The Rational Mind Has Had Its Day

When you start out in meditation, at first you can’t tell the difference between your mind and you. This is the starting point for most people, and the truth is, it causes a great deal of misery. When you first hear about the possibility of stepping outside of that way of seeing yourself, it sounds like cheating. A lot of people have this reaction to meditation and mindfulness practices. They might ask how it can be that not listening to your mind is fruitful. But it is not really about not listening to your mind. In good practice, we listen to the mind fully. But we also refuse to take it too seriously. Why?

The mind is not quite as concerned with truth as we take it to be. The more you watch what it does, the clearer it becomes that all the mind is looking to do is create distinctions. It sets up boundaries, makes a big deal out of this versus that. Evolutionarily, this makes complete sense. The rational mind is what allows us, as hunter-gatherers, to continue to live. The problem is that it seems to have outlived its purpose. Culture moves at a much quicker pace than evolution, and the starkest evidence of that is that our minds are going insane. Even the sanest people out there are suffering from an inherent madness. The same function of consciousness which brought about the ability to make fire, carve out tools from wood and the like, is now moving at a hundred million miles an hour, trying desperately to make sense of the modern world. You have heard it being called information overload, but even that is an understatement.

The thinking mind is now a kind of disease, albeit one prevalent enough that we can’t see it most of the time. Thinking has become a disease, a compulsion which does not actually serve us as well as we would like to imagine. The way out, of course, is not to suppress it, but simply to be aware of it. In being aware of it, you have to accept that you are more than it. To be aware of something, you have to be beyond it. This is the first lesson, and the most important one.

It may be that one day we will evolve beyond the rational mind. When that happens, all of its ghosts will depart from the world too. It’s hard to imagine what exactly that would look like, but it seems likely that there will be no atomic bombs.

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The Illusion Of Personal Development

When you finish a good book, it’s like a kiss on the forehead from a loving stranger. I’m constantly amazed by literature, by the very act of it and what it really means. It is a genuinely telepathic practice, yet so everyday that we forget its magic too hastily. A book is a physical object which acts as a wormhole between two minds. Isn’t that something?

I have a strange relationship to reading. I’ve certainly done a lot of it. But this has slowed down in recent years, become less and less the case. I’ve been trying to work out why I all but abandoned reading for so long. There are, I think, quite a few factors involved. When I finished university, I had the definite feeling that I had had enough of reading for a while. Fair enough – towards the end, I was reading the equivalent of ‘War & Peace’ every three to four days. I promised myself not to feel guilty about taking a break from books. And I’m glad I did that; that needed to happen. But, as is often the case, this just became a bad habit of its own. Before I knew it, I was hardly ever reading a book, and then not at all.

Depression didn’t help (it rarely does). Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was in a heavy depression, and it’s hard to concentrate for long periods of time with the black dog hanging over you. I was so caught up in it, however, that I didn’t even know I was depressed. Classic. It is only in the past few years that I have started stepping out of my depression. In the last year, in particular, I am happy to say I have all but disbanded it. It is not an overstatement to say that life is better now than it has ever been for me. When a depressed state does arise these days, I am able to handle it well. And with this lightness of being, this happiness, has come an increased desire for books, and more time spent reading them. Finally, I am getting into reading again.

And I now realised what had really been holding me back. As is so often the case, it was my own unexamined ideas about the thing which stopped it from being enjoyable. I realised one day that I had come to regard reading as something which I should be doing. Of course, with that idea in the back of my head, it only meant that I didn’t want to do it. Whether this was a kind of strange rebellion, I can’t be sure. But it was only when I noticed that I was holding this idea, and started to let go of it, that I returned to my old habit of reading for the enjoyment of it.

It’s hard to enjoy something you think you should be doing. A lot of people know this experience, perhaps in subtler ways. I have known people who have a very certain idea about the type of book they should be reading, too. If it isn’t literary fiction, they shouldn’t be enjoying it. What a cruel joke! For my own part, reading had become tied up with a whole host of other things. It was one big blockage in my head, and it was all centred around one basic idea: that I should be a certain way.

This is subtle, and yet it can readily destroy lives. All of us have unexamined ideas about how things should be. It doesn’t really matter what they are, they get in the way of the truth. And of course, the great irony is that once you stop worrying about being a certain thing, you become what you are. Which is usually what you were worrying about not being.

The lesson here is to allow yourself to unfold in whatever way you happen to be unfolding. On a larger scale, it means recognising that you don’t have to be a certain thing, or have achieved certain statuses by a certain age, or have purchased a certain structure, or have a savings account, or be able to perform that one weird trick in bed. You don’t have to have developed to any particular degree by any particular age. Culture is making us sick with the idea that we need to compete with each other. This is so prevalent, and yet such an invisible force. Our image-laden world is practically designed to beat you down, to make you feel like you are not enough. This is how corporations profit from you. This is how the beast stays alive.

A quiet revolution of spirit occurs when you display a glorious middle finger to the very idea of progress. Progress is based on the notion that things aren’t okay – but with enough toiling, they might be one day. It is all well and good to want to better yourself, but are you doing it for the right reasons? And are you being honest about the starting place? To make any real ‘progress’ with yourself, you first need to recognise that you don’t need to be anything for anyone. And this isn’t a turning your back on the world. Quite the opposite. Allow yourself to be what you are. If the culture doesn’t like it, it will have to change its ideas to keep up with you.

When you are honest about yourself, your place in it all, you arrive at the starting place. From there, you can build on your foundation in whatever way you choose, and become whatever you like. But as long as you are concerned – even unconsciously, in the background – with how others view you, or how well you are competing with your fellow humans in the race to personal perfection, your actions will not be quite appropriate, your words not quite true, and you won’t actually get where you are trying to go.

Work hard on yourself, by all means. But give yourself the patience of understanding that you don’t have to work on yourself. Enjoy yourself as you are, right now, with every strength and weakness. And if you’d rather read Erica James than James Joyce, then go ahead.

Solitude’s Shadow

I have a strange relationship with my aloneness. This is partly because I really do not spend much time alone. The majority of my alone time is spent in work. Other than that, there might be a mere one or two hours a week when there is nobody else around. How I deal with those two hours is very telling.

I have long considered myself highly solitary in nature, yet increasingly I am frustrated with solitude. This might be due to the fact that I have dropped the romanticism of the lone wolf notion. But there is probably more to it than that. When I was a teenager, I was quite content spending weeks alone at a time. I really thrived in solitude, and people were something of a bore. I am very introverted in nature, and favour the kinds of activities which are quiet and don’t require many people. However, my introversion has changed, as has my desire for solitude, quite dramatically over the years. Now, I am at a strange point where I have become terrible at spending any time alone. While once I would have waited for those two hours a week with bated breath, now I can’t wait until they’re over.

Here’s another strange behaviour, and one which might shed some light on my admittedly bizarre way of relating to others. When I am with others, I am not all that talkative. I am not shy, either, and I do engage in conversation. I feel comfortable around people; I enjoy having maybe three or four guests in my home much more than having no-one there. But I am not overly talkative. And yet, what do I do the moment they have said goodbye and shut the door? Why, I pipe up. I talk to my friends most of all when they are not there. And when I say I talk to them, I mean it genuinely. I talk, out loud, into the air. Sometimes I even pretend that they are sitting there. I have a choice few friends in my head who I can whip out at whim, depending on the subject matter at hand.

What’s going on here? Why am I quiet when my friends are near, and engage them in deep conversation when they’re gone? It seems as though I crave the connection of friendship – and I definitely do, I’m a whore for it – but automatically sink back into a listening role when I’m with them.

It is all about that connection, though. I think it’s indicative of my personality type that I don’t really let people in. But once I let you in, I really fucking let you in. Once we’re at that point, you had better be ready to hear every half-ounce of thought that has ever popped into my head, no matter how inane, irrelevant or seemingly insane. I can go from hugging you hello at the door to unloading all of my recent revelatory dreams, or explaining my theory of the oscillating universe (a discussion for another time). When I received counselling in my teens, my psychologist complained that I was the kind of person who wanted love and attention, but without giving any. That felt like a pretty damning indictment on my being at the time. But with a few years of hindsight, I can say that he was spot on. I’m glad to say, also, that I am no longer quite that way. The older I get, the more interested I am in giving myself to the other person – in conversation, in sex, in sitting quietly in a room. I am becoming more adept at helping others, without the unconscious desire for a reward lurking in the background and ruining things. Little by little, I am learning to forget myself in favour of becoming fascinated by another.

This is all love is, and I am starting to love a great many people. A sure sign of development is that I no longer crave the approval or respect of others. An even surer sign is that I am now able to love someone to the point of simply wanting the best for them. The people I love, I love regardless of my relation to them. If their happiness requires that I stay out of the way, make some distance, then that is what needs to happen. Even if, really, there is that daemon in me which would quite like to possess them in some way, I am able to see through it.

Part of the problem for me has often been that I have a lot of anxiousness as soon as I care about someone. For whatever reason, people have often used me as a sounding board for their problems. I have always been grateful; I take it as a compliment. But if I care perhaps a little too deeply for that person, it can be all too easy for me to worry unduly about them. I lose perspective; I forget that everyone has problems, and that they will pass. I deal with my own problems with a much more heads-on manner. But if someone else tells me they are depressed, I can obsess over it for weeks. I would like to say that this is a result of my being an incredibly caring person, but I’m afraid that’s not really the truth. The truth is a little darker: I am terrified of being alone.

In the back of my head, there seems to be this constant nagging fear that all whom I love will soon fall away from me. Whether from death, disease or dis-like, they are just waiting to go. An absurdity, of course, albeit grounded in an essential truth. It probably stems from being exposed to death at an early age, combined with a particularly tortuous first romance in my teens. But I fear that this is the real reason that I worry so much about my friends. If someone tells me they’re depressed, the small voice of fear in the back says that they will kill themselves. I admit, this is not too healthy. I’m working on it, but it’s a slow process.

This is also the explanation behind my behaviour when I am alone. No matter how hard I try, I cannot shake the thought that – for all I know – my loved ones are dead or dying. I know the fear is unfounded, but that is not enough to shake it. And yet, it is true – we all die, and we don’t know when. I pride myself on being able to look death squarely, to remember its reality, to keep that essential perspective which makes light of all endeavour. I often think of my generation that a lot of them really could benefit from seeing death close up. So many sleepwalk through life, with the unacknowledged notion in the back of their minds that death is something that happens to you when you are old and have achieved your goals. The truth is that death will happen to each of us – at any point from now on. People could do with remembering that. And yet, sitting alone in a house, fretting over the possibility of death – that’s no way to live either, is it?

The solution must be some kind of middle-ground. We need to learn to accept death as a genuine possibility, which could come at any moment. But we should try to do that without fear of it, for the fear is fruitless and stops you living. A life spent ignoring death, and a life spent in fear of death, are both wasted lives. Surely there is a way to accept death without obsessing over it?

The answer, as it always is, is to return one’s attention fully to the moment at hand. In the present moment, there is no need to fear death, nor to ignore it. Death, like any problem, is only a problem when you see it as such. In fact, life is a succession of moments, and all there is to do in each moment is to carry out the necessary action, speak the necessary words. When, in one of those moments, death appears before you, your task is to take it fully in your heart and embrace it with every fibre of your being and say ‘Hello, old friend! Nice to see you!’ Until then, feel your pulse, remember your basic human animal aliveness, recall its vulnerability, and then carry on living as fully as you can.

And then let me know how you did it.

Understanding The Mind

The voice in your head doesn’t particularly care about you. This is difficult for most people to accept. When you are too strongly tied up with the voice, when you identify with it too strongly, it can seem like the voice is who you are. It then seems absurd that it might be possible that the voice doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. However, that’s how it is.

That is not to say that the voice is against you, either. It’s not really about being for or against. It’s not as though the voice has a real character, even if it seems that way sometimes. It doesn’t have a mission, it’s not out to prove you wrong. It’s just a voice. A voice which can sometimes seem so real, that it is almost audible. When you sit alone in a quiet room and listen to it, it’s pretty loud. It’s strong. It demands your attention, and usually gets it. But the fact is, it is not something that you actually have to worry about. The big secret? The voice doesn’t matter too much.

By way of illustration, take a moment now to listen to that voice, your inner monologue. Just listen to it for a while. Try not to judge it or make it say something else. Now notice the simple fact that you are outside of it. That, as long as you can be aware of it like this, you must be bigger than it. It’s a simple truth, but a revelatory and a powerful one, particularly if you have never really thought about it before.

If you are outside of something, able to observe it happening by itself, then by definition it is not you. If you are able to listen to the voice without reacting, and notice that you are listening to it, then you are not the voice, are you? You are that which is aware of the voice. Don’t overlook this for its apparent simplicity. Again, take a moment, and just notice how you are something other than the voice in your head.

Having succeeded here, it is likely that your next train of thought will be something along the lines of: ‘But then, what am I?’ It is a good sign to be asking that kind of question, but before we get into the possible answers, let’s just take a moment to see what is going on when that question is being asked. Essentially, there is a voice in the head, and then you are aware that you are outside of it, and then the voice asks ‘So what am I?’. But actually, the thing doing the asking is not that which is trying to be defined. There is a confusing interplay here, between two apparently distinct selves. The voice asks what it is on behalf of the self which is aware of the voice. For, even as the voice asks, you can still just be aware of the asking, from outside of it. So not only are you separate from the voice, but you are separate from the question. You are sitting back, watching something else ask what you are. But that something else is seemingly a part of you. What is going on here?

I am tempted to suggest that the mind just rattles on regardless, and doesn’t necessarily care about truth. The older I get, the more it seems that the mind’s sole function is just to question whatever is happening. When you become advanced with meditation practices, you start to get good at noticing the slightest bubbles of thought just as they emerge. You get to the point where you can watch a thought become a thought. There is the seed of a thought first, often based in some physiological sensation, and then that opens up into the potentiality of the thought. At this point, a few things can happen. Without mindfulness, in normal everyday function, it will then blossom into whatever it usually blossoms into. This will be the result of habitual thought patterns, often deeply embedded from years of thinking the same kinds of thoughts. Alternatively, with mindfulness, it might blossom into a new kind of thought, one which is of the moment. And then you get the thought proper, at which point it becomes expressed by means of an image or that voice talking inside your head.

When you see your thoughts come and go this clearly, you start to notice some interesting patterns. Your mind is not all that logical. Most of the time, it just kind of coasts along on half-arsed assumptions based on inaccurate memories. And what happens when you start to question your own self is really quite interesting. The question ‘what am I?’ is really just another thought, but it is one which is unable to answer the question, for it refers to a previous thought which is now forever dead. In other words, by the time the question arises, the entity which it is referring to is no longer in existence. That moment is dead, along with everything you thought you were, and now you have been reborn in a new moment, with the question ‘what am I?’ going through your mind. Alan Watts pointed to this absurdity when he said that trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth. In other words, that which is doing the biting is that which is trying to be bitten. It never works. It will, probably, never work.

When you try to define yourself, your mind panics. It is really just a kind of momentary seizure of the mind. It makes little sense. It is a brain, three-and-a-half pounds of grey matter, inside a human body, two-thirds water and mostly air, producing a kind of consciousness which has a tendency to make itself separate. At its most basic, that is really all that a self is: a tendency at a certain point in space to be other than that which is perceived. We do this all the time, and as human beings with advanced brains it becomes particularly confused, but ultimately it is a cultural thing which we can learn to see through. Over the years, your idea of your self has become like a veil through which you perceive the world. And this is the basic illusion: that there is something ‘back here’ which is separate from and needs protection from everything ‘out there’. It is as though we have long ago made the assumption that there exists, behind our eyes, a homunculus who needs defending. But this is clearly nonsense. There is no place behind the eyes where you reside. You are not sitting in a Cartesian theatre inside the brain, there is no central place that we can call you.

And that’s why, when you open up your consciousness to be the awareness of the thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves, you are being truer to how things really are. The thoughts come and go, and as the Zen saying goes, it is best not to serve them tea. You are that which is aware of them, but then there is yet another hurdle which people routinely fall into at this point. Once you identify with the wider awareness, it is all too easy to make that into a false sense of self. Just as you used to do with your thought patterns, now you find yourself doing with awareness itself. This is a hurdle so common on so many spiritual paths that it is all but invisible, and is often taken as being the end goal. Many people have got themselves stuck at this point and called it Enlightenment or whatever. Let’s be clear: it is anything but. All that has happened is that the same tendency which used to make a small self out of thought patterns has started to make a bigger self out of awareness.

This is a common ailment in spiritual practice. When you meet someone who, vacant-eyed, tells you that they are God and so immune to death, they are caught in this place. It is a subtle and endlessly devious trap, and you might find yourself getting caught in it more than once. The truth? You are not the awareness, for that is yet another falsity. The only way out is to give up the whole game. Stop trying to define yourself. You only cause yourself confusion, and the reason is clear. It is only once you start trying to define yourself that you come into existence at all. The self is that which crops up as you begin to wonder what it is. When you don’t feel the need to wonder what it is, it doesn’t appear.

Beyond that, invest yourself as fully as possible into whatever experience you are currently having. When you get to the point where you are the perception itself, rather than the perceiver or the perceived, you are getting somewhere. And this might turn out to be an essential practice. The world is at war with itself. The mind has created the means for its own demise. Rationality has been dragged to its very end. We are now being slowly driven mad, all of us, by the inanity of the world we have created. As the membrane between screen and life lessens and become subtler and more sinister, as capitalism gradually starts to collapse in on itself, and as people everywhere become more and more isolated through their dependence on false images of apparent connection, simply sitting and being aware of your basic human experience in this moment becomes a revolutionary act. It is time to put down our ideas, and take up the practice of simply being. This is the new emerging consciousness which will mark the next significant shift in human evolution. This is what we have come to call meditation, and it might be our only hope.

Why You Should Bother With Mindfulness

How are we to become resolved to the fact that things don’t always go as planned? Disappointment is a central factor in anyone’s life – and that is just as it should be. Disappointment teaches us that we only have limited control over the state of things, the course of events, how things turn out. But we do have some degree of control, don’t we?

Yes, and it is minimal. Ultimately, our control is limited to being in charge of our reactions to the world at large. We cannot do a great deal about what happens ‘out there’, but we can work towards choosing our responses in a healthy manner. This in itself might be news to some. How can we possibly choose our reactions? But there is, fortunately, a way to step back and exercise some control – and it is called mindfulness.

Mindfulness has a long, successful history of improving lives. It has also, over its lifespan, taken many different forms and rebirths. What it meant to Siddharta is not necessarily what it means to modern practitioners, though it remains unchanged at core. The reason it is unchanged is because it is more like a way of being, a way of interacting with the stimuli, rather than anything to do with the stimuli themselves. It is a manner of relating to existence, to experience. What is it, exactly? What does it look or feel like?

At its simplest, mindfulness means just that you are aware of the workings of the mind. For many, this in itself is a revelation. Most of us live through a kind of distorted lens, the ego or the self, which is not really a fair depiction of the reality, but a twisted paranoiac nihilistic nightmarish ghost of the real thing. Becoming aware of the nature of that lens and what it is really doing – this is not always so easy to do. In fact, it takes a good deal of practise, patience and dogged commitment to be able to be truly mindful. But its effects are noticeable from the very start, and they are immediately recognisable as having virtue.

As with anything, you must start off slow. It begins, for most people, with some kind of psychological explosion. There is a period of great pain and suffering, and then an inevitable release. And in that release a quiet, simple understanding tends to gently present itself: it is possible, one thinks, that this suffering is not entirely necessary. Everything opens up at this important juncture. What if there is a choice? What if I am not destined to play certain roles in certain situations, unconsciously acting out a narrative which is painful and unhelpful? What if it is not all so fixed?

It is not all so fixed. Mindfulness’ greatest gift is in allowing you to realise that you are bigger than your thoughts. After all, if you are able to watch them objectively, you must be more than them. They are part of you, but they are not you. When you also realise that the great majority of your suffering arises due to unhelpful, previously unconscious, thoughts, you suddenly have every tool you need to awaken from your suffering. Mindfulness allows you to start again, without having to relinquish anything at all.

Dying

When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.

–Sogyal Rinpoche