is what the first verse of the Dhammapada says: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”


Continuing the idea, the Dhammapada says in the same verse: “If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.” 

Hatred, anger, jealousy, intolerance, vengeance, greed, lust – these are their own punishments. They make those who harbor them in their hearts suffer, apart from causing suffering to others. A man whose heart is filled with anger, with hatred, with jealousy, vengeance, greed or lust knows no peace of mind. These feelings are like the forest fire born from the friction of two dry branches – the fire first consumes the branches and then burns down the entire forest. 

Negativities make it impossible for us to know what joy is, what happiness is. We may occasionally know excitements, but apart from that, we know no joy. 

A man filled with jealousy and other negative feelings can never enjoy anything. His mind is always plotting the future, he is never in the present. 

The morning is beautiful, the mountains are beautiful, the music, the dance, the game is beautiful, but the man whose heart is filled with hatred does not see any of these – he is not there to see it, he is either in the past or in the future.
Two children play in the shade under a tree, laughing, singing and dancing, but the man sees only the father of the children who has done him harm in the past. 

He may be with his beloved, they may be making love, but he is not there to enjoy it, his heart in the past or the future. Remembering past offences done to him by others, visualizing future actions of vengeance he would take. 

That is what these feelings do to us: deny us the present. And the present is all we have. Denying the present to us, they make us dwell in the past or in the future. And that past and future the evil feelings make us dwell in is always dark, always evil, always vile and horrid. 

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, JK Rowling speaks thus of the Dementors:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself – soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life...

The final punishment of Dementors is that they suck out the souls of people through their mouths through the ‘kiss of the dementors’. After that the people become soulless people, just living bodies.

The Dementors have no eyes. Only a mouth on the face.

This is what evil thoughts do to us. Suck out every good feeling, every happy memory, reduce us to something like themselves – soulless and evil. And we are left with nothing but the worst experiences of our life. 

Evil thoughts, like the Dementors, have no eyes – they only have a mouth. A mouth to suck out all that is good in us, suck out our very soul – ananda, bliss that is our essential nature, our very being. 

Rowling’s Dementors do this from the outside. But negatives make our very hearts their home, if we allow them to. And they turn our hearts into dark, filthy, foul places of decay and despair. 

Once we allow evil thoughts to make our hearts their home, then we lose our inner sanctuaries to them, inner sanctuaries to which we could retire and from which we can draw nourishment when we are famished, we need to be fed from life’s deeper energy resources . They turn those sanctuaries into their loathsome dwelling places. We no more know what serenity is and without serenity of the heart, we can enjoy nothing. Serenity is the canvas on which the joys of life are painted. 

People who give their hearts to negative thoughts invariably suffer from ulcers, from heart diseases, and frequently from delusions and hallucinations, persecution complexes and paranoia and other forms of neuroses and psychosis.

Places where they work, such people turn into dark, foul places like their own hearts. They create suspicion and distrust all around them, drain people’s energies and motivation, and the workplace become filled with the poison in their hearts. When such a person heads an organization, he makes the organization a reflection of his inner being. The organizational climate becomes dark, people there lose initiative and commitment, communication between individuals and between departments breaks down, people feel powerless, with no sense of autonomy, no one shows initiative, no one takes risks, stress mounts, team spirit disappears, interpersonal relations break down, trust vanishes and no one dares to behave with integrity. Leadership at all level fail, employees desert the organization like mice a sinking ship, and soon the organization sinks. 


The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the evil in the hearts of men as Asuri Sampat [‘demoniacal wealth’] and says of people who possess them.

These people of depraved character and poor intellect engage in fearful actions that lead the world to destruction... It is giving themselves up to insatiable desires, filled with vanity, pride and arrogance, setting up evil goals originating from their delusions, that these men of impure practices engage in actions…I have killed this enemy, and I shall kill the others as well, [they plot constantly]. Bewildered by numerous thoughts as a result of being caught in the net of delusion…they fall into a foul hell... [Gita Ch 16]

When Krishna says these people fall into a foul hell, Krishna is not speaking of a hell they would fall into after their death, but the hell into which they fall while still living in this world, the hell their world turns into. 

Any one who has known what intense anger is, what deep hatred is, what boundless jealousy is, what remorseless thirst for vengeance is, has only to look into his own heart to understand the hell Krishna is speaking of. 

What we are now is the result of what we have thought in the past, of how we have managed our mind in the past. It is for us to make what we are and the world around us. 

Our thoughts can make us winners. Our thoughts can make us losers. 

Our thoughts can make our world beautiful, our life beautiful, or they can make our world ugly, our life ugly. 

It is all in our hands, says the Buddha in the first verse of the Dhammapada. 

The Buddha would later add: “Whatever a hater may do to a hater, or an enemy to an enemy, a wrongly-directed mind will do us greater mischief. Not a mother, not a father will do so much, nor any other relative; a well-directed mind will do us greater service.” [Dh 4.42-43]

The Gita tells us the same thing: Atmaiva hyatmano bandhuh, atmaiva ripur atmanah. Your mind is your best friend, and your mind is your worst enemy too.    

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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