Mind Programs and The Dharma Operating System

When you turn on your computer, do you have specific programs that automatically start along with the operating system?  Both the Windows and Mac Operating Systems let you select programs that will turn on immediately each time you boot up. In daily life, most of us have specific mental programs that automatically start as we get up and move into our day. Its unlikely we made a conscious decision to activate these programs and we may not even be aware of them, but they regularly influence our thoughts, emotions and our perceptions of who we are.

Even during meditation, these programs are often running stealthily in the background, affecting the quality of meditation. At times the programs may induce anxiety and restlessness, making it difficult to concentrate or cultivate presence on the cushion. One of the basic benefits of meditation is the enhanced awareness that allows us to see our hidden programs. Even for experienced meditators, however, the hardest mind programs to see clearly are related to self identity and the need to affirm that identity.

To work with these programs in meditation you first have to recognize they are running. If you regularly feel anxiety or restlessness on the cushion, for example, you may discover familiar themes playing out in your mind as you look more closely. Perhaps you are anxious about how you will perform on an upcoming project, maybe you’re criticizing yourself for not living up to your or someone else’s expectations or worrying about how effectively you’re navigating an important relationship in your life. These programs are related to our perceptions of who we are, yet they are not our  “dharma operating system.“ They are only a limited element of our consciousness, just as our favorite computer programs have no functionality without the operating system. Our mental programs are a byproduct of something larger, our great nature that sustains life and allows life to pass away.

Your identity needn’t be caught in repetitive, often invisible programs. With consistent practice, you can gradually cultivate your awareness to recognize when the programs are running. When you truly realize they aren’t who you are, the programs might still run but not run your life nearly as much.

Your true nature includes the totality of what you experience in this moment, nothing excluded. All of the sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings; the barking dog and the wind in the trees, the pain in your knees, tightness in your chest, and the joy of realizing all of this  is continually arising and passing away. So let the programs run if they must, but expand the scope of your consciousness so you can see them for what they are:  only a small part of the greater whole of awareness. Soon the programs will lose some of their power over your mind and you’ll discover you can operate quite effectively without them.



Three Day Meditation Retreat Recap

“Without spending some time alone with yourself, looking at your own mind, going through the withdrawal process of whatever habits you are most addicted to, and facing some level of pain in that withdrawal process, gaining strength and clarity in the end, there’s no way you can become a fully developed, mature, spiritual person.”
– Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche


This quote nicely sums up the value of taking time out for meditation retreats. In fact, our three day meditation retreat at Bethany Hills provided an ideal time to slow down, open our hearts and experience what is always with us but frequently overlooked. With our everyday distractions far removed, it was a perfect time to see our minds more clearly and glimpse our true nature. Or even spend significant time fully awake in it.

Nine of the people attending were on their first residential meditation retreat. To most, it required an adjustment initially — many of them discovered that engaging in sitting and walking meditation all day was more challenging than expected. But by Saturday as I scanned the circle, I often  saw a settled and deeply peaceful look on everyone’s faces. By Sunday morning most people reported having an important breakthrough or two into their practice. Sitting for three days with sincerity and commitment almost always yields this fruit.

It’s been two and a half years since I organized and led a weekend residential retreat in the Nashville area. The facilities we used in the past aren’t quite up to what we need now and it took a while to find a suitable location. I was very fortunate to have found Bethany Hills, which is set in a beautiful private area in Kingston Springs. The lodge has a large room perfectly suited to meditation, surrounded by windows and and a big wrap around deck. When the windows were open we were deeply immersed in the natural world, with the birds and frogs providing a beautiful, sometimes comical symphony. (When four or five bullfrogs call out in harmony, their ungainly croaking is simultaneously lovely and amusing.)

Saturday evening I led a contemplation and guided meditation on “emptiness of the breath” which I recorded and plan to post soon. Stay tuned for information about upcoming One Dharma meditation retreats.

Photo of Bethany Hills lake by John Young