anatta (non-self)

Peace is right here, right now

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

For the past month I’ve been recording a series of daily guided meditations, taking as my basis the teachings in a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball Sutta. This teaching (also sometimes called the “Honeycake Sutta” outlines a feedback loop whereby we end up causing ourselves suffering.

It describes how the basic situation is that consciousness, through sense organs, perceives objects (which can be internal, like thoughts, or external, like the words you’re reading now). This is called “contact.” The word “contact” contains the assumption that there is a self “contacting” a world that is separate from it. The Buddha is not saying this is how things actually are — just that that’s how we assume things are.

Within this field of contact we then have feeling responses to certain perceptions. The sutta doesn’t spell this out, but when the mind detects something as a potential threat it generates unpleasant sensations (feelings) in the body. When it detects a potential benefit it generates pleasant feelings. When something appears to have no bearing on our wellbeing no feeling (a “neutral feeling”) is produced.

What we have pleasant or unpleasant feelings about, we turn our attention to.

What we turn our attention to, we think about.

What we think about we (sometimes) obsess about.

What we obsess about assails us (i.e. causes us suffering) and reinforces our sense of having (or being) a separate self.

So we have a vicious circle, starting with the assumption of a separate self, and reinforcing that sense of separateness. Assuming we are separate, and feeling assailed, we continue to search among those things we have pleasant and unpleasant feelings about, trying to find peace by obsessing about them. This goes on and on and on.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk about this sutta, and he did the usual thing of talking about how mindfulness helps us to damp down the reactivity of this vicious cycle. If we find ourselves thinking obsessively then we can let go of them. With practice we can find ourselves experiencing our feelings and not have that turn into “storytelling” at all. This is of course perfectly valid as an explanation—but it’s also incomplete, because the discourse goes much further than this.

The sutta points out that were there is “no eye (or other sense organs), nothing seen (or perceived through the other senses) and no consciousness, then there is no feeling, no turning of our attention, no thinking, no obsessing, no being assailed, and no construction of a sense of self.

Now this might sound very odd, and might come off as nihilistic. What does it mean that there’s no eye (etc), nothing sensed, and no consciousness? Is it pointing to some state of blankness? To non-existence?

No, it’s simply talking, in very stripped-down language, about how we can drop the notions of a consciousness that is “me, mine, or myself” and a world out there that is “not me, not mine, not myself.” The alternative to this is just being. We just drop the whole process of reactivity all at once: not just letting go of our reactive thoughts, but coming to rest in an awareness of “self-and-world” without conceptualizing in terms of there being a self and a world. (We don’t even conceptualize that self and world are one, because that’s still a conceptualization in terms of self and world.)

Of course this isn’t something we can do in a “one and done” fashion. It’s something we need to do repeatedly, so that as we practice “just being” this starts to become the way we operate. But it is something you can do right now. It’s probably best to stop reading these words for a while and then spend a few minutes doing the following:

  • Just settle into an awareness of “self-and-world” (not taking those terms too literally).
  • Be aware of perceptions of sight and sound, perceptions arising in the body, and so on.
  • Be aware of any thinking that’s arising.
  • If there are any thoughts or impulses that have the character of trying to grasp or push away any aspect of your experience, let them go.
  • Notice how you are happier when you’re just resting with your experience, rather than trying to resist or grasp.
  • More thinking (resisting, grasping) will arise. Over and over again, let go of it.

Now that isn’t difficult. Sure, lots of thinking probably came up. And maybe you saw that as a threat to your wellbeing, and if felt unpleasant, and you had the desire to push that away, to make it stop. And that was you back into reactivity again. But you can notice that, and let it go. It’s natural that resistance and craving arise. You’ve spent a lifetime practicing those!

But for moments, perhaps quite a few moments, there is no conception of our having (or being) a self that perceives a separate world through our sense organs. Consciousness is not perceived as self, and that which is perceived by consciousness is not perceived as other. The whole self/other thing is simply set aside. And we don’t see our feelings as being threats to our wellbeing; instead they just are, and there is simply an awareness of them. And so (in those moments of pure being) the mind doesn’t obsess, and we’re not assailed, and we’re at peace.

This is something, as I’ve said, that we can practice. Now sometimes when people hear that word “practice” they think “Oh, that means there are lots and lots of things I have to do and then I can experience a sense of peace and calm. But practice doesn’t just mean “doing preparation” (like practicing scales on a piano so that you can play Bach). It also has to mean “getting better by actually doing something.” Letting go of your sense of having or being a separate self is something that you can do right now. The peace, contentment, and wellbeing that come from letting go is something that you can experience right now.

Peace is available right here, right now. Don’t try to grasp it. Don’t resist anything you think might be keeping it from you. Just be peace.

Read More

From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (or concentration) and insight.

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described it as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

Tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation, but as two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

In a few days I’m leading a 50-day online course that will lead you, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. I invite you to join me on this exploration of absorption.

Read More

Can Buddhist practice make you more of a dick?

A quick thought experiment for you. You can take a pill to extend your own life by six months. Alternatively you can give the pill to a stranger who is similar to you and add five years to their life.

Which would you choose in this hypothetical test of generosity?

This question was posed to a number of groups, including Tibetan Buddhist monks, non-religious Americans, American Christians, ordinary Buddhists in Bhutan, and Hindus in India.

You’d think that becoming a Buddhist monk would make people particularly compassionate and generous, but it turned out that this wasn’t the case, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to give the pill to a stranger.

I’m stunned. The Tibetan monastics were more likely than any of the others involved in the study to embrace the idea that the self is not fixed. The study was in fact intended to find out whether embracing this Buddhist teaching would affect the fear of death. It seems it did, but in the wrong direction, making monastics more attached to living and more afraid to dying, to the point where they would choose to live at someone else’s expense.

I’m a bit disturbed by this, although it was pointed out that these were novice monks and not people who’d been meditating for years. But this point remains that these monks were less ethical than average Buddhists with far less practice under their belts.

It makes me wonder about who is attracted to monasticism in the first place. Could it be that it attracts people who are more self-centered than average? Or does being a monk make you more selfish, perhaps because of the status involved?

In a different part of the Buddhist world, a western monk, Sravasti Dhammika, pointed out that the “excessive reverence surrounding monks” in the Theravadin world tended to make many of them “complacent and proud.” Monks in Burma have been complicit in genocide against the Rohingya people, and monks in Sri Lanka have advocated violence against the Hindu Tamil population. Things can get ugly.

Anyway, I do find this study fascinating and rather disturbing. One of my social media friends said that it shows that becoming a monk doesn’t automatically make you a better person, but the problem is that it appears that in some respects it might make you less ethical!

As for myself, I think of what it would be like to live for six months knowing that I had deprived someone of five years of life. I’d rather not have that experience. You’re welcome to my pill!

But also, there are definitely times that my practice has made me more selfish and uncaring. Sometimes the notion of having a “higher” calling can lead you to neglect important relationships, and the idea of “non-attachment” can also become an excuse for unkindness.

The main lesson I take from this study is the reminder to keep checking that I’m being kind.


PS. I wrote an email to one of the leaders of the study, suggesting another possible interpretation of the results. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Dr. Garfield.

As a Buddhist I’m very open to the possibility that at times Buddhist practice may make us more selfish — I think many of us have misused teachings on “non-attachment” in ways that have hurt others — but I have a sincere question about the “Death and the Self” study.

I gather that the monks were novices, and my question is, given that novices may have recently (how recently in this case I don’t know) left home and entered a community of which they are the lowliest members, might your findings actually be measuring the effect of what may have been a deeply unsettling change in their social connections? I can imagine that such a change might provoke an anxiety that might overwhelm impulses to generosity.

I’m assuming that the other groups were not selected on the basis of having recently gone through such a profound dislocation in their lives.

Of course I may be misinterpreting the term “novice.” Perhaps these monks have been living in a monastic context for years. Anyway, I thought I should ask the question.

Thanks for your time.

Sincerely yours,
Bodhipaksa

 


And here’s the reply I received:

Dear Bodhipaksa,

Our group included novices and fully ordained monks with a range of years in robes. And we didn’t see any effect f length of time in robes or age. The interesting question in my mind is still, what happens when we look at seriously long-term meditators; I expect a reversal of the effect.

Yours as ever,

J

Read More

To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

Read More

The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

Read More

The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

Read More

Science and Buddhism agree: there is no “you” there

Lori Chandler, Big Think: Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia has verified the Buddhist belief of anatta, or not-self. Neuroscience has been interested in Buddhism since the late 1980s, when the Mind and Life Institute was created by HH Dalai Lama and a team of scientists. The science that came out of those first studies gave validation to what monks have known for years — if you train your mind, you can change your brain. As neuroscience has begun studying the mind, they have looked to those who have mastered …

Read the original article »

Read More

What is insight practice?

reality

What is insight practice? Before answering that question, let’s back up a little and ask, “What is the Buddha’s teaching, or Dharma, essentially about?”

Dharma is about attaining freedom from suffering. All Buddhist practice has this aim.

There are of course many different kinds of Dharma practice. To use a classical model, there is 1) ethical practice, 2) meditative practice, and 3) wisdom practice. These all work in different ways to reduce our suffering.

Ethical practice makes us look at what we do and say, with an eye to whether, in the long term, we are causing ourselves and others suffering. So we train ourselves not to cause physical harm, not to deprive others of their property, not to sexually harm or exploit them, not to lie or speak unkindly to them, and not to suppress our ethical sensibility with drugs and alcohol. These are the five precepts of Buddhism.

Meditative practice helps us cultivate the mindfulness we need in order to observe how our patterns of thought can cause suffering—for ourselves, yes, but for others too as our thoughts are expressed in words and actions. It also helps us to develop qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help both to eradicate emotions such as anger and cruelty that cause harm, and to create positive states of wellbeing, fulfillment, and happiness.

For a long time, most of our practice might necessarily be focused on becoming more ethical in our daily lives and on cultivating skillful qualities such as mindfulness and kindness. In general this makes us happier. But there’s a limit to how far we can go in the direction of cultivating happiness through becoming more skillful. There are deeper factors at work than our relatively superficial (and yet still deep-rooted) emotional and behavioral habits. We can knock down weeds, but unless we uproot them they’ll keep growing back.

This is because the very way in which we interpret our experience is flawed, Buddhism tells us. Our perceptions are distorted. This doesn’t mean that we’re literally subject to, for example, optical delusions. It’s not that a person you’re looking at is really a cat or an alien, or that their hair looks brown but is really green. It’s that the way we interpret our experience is frequently mistaken.

For example, we assume that things (ourselves included) are more stable and reliable than they actually are. So we might assume unconsciously that our parents, or we ourselves, will live forever. We might assume that some painful feeling we have is going to be with us permanently. This creates suffering.

We assume that happiness comes from setting up a constant stream of pleasant experiences while keeping at bay unpleasant experiences. And yet since we can’t control the world, this is simply unattainable.

We assume that we are more separate from the world, and from other beings in the world, than we actually are. Thinking of ourselves as separate we may act as if a concern for our own wellbeing can be separated from our concern for the wellbeing of others: that we can be happy by simply focusing on ourselves.

Insight practice challenges the delusion of permanence, the delusion that happiness can be found through grasping after pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the delusion that we have a separate and concrete existence. It helps us to let go into freedom; to let go into reality.

You might read the words “insight practice” and think I’m talking about “insight meditation.” But practice is more than just meditation. We can cultivate insight and challenge our misperceptions in our daily activities as well as on the cushion. And so we can do so outside of meditation as well. Additionally, we should pausing from time to tome to focus on non-insight meditations, in order to remind ourselves that the goal of Buddhism is not simply one of attaining insight, but of developing kindness, compassion, and moral excellence.

We’re going to take one of those pauses right now. So to get started with meditation, let’s begin with a simple mindfulness of breathing—something to help us calm, focus, and steady the mind so that we can see beyond our delusions.

Read More

Taking the self out of self-compassion

man looking at universe

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever seen was by James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, who is now associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

Poets are particularly prone to taking their own lives, and Pennebaker and Stirman were interested to see if the writings of poets who had killed themselves contained linguistic clues that could have predicted their fate. They matched together, by age, era, nationality, educational background, and sex, poets who had and had not killed themselves, and ran their works through a computer program that looked for patterns in the language they used.

What they found was that the poets who had killed themselves were far more self-referential than those who hadn’t. Right from the beginning, those who ended up committing suicide used the words “I,” “me,” and “my” in their writings far more often than those who died naturally or are still alive. Also, the suicidal poets became increasingly self-referential as time passed, using first person singular pronouns more and more often, right up until they took their own lives.

Poets who didn’t kill themselves, on the other hand, used those words more rarely, and instead referred more often to “we,” “us,” and “ours”—words that embed a sense of connection. And those words were used more and more often over the course of their lives.

Part of our conditioning tells us that if we want to be happy we need to focus on “number one.” And yet, as the Harry Nilsson song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Connecting with others, and thus reducing our focus on ourselves, is an important form of emotional buffering, helping us to deal with life’s ups and downs, and also providing the rich and nourishing experience of loving and being loved. Those who disconnect and withdraw into themselves experience greater suffering, to the extent that life can become unbearable.

So what does this tell us about self-compassion? After all, isn’t the word “self” right there in the name? Does this mean that focusing on ourselves might actually make us less happy?
In self-compassion, one part of us sends compassion to a suffering part of ourselves, not because the suffering part of us is a part of us, but simply because compassion is the appropriate response to pain. It doesn’t actually matter whether the suffering is inside us or outside us, part of us or not part of us—the compassionate part of us has compassion for suffering because that’s what suffering needs. 

In a way there’s no such thing as “self-compassion.” There’s just “compassion.” There’s just the desire to care for anything that’s suffering, and to remove the suffering if possible, with no regard to whether it’s “our” suffering or not. By cultivating compassion for suffering within ourselves, we automatically become more compassionate toward others, and thus become more connected to them, and thus become happier. With self-compassion we don’t see ourselves as different from others because of our suffering, but see ourselves as connected to others because we all suffer.

Read More

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” Montaigne

montaigneI’ve been depressed a few times in my life, but only once has it ever got so bad that I felt I had to seek medication. My doctor prescribed me something—I no longer remember what—and after taking just one tablet my depression instantly lifted. This was no miracle drug; these medicines take days or even weeks to have an effect. In fact the medication had nothing to do with my recovery, and the reason I felt better so quickly was, I think, because I admitted I was helpless.

Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th French essayist, said that although he was not able to govern external events, he was able to govern himself. This beautiful observation embodies a truth that is old, but which we often have to be reminded of anew.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can, if not control, then at least influence how we respond to it. We often think of happiness in terms of providing ourselves with an endless stream of pleasant experiences, with no unpleasantness to mar the perfection of our paradise. And yet we can never achieve such a goal. The conditions that exist in the world are far too complex for us to be able to manage. We may want to have only pleasant experiences, but the world isn’t going to cooperate with us. We’re always going to have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences

From the Buddhist point of view, the truest happiness comes from not allowing ourselves to be swayed either by the pleasant or unpleasant. This is what’s called “equanimity,” or upekkha. When pleasant experiences arise, we enjoy them, yes, but we don’t try to get more out of them than they’re able to give us. We don’t try to hold onto them, and recognize that they’re impermanent phenomena. When unpleasant experiences arise, we bear with them, knowing that they’re going to pass, not causing ourselves further pain by resisting the discomfort with thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is terrible!” We allow all experiences to come and go.

This doesn’t mean that we become inactive and passive, simply putting up with things that can be changed: if the room is cold we can turn up the heat; if there’s injustice in the world we can campaign to right it. But there are always going to be things we can’t control.

My depression was one such thing. I didn’t know at the time what had cause the depression, and I’m not 100 percent sure I do now, but I suspect that what was keeping it in motion was that I thought I should be able to fix it. And the more I was unable to fix my depression, the more depressed I stayed. What might have been no more than a passing mood ended up being with me for weeks. In seeking held and telling my doctor that I had a problem I couldn’t control, I freed myself from thinking that I had to control or should be able to control the depression. Without the internal pressure that came from needing to be in control, my depression had nothing to feed on, and simply vanished.

In this case, “governing myself” didn’t mean “being in control of everything.” No government is ever in total control of its nation. A government is an organ of adaptation. Instead, governing myself meant taking the most appropriate action open to me, which in this case was relinquishing my belief that I should be able to control my experience. Sometimes the best use of our ability to control is surrendering the illusion that we have control.

Read More
Menu