I didn’t start practicing meditation because I wanted to develop any kind of special insight or awareness. I didn’t care about the nature of reality.
I wanted to check out. Bliss out. Space out.
So I was a little chagrined when my first lesson from a Tibetan Buddhist lama was, “Observe your thoughts. Don’t try to get rid of them. Don’t blindly follow them. Just observe.”
That’s actually the most basic meditation instruction offered in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in which I’ve been trained.
“Check in; don’t check out.”
Great, I thought. The Buddhist equivalent of the Roach Motel.
At first, I encountered so many thoughts I could barely keep up with them, much less observe them. Over time, though, I’ve found that a little bit of space opens up between the part of my mind that observes my thoughts and the thoughts that typically churn around. When that happens, I get a chance to watch my mind in action.
Not a lot of bunnies and rainbows showing up there, alas. More often than I’d like to admit, my thoughts are pretty cranky—especially when I’m engaged in routine tasks like driving or grocery shopping.
Instead of trying to deflect or change them, I decided one day to have a conversation with what I’ve come to refer to as “the cranky guy inside my head.”
The guy who seems to loom very large, loudly complaining about something: the driver up ahead who won’t step on the gas the very second the light turns green, or the lady who just has to check out every banana in the bin before making a selection.
From the “observation deck” of my mind, I started with a friendly “Hey there.”
“What do you want?” Cranky Guy replied.
“Just wondering what’s going on.”
Cranky Guy began by ticking off a litany of complaints (including slow-on-the-gas-pedal drivers and banana bin ladies).
“I don’t have time for all that,” he moaned. “I’ve got emails to answer. Phone calls to make.”
As I kept listening, a funny thing happened. Cranky Guy’s voice gradually grew softer, less angry. Slowly, his presence began to shrink.
At last, he simply sighed. “I guess I needed that,” he said. “Thanks for listening.”
For the first time, I understood that observation isn’t a passive activity. It’s an inherently curious, respectful, and compassionate response.
Just like listening to friend who needs to vent, when I listen to Cranky Guy, I’m extending a kind of courtesy that is simply, deeply appreciated.
Space opens up. What seemed impossible or challenging feels a bit more manageable.
Sometimes, Cranky Guy even returns the courtesy.
“You might want to hit the gas, kid,” he said, at the end of our conversation. “The light just turned green.”