Unveiling :: Where the mind goes

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Both my students and blog followers responded enthusiastically to my introduction of the metaphor of veils. So we will continue that exploration. Please offer feedback to help make the metaphor more useful in awakening us all to this moment so we may live with greater ease, compassion, and vibrant joyful clarity.

A veil is a pattern of thinking about a particular subject, relationship, or aspect of identity. It’s woven from the repetitious trains of thought that automatically kick in when the subject comes up. The thought patterns form a complex web of beliefs, facts, opinions, and stories that may comfort or distress us. The resulting veil can become so dense, entangled and knotted that it becomes difficult to simply be present with our current experience.

We all have a variety of veils, and it helps to notice them in our own thinking and to understand that everyone else is looking through veils as well. 

Where do veils come from? A sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture activates a memory that triggers thoughts and emotions to follow a habituated pattern.

It’s often easier to see the veils of other people, and it’s useful in cultivating compassion for them. Think of someone you know well. If you can predict how they would react to a specific stimulus—say a comment about politics, religion, or a family member—then you are seeing one of their veils and how it takes them out of this moment and entangles them. You might feel they are ‘blinded’. You might notice how thinking about that person’s word or actions brings up a lot of judgments and opinions in you. That’s one of your veils!

Another example: Let’s say something you read triggers a thread of memory, so while your eyes continue to scan the words or your ears continue to listen to the audio, your attention is now caught up in the threads of a particular veil. A paragraph or a page later, you realize you have no idea what you just read.

It can be the overall subject itself that kicks in a veil. If I encounter a math problem, a veil suddenly appears that contains all the threads of my belief that I am no good at math. Instead of the math problem I see the math tutor’s office my parents sent me to in desperation. But I don’t remember the tutoring. Instead, I remember my high school boyfriend picking me up afterward in a newly acquired MG-TD. (My mind was elsewhere even then, saturated with burgeoning hormones.) All these years later, it’s no wonder it still feels pretty hopeless to decipher a math problem. I can’t see the problem through my tightly woven veil of resistance. Yesterday I came upon a typical problem that asks ‘if a train is traveling at 45 MPH at a distance of…’ Have I lost you yet? That’s about where I lost interest. But then, seeing the veil, I challenged myself to go back and actually try to solve the problem. I wasn’t able to calculate it in my head, but I did manage to pay attention. I did recognize that there was a veil. And for a minute I was even able to thin the veil between my attention and a mathematical challenge. And that’s an accomplishment.

Now notice if a part of your thoughts are still with the tutor or the MG-TD. What patterns of opinions might your mind be following, adding new threads of opinions perhaps into the veil you have about me? Or maybe it tripped you into a veil of nostalgia or misery about your own high school experiences?

Sharing this in class, one of my students, a retired teacher, discovered she had a thick veil of opinions about how the tutor failed me and what he should have done differently. Our veils are not necessarily wrong. Maybe that tutor wasn’t an inspired explainer of the wonders of mathematics. And maybe understanding numeric relationships are just trickier for me than understanding how letters form words and sentences to express ideas. Both can be true. And it’s beside the point of this exploration. We’re only noticing how the veils appear and the effect they have on our lives and our relationships. We can then begin to unravel a knotted veil that may be causing difficulties and understand why. But we’ll save that for another time. Right now understanding the metaphor and noticing a veil when it appears is a huge awakening to the nature of mind.

Can you begin to recognize when your mind gets lost in a pattern of thought instead of being present to fully experience this moment? Veils are a bit like cataracts. We may not be aware of them, yet they are altering the way we see the world. People who have had cataract surgery often say they hadn’t realized how compromised their vision had become until suddenly they could see clearly. What a gift! 

That is the kind of the gift we give ourselves when, through the regular practice of meditation and the cultivation of compassionate awareness, we recognize the nature of veils.

Up for the challenge? Throughout the day, notice the sensory stimuli that prompt a thought pattern. Follow the thread, see where it goes and what memories are activated. Instead of getting lost in those thoughts, notice what emotions rise up and saturate or electrify the threads. Notice any tension rising in the body. You may need to pause to take a breath, relax and release the tension, but see if you can keep paying attention. The tightness comes from the tight tangles and knots of emotional memories that may become difficult to observe. Take care of yourself, take notes, and if it is too difficult, seek help from a qualified therapist or counselor.

And remember that the veil is just a metaphor, one that is still evolving as I continue to explore its many applications. If it doesn’t feel helpful, don’t use it, but keep practicing awareness. 

Photo by Marita King

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