illusion

How to recognize, respect, and love your inner demons

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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Seeing experience as a movie

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

In my last post I said I’d been teaching meditations based on a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball or Honeycake Sutta. This teaching is about relaxing our sense of being separate from the world.

On one level it’s about simply being with our experience rather than reacting to it. That’s the approach to this teaching that most people adopt. On another, deeper, level it’s about not identifying with any of our experience being me or mine. We don’t think “this is my experience” or “this is me here, having an experience.” This when there is experiencing going on, without any sense of there being an experience or something that is experienced. It’s a radically simple practice once you find a way in to it (and helping people find that way in is what I try to do).

As often happens, my meditation practice went off in an unexpected direction as I taught these meditations based on the Honeycake Sutta. My meditation practice often isn’t something I do, but something that happens within me. It has a life of its own. And it’s always interesting seeing where we end up.

Toward the end of the series I found myself regarding my experience as being like a movie. This opened up some interesting perspectives, but before I share that I’d like to say something about another teaching from the Buddha that cross-pollenated, so to speak, with the Honeycake. This is a discourse called the Phena-Pindupama Sutta. Phena means “foam.” Pindupama means “lump.” So this is the “Discourse on the Lump of Foam.”

In the Phena-Pindupama Sutta the Buddha is on the banks of the Ganges river, talking to the monks about the way in which our experience is, in a sense, illusory in nature. Being beside a river, he starts off by using water metaphors. The physical forms we see, he says, including our own physical form, are like a lump of foam drifting downriver: just as someone with discernment could examine that foam and find that there’s no substance to it — that it’s “empty, void, without substance” — so, as we examine form, we find it’s exactly the same.

What does this mean? Isn’t it obvious that our bodies are solid and substantial? Well, when in meditation we take our attention deeply into the body, what do we find? Do we actually experience any solidity or substance? All that we can ever know are sensations. We have sensations that the mind translates into concepts like “substance” and “solid” but those are still just sensations. The sensations that we think of as representing contact with something solid are nothing more than sensations of resistance. And when we look very closely at those or any other sensations they’re anything but solid. They’re nothing more than pinpoints of perception. They’re not stable, but wink in and out of existence, moment by moment. This is something that any of us can verify, although it does take some investment of time in developing the relevant observational skills.

Feelings, the Buddha tells the monks, are like bubbles appearing and disappearing rapidly as a heavy raindrop slams into the river’s surface. Here too, we can train ourselves to look closely at the nature of feelings. We may think of feelings as persisting over time, but if we look closely we see that they are simply internal sensations. During a rainstorm there are always splashes on the surface of water. But each splash lasts for just an instant. Feelings, examined closely, are like that too: pinpoints of sensation, suspended in space, winking in and out of existence with incredible rapidity. “What substance could there be in feeling?” the Buddha asks.

From this point on the Buddha seems to have run out of river metaphors: thoughts and concepts are like a mirage shimmering over hot ground; emotional impulses are like the pith of a banana tree, which, onion-like, has layers and layers that can be removed, leaving nothing, since this kind of tree has no heartwood; consciousness is like an magic trick—an illusion created by a conjurer. All of these things lack substance. And this can be confirmed in our experience as well. What substance is there in the sounds and images that we experience in memory and imagination? What substance is there in anger or desire? In consciousness itself?

The metaphors that the Buddha chose were apt for his times, and are still useful for us. But in my own life, the most appropriate, simple, and helpful analogy is borrowed from the illusion that we call “cinema.” My physical, emotional, and mental experience is like a movie. My body fabricates sensations. My brain fabricates feelings in the body. My mind fabricates sounds and images and conceptual categories within itself. And all of these things are insubstantial. And they are things that I can observe, like a movie.

And, like a movie, our experience can be profoundly absorbing. When my feelings are hurt, I think of the hurt as a real thing. Anger appears, and I think that’s real too. I believe all the stories I tell myself about how the person who hurt me is selfish, or bad, or clueless.

But what if I realize that I’m watching a movie. What then?

Once I start to accept that my body and mind are fabricating a movie for me, I take it all less seriously. Watching the movie of my experience, I can experience pleasure and discomfort in the body, and it’s all something to be appreciated, the same way I appreciate the tender and the tense moments in a film. I can experience my feelings, and whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant I find I can enjoy them just the same. Impulses arise, and if they are unloving or unhelpful can I let them dissolve like the unreal things they are: I don’t need to take them seriously. I recognize that my thoughts, my memories, and my imaginings of the future are simply movies that run in the mind.

It’s all a movie. To see things this way is simple. It’s effective. And it’s new to me, so it’s work in progress. Please excuse if my explanation lacks coherence in any way.

And I know, from messages I receive from damaged people, that there’s a possibility that some will mistake what I say to mean that nothing matters. But that’s not true. What matters is to love everything—especially the parts of us and of others that take the movie to be real. For those parts need our love and compassion. This gives life meaning. Love and meaning are part of the movie too, but they are ultimately what the movie is about. We don’t have to believe this: it’s simply how things are and our task is simply to see it. This is what we are to see: our true nature is connectedness and compassion.

So if we don’t have a sense of meaning, purpose, and love in our lives, it would be unwise to embrace this this perspective of seeing our experience as being like a movie created for us. When there’s a healthy sense of love and meaning in our lives, disillusionment is a positive experience. Without those things it can be devastating. But once we do have a basis of love, appreciation, and purpose, then to see life as a movie is a way of deepening those skillful qualities even further. It’s a way of liberating ourselves from investment in the beliefs and clinging that obscure the reality of connectedness and compassion, which is what we truly are.

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The holographic dinosaur; or, How fear is an illusion

You’re walking down a busy shopping street, and you hear panicked screaming. You turn to see what the fuss is, and behind a fleeing crowd you see something impossible: a velociraptor. It’s snarling and roaring, turning its head from side to side as it follows the hysterical populace, almost as if it’s herding them. Perhaps it is.

You panic. Before you even realize you’re doing it, you’re sprinting to the doorway of the nearest shop. Fortunately velociraptors, as is well known, are not good with door handles. As long as you get through that doorway you’ll be all right.

Safe behind the protection of the shop window, you watch people on the street fleeing the fearsome creature.

But then you notice a curious thing: the velociraptor doesn’t actually seem to be harming anyone. And anyway, a velociraptor? They’ve been extinct for millions of years! Surely it’s some kind of trick? A joke. A stunt. Still feeling terrified, but convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye, you step back into the street and approach the animal. It certainly looks very real. It’s not someone in a suit. There are no dangling power cords. It doesn’t seem to be mechanical.

The velociraptor stares at you. Your heart pounds. You take a wary step forward. It snarls. You reach toward it, almost close enough to touch its feathery skin. At the very point when your fingers should encounter solid flesh, you feel — nothing. Precisely nothing. Your hand passes right into the velociraptor. Fascinated, you realize that it must be some kind of holographic projection. There was never any danger. In a way there was never anything to fear.

We’ll come back to that a little later…

Over the years I’ve taken many different approaches to feelings, or vedanas, as they’re called in Buddhism. I’ve written about these a lot, but for the sake of a quick recap, vedanas are internal, self-generated sensations — pleasant or unpleasant (or also, to be complete, neutral) that we have in response to things we’ve perceived or thought about. They often manifest in the solar plexus or around the heart. They result from the activation of nerve endings. They’re also involuntary — they’re not under conscious control. In my view they include things like frustration, ease, anxiety, joy, disgust, and pleasant anticipation.

At first I didn’t acknowledge vedanas, but would simply react to them. If I saw someone acting in a way I didn’t like, for example being greedy, I might feel the vedana of disgust, and then immediately react with anger, accompanied with critical thoughts. (The anger and the thoughts are cetanas, or volitions. They are under conscious control, at least potentially.)

Later I learned to identify and pay more attention to them, so that a “gap” would appear in which I could act more creatively — not reacting with anger or craving, for example, but instead with patience or kindness. Not that I do this all the time, but I do at those times when I’m most mindful. When we’re mindful of our feelings and create this gap, more helpful volitional responses have a chance to arise.

Later still I recognized that these feelings were often forms of suffering, and so I’d use them as a basis for self-compassion, sending them thoughts of lovingkindness, just as I would to a person who was in pain. This was the most radical practice I’d ever done. It literally changed my life, and freed me from a lot of suffering. Practicing self-compassion also made it much easier for me to practice compassion toward others.

More recently I realized there was another way to look at these feelings, which is where our holographic dinosaur comes in.

In the last few months I’ve realized that feelings are an illusion. When something like anxiety arises (and believe me, I’ve had ample opportunity to be mindful of anxiety in the past couple of years) I turn toward it — as I’ve done in the past. And I regard it with compassion rather than fear (or with not much fear). But now I really look at it. And what do I find? I see a constellation of sensations, hanging in space. There’s nothing substantial. There’s nothing solid. And there’s nothing to be afraid of. If anything, the experience of anxiety, closely examined, is a source of beauty, delight, and wonder.

You’ve probably noticed the connection with the holographic velociraptor. It appears to be solid, and it appears to be scary. But there’s nothing there. When we touch the hologram, or attempt to, there’s a sense of joy, wonder, fascination. That’s what examining anxiety is like for me now.

I’m still caught out by anxiety and fear. Even if you know that at some point a velociraptor is going to appear from nowhere and charge at you, and even if you know that this creature is a harmless hologram, it’s still freaking scary when it does appear. You still jump out of your skin.

So when I wake at two AM, with the realization that I may be homeless and bankrupt early next year, and my heart’s pounding and my head’s racing, it all feels very real — as when we would experience panic when a velociraptor lunges at us from a dark alley, even though we know on some level that the animal isn’t real. But then, after that momentary and visceral panic has arisen, more reflective parts of the brain kick in, I turn toward the anxiety, and it’s revealed once more to be an illusion.

So I’d encourage you to turn toward your fears, and so examine them closely. What sensations are actually present? How are they changing, moment by moment? Keep doing this, and you’ll discover that the experience of anxiety is like a holographic projection.

I’m not saying that if you do this you’ll find that your anxiety is instantly revealed to be illusory. Perhaps your relationship with vedanas will have to evolve in the same way mine did. Perhaps it’ll take years. But as with many hard-won fruits of practice, I look at what I see now and think that this realization might have come more quickly had someone pointed it out to me earlier. (Maybe they did, and I didn’t take it on board.) And so I offer this in case it saves you some time, and speeds up the evolution of your practice. Maybe it makes no sense to you at the moment. But perhaps one day it’ll fall into place, and you’ll realize your fears to be illusions.

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

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.

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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Living in a brainwashed culture of urgency

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., PsychCentral: Whether you like it or not companies know exactly how to get in your brain and control what you’re paying attention to. Everything today is about tricking our brains into a state of urgency. Think about how the news is delivered, “Breaking News.” Or how about how your phones is configured, everything plays to a sound or blinking light that tells our brain, this is something we need to pay attention to right now. Applications have become increasingly popular because they give you up-to-the-minute update alerts on whatever you want from news, to sports scores, to the newest Groupon or sale…

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Born to be free

rebel buddhaDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, explains that our innate drive for freedom can be expressed either destructively or creatively.

Rebel Buddha is an exploration of what it means to be free and how it is that we can become free. Although we may vote for the head of our government, marry for love, and worship the divine or mundane powers of our choice, most of us don’t really feel free in our day-to-day lives. When we talk about freedom, we’re also talking about its opposite — bondage, lack of independence, being subject to the control of something or someone outside ourselves. No one likes it, and when we find ourselves in that situation, we quickly start trying to figure out a way around it. Any restriction on our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” arouses fierce resistance. When our happiness and freedom are at stake, we become capable of transforming ourselves into rebels.

Title: Rebel Buddha
Author: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-874-5
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

There’s something of a rebellious streak in all of us. Usually it’s dormant, but sometimes it’s provoked into expression. If nurtured and guided with wisdom and compassion, it can be a positive force that frees us from fear and ignorance. If it manifests neurotically, however, full of resentment, anger, and self-interest, then it can turn into a destructive force that harms oneself as much as it does others. When confronted with a threat to our freedom or independence and that rebellious streak surfaces, we can choose how to react and channel that energy. It can become part of a contemplative process that leads to insight. Sometimes that insight comes quickly, but it can also take years.

According to the Buddha, our freedom is never in question. We are born free. The true nature of the mind is enlightened wisdom and compassion. Our minds are always brilliantly awake and aware. Nevertheless, we’re often plagued by painful thoughts and the emotional unrest that goes with them. We live in states of confusion and fear from which we see no escape. Our problem is that we don’t see who we truly are at the deepest level. We don’t recognize the power of our enlightened nature. We trust the reality we see before our eyes and accept its validity until something comes along — an illness, accident, or disappointment — to disillusion us. Then we might be ready to question our beliefs and start searching for a more meaningful and lasting truth. Once we take that step, we’re starting off on the road to freedom.

On this road, what we free ourselves from is illusion, and what frees us from illusion is the discovery of truth. To make that discovery, we need to enlist the powerful intelligence of our own awake mind and turn it toward our goal of exposing, opposing, and overcoming deception. That is the essence and mission of “rebel buddha”: to free us from the illusions we create by ourselves, about ourselves, and those that masquerade as reality in our cultural and religious institutions.

We start by looking at the dramas in our life, not with our ordinary eyes, but with the eyes of dharma. What is drama and what is dharma? I guess you could say drama is illusion that acts like truth, and dharma is truth itself—the way things are, the basic state of reality that does not change from day to day according to fashion or one’s mood or agenda. To change dharma into drama, all you need are the elements of any good play: emotion, conflict, and action—a sense that something urgent and meaningful is happening to the characters involved. Our personal dramas may begin with the ‘facts’ about who we are and what we are doing, but, fueled by our emotions and concepts, they can quickly evolve into pure imagination and become as difficult to decipher as the storylines of our dreams. Then our sense of reality becomes further and further removed from basic reality itself. We lose track of who we really are. We have no means of telling fact from fiction, or developing the self-knowledge or wisdom that can free us from our illusions.

The Rebel Buddha North American Tour, featuring Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and other leading voices in Western Buddhism, kicks off on November 14 in New York, NY at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. The Tour will continue to Halifax, Toronto, and Boulder, and will conclude in Seattle.

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