For over a thousand years monks in Tibet have been developing and following a set of aphorisms or “slogans” for training the mind. A core set of 60 slogans is attributed originally to Dipakara Srijnana (982-1054), commonly known as Atisha, a monk who founded the Kadam School in Tibet. Atisha transmitted the slogans to his disciple Dromtrönpa, who transmitted them to his disciples, down to Geshe Chekawa (1101-1175), who compiled them in a written collection titled Seven-Point Mind Training. This text was passed down over the centuries, with numerous scholars writing various commentaries to accompany, explain, and amplify the root slogans.

Although lojong mind training is an ancient practice, and the slogans themselves are over 900 years old, you may be surprised to find how relevant they are for our everyday lives today. “Lojong” literally means “mind training,” with the sense of indoctrination. But we can perhaps think of this practice, within the context of our mechanistic, scientific culture, as a sort of reprogramming of the mind. We now know that ordinarily most of the activity in our brains and the other systems of our bodies connected with the brain function automatically, with little or no input from our conscious minds. Most of the time we operate on autopilot, so to speak. Or to use a computer analogy, there is a basic operating system in our minds full of various programs that are constantly running in the background, taking care of 90% or more of our actions, attitudes, behaviors, habits – and often what we perceive of as conscious choices and decisions.

Buddhist psychology tells us that the ordinary state of our default operating system is to create and sustain an illusory ego, or self, and that our ordinary mind sets out as the primary directive the preservation of this imaginary entity in all circumstances. This project is doomed to failure, however, because the ego does not exist; it is simply an illusion that requires constant effort to maintain – a project that we are ultimately incapable of accomplishing. Enlightenment and nirvana are found by dropping this effort completely, resting in the natural state of mind, which is luminous clarity. The burden of selfhood is lain down, never to be picked up again. So it turns out that although it appears to require considerable effort, in the end realizing enlightenment requires no effort at all; indeed, it is the opposite of effort. Unfortunately, however, we do not simply rest perpetually in the natural state of mind. Instead, we revert to our habitual mental and behavioral patterns. We allow our old default operating system to kick in once again.

What mind training allows us to do is rewrite our operating system. Through mind training we can transcend ego, see through the fundamental illusion, and begin to see and relate with reality as it is. But although we may use analogies to mechanical processes, this is not an engineering project. The actual practice is more organic, like farming. It requires care, gentleness, skillfulness, and patience.