growth

Insight is not enough

flower

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight. (Let’s just accept the loaded word “gaining” for now.) On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts.

As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal many people set themselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insight into non-self. And while that is crucial to attaining the goal, simply having insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terns of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other.

This is where we should conceive of our practice leading. This is the goal we should orient our lives around.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of gaining insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning and a sense of despair. These cases are rare, and I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation before the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, there seems to have been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation. Many meditation teachers have an habit of trying to ignore these potential problems, but fortunately they are being studied and hopefully we’ll learn more about them in time.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. Developing insight removes certain barriers to the arising of skillful qualities and (often) to the dropping away of some of the grossly unskillful ones, but it takes effort to actually bring about growth.

I’d encourage you, then, to develop, on the cushion and in daily life, the qualities I’ve mentioned. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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Find your own way

The human body has about 100 trillion cells (plus another ten quadrillion microscopic critters hitching a ride, most of them beneficial or harmless). Each one of your cells has aims – goals, in a sense – controlled by its DNA: cells conduct processes aimed at particular functions, like building bones or gobbling up harmful invaders. Cells also work together in larger and larger assemblies in pursuit of broader goals, such as the 100 billion neurons in your brain that run the nervous system, which as a whole is itself the master regulator of the body.

In effect, there are layers, hierarchies, of goals in the body – and a similar architecture of aims in the mind. For example, operating right now is the goal of moving your eyes over these words, which serves the goal of understanding them, which serves larger goals such as desires to learn new things, new skills, and to be truly happy.

In short, whether in the body or the mind, there is no life without goals. Trying to “transcend” goals is itself a goal. The only question is: Are your goals good ones? In other words, do they lead to happiness and benefits for you and others rather than suffering and harms?

To choose good goals we must balance the influences of the world and the murmurings of the heart. Some counsel from others is good; I wish I’d listened to my parents’ advice to start saving in my 20’s (rather than in my 50’s when I finally got around to it).

But often we get nudged, cowed, persuaded, bullied, seduced, enveloped, swept along, or otherwise drawn into values, priorities, gender or culture roles, perspectives on life, assumptions, addictions, career choices, marriages, spiritual practices or orientations, etc. etc. etc. that in ways large or small are not really, not deeply, right for us. And sometimes we are an active participant in this process. For example, it was a combination of external hype and internal laziness that led me to try to take a shortcut in my early 30’s with my training as a psychologist, which then cost me a couple years of effort to get back on the right path.

In effect, a thousand little threads tug at us this way and that, many of them originating from within, internalized voices and faces from the past and “shoulds” and “musts” from the present. When these threads pull you from your true course – the one that is authentic, at the intersection of your talents and joys and values, appropriate to your temperament and nature, and filled with heart – you end up feeling sidetracked, caught in a backwater, unfulfilled, unused, adrift, trapped, even alienated from your own life. Do you have any sense of this, yourself?

So it’s important to find your own way.

As a frame, know that you can follow your course while also fulfilling your responsibilities. With intention and practice, an inner freedom is available while being externally engaged. You make these responsibilities part of your course, an honorable expression of it, informed by it, an opportunity for growth in your own way.

Consider how you are not living your own life as much as you could. In relationships, do you make more room for the other person’s needs than your own? What aren’t you saying? Whose shoulds or plans or taboos are you living out? (Especially the ones from childhood.) How might you be conforming, even in subtle ways, to scripts or teachings or group-think or cultural programs?

When you get those other voices out of your head, what’s left that’s true? What silence might be speaking to you?

Take a look at parts of your life, such as family or career or a particular relationship. Have you drifted from your own truth in any of these situations? What specific course corrections could you make? What would help you stick with them?

Open to guidance outside the box. Draw on (for most people) the right side of your brain for images of your current path and where it could be better to go. Listen to your heart: What in your life is truly working for you that you could strengthen, and what is calling to you to lean more toward? Step out of your normal routine for an hour or longer: go for a long drive or walk, take a workshop, spend a day with a dear friend – and look at your life from a bird’s-eye view, with a sense of possibility and freedom: Alright, no praise or blame, but where to head from here?

The shift in course could be tiny. It could be simply a matter of adjusting an attitude, or spending 20 minutes a day in a new way. But extended forward over the rest of your life, and meanwhile knowing in your heart that it is true for you, will make all the difference in the world.

We make a life a minute at a time. In this minute, you can lean as much as possible toward your own true way.

As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

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John Dewey: “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

John Dewey

Dewey’s saying echoes Buddhist notions of impermanence and not-self. Bodhipaksa points out that the Buddhist position is not merely descriptive of how things are. Rather it amounts to a technology of happiness — a set of perspectives and tools that allows us to create more deeply fulfilling lives.

One of the most crippling — and often unacknowledged — beliefs we can have is that the self is something fixed and unchanging. When we have the idea that our personalities are set like words carved in stone the possibility of change is closed off to us.

A mountaineering friend of mine once commented that when coming down a hill you were faced with innumerable choices about whether to go to the left or right of a particular rock. The very first choice you make conditions all the others, but every single choice you make shapes the route of descent. Depending on the choices you make, you can end up where you wanted to be, or miles away from there. You can end up safe, or you can end up in grave danger.

Choices that in themselves may not amount to much cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

I see this principle in action in my own life all the time. I’m always making choices that in themselves may not seem to amount to much, but which cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

Now often when people talk about choices they think about the big things in life, like choosing a job or a life partner. Or often people think about trivial things like which breakfast cereal they’re going to have. But the choices I’m talking about making are generally not huge. Usually they are tiny decisions about things, like how I’m going to respond to a particular thought that has popped into my head. That thought that’s critical of a co-worker, will I spin it into a story about his failings, or will I just let it go? That fearful thought that tells me the article I’m writing isn’t going to be interesting, am I going to believe those doubts or will I let them pass by and throw myself into the act of creation? These aren’t major life-style choices, although they do matter. They affect my moment-by-moment sense of well-being, and they affect whether my life feels like play or like drudgery.

It’s because paying attention to these choices makes a difference to my well-being that they’re important. There are some choices we make — which cereal we’re having for breakfast, whether to wear the gray or the black socks — that really have no significant effect on our lives, although sometimes we put a lot of energy into such decisions, perhaps to divert ourselves from more important issues.

Just as with coming down a mountain, the accumulation of small decisions can lead us to very different places. When my two-year-old has a tantrum, do I lose my temper with her and try to use aggressive control to force her to do what I want, or can I find a more gentle and compassionate response that gives her reassurance and models a more mature form of self-control? What happens in those moments where we are faced with a screaming toddler turn out very differently depending on what mental habits we’ve developed.

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves. I’ve seen people go from being crippled with anxiety to being confident leaders. I’ve seen people go from being prickly and aggressive to being friendly and loving. You might think a lifetime is a long time for change to come about. Surely there’s a faster way? Some new therapy or psychological tool that can bring about change in a weekend? It’s true that sometimes we can change rapidly — I’ve known some people to go from “difficult” to “mellow” in just a few weeks of meditation — but while that can happen the greater danger is that we’ll spend our entire lives looking for a quick fix rather than changing ourselves in a slow and steady way. Looking for quick change we end up making no change.

To be able to make the choices that allow for growth, that allow for the creation of a more meaningful and satisfying life, we need to have mindfulness. Without mindfulness we’re largely unaware that there even are choices to be made. Without mindfulness we simply respond habitually to our lives and there’s no possibility of change. We need to be able to stand back from ourselves, pause, and consider what’s the best way to respond.

We also need a degree of insight. Insight’s nothing magical — it comes from observing ourselves and realizing, for example, that losing our temper generally makes things worse, while being patient generally makes things better. Insight can also come from listening to other people who have made a bit more progress in working with themselves than we ourselves have done. At the very least we need to have a general sense of how we can tell the difference between impulses that are likely to create unhappiness and those are are going to lead to well-being and harmony.

We can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process…

We need patience as well. We all work within limitations. We may have strongly developed habits of unhelpful behaviors that have taken years to build up. We’re not going to be able to change those habits overnight. But we don’t have to. In going down the mountain we don’t leap from the summit down to the base; instead we simply take each rock as it appears in front of us, and decide whether we’re going to go to the left or the right. And we do that over and over again. Sometimes — often even — we’ll make the wrong choice, or fail to make a choice at all. But there will be plenty of other rocks for us to maneuver around. If I lose my temper I then have the opportunity to respond to that situation creatively — for example by letting go of my pride, by apologizing, by making amends, and by resolving to be more aware in the future.

All this amounts to what we could call a “technology of happiness” — a set of tools that allows us to transform our lives, moment by moment, into something creative, joyful, and filled with meaning.

Eventually we can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process, or rather a parallel series of interconnected processes. When we look at ourselves we don’t see a “thing” that needs to be changes, but multiple interwoven streams of matter, sensation, emotion, thought, and habit — each of which is already and always changing. We can realize that the problem is not bringing about change, but lies in shaping the direction of change. This is a liberating realization. Not only do we experience a sense of freedom from the idea of a fixed self, but we realize that there is nothing holding us back from further change — and there never was.

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Ten most popular posts on Wildmind this year

Top TenJust to help you keep track of what’s hot on Wildmind at the moment, we’ve put together this list of the ten blog posts that have received the most visitors this year. Enjoy!

10. Naming negative emotions makes them weaker Wired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

9. Top 10 Myths About Meditation Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

8. The Buddha as Warrior It might seem strange to think of the Buddha as a “warrior” when he is rightly seen as above all a figure of peace. Lieutenant (jg) Jeanette Shin, the US military’s first Buddhist chaplain, looks at the Buddha’s martial background.

7. Infinity in the palm of your hand Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

6. “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” (Krishnamurti) Bodhipaksa explores the uncomfortable notion that we are all trapped in a world of delusions.

5. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” (Anaïs Nin) Bodhipaksa explores a quote by Anaïs Nin.

4. The joys of Zen Coffee There are many paths to Awakening, including the path of Zen Coffee, Gloria Chadwick’s hip new take on Zen mindfulness.

3. Love, Sex, and Non-Attachment Is it possible to be in a committed sexual relationship and follow the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment? Does loving someone deeply by definition mean we’re attached to them? Sunada doesn’t see these ideas as contradictory, and explores what an enlightened relationship might look like.

2. The 12-Step Buddhist Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step Program offers a path of escape from the cycle of dependency, but it’s a path that’s heavily reliant on belief in a deity. Can Buddhism provide an alternative approach to addiction? Buddhist and incarcerated drug-offender Rich Cormier investigates “12-Step Buddhism” as outlined in a new book by Darren Littlejohn.

1. Top 10 celebrity Buddhists When we started putting this list together it seemed like it was going to be nothing more than a shallow, trivial — although perhaps welcome — distraction from all the news about disastrous wars and sordid political scandals, but as we dug deeper into the web we found that we felt at times inspired by reading about the practice of famous Buddhists, some of whom have had their trials. We hope that you too will be inspired — and entertained — by Wildmind’s Top Ten List of Celebrity Buddhists.

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