anatta (non-self)

The Buddha’s radical path of jhana

buddha statue

Jhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a strangely controversial topic in Buddhism. I say “strangely,” because it’s rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly, that there should be anything controversial about deeper meditative absorption.

In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like, “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

See also:

“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhaāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālā ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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The dark knight of the soul

wildmind meditation news

Tomas Rocha, The Atlantic: For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why.

Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the …

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Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist

Phrenology head

On the difficulty of getting our heads around “non-self”

A lot of people have trouble understanding the Buddhist teaching of anatta (non-self). That’s understandable, because understanding non-self is difficult. It’s a concept that it’s hard to get the head around.

People assume that “someone” has to be in control. They assume that they have a self that they somehow have to lose. And the thought of losing this self brings up problems: sometimes they fear that if they lose this self, then there will be no control (because someone has to be running the show). Sometimes they think that if there were not this “someone” in control, there would be no possibility of making choices: they assume there has to be “someone” who chooses. They wonder how anyone can live without a self.

The Buddha didn’t actually teach that there is no self. I, and other teachers, often say that there’s no self, but this is just shorthand for saying that the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist. The self you don’t have — the illusory self — is usually thought of as a unitary entity that sits inside you, pulling all your disparate experiences and actions into a single whole. It’s also in charge. And it’s conscious. You don’t have this kind of self — or in short-hand, you don’t have a self. Therefore you don’t have a self to lose, and those problems of “how to live without a self” don’t arise. You already don’t have a self, and you already do just fine. What you do have is an illusion of having a self, and that illusion makes you do less fine than if you got rid of it. The trouble is that once you believe you have a self, and you recognize that your self isn’t happy a lot of the time, you have to start wondering what kind of self you have. It’s obviously lacking! Maybe it’s broken! Maybe it’s not as good as other people’s selves! The illusory self becomes a real burden and gets in the way of our being happy.

See also

An important aspect of this illusory self is that we assume it acts consciously. It seems natural to think that there are decisions we make consciously (I decide to lift my arm and it lifts), and decisions that we make unconsciously (I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand rather than that brand of cereal, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed). But this is incorrect. Even our so-called conscious decisions are made unconsciously. Ben Libet showed back in the 1980s that there’s a burst of activity happening outside of conscious awareness when we make a “conscious” decision to do something, like press a button, and that this activity occurs prior to conscious awareness that a decision has been made. More recently, the ability to look inside the brain in real time, through fMRI, has allowed researchers to know what a person is going to decide a full six seconds before the person themselves. Decisions are made outside of conscious awareness, and although we think that we make decisions consciously, we don’t.

Here’s a video showing some of that research (I’m afraid you’ll have to manually skip to 47m 53s to see the relevant portion, although if you have the time it’s worth watching the whole video). [The original video was taken down, but this is the portion I was referring to.]

BBC Horizon The Secret You on Vimeo.

Many people think that this is a real problem because they assume that consciousness is the self, or that the self is consciousness. But neither of those things is true. This is all easy to accept once we’ve seen through the delusion of self, but if we’re still caught up in that delusion then it’s hard to process. There’s a sense of bafflement, or the whole question is dismissed as unimportant, or the problems with the self-view are acknowledged, but there’s a “Yes, but…”

Even if you’ve seen through that delusion, it’s hard to describe what’s actually going on, but it’s worth trying. One way of doing this is the form of teaching known as “direct pointing.” Direct pointing (as I understand it) encourages practitioners to look beyond their delusions to see what’s really going on, and to look at the delusions and to realize their inadequacy. The evidence for non-self is omnipresent and should be obvious, but we choose to ignore it. However we don’t all have access to that kind of guidance.

It’s also useful, I think, to try to give people models that better help them to understand conceptually what’s going on. I’ve struggled to come up with metaphors that help people understand non-self, and I think I’ve finally come up with one that is accurate and (I hope) helpful.

The Boys in the Basement

phren1Let’s start with the “boys in the basement.” This is a term that the novelist Stephen King uses to describe the unconscious creative forces that actually write his novels. (Feel free to refer to the “Girls” or even the “Beings” in the basement.) Any writer knows that the words we write emerge, mysteriously, from “down there” in some part of the mind which is intelligent and creative, and to which there is no conscious access. There is a conscious awareness of what “the boys” produce, but we never see them at work. Those of us who write are very grateful for the work that the boys do, down there in the basement. We know that “we” (the conscious parts of us) don’t write anything.

While most of us recognize the operation of an unconscious intelligence, we naturally assume that there is also a “conscious self” that is “up here” and that makes some, perhaps most, of our decisions, and that it relates in some way to “the boys” — that other part of us that’s unconscious. We assume there is a conscious self and an unconscious self: conscious decisions and unconscious decisions. But there is in fact no conscious self. There’s just an illusion of a conscious self. And therefore there are no conscious actions, in the sense that the conscious part of us does not act; it merely is conscious of actions as they take place.

The basement and the empty room

phren2Here’s a model to help you see how this works. It’s a model representing your brain, or your mind.

Imagine a building with a central atrium, from which several other rooms branch. The atrium itself is empty. The other rooms contain various members of “the boys” — think of them as subcommittees with voting powers. To maintain the metaphor of the boys in the basement, imagine that all the rooms connected to the atrium are actually downstairs. The boys in the basement inhabit separate rooms, and so are not a coherent group. There may be several of them in one room, and the group members can have discussions amongst themselves. Even within one room they are not united. And each room has a different “culture” as you would expect to see in separate groups of people. Some are more emotional, some more rational. Some take a long-term view, some are very short-sighted. Some are selfish, some consider the needs of others.

Some of the basement rooms have connecting doors, so that discussion between different sub-groups of the boys can take place, entirely outside of awareness. But in other cases the rooms are entirely separate, apart from the fact that they all open into the atrium, upstairs. Therefore the groups in the different rooms are not all in direct contact with each other.

The communications channels are actually a bit more complicated than this, because we are not simply minds. We are embodied, and bodily sensations and movements also act as means of communication between otherwise separate rooms in the basement. And when we act in the world, we perceive our own actions, and this is itself a form of communication — information flowing from one room in the basement, to the world, back to other rooms in the basement. Speaking, for example, is not only an action that we take, but data that we receive, and so verbal communication with others includes communication between different parts of ourselves as well.

This model attempts to reflect something odd about the brain. It’s based on the fact that the brain was not designed from the ground up, but evolved in fits and starts, ad hoc, and by adding new “modules.” The brain is modular, and some modules cannot communicate directly with some other parts. That’s why I see the “boys” as being in separate rooms. Now the boys may be split up, but they have to communicate, somehow. And that’s where the central atrium comes in. This room represents our conscious awareness. There is no one in this room. The atrium is an empty space. It’s merely a conduit for communications. Therefore, there is no “conscious decision-making.” There is no “conscious mind” that can make decisions. What happens is that there are some decisions — but only some — that pass through the atrium and that various parts of the mind are aware of. We call this conscious awareness.

There are also decision-making processes that take place entirely outside of consciousness. This is like the “boys” having discussions amongst themselves — sometimes just the boys in one room, and sometimes the boys in different rooms having discussions though their connecting doors. This direct mode of communication of course bypasses the atrium, so that some decisions are made entirely outside of conscious awareness.

In this model, there is no central “self.” What we are is a kind of community. None of the members of this community is in charge of the whole show. There isn’t even one part of this community that knows everything that’s going on. Decisions don’t come from one internal source, but from debate amongst many different aspects of ourselves. None of the “boys” is fixed or permanent, either. They’re all in a state of flux.

How this works

phren3To give an example of how this works, imagine a typical situation where there’s emotional conflict. Say someone has said something, and we’ve felt hurt, and we want to say something cutting back to them, but we are also aware that doing so may well lead to further conflict. I see it working like this:

We hear the cutting words. In one particularly deep and dark room in the basement, the message is taken as a threat. From this room, signals are sent down into the body, activating pain receptors in the abdomen. This is what we call “hurt feelings.” The parts of the brain that give rise to hurt feelings are ancient and not well connected to other parts of the brain. The creation of an internal painful stimulus is a form of communication among various rooms in the basement. In this peculiar, round-about way, one part of the brain communicates to others that there is a situation needing their attention.

Having received this embodied message, some of the boys who are more emotional may start clamoring for us to retaliate. Those messages pass through the atrium, and so we’re conscious of them. Some of the boys who take a cooler, longer-term view of our life suggest restraint. And those messages too pass through the atrium. Which will prevail? That depends on many factors, including past habits: are the boys in the emotional room stronger than those in the more rational room? Have they had more opportunity to be exercised in the past? But there is in effect a kind of debate going on. The atrium becomes a conduit for debate, although it’s not a debating chamber as such; the boys stay firmly in the basement, and only their messages travel through the atrium.

There is a debate, but there is at some point a resolution of the conflict. Let’s be optimistic and say that in this case the cooler parts of us make the stronger case and drown out the voices from the more emotional and retaliatory parts. The words, “I felt hurt when you said that,” emerge from one of the verbal parts of the basement. These words are not said by the “conscious mind” since there is no conscious mind that is capable of taking action. Instead, some of the boys send messages to the vocal apparatus and the words appear, straight from the unconscious. We may think we acted consciously (that’s a phenomenon we’ll look at in the next section), but that is a delusion.

The other person hears the words that have been uttered, has their own internal debate, involving their own “boys,” and they have their own response. Perhaps they are apologetic, and harmony between us is restored.

Acting and receiving feedback from our environment leads to changes within us. Our having acted, lessons are learned. Some of the boys are responsible for keeping track of patterns (in the past, this happened and that painful or pleasurable result ensued). The pattern “I did not retaliate and instead expressed that I was hurt” led to the result “I avoided further conflict and instead experienced harmony with the other person.” This correlation is logged, and will affect, in some small way, our future actions. This is how emotional intelligence arises.

In looking at brain activity, we see something very similar to the above. We see the deliberation of the boys in the basement represented as electrical and metabolic activity, which takes place before any conscious awareness of a decision arises. But the one thing I haven’t described is how we come to think that we consciously make decisions. Because there is a persistent and convincing delusion that when we say something like “I felt hurt when you said that,” we initiated the action consciously. We believe there is a conscious mind that makes things happen, even though no such thing takes place.

The “plagiarist,” and the illusion of self

phren4Imagine, if you will, another room branching off of the atrium. This room hasn’t so far been mentioned. It contains another of the boys, and this one is a control-freak. He observes thoughts and impulses passing through the atrium, and he thinks “I did that.” I call him “The Plagiarist.” He doesn’t act, but he thinks he’s responsible for everything he sees going on. He sees a thought going by in the atrium, and he thinks he did it. He’s aware of a decision being made as it arises in consciousness, and he thinks it’s his decision, even though he wasn’t aware the decision had been made elsewhere, in a part of the basement that’s inaccessible to him. He’s like a student who sees a classmate handing in an essay, and he says, “I did that.” The weird thing is that he genuinely believes his own story, much as, in some Buddhist accounts of Brahma, the god genuinely believes that he is the creator of the universe, although he was merely a passive observer of the latest version of the universe as it condensed.

The plagiarist, although he is nothing more than another of the boys in the basement, gives us the sense that we have a self that is conscious and in charge, that responds to incoming stimuli, deliberates, and makes decisions. The plagiarist is absolutely not a self. The plagiarist does nothing. He knows nothing except what passes through conscious awareness. He has no access to the true decision-making parts of the mind, and is unable to initiate any action. He is a mere observer. All he does is claim responsibility for actions taken by others of the boys in the basement, and he attaches the label “I” to them. “I” did this. “I thought that.” Even when those actions change and contradict each other, he still thinks they are his thoughts and actions. One moment “I” believe “I” want to get out of bed. The next moment “I” want to stay snug under the covers. The contradictions do not faze the plagiarist. He is convinced that he is in control. Buddhism calls him ahamkara, the “I-maker” and mamankara, the “mine-maker.”

I mentioned before, in passing, two examples in which we assume there are some decisions made by the conscious mind and other decisions made unconsciously. The examples are: 1) I decide to lift my arm and it lifts (a “conscious decision”), and 2) I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand of cereal rather than another brand, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed (an unconscious decision). Let’s look at each in turn.

1. I decide to lift my arm and it lifts. We assume that this is a conscious act: that the conscious mind made a decision to act, and an action followed. Actually, the decision to act was made unconsciously. We know this from neuroscience, where the activity that represents the decision to lift the arm takes place up to six seconds before we’re consciously aware that the decision has taken place. Say we’ve been asked, as part of a neuroscience study, to lift our arm randomly. The boys in the basement decide when a good time is, initiate the decision to act, the decision passes through conscious awareness, and the plagiarist, more or less instantaneously, says “I did that.” There is no conscious awareness of the decision until it emerges from the basement and passes through the atrium. There is still choosing going on. It’s just an illusion that it happens as a result of conscious choice.

2. In choosing one cereal brand over another, exactly the same process happens. In the basement, the boys take into account a number of factors regarding cereal — cost, familiarity, and the promises of excitement and healthiness (for example) communicated by the advertising we’ve been exposed to. The choice to buy the new cereal erupts into consciousness and the plagiarist once again says “I did that.” And so we feel we’ve made a conscious choice. When a scientist comes along and tells us that it’s likely we’ve been swayed by advertising, we may choose not to believe them, because we think we made our decision consciously.

Both situations are identical. Our problem is that we assume that the second case is an anomaly: that normally we make decisions consciously, and that that usual mechanism has been altered. In fact, all our decisions are made unconsciously, by the boys in the basement. The notion of conscious choice is an illusion.

Three experiments

phren5The evidence for non-self (that is, that the kind of self we think we have doesn’t exist) is omnipresent, but we ignore it as an inconvenient truth. We’re very much invested in the notion that we choose consciously. So here are three experiments you can do that will help you to see through the delusion of conscious choice. These experiments are forms of the “direct pointing” that I mentioned earlier.

Experiment 1: Seeing thoughts appear

Our thoughts should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to think before the thought appears. So just sit quietly, think “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” and watch. A thought will appear at some point. Did you know what that thought was going to be before it arose? Can you see how your own thoughts are a mystery to you? Can you notice how, even though you didn’t know what your next thought was going to be, there was an instant sense of “I did that; that’s my thought”? Can you slip deeper into observing your thoughts appearing, and let go of that clinging and identification — let go of that activity of claiming thoughts as your own? Can you let the origin of your thoughts be a mystery to you?

Now you might think, Yes but … I consciously generated the thought, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” Well, certainly that thought arose in consciousness, and you (or your plagiarist) took the credit for it when it appeared. But how did you create that thought? Are you aware of any process by which the words were assembled, and presented to conscious awareness? That thought was just another product of the boys in the basement. It was not a thought generated by the conscious mind, because the conscious mind doesn’t do anything.

Experiment 2: Hearing words appear

Our words should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to say before the words appear, fully formed. Now, we sometimes do have thoughts that arise (“I’m going to say this…”), rattle around in the mind, and then appear as speech. Those thoughts, of course, come from the basement. Although the plagiarist takes credit for them, they weren’t created in consciousness, but only passed through it.

Most of the time, though, when we’re in the flow of conversation, our words go straight from the basement to our speech apparatus. It’s interesting to notice this. So the experiment here is to notice how, in the flow of conversation, you hear your own words at the same time as the person you’re conversing with hears them. Become an audience for your own words, and pay as much attention to hearing your speech as if you were listening to someone else.

You’ll notice that you rely on hearing your own speech to know what you’re saying! You have no special insight into what you’re going to say before you hear the words spoken aloud.

Experiment 3: Observing actions

Switching from hearing to seeing, start to notice your hands, and other parts of your body, in action. Become an observer of your own body. Typing is a great way to do this, because your hands are in front of you and easy to see, and because they’re moving automatically. You don’t have to instruct your hands where to go — they just type on their own. Or observe your hands on the steering wheel as you drive. Notice that you’re not having to consciously instruct them how to move. They’re moving on their own. Your conscious mind is not in control. The most it does is to take the credit for bodily movements that are controlled by your unconscious.

Once again, you may think, Yes, but … I can consciously instruct my arm to move.” Well, it appears so. But when you think “I’m going to move my arm” this thought comes from the boys in the basement. If you observe such a thought appearing, you’ll notice that you don’t really know where it’s coming from. And the action that follows that thought also comes from the basement. There are times when you try to move your arm and you can’t — for example if you’ve been hypnotized, or if you’re paralyzed by fear.

Free will

phren6I hope can see from the above how free will and non-self aren’t incompatible. Actually, none of our decisions are made by a “conscious mind.” The best that happens is that some of our decisions become known in conscious awareness. But there is still choice happening. It’s just that it happens as a result of thinking processes that go on outside of conscious awareness, and which only later (if at all) pass into the “atrium” of conscious awareness.

It must be said, though, that “free will” is an inappropriate term to describe the kind of freedom to choose that is open to us. The term “free will” is hyperbolic, because our ability to choose is always constrained. We can decide that we’re going to be happy from now on, or that we’re going to stop thinking in meditation, but those things aren’t going to happen. It’s not that these things aren’t under our conscious control: nothing is under our conscious control. The problem is that our unconscious is not a unified thing: it’s composed of varying “basement rooms” containing different groups of “boys” with different agendas. One group of boys may say “Now we’re going to stop thinking” but there’s no reason that other groups should listen to them. Some of the boys are really very short-sighted and primitive, and are inclined to generate thoughts and actions that lead to unhappiness. We just don’t have the kind of unified self that we like to think we have.

But we can and do make choices, even if they’re selected from a limited menu of options. We have a relatively free will. In fact the more mindfulness we develop, the more free our will is.

Non-self and training

phren7Many Buddhist scriptures compare training the mind to training wild animals — especially to training wild elephants. We tend to assume, because we assume that there is a conscious self, that this represents the conscious self training the unconscious mind. But there is no conscious self, in the sense of a conscious entity that is able to act. What these metaphors represent is one part of the unconscious (some of the boys in the basement) training other parts of the unconscious (others of the boys in the basement).

Some parts of the mind are “wiser” than others, and are better able to predict what actions will lead, in the long term, to our happiness and well-being. Our problem at first is that the less wise, more short-sighted, more reactive parts of the mind are powerful and vocal. We may know, on some level, that yelling at people isn’t helpful or that resentment makes us unhappy, but it’s hard to resist, because the “boys” in charge of such actions are strong, and the other boys’ voices are weak in comparison. In fact for a long time we probably didn’t realize that these actions were unhelpful. Our evolutionary history tells us they are. But at some point some of the boys figure out that there are more helpful ways of behaving. From time to time they manage to “outvote” the other inhabitants of the basement, and we begin to associate those actions with pleasant consequences.

I gave an example of this above, where very ancient parts of the brain that keep track of patterns (this event in the past led to unpleasant consequences, while this other event led to a pleasant outcome) can be retrained.

In the elephant-training metaphor, the elephant trainer doesn’t represent a “conscious mind” or “self” training our unconscious forces, but a wiser unconscious part of us training less wise unconscious parts of us.

Where does the illusion of self arise from?

Phrenology Head diagramI don’t think anyone knows. I have a hunch, though, that it’s to do with how we create, in our minds, models of the world.

At some point in our early development we start to predict the future. We start to think in terms of “last time I wrote on the wall, mommy was angry; I’ve just written on the wall, and mommy will be angry again.” This is first of all done visually. We remember (see, hear) mommy yelling in the past, and remember how upset we were, and we imagine mommy in the future yelling again, and we feel upset. In this kind of mental activity, we have constructed not only a model of mommy, but a model of ourselves. We run this model of ourselves in various mentally simulated environments in order to predict the outcomes of various actions we take, and to predict how various future events might affect us. We end up with a model of ourselves in the substrate of our own mind. We create a kind of “mini-me,” or homunculus, in our imagination, and refer to it constantly in order to plan the future. Even when we recall the past, we are evoking this homunculus. Notice how, when you recall an event from the past, you see yourself as if from the outside, as one of the characters. You don’t see past events from an internal perspective, through the eyes of your past self, but from an external perspective, looking at a model of yourself in a reconstructed simulation of the past.

Could this homunculus be the origin of our sense of self? Do we in some way take this simulated character representing ourselves to actually be ourselves? I suspect we do. Just for clarity, I’m positing this homunculus as being at least part of the illusion of self. I suspect that we imagine this homunculus as inhabiting the “atrium” — as inhabiting the conscious space that exists in part of the mind — and as being the part of us that generates our actions.

If this is what’s going on, it’s a convincing illusion, but also a burdensome one: this imagined self, as I’ve suggested, is always found to be inadequate. It is dukkha, unsatisfactory. It is always being compared to other imagined selves, and this comparison leads to an inevitable sense of insecurity. That insecurity leads to aversion and craving, which lead in turn to increased, and unnecessary, suffering. And so to reduce our aversion we need first to train the mind to act less from aversion and craving, and more from mindfulness and compassion, and second to lose the belief we have in this illusory self, which we imagine to exist inside us, pulling the strings, and acting consciously.

I hope the model I’ve offered here will help you to dispel that illusion of a self, and to lay down the burden that accompanies it.

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Six Element Practice: Guided Meditation MP3

aryaloka Buddhist center

Here’s another guided meditation from the retreat I’m co-leading with Sunada at Aryaloka. This one’s the Six Element Practice, which is a reflection on non-self.

The quality of the recording is not great, and the only editing I’ve done is to increase the volume and to remove a cough or too. You’ll hear the building creaking, and people shuffling (and no doubt some coughs that I missed).

Still, I hope it’s of benefit:

Here’s an audio-only version:

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“Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts.” Henry David Thoreau

Photo of Henry David Thoreau

When I’m talking with people about the Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatta) they often say things like, “But how can you function in daily life without a self?” I usually answer, “Well, how do you function in daily life without a self?” Because Buddhism doesn’t say that we have to lose our selves — it says that we have no selves to lose. The reason we assume we have to lose our selves is because we walk around with the delusion that we do actually have a self in the first place.

So we all go about our daily lives without selves; it’s just that most of us drag around with us a sense that we have this “thing” called a self. I use the word “drag” because our sense of self is a burden. Once you have the belief that you have a self, then you have to wonder what kind of self you have. Is it a likeable self or an unlikeable self? Is this self good enough or not good enough? Is it good or bad?

This last question was something that confused my children a lot when they were younger. We never said to them things like “You’re bad” or even “You’re good.” We might say that a particular action they’d taken was good or bad (although we’d be more likely to point out the consequences of their actions than to use those labels). But we’d go to visit relatives, who would ask the kids, “Have you been good?” And this really puzzled the children. They found themselves perplexed about whether they were “good” or not. And how would they know, anyway? How can the entirety of a rapidly developing human life be packaged into crude containers like the words “good” or “bad”?

There’s a huge amount to be said about the teaching of non-self, but I’d like just to focus on one thing, which is the simple observation that we don’t know what we’re going to think before we think it. If we don’t have selves, then this should be evident in some way. And actually, one of the things you find when you lose this sense of having a sense of having a self is that the evidence is everywhere. And it always has been everywhere. It’s just that you’ve been ignoring it.

And one of those pieces of evidence that is omnipresent and yet almost universally ignored is the nature of our thoughts. Thoreau’s observation, “Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts,” points at this. Probably it’s rare that you’re surprised by your own thought. But one thing that’s useful is to see that our thoughts really are surprising. The mind, though, can be a bit like a blasé teenager who yawns at miracles: “Whatever.”

Here’s a way you can learn to be surprised by your own thoughts. Try, right now, asking yourself, “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Now notice that you don’t know! In fact you’ve no idea what you’re going to say to yourself until you hear the thought in your mind. You’ve simply received the thought, so in what sense is it your thought? You didn’t make the thought happen. It just arrived. And then what usually happens is immediately, you claim ownership of the thought.

Now the mind has become a plagiarist. It’s like two students standing by their teacher’s desk, handing in their homework. One of the students hands over an essay, and the other one says “I wrote that.” The similarity is that when you were thinking, “I wonder what my next thought will be,” and then a thought appeared, you jumped one moment from having no clue to what the thought was going to be, straight into claiming the thought as “yours” the next moment. One part of the mind creates the thought. Another part of the mind claims ownership of the thought. That’s plagiarism.

Now, try the exercise again, but knowing that you are receiving the thought rather than creating it, see if you can let yourself be surprised. Realize that thoughts just appear. You can’t stop them appearing! If you could, meditation would be a lot easier. Allowing ourselves to be surprised by our own experience only happens when we let go of claiming our experience as ours. As the Buddha put it, “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this.” This is a practice of recognizing anatta — not self. And it’s a question of seeing what has always been there, unseen: the un-owned nature of our experience.

Once you’ve realized that you can’t even predict your own thoughts, you can enjoy more of a sense of openness. You can start to let go of your sense of “owning” your experience, and even of “owning” a self. And this can be applied not just to the experience of thoughts, but to all sense impressions, to feelings, emotions, speech, physical sensations, and physical actions. Experience arises, and yet there is no experiencer. Actions happen, and yet there is no agent.

There is no self, and there never has been.

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Mindfulness of doors (and more!)

Series of doorways seen through doorways

Some of us in Wildmind’s online community are working our way through exercises from Jan Chozen Bays’ book, How to Train a Wild Elephant. We’re now on week 17 of the book, and this week’s exercise is called “Entering New Spaces.”

Here’s a brief outline of the practice:

The Exercise: Our shorthand for this mindfulness practice is “mindfulness of doors,” but it actually involves bringing awareness to any transition between spaces, when you leave one kind of space and enter another. Before you walk through a door, pause, even for a second, and take one breath. Be aware of the differences you might feel in each new space you enter.

This has been one of the hardest exercises for me, because I keep forgetting to do it! I’ll be in the Wildmind online community and I’ll read about being mindful while walking through doors, and I’ll think, “Drat! I’ve forgotten to do the exercise. I’ll make sure to be mindful next time I walk through a door.”

Then I forget all about the practice, and at some point I find myself back in the community, get another reminder of the exercise, and have the exact same thought.

So this time I decided I’d just get up and walk through a door just to begin engraving the experience of walking mindfully through a door into my brain, so that I build up the habit.

The experience was lovely: Being aware of approaching the door; mindfully taking a breath; being aware of pushing down on the door handle; being aware of pulling the door open, of stepping through, of being on the other side; mindfully closing the door; mindfully hearing the different sounds in the corridor.

The practice turned into a practice of realizing anatta (not-self) because I had the joyful experience of noticing that the being who arrived in the new space was not exactly the same being that had left the old one. There was no “self” that was transported across the threshold. And that experience was repeated as I stepped back into the office.

I’ve found that “rehearsing” practices is a useful thing to do. For example, you might hear about a practice like paying mindful and compassionate attention to feelings of hurt. (This is something I do — and teach — a lot.) But when someone says something hurtful, your normal automatic defense mechanisms may kick in, and you lose your mindfulness. Maybe you get angry, or maybe you get very upset. Rehearsal can help with that: you can deliberately call to mind an experience that you found hurtful, mindfully notice the sense of hurt, and then direct compassionate and kindly attention to the pain. That way you’re building up an association: feel hurt, be mindful. In time you can engrave that pattern into your brain so that it becomes automatic.

Excuse me a moment while I go walk through a door again…

So there are two things I’m suggesting:

1. Generally, if you want to cultivate a new mindfulness habit, rehearse, either in your imagination (as with becoming compassionate toward feelings of hurt) or by acting out the exercise (as in walking through a doorway).

2. Mindfully walking through doors is a delightful exercise, and if you want to get a feel for just how delightful it is then get up and do it — right now!

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Self-hatred, self-compassion, and non-self

You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred'

A lot of people have difficulty practicing self-compassion, but some people have difficulty with the concept of self-compassion. I’ve had very experienced Buddhist practitioners tell me that while they think it’s good to have compassion for others it’s not desirable or even possible to have self-compassion, or that self-compassion is just self-pity. It’s a shame there’s so much confusion over such a crucial practice.

But in some ways it’s not surprising that this confusion exists. The Buddha just took it for granted that we love ourselves — he said we should love others as we love ourselves, which for self-loathing westerners seems the wrong way around — and as far as I’m aware he never addressed the problem of self-hatred, which people say is largely a modern, western phenomenon, although I’m not sure there’s any evidence of that. Anyway, there’s little to nothing in the Buddhist scriptures about the practice of self-compassion or even self-metta.

Dealing with those objections, I see the issue of self-compassion versus compassion for others, or self-hatred versus hatred of others as a red herring. Hatred is hatred. So hatred of oneself, or parts of oneself, should be dealt with in the same way as hatred for others. And compassion for oneself should be cultivated in exactly the same way that compassion for others should be cultivated. So when the Buddha says something like:

“You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred,'”

this is as applicable to ourselves as it is to others. When the mind is full of compassion it touches everything it experiences with compassion. And this applies to reflexive thought — when the mind full of compassion thinks of itself it does so compassionately. How could it do otherwise?

This is a teaching of non-self. The perception of pain is just the perception of pain. If you experience pain in another or in yourself there’s not any essential difference regarding how you should respond: your pain, another’s pain — it doesn’t matter. And the only appropriate and skillful response to the perception of pain is compassion. It doesn’t matter whether the pain you’re perceiving is in yourself or another, you should meet the pain with compassion. This is where the non-self perspective comes in. “Your” pain isn’t really your pain.

There’s an interesting dialog in the Samyutta Nikaya, where the Venerable Moliya Phagguna asks the Buddha the simple question:

“Lord, who feels?”

The reply is very interesting: “Not a valid question,” the Blessed One said.

“I don’t say ‘feels.’ If I were to say ‘feels,’ then ‘Who feels?’ would be a valid question. But I don’t say that. When I don’t say that, the valid question is ‘From what as a requisite condition comes feeling?’ And the valid answer is, ‘From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.'”

So suffering, which is a feeling, arises, but it’s improper to say that there is a person who suffers. There is suffering but there is no sufferer. This is hard to understand without having seen through the illusion of self, but if we want to move toward directly seeing the truth of non-self we shouldn’t get caught up in thinking that our own suffering is any different from other people’s suffering.

We often, though, think either that our suffering is more important than others’ because it’s ours, or that it’s less important because it’s ours. Both of these are examples of what Buddhism calls “conceit” which includes not just thinking that we’re more important or better than others (so we’ll hurt people to relieve our own suffering) or that we’re less important or worse than others (so we’ll give compassion to anyone but ourself).

Self-pity is entirely different from self-compassion, incidentally. Self-pity is where you’re causing yourself further suffering by going “Oh, this is terrible. This shouldn’t be happening.” With self-compassion you let go of those story-lines and simply feel compassion for your pain. You send it loving attention. You hold it in awareness the same way you might hold a sick child. You give yourself comfort and reassurance.

Actually self-compassion is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t really have compassion for “yourself.” “Your self” is too large and vague a category; it’s hard to point to exactly what it refers to. You don’t really have a unified, stable, single entity called “your self.” “Your self” is an abstract category, and so you can’t really have compassion for it. What you can have compassion for is your pain, or the part of you that is suffering (which is inseparable from the pain). It’s the experience of suffering that is the object of self-compassion. The experience of suffering is more concrete. There is feeling, but no one who feels.

So this is my practice: when I’m experiencing pain I notice as best I can where it is in my body (even emotional pain is experienced in the body) and I send it my love. I send it my kindly attention, and drop phrases into the mind like “May you be well; may you be free from suffering.” But you could just as easily describe the intention as “I shall remain I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred (or self-pity).”

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“To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth.” Eric Fromm

Eric Fromm

For social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, creativity wasn’t necessarily about bringing something — a poem, a symphony, a sculpture — into being. For him, creativity was an attitude.

And so he said, “To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth, and not to take any stage of life as a final stage.”

Creativity for him was the ability first to be aware, and then to respond. In this sense, creativity may produce works of art that can be viewed in a gallery, but it is also just as much a way of living. Creativity may produce not only art but a life lived with awareness, a life imbued with meaning, a life lived well. Creativity is about allowing life to come into being — fully.

When I sat down to write this post just a few minutes ago, I looked at this quote, which I had chosen last week, and felt an inner heaviness. “I have nothing to say” was my thought. My impulse was to head to the internet to find something “easier” to write about — something that would unleash an instant torrent of thoughts. Fromm’s words had looked appealing last week, but today they evoked nothing but fear.

I was experiencing resistance. I was experiencing doubt. But to be creative is “not to take any stage of life as a final stage.” Resistance and doubt are not final stages. They are not substantive. They are not fixed or solid. They’re like fog born over a lake in the hours before dawn, destined to dissipate as the sun rises. If we react to doubt, though, we take it to be something solid, something to be feared and to escape from. But it’s only a delusion that it’s solid.

So this is the awareness I bring to meet my resistance: Here you are. I find you unpleasant to be with, but although I fear you I will turn toward you. I will bring the sun of my awareness to meet you, and watch you dissipate.

And another birth happens. As doubt dissolves away, words appear, and confidence is born.

When we take the birth of something we find uncomfortable, like doubt and resistance, as being “final,” we make a judgement about ourselves (“I can’t do this; I have nothing to say; I’d better not do anything or people will think it sucks”). We run from the unpleasant, since we have deemed ourselves incapable of enduring it. We seek an easy escape from our pain. We cease to live creatively and responsively. And in doing so we give life to our doubts, making them appear more solid and substantive than they actually are. The judgements we make become our self-view (“I’m not the creative type”). We fix ourselves. We take ourselves as something final. We fail to act responsively. We fail to truly live.

To be creative is to live. It’s to live fully. The Buddha said that only those who are aware are truly alive. He said that those who lack awareness are like the dead. In the zombie-like state in which most of us spend the majority of our lives, we are not mindful, and so instead of responding we merely react. Rather than living as fully aware and responsive beings, a bundle of habits stumbles through a simulacrum of life.

Mindfulness allows us not so much to live life without fear, but to see our fears (and that which we fear) as just one more part of the process of life; as just one more impermanent arising; as the fog before the dawn.

Mindfulness opens the way for us to view everything we experience in this way. Our very sense of self may dissolve away. It’s not that we entirely lose our sense of self, but that we stop seeing our self as composed of anything substantive. Our “self” is not a final stage. It’s something in process. It’s composed of change. We see, in a way, that our “self” isn’t a “self.” It is nothing but moments of birth and death.

Mindfulness brings understanding, or wisdom. And with this wisdom we recognize which of the processes unfolding within us are life-denying, born of fear. Fear itself has this life-denying quality, as do grasping, hatred, resistance, and aversion. These qualities are manifestations of our inability to see all experiences as transitory and evanescent events. They represent our false belief that some stages are final. And we respond not by fleeing from these inhibiting and life-denying processes, but by turning toward them with mindfulness, seeing them as impermanent and insubstantial, and seeing through them.

When we respond in this way, creativity is already emerging. We are already living with awareness and living with wisdom. And increasingly, creativity is not something that we do. It’s something that happens of its own accord. It is life, living through us, unchecked, unfettered, and free.

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The three marks of human existence

When we turn our life over to the Dharma, we surrender to the teachings of the Buddha. What are those teachings? There are many, and I encourage you to explore and see what resonates for you. They are all doorways onto the path of liberation, freedom and a new understanding of happiness.

Perhaps one of the most accessible teachings is the three Laksanas (The three marks of human existence.) In brief;

Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) – suffering comes up time and time and again in the Buddhist teachings, it is the back bone of the Four Noble truths – a teaching that connects all Buddhist traditions. The Buddha taught: (1) that there is suffering, (2) a path that leads to more suffering (3) the end of suffering (4) there is a way out of suffering.

‘The Buddha was asked, what is the difference between how an ordinary person and a wise person responds to pain? He replied with the analogy of the two darts. All of us experience pain – whether that is physical pain like catching your finger in the door or mental pain such as when someone rejects you. This is the first dart, which we could call primary suffering.

An ordinary person then gets caught up in trying to push away or avoid the pain; in blaming themselves or others, or feeling self-pity. This has the effect of making matters worse: the second dart, which we can call secondary suffering. A wise person just has the first dart. They don’t get stuck in avoidance or obsessing about the pain. Instead they mindfully accept it for what it is, without making it worse with secondary suffering.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddhas Teachings to Overcome Addiction, publication date 2014.

What is suffering?
Papanca – Proliferation of thought
Identifying with thought
Listening and believing the stories we tell ourselves
Identifying with pain

Anicca (impermanence)– Everything changes. You can’t get more radical than that. It means if you have an addiction you can change. It means if you keep on relapsing you can change. If we surrender to change we will find the teachings of the Buddha working in our life. Because everything is changing all the time, so if we resist change, it will bring about suffering. If we go with the flow – Higher Power will manifest as peace, as equilibrium and as calm in our life.

What is impermanence?
All conditioned existence is in constant state of flux
It is the cycle of birth and rebirth
It is the experience of loss
It is ageing, sickness and death

Anatta (Not self/or the illusion of self )- There is no separate self. It has been said that ‘consciousness is all there is and we are that.’ We think there is a separate self, because we have created a story about who we are. When we have suffered from addiction there will be many stories that we have created, and others too would have created stories about us. But these stories are not us. We think they are us, because we have strongly identified about all the things that have been said about us or what we tell ourselves. Recognizing the illusion of a separate self will inevitably help with the cessation of suffering. The many selves we can create, can keep us incarcerated in our minds. For as long as we believe in all the stories we tell ourselves there will be suffering. The things we experiences through the senses are not I, or mine, or yours, as soon as we think they are I, or mine or yours, unhappiness will rise. The separate self that we create can begin to dissolve when we sit directly with our experience, suffering will begin to loosen it’s grip. When we stop identifying with thoughts which create the illusion of self, the sensations of desire and craving will begin to loosen.

What is not self/the illusion of self ?

You can not intellectualize this. You can only experience it. Because there is nothing for the mind to take hold of. We can begin to experience no self if we have the courage to let go of our suffering. The courage to let go of proliferation of thought. No self is the absence of self. But what is no self?

“Be crumbled. So wild flowers will come up where you are.’ Rumi
‘Saying goodbye to your ‘I’ and hello to freedom.’ tinybuddha.com
‘Nothing to gain and everything to lose’ Tejananda

If we can begin to experience the three marks of existence in our lives, we will begin to find a new happiness and freedom. A start can be stop believing the mental noise in your minds. There are many other teachings from the Buddha that will liberate us. Take a look on the wildmind site and you will find many.

A reflection

Let go of the past and of the future. Just sit in the present, with out labeling the sensations of the body or the mind. And what are these sensations? Thoughts, feelings, judgements, interpretations. And in that experience it may be possible to let go of the illusion that we have created, that we hold on to, that we believe in. Just sit or lie down in the present moment of experience, and let go of thinking you are in control and see what flows.

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This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this (Day 95)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Once I was walking into town when I was hit by what felt like a crushing tidal wave of embarrassment. I’d just had an interview for a podcast that would be heard by tens of thousands of people. And I’d done the interview after about four hours of sleep, because both my wife and daughter had been ill and very restless all night long. So I’d done a pretty lousy interview. My replies were shallow and rather incoherent at times. And walking down Elm Street later that day, out of nowhere came this tsunami of shame, knowing that my incoherence would be broadcast to thousands.

Then an interesting thing happened. I was in the middle of writing my book on the Buddhist Six Element meditation at the time, and a phrase that’s important in that meditation practice — “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this” — sprung spontaneously into my mind. This shame was not me, not mine. I was not my shame. I was not my performance. A conversation does not define me. I was not my incompetence; my incompetence was just an impermanent phenomenon temporarily manifesting in my being.

And the embarrassment vanished. Instantly. And never came back. Even now, thinking about that incident, I can remember feeling shame but can’t re-experience it.

(Oh, and luckily the interviewer called me back and asked if we could record the conversation again!)

This phrase, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this,” is an important tool in learning to recognize the truth of anatta, or not-self.

The Buddha did not teach, incidentally, that there was no self. The word “anatta,” which is often translated as “no self” is invariably used in the Buddhist scriptures in the context of saying “This is not myself. That is not myself.” It’s never used, as far as I’m aware, to say “there is no self.” And in fact when the Buddha was asked flat out if he taught that there was no self he refused to answer, and he also said that there was no view of self that would not lead to suffering: including the view that there is no self. I do sometimes say there is “no self” but what I mean by that is that there is no self that exists as we think it exists: separate and permanent. That kind of self doesn’t exist.

The Buddha’s teaching of not-self was intended to free us from attachment to the view that there was anything that could be taken as the self, or that could define ourselves. Self-definitions are chains that limit and bind us. So…

Your body is not yourself.

Your emotions are not yourself.

Your thoughts are not yourself.

Your awareness is not yourself.

What’s left? Well, nothing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no self, or that there is something else you should take to be your self. Rather, the Buddha’s approach was for us to cease identifying anything as our selves so that we can simply stop obsessing about the whole issue! We come simply to live without reference to a self. We live spontaneously and effortlessly, just allowing life to happen. (There’s a lot of hard work and discipline needed to get to that point, by the way!)

So this is another way into experiencing the liberation of bodhi — that freedom from the burden of self that I wrote about yesterday. This is another way into experiencing the peace of awakening.

And upekkha — our current theme — is wishing for all beings this freedom and peace that comes from insight. We wish this for ourselves; and more than simply wish for these we actively cultivate insight so that they may manifest in our lives. And we wish them for others; but more than simply wish for them we live our lives in such a way that we help others to realize insight, peace, and freedom.

So this is what we wish in the upekkha bhavana practice:

  • May all beings let go deeply.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

The exact words do not matter; but this is the spirit of upekkha. The upekkhaful mind is the midwife of enlightened qualities. The upekkhaful mind recognizes the innate potential for bodhi in all beings, and helps that potential to come to fruition. The upekkhaful mind compassionately does what it can to help others attain the profound freedom and peace of awakening.

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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