anatta (non-self)

Lay your burden down (Day 93)

To recap, upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) know the profound peace of awakening. Since lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy, upekkha is kind of lovingkindness on steroids; for beings to attain the deepest peace possible, they have to awaken from the delusion of separate and permanent selfhood, which is a key source of our suffering. It’s losing this sense of separateness and permanence that’s, in fact, the key to awakening. So to be “upekkhaful” (and I may be the first person on the planet to have used that term in writing!) is to desire that beings awaken and find peace.

I’ve already talked about one way in which we can “un-self” — by examining the impermanence of everything that we could take to constitute a self. Everything we can become aware of within ourselves — the body, the physical sensations arising from it, our feelings, our thoughts and memories — is changing all the time. So the casual but deep-rooted assumption we have that there is something “essential” that defines us is challenged. And eventually that assumption is dropped. It’s seen to be a myth, and is abandoned, like childhood stories of Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus.

But there are other approaches as well. One of the approaches I’ve stumbled upon which, like many other approaches I’ve stumbled upon, was taught by the Buddha, is to recognize that we don’t own our experiences, or anything else that could be taken to constitute a self.

Here’s the Buddha’s take:

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe argument here is that if our bodies were really our bodies, then we’d be able to control them completely, for example by commanding them not to age. If our feelings were truly our own we’d be able to change our likes and dislikes at whim. If our perceptions were truly ours we’d be able to look at these words and see them as abstract shapes rather than as words. If our “determinations” were our own then it wouldn’t be hard to change our habits: if you wanted to diet, for example, you’d just diet, without any conflict or slip-ups. If our consciousness was truly our own, we could just decide to be happy, and we’d be happy. We could decide not to think, and we wouldn’t think.

Now most people would likely say in response to this that they can’t control themselves entirely, but they do control themselves to some extent, and so they have a self that in some sense — in some important sense — does in fact own its constituents. Aren’t you able to wish that your open hand clench into a fist and then relax back into an open hand again? I’ll come back to that…

For now, just start to notice, as I often do and as I often encourage students to do, the mystery of where your thoughts and actions come from. One of the most striking things is to notice speech and thought. When you’re next in the flow of a conversation with someone, start to hear your own words as if you were an outside observer, listening to yourself. And then notice that you don’t know what words are going to emerge from your mouth before they emerge. There’s no consciousness of a process by which you assemble the words in advance. They just appear. You don’t know what you’re going to say any sooner than the other person you’re talking to. That’s kind of weird. Where does your speech come from? It just appears to you, fully formed, as if you’ve been handed a script. Who is the script writer?

Sure, there are times that you rehearse what you’re going to say. You’re listening to your friend talk and also formulating a response (which means you’re not really listening to them, but let’s leave that for now). But start to notice that you don’t know what you’re going to think before you think it. Where does your thought come from? Again, it just appears to you, fully formed. Thought is just a special case of speech, where you’re speaking to yourself. “You” (the conscious you) doesn’t have any hand in creating your thoughts. “You” (the conscious you) just notices them as they arise. If “you” (the conscious you) did actually generate thoughts, then you’d be able to control what you thought, and not have this strange situation where you’re trying to pay attention to your breathing but instead are bombarded with a constant stream of inner chatter.

Another striking example of how “you” don’t really have control is noticing the body in action. I encourage students to notice the body doing things on its own. So right now you’re reading. You haven’t really noticed how the eyes are sweeping from side to side, moving down the screen. You certainly weren’t issuing conscious commands to your eyes to do this. In fact your eyes are making tiny jittering movements that are completely outside your control. Who is reading?

Or when you’re walking, catch yourself in the act of moving your legs (you were probably thinking about something and only dimly aware that your legs were moving) and notice how you weren’t giving any conscious instruction to the many muscles in your legs, which were nevertheless doing a great job of getting you from point A to point B. Who is walking?

Or when you’re driving, notice how your hands, arms, legs, and head are all smoothly operating in such a way as to control the vehicle. There may in fact be times when you’re lost in thought and are totally unaware you have been driving. Who is driving?

In a sense, “not-you” is reading, walking, driving (and breathing, blinking, swallowing, and twitching the big toe on your left foot). These are completely outside your consciousness, and so aren’t really part of your (conscious) self. And your conscious self is just (sometimes) noticing the actions of these parts of you and — and this is important — thinking that it runs the show. Most times, as soon as you become aware of your reading, driving, walking, blinking, swallowing, toe-twitching, “you” assume that “you” are doing these things. Of course “you” weren’t even aware of them a moment before.

This sense of ownership is a form of clinging, and clinging is a source of suffering. Feeling that you “have” a self, you have something to defend. Your self is perceived as being in conflict with other selves, so there’s aggression. So it’s this sense of ownership that we need to lose in order to experience a deeper sense of peace.

But, you are still objecting, you can desire to move my arm, and your arm moves — thus! Surely that demonstrates ownership. Well, not really! Where did the thought “I’m going to move my arm” come from? It came from “down there” in the not-self. You didn’t create the thought consciously. It just appeared to you. Its having appeared to you, you claimed ownership of it, but you didn’t in fact create it. Then the thought having appeared, it is heard “down there” in the not-self — those parts of “you” that aren’t really you because you can’t control them or even really know them. And the “not-you” that is “down there” then initiates a series of actions that raise the arm. You certainly don’t say “OK, I’m going to contract the deltoid at such-and-such a rate and applying such-and-such a force at the same time as I relax the pectoralis major, and at the same time I’m going to relax the triceps and contract the biceps…” It all just happens.

And sometimes it doesn’t. If someone say, shows you their pet tarantula and tells you it’s perfectly safe to touch it, you may find that you’re telling your arm to move but “down there” the “not you” decides that it’s very much not, thank you very much, going to comply. Or you can be hypnotized not to be able to move your arm: “down there” has received an instruction from someone else not to move, and it’s not going to listen to “you” (which is to say, other parts of “down there”).

So what we take to be conscious control is simply unconscious control coming from “not you” and passing through a kind of “conscious space” in the mind as it’s relayed back to some other part of “not you.” As the perception of intentions (“I am going to lift my arm”) passes through this conscious space, some part of “not you” says “Hey, I did that” and a sense of ownership emerges.

If you’re just reading this account, it may make no sense. You’re busy answering the question “who walks?” with “Me, you dummy.” It’s actually scary to let go of this idea that we own ourselves, just as it’s scary for kids not to believe in Santa Claus even if their parents have told them that Santa Claus is a myth. (I’ve been there.) But if you start to actually observe what I’ve been describing, it all becomes very real. By listening to your words appear, by noticing how thoughts just arise, by catching your body in the act of moving, you can trick yourself into letting go of your automatic habit of claiming ownership of your thoughts, words, and actions. There’s a profound letting go, and you notice that thoughts, words, and actions are simply arising, without ownership. And this is tremendously liberating.

The sense of ownership that we carry around with us requires a tremendous amount of energy. It’s a burden. As the Buddha said,

Taking up the burden in the world is stressful.
Casting off the burden is bliss.
Having cast off the heavy burden
and not taking on another,
pulling up craving, along with its root,
one is free from hunger, totally awakened.

We pull up the “root” of craving, which is this sense of “owning” a self.

So, what’s the relevance of this to upekkha? Upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) experience the supreme peace of awakening. One way to experience awakening for ourselves is to let go of clinging to a sense of “ownership” of our thoughts, words, and actions: “casting off the burden is bliss.” But we also compassionately (or upekkhafully) desire this peace for others. We desire that we and others lay down the burden of self. What I’ve outlined above is a way to un-self — to realize that this burden is an unnecessary one.

May all beings be free. May all beings lay their burdens down. May all beings know peace.

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

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Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Upekkha, or even-minded love, is the fourth of the series of meditations we’re looking at in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series.

As I discussed in the first post on upekkha, this word has several different meanings, although they’re all related.

There’s:

  1. Even-mindedness where we are able to accept ups and downs (specifically, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings) without being thrown off-balance.
  2. Even-mindedness in the deep states of meditative absorption called jhana, where the mind is very stable and focused.
  3. Even-mindedness as one of the four immeasurables (brahmaviharas), where we have even-minded love.
  4. Even-mindedness as a synonym for the awakened state, or enlightenment, where greed, hatred, and delusion have been unrooted, and so the mind is not thrown off-balance by them.

Now I don’t think these are entirely separate. I pointed out that upekkha as a synonym for the awakened experience (type 4) could be the same thing as the brahmavihara (type 3), but experienced permanently. Even-mindedness as an experience in jhana (type 2) is just ordinary even-mindedness (type 1) plus concentration. And even-mindedness as a brahmavihara (type 3) is just even-mindedness (type 1) plus love.

Since even-mindedness type 1 is the basis for all the rest, we should take a look at that.

The Buddha talked about there being “two arrows.” The first arrow is when we have an experience that is painful in some way. That’s an inevitable part of life. But then there follows a second arrow, which consists of our aversive response to pain. So we think “This shouldn’t happen to me! It’s not fair!” Or we think “It’s his fault!” Or we think, “This is horrible, this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life!” Or we think, “This always happens to be. It must show that I’m a bad person, unworthy of being loved. My life sucks!” And all of these responses simply cause us more pain: hence, the second arrow.

And the same kind of dynamic works for pleasant feelings as well, except that the pain usually comes when the pleasant feeling has gone, and we mourn it, or when we find ourselves having been led into unwise actions in pursuit of further pleasure.

So the Buddha’s advice is simply to observe feelings as they arise and pass away, and to accept them mindfully without reacting with either craving or aversion. This acceptance of our feelings is equanimity, even-mindedness, or upekkha. We don’t ignore any pain or pleasure, and in fact we’re more conscious of it than when we’re busy reacting to it. We simply notice it as another experience. We lose the judgment. It’s not “bad” to experience pain, and it’s not “good” to experience pleasure.

And this is important in each of the brahmaviharas. At a very basic level, at the start of a period of lovingkindness, we have to become aware of how we feel, so that we know what we’re working with. Now it actually doesn’t matter whether we feel good, or feel terrible, or whether we don’t know how we feel — it’s only important that we’re aware of what our experience is. So if you’re feeling unhappy, that’s OK. To be paradoxical, it’s not “bad” to feel bad. You just feel unhappy, you accept the unhappiness, and you start cultivating lovingkindness for yourself. If you’re feeling happy, then that’s fine too. Same thing: just accept what’s there and start cultivating lovingkindness. If you’re not sure how you’re feeling, this is probably because you’re not feeling much. You’re experiencing a neutral feeling. And you accept that and start cultivating lovingkindness toward yourself. It’s all too common for people to go into a downward spiral when they feel bad or feel neutral, because they assume that something is wrong. Equanimity prevents this happening. It stabilizes the mind. We neither reject who we are, nor crave to become someone else. We simply accept what’s going on, and work patiently with it.

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And, later in each of these practices, we call to mind people who are friends, people you neither like nor dislike, and people you have a conflicted relationship with. Generally when we think of a friend we’ll experience pleasant feelings, a neutral person neutral feelings, and a difficult person unpleasant feelings. So these practices give us the opportunity to develop equanimity. We cultivate the ability to sit mindfully with the three basic “flavors” of feeling. This is a very important part of lovingkindness practice. The more we’re able to have equanimity for our painful, pleasant, and neutral feelings, the easier it is to cultivate upekkha.

In a more vipassana approach (and by that I means simply meditation that focuses on impermanence, non-self, and the unsatisfactoriness of our experiences, rather than the form of meditation taught by Goenka or other teachers as “Vipassana” or “Insight Meditation”) we can train ourselves to observe that our feelings come and go. This is something we know, of course. But in paying particular attention to this fact — by observing it in action — we take our feelings less personally. We’re not so prone to reacting when we remember the impermanence of our feelings. Also in a vipassana approach we can learn to recognize that because our feelings pass through, they’re not ultimately a part of us: “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this” was the phrase that the Buddha taught. And lastly, in a vipassana approach to feelings, we can recognize that no feeling is capable, fundamentally, either of permanently destroying our wellbeing or of giving lasting happiness. We recognize the dukkha, or unsatisfactory nature of our experiences, and recognize that it’s not the contents of our experience that create happiness or lack of happiness, but the way we relate to the contents of our experience.

And the most powerful thing we can do to transform our relationship with the contents of our experience is to allow it to be, with equanimity.

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

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“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” — The Buddha (Day 74)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha, in Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation at least, said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful.” This is one of those thoughts that I’m profoundly grateful for because I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me. Yet searching the web for the terms “gratitude” and “integrity” brought me to an interesting book, The Gratitude Factor: Enhancing Your Life Through Grateful Living, by Charles M. Shelton.

Shelton explores this theme of integrity and gratitude. He distinguishes between thankfulness (which involves being appreciative of some specific person or thing) and gratitude (which is a deeper and more pervasive attitude to life consisting of being grateful not just for specific things but for living itself). And he observes that many people who discuss this distinction, and who value gratitude over thankfulness, see gratitude as being related to “virtue” and “integrity.”

Here’s the connection that Shelton makes:

A life of deepening gratitude requires that we commit ourselves to goodness; only people of integrity live truly good lives. Only conscience can ensure that we are women and men of integrity. Conscience is a uniquely human quality that requires us to make choices that reflect goodness, to follow thought on our choices, and to commit ourselves to the choices we make. Gratitude is linked to conscience just by the fact that we could never acknowledge, live out, or give back our giftedness unless we had within us some prior moral sense that recognizes the gracious generosity of giving and motivates us to give back in turn for what we have received.

I’ve pointed out often that the brain is modular, and not a single system running smoothly as one unit. It involves cooperation, competition, inhibition of one module by another. And so our selves are modular in exactly the same way. We don’t have “a self.” And to the extent to which the various modules in the brain are operating on conflicting assumptions, to that extent the more unhappy and conflicted our experience will be. When some parts of the brain are screaming that hanging on selfishly to what we have is the way to be happy, and another is saying that compassionately giving to another person is the way to be happy, then — stuck in this conflict — we’re not going to be happy. And in fact it’s the latter of these two parts of the brain that is right; giving creates more happiness than holding on.

So wisdom helps us to recognize what truly brings peace and happiness, and mindfulness and volition, informed by that wisdom, help us to educate the more grasping and the more aggressive parts of the brain and encourages them to “stand down” so that we can act in ways that bring about peace and happiness. Perhaps we’re enlightened when those more primitive parts of the brain are completely re-educated. Or perhaps they simply go offline, or their inputs are so weakened that they can never, after the point of awakening, have a real effect on our behavior. I just don’t know.

But the thing is that our multiple and conflicting selves become more integrated around our wisdom, so that there’s less inner conflict. The whole of us becomes an expression of, and an accessory to, that which is most wise in us. All spiritual practice involves a process of integration, which leads to “integrity,” which means “wholeness.” And this is a wholeness centered on “the good.”

Mudita — joyful appreciation, focusing on the good in ourselves and others — is one important factor in bringing about this sense of wholeness and integrity. The less we obsess about what’s wrong with the world, the less we feel out of place in the world, and the less we feel conflicted and defensive. And so our sense of existing in a state of polarization is reduced. Our sense of being an isolated “self” is reduced. Our being becomes more relaxed, more diffused. We see ourselves as essentially good, and we see our role as being to encourage the emergence of the good that is in others.

Shelton also notes:

Individuals who feel interiorly a sense of their own goodness appear to possess an integrity that flows outwardly; they claim that a fundamental stance of goodness exists in the world. For them the world is an inviting place that encourages them to spread and give away their own goodness.

As I continue to explore mudita as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, that statement more and more closely resembles my own experience. I hope this is true for you as well.

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

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The Dhammapada: “one of the greatest psychological works ever written”

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal. Available from Amazon.

Jonathan Haidt, who studies morality and emotion at the NYU-Stern School of Business, discusses the Buddhist classic, The Dhammapada, on Five Books:

Haidt: The Dhammapada is one of the greatest psychological works ever written, and certainly one of the greatest before 1900. It is masterful in its understanding of the nature of consciousness, and in particular the way we are always striving and never satisfied. You can turn to it – and people have turned to it throughout the ages – at times of trouble, at times of disappointment, at times of loss, and it takes you out of yourself. It shows you that your problems, your feelings, are just timeless manifestations of the human condition. It also gives specific recommendations for how to deal with those problems, which is to let go, to accept, and to work on yourself. So I think this is a kind of tonic that we ambitious Westerners often need to hear.

Is there a specific saying that you particularly like?

Haidt: There are two big ideas that I found especially useful when I wrote The Happiness Hypothesis. One is an idea common to most great intellectual traditions. The quote is: ‘All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.’ It’s not unique to Buddha, but it is one of the earliest statements of that idea, that we need to focus on changing our thoughts, rather than making the world conform to our wishes.

The other big idea is that the mind is like a rider on an elephant. Buddha uses this metaphor: ‘My own mind used to wander wherever pleasure or desire or lust led it, but now I have it tamed, I guide it, as the keeper guides the wild elephant.’ That’s the most important idea in The Happiness Hypothesis – I just adapted the metaphor slightly. What modern psychology shows us is that our minds are like a small rider on the back of an elephant: the rider doesn’t have that much control even though he thinks that he does.

And once you accept that you are much closer to understanding happiness?

Haidt: Exactly, because it helps explain why you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to quit drinking, you can’t resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realise how difficult it is to change anyone…

jonathan haidt

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There is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for (Day 50)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A couple of times people have contacted me saying that self-compassion is not possible. Both times they’ve quoted dictionary definitions that present compassion as something that’s inherently directed toward others. For example:

com·pas·sion n. Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. [Emphasis added]

And the etymology of compassion — “[to be] with suffering” — has also been cited as a reason for rejecting the notion of self-compassion, because that’s taken to suggest that we be with the suffering of others.

But it can be misleading to insist that the etymology of a word defines or exhausts its present meaning. Sure, com- means with and passion means suffering. But we can be with (our own) suffering.

And in any event dictionaries are necessarily a simplification of how language is actually used, and it’s not always the case that definitions correspond to reality. Having said that, though, the Oxford English dictionary actually has an entry for self-compassion, which should lay the dictionary argument to rest:

self-compassion n. compassion for oneself.
a1634 G. Chapman Revenge for Honour (1654) ii. i. 202 Self-compassion, soothing us to faith Of what we wish should hap. [Oxford English Dictionary]

As you’ll see, the term self-compassion goes back at least to 1654. I’ve also found an example of the term from 1677, where it appears in Richard Allestree’s The Art of Contentment:

If they chance but to miss a meal, they are ready to cry out, their knees are weak thro fasting, yet they can without regret, or any self-compassion, macerate and cruciate themselves with anxious cares and vexations.

The argument that’s put forward in support of the compassion being inherently directed at others seems to rest on the assumption that the self is a unified and unitary thing, that therefore cannot relate to itself. But common-sense and experience show that we do in fact relate to ourselves all the time. We can have anger toward ourselves; we can have love toward ourselves. We can have hatred toward ourselves; we can have compassion toward ourselves.

An awareness of neuroscience helps us here as well. The human mind is not a unified entity. The brain has evolved in fits and starts, and isn’t “designed” like a building that’s been planned from the ground up, but is more like an old house that’s had extensions built over the years. So the brain functions as a set of modules with different functions, and they relate to each other. They have to communicate with each other. So one part of the brain may be generating feelings of anxiety, while another may be offering reassurance and comfort. One part of us is experiencing pain; another part is experiencing compassion toward that pain.

And this brings up a deeper level of understanding of suffering and compassion: the experience of stress arises, and yet it’s not right to say that there is a self who experiences that suffering, although it’s also incorrect to say that there’s no self to experience that suffering!

Because the human brain is not a unified entity, the human mind is not a unified entity, and so there is no unified “self” to experience suffering. Suffering is experienced. That’s all. Who experiences the suffering? Well, as soon as we ask that question we have assumed that there is a “who” doing the experiencing. And the Buddha was encouraging us to drop that assumption: “Both formerly and now, it is only suffering that I describe, and the cessation of suffering.”

The Buddha also made a very interesting statement in talking about how he, as an enlightened being, didn’t think in terms of there being a thing that is experienced or a person who does the experiencing:

When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe a [thing that is] cognized … He doesn’t construe a cognizer.

So if we apply that to suffering, then there is an experiencing of suffering, but we should drop the notion that “I” am suffering. There’s just the experiencing, with no thought of “a self.” And in responding to suffering, there’s similarly a response, without any assumption that there is a self to do any responding, or other selves to respond to. There’s simply a perception of suffering, and a spontaneous response of compassion. Now it doesn’t matter whether this suffering is experienced “internally” or whether it’s experienced “externally.” There’s just this perception of suffering, and the spontaneous response of compassion.

So it doesn’t matter whether the suffering that we’re responding to is “our” suffering or the suffering of another. The suffering is experienced, and compassion arises. If suffering arises externally or internally, the most fitting response is compassion.

In fact, to single out “our” suffering as not capable of being responded to with compassion, or not worthy of being responded to with compassion, is an example of the very obsession with self that the Buddha was encouraging us to abandon.

The Diamond Sutra took this idea, which is implicit in the Buddha’s teachings (he really didn’t like talking about “being and non-being”) and ran with it:

“…all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.

“Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”

Ironically, it’s only through dropping the notion of self and other, through dropping the notion of “beings,” that we can be truly compassionate. When we truly realize that there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for, then stable unconditioned compassion can arise.

So in a sense, there is no one to have compassion, no one to have compassion for. Yet suffering arises, and so does compassion, and when we’re awakened we’ll finally drop this troubling obsession about who is experiencing pain and who has compassion. It all simply happens, and that’s enough.

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Compassion is not superiority (Day 42)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

It’s very easy for us to assume that the one who feels compassion is in some way superior to the one he or she feels compassion for. This is partly rooted, I presume, in the assumption that it’s weak to suffer, but that assumption in turn grows from our biological conditioning. We’re social animals, and one of the things a social animal has as part of its genetic makeup is a propensity to establish where it stands in a social hierarchy.

In Buddhist terms this is “seeking status,” which is one pair of the eight lokadhammas, which could be translated as “ways of the world,” although it’s often poetically rendered as the “eight worldly winds.” The eight ways of the world are pairs of preoccupations corresponding to four ways of seeking security in our insecure world. They are:

  1. Gain and loss (materialism).
  2. High status and low status.
  3. Approval and disapproval.
  4. Pleasure and pain (hedonism).

We tend to chase after one item in each pair, but with status our biological conditioning is usually not to seek the highest status, but to find a comfortable position in the hierarchy and to maintain it. We can be comfortable playing the victim, or feeling superior, depending on our individual inclinations. But we gain comfort from knowing where we are in a pecking order.

Of course we can never find true security within the eight ways of the world, and spiritual maturity means becoming less and less invested in the pursuit of any of these ways of being. As we mature, gain, loss, status, approval, and pleasure-seeking should become less and less meaningful to us. We see that these are all impermanent, and that we can seek status, but never hold onto it. And inherent in trying to hold on to status is a sense of fear that we’ll lose what we think we’ve gained. So what we initially pursue as a source of security turns out, in the end, to be a source of insecurity.

In all spiritual practice there’s something going on that I call “unselfing.” This takes various forms, including less selfishness and grasping, less self-preoccupation and an increased ability to empathize with others, greater kindness and compassion, an ability to mindfully and joyfully lose ourselves (although not our awareness) in the “flow” of our experience, whether that’s in meditation or elsewhere, and a “seeing through” of the concept that we actually have a thing called a self.

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In fact, from a Buddhist point of view “conceit” is regarded as thinking of oneself as higher, lower, or equal to others. So what does that leave? It means basically that we don’t think in terms of status at all. We just be, with no obsession about who we are. We just live in the moment, acting spontaneously with no thought of self or other.

The Buddha said of those who are awakened:

Not as higher, lower, nor equal
do they refer to themselves.

But this should start to happen well before awakening, even though the process isn’t complete until then. Even right now, we can have more of a sense that we’re all in it together — you suffer, I suffer — and a loss of any assumption that “I’m OK, you’re not.”

If you do start feeling that you’re “looking down” on people when you’re cultivating compassion for them, see if you can simply let go of the tightness of self-clinging, and relax into the experience. Go with the flow. Ultimately there is no you, no other. There is simply suffering and a response to suffering.

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Powerless over our thoughts

Man distressed by his thoughts

For many, negative thinking is a habit, which over time, becomes an addiction… A lot of people suffer from this disease because negative thinking is addictive to each of the Big Three — the mind, the body, and the emotions. If one doesn’t get you, the others are waiting in the wings. (Peter McWilliams, American self help author.)

‘We admitted we were powerless over (addiction) — that our lives had become unmanageable.’ This is step one in the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous and all other twelve-step programs that exist including ALANON – which is a twelve-step group for families of alcoholics.

This is a poignant step for recovery – admitting that we are powerless. If we can’t admit this then we are still wanting to be in control. Which often is the root cause of many addictions.

What if we admitted we were powerless over our thoughts – that our lives had become unmanageable?

Take time to reflect on this. What emerges for you?

What if we could see that there was no thinker, that thoughts arise out of no where, and cease into nothingness?

Take time to reflect on this. What emerges for you?

What if we could see that there is nobody controlling our life. That life just happens. That there is no sufferer, just suffering that arises and ceases? Take time to reflect on this too. What emerges for you?

How often does a thought arise, we hold on to it, identify with it and act the thought out?

I ask these questions because often we think of addiction as dependency on chemical substances only. Addiction for me was the dependency on sugar – which did become a matter of life or death for me at one point. almost died at the foot of my toilet, with food lodged in my windpipe as I was purging. I snorted white stuff (sugar) through the mouth, and my teeth crumbled, my voice box strained and my stomach collapsed. Addiction for me is not just about the dependency on chemicals. One of my root addictions has been my stinking thinking. It was that, which lead me to identify with my thoughts, act on my thoughts and hey presto I had created a fixed self ‘the addict.’.

We may laugh – how can our thinking be a matter of life and death. If we think out of the box, and think of life and death as a physical, spiritual and emotional issues. Then we can perhaps clearly see how it can be a matter of life and death.

I share this from the new book – Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddha’s teachings to Overcome Addiction written by myself, Valerie Mason-John, and the psychiatrist Dr Paramabandhu Groves – which will be published in January 2014.

Human nature has an inbuilt tendency for addiction. For some people this tendency can lead to the destruction of their lives, through their addictive and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. However, we can all struggle with the nature of the mind that tends towards addictions. We could say that we are all in recovery. That may come as a surprise to many of you.

All of us are addicted to our thinking. Thinking that tell us stories, thinking that can make us angry, thinking that can literally intoxicate us and impair the mind. Accidents and even fatalities can be caused when we are under the influence of this type of thinking. In Canada distracted driving and aggressive driving are in the top five most common reasons that cause car accidents. Our thinking can distract us and can cause road rage to the extent that we can become impaired behind the steering wheel.

This is a frightening fact – and we also know the impulse to identify with a thought while driving can be manifested in texting while driving, which also can be a matter of life and death. So if we admitted we were powerless over our thoughts what can we do?

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Reflections on Samsara

circular star trails

If we believe that we are not responsible for our mental suffering then we are implying we are helpless.

If we believe everything is permanent then we are implying there is no room for change.

If we believe in a fixed self then we are implying we can not transform ourselves.

If we cling on to these thoughts and think they are facts we will continue to be swamped by the ocean of samsara.

If we can begin to see that our mental suffering arises out of our strong habitual behaviours we will begin to transform ourselves.

Ask yourself:

  • What thoughts that arise do I believe in?
  • What would I do if I could just witness my thoughts arising and ceasing?
  • What is permanent in my life?

Our thoughts are an illusion, a game of mis-interpretations, assumptions, and judgements. Our thinking is the dis-ease of resentments, jealousies, dissatisfaction. They keep us trapped in the ocean of Samsara.

Begin to free yourself.

For example when the thought I hate myself arises. Say to it with loving kindness where is the self to hate? Free yourself from the mental bonds of suffering.

Twenty three years ago I walked into a Buddhist Centre with ‘I hate myself’ ranting around my head as if it were some sacred mantra. With the practice of loving kindness it restored me to sanity, helping me to cultivate a calm and sober mind. The undermining voice began to cease, and I would hear I love myself. However I resigned myself to the fact that sometimes the voice of ‘I hate myself’ would arise and, I would just match it with ‘I love myself’. But somewhere I was still believing in this thought.

Then one day the voice arose, ‘I hate myself’. And I spoke to it loud and clear, telling it: ‘There is no self to hate. There is no self to identify with.’ Finally I was beginning to let go of this thought, and the undermining voice becomes quieter, and quieter every day I continue to practice loving kindness and remember there is no self to identify with.

Knowing that there is no self to identify with, gives those of us with addictions hope and the opportunity to transform. It is the freedom and liberation all humans need if we are to grow, change and develop.

When we see this clearly we can begin to heal the addicted mind. The mind that is addicted to thoughts.

  • How can we abstain from our thinking?

When we do we begin to cultivate sobriety of thoughts. Thoughts that just arise and cease calmly, with out a tinge of ill will, craving, doubt, anxiety or inertia.

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Love yourself, and your self will love you back

Boy looking at his own reflection

This post is part of our 100-Day Meditation Challenge.

This week one of my students described how she tends to talk to herself in a very harsh tone of voice — much harsher than she’d ever use with other people. And that’s a very common experience. In our own minds we often describe ourself as “an idiot,” tell ourselves that our actions were “stupid,” or limit ourselves by telling cruel stories about how people don’t like us and how we’ll never be good at the things we do.

We tend not to talk this way to others, or at least to a much lesser extent. Of course if we do there tends to be a backlash. We cause hurt, anger, fear. We probably wouldn’t have any friends and we’d be very unpopular with our colleagues if we talked this way to others as often as we do to ourselves.

Sometimes, though, we do talk harshly others. We feel free to speak in harsher ways to those we’re closest to. Maybe we feel that we can be ourselves, or perhaps we just can’t keep up a pretense of “niceness” for the length of time we’re with our families. Oh, and mostly your family’s not going to leave you if you’re harsh to them. Your children can’t (not until they’re older) and your partner probably won’t because they’ve invested too much in the relationship.

And some bosses feel they can behave this way. They have a power imbalance on their side. And once again subordinates are not likely to walk out of the door; they need the paycheck.

So it’s mostly when we’re with people a lot, and when the other people can’t leave, that we let rip with the negativity.

Well, who else are we with a lot? And who else can’t leave? Ourselves, of course.

I don’t think we ever quite get used to the abuse we give ourselves. I don’t think we ever quite manage to let it slide off like water off the proverbial duck’s back. I think on some level there is hurt, anger, fear every time we berate ourselves. And along with that goes physical tension, and unhappiness.

It’s very interesting when we consciously practice sending ourselves love. Say, for example, you’re meditating and you’re becoming aware of the body. And instead of judging the body for being tense, or for being in pain, or just for not feeling good, we do the opposite and send love to the body. We have what I call a “loving gaze” and look at the body the same way we would look at a sleeping child, or a lover. What happens? Generally the body produces pleasant sensations. There can be tingling, or feelings of energy, or pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure is local, and like a tingling flow of electrical current. Sometimes it buzzes throughout a whole muscle, or group of muscles. Sometimes it shoots around the body, like a firework display. Sometimes it fills the whole body, like a vibrant, pulsating cloud of physical delight.

I think this is the body loving us back. It’s like when a cat purrs when you’re stroking it. The cat is happy to be shown appreciation. And it shows appreciation back. When we love the body, the body loves us back.

Now it might seem odd to talk about the body as if it was a thing that is “not us.” But this is what Buddhism teaches. All of our experiences, and every part of us, is to be seen as “not me, not mine” (taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi). We think of “the self” as being a unitary thing. And how can a unitary thing relate to itself? But our selves are not unitary. The self is a collective of different parts, different modules, that coexist and cohabit, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes being in conflict. And when one part of ourself sends love to another, the other loves back.

We probably think, on some level, that being harsh on ourself is good for us, that if we punish ourself for “not being good enough,” we’ll start being “good enough.” But if this works at all, it comes at a price. Just as making colleagues or family members fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness doesn’t make life pleasant for you in the long term, so making yourself fearful, tense, or angry in response to your harshness isn’t going to bring happiness.

So try loving yourself. Love yourself, and your self will love you back.

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Gratitude, creativity, and the “boys in the basement”

Glass lamp in a black backgroundLast night I sat without a timer, or rather using a stick of incense to time my sit. Recently I bought some rather lovely Shoyeido Nokiba (Moss Garden) incense, which has long sticks that burn for 50 minutes. It’s a nice alternative to using my iPad as a timer. Sometimes it’s nice not to have electronics between me and my little altar.

The Boys in the Basement offered up some interesting experiences. The “Boys in the Basement” is a term I borrowed from the novelist Stephen King. He uses it to refer to the creative powers of the mind. I write quite a lot, and the term resonated with me very strongly. Writing barely happens at all on a conscious level. Stories write themselves. Or the Boys in the Basement do the writing. I — the conscious I — just witness the words appearing, witness the small twist in the gut that comes when something in the writing doesn’t feel right, witness alternative phrasings appear. “I” don’t really do anything. writing is an excellent teaching on non-self. Actually everything is, but we rarely pay attention to the lessons, because they threaten to upend the way we see ourselves.

And it’s just the same with meditation. The less there’s a sense of “me” meditating, and the more there’s this sense of “me” witnessing the meditation unfold, the better things tend to go. The surprising thing is that there are unconscious parts of the brain that are better at meditating that “I” am.

The boys in the basement often surprise me. Last night they decided that gratitude was going to arise for every experience that appeared, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Observing the breathing: gratitude. Noticing a pain in the back: gratitude. Getting distracted: gratitude.

This may make no sense to you. It probably wouldn’t have made any sense to me until the Boys decided that this was how it was going to go down. Why should I feel gratitude for feeling pain? Some people are paralyzed and can’t feel pain, for one thing. For another, this body turns up and does things even when it’s suffering. What kind of a friend is it who shows up and helps you out even when they’re in pain? And one interesting thing was that pain received with gratitude ceased to be experienced as pain at all. It wasn’t even unpleasant — quite the contrary. Pain turned into bliss.

100 day meditation challenge, day 70Right from the start of the meditation I found I went straight into powerful pīti (pleasant feelings of energy in the body), deep joy, and an almost complete absence of thought.

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day. I was trying it last night. My son was sick, and I could hear coughing coming from his room. Gratitude. (Why gratitude? Imagine if I couldn’t hear him coughing. Not everyone has hearing. Imagine if it didn’t bother me. Not everyone has empathy.)

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day, but it’s not something “I” can make happen. The invitation can be sent out, but it’s up the Boys in the Basement whether they’ll respond to the call.

But I’m sending out the invitation now (although that’s not really me either) and even though I didn’t get much sleep last night I’m grateful to be here, grateful to be conscious, grateful to be a channel for the Boys in the Basement.

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