The true path to enlightenment is a journey of deep self awareness, being the watcher of one’s own thoughts. When watched closely and consciously, over time one comes to understand that the Ego has two primary purposes, first is self preservation or survival, and second is the pursuit of happiness. Survival takes priority over happiness. It is extremely difficult to be happy when you feel threatened. Ego tries to provide self protection by trying to predict your future, so you can avoid what you don’t want and pursue what you do. This is accomplished by relying on past experiences and conditioning as a starting point to create and generate all of the discursive mind theatrics, daydreaming, and inner dialogues that constantly play out in our heads. We are deluding ourselves with the belief that we can somehow control what has yet to unfold in our lives. We imagine multiples of scenarios, sometimes to the point of obsession, generating a version of our world either as the way we want it to be, or the way we don’t want it to be, and completely biased by the way we interpret our environment. Despite our best efforts at forecasting the future with our fantasy versions of reality, we discover that life never quite plays out exactly the way our Ego expects it will. How can it, when we live in an environment of infinite possibilities?
The only basis our Ego has for making its predictions, is memories of our past experiences. These memories have been filtered and distorted by our perceptions, judgements, preferences, and reactions to the various life events we felt were worth remembering. The thought patterns we generate are also strongly influenced by our system of beliefs. Most of us go through life defending but rarely Questioning Beliefs. How often do we ever examine our beliefs to see where they came from and why we choose to accept them, especially when there is no basis to support them? Blind faith is faith that has absolutely no basis in reality, yet many of us chose to cling to our beliefs anyway. We hold sometimes hidden fears or aversions to a reality that might be different than the one we prefer to believe in. This is called cognitive dissonance.
When the hopes, desires, or beliefs of the Ego are out of sync with reality, we experience internal disharmony and inner conflict, consciously and/or subconsciously, and this leads to mental suffering. When things don’t turn out the way we think they should, we allow ourselves to wallow in whatever unique blend of self imposed mental suffering we have chosen for ourselves; anger, depression, greed, self hate, anxiety, fear, regret, just to name a few.
The Ego’s excessive, non-stop thought processes have tipped the body/mind/soul trinity out of balance. Our body must rest when it is tired or it will damage itself. The spirit already naturally abides in a state of contentment. Usually we are unaware of it this peaceful state because it is masked from our view by the constant chattering of a mind that never seems to rest unless we are sleeping.
If the Ego is supposed to be protecting us, then why is it causing us to suffer? Despite all of its self preservation instincts, where the Ego runs amok, paradoxically, is in looking out for its own best interests, both survival and happiness combined or by running away from happiness and pursuing safety first.
Self preservation with the best possible outcome, and with all of our favourite preferences being met, in a perfect world ‘according to Me and the way I want it to be’ seems perfectly logical to the mind. Otherwise it would not imagine it that way. If Ego is going to create and control a reality, even if it is only a fantasy, then why not create the best possible outcome, one that is in Ego’s best interest, as Ego chooses to see it. But when we don’t get what we want, we suffer.
Since we live in a dualistic world of opposites, good/bad right/wrong happy/sad yin/yang, and you can’t experience one without the other, it can also occur that the Ego chooses to flee from happiness, in search of safety first from some perceived threat. A person holding a negative view of the world, or of the way they feel they have been treated within it, may find themselves experiencing depression, fears, or anxiety. Either of these two extremes can spiral out of control, or as in bipolar, bounce back and forth.
Since our emotions respond to fantasy and imagined realities with the same physical responses and the same hormonal and chemical releases from the brain that real events trigger, such as Cortisol (the stress hormone), or Adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone), our mental suffering can actually cause physical harm to the body in the long run. The mind that is trying to protect us is actually doing us harm. If this sounds like a form of insanity, its because it is, but it goes unnoticed because so many of us experience it, that we accept it as normal until it becomes too problematic to endure. Any type of self inflicted suffering can not possibly be considered to be sane. And any thought based disorder can be overcome by paying attention to what is going on inside.
When the mind is quiet and at rest, it can heal and regenerate its energy instead of constantly expending energy with its incessant inner chatter. Quieting the mind helps to restore the body/mind/soul back into harmony with each other. Quieting the mind allows spirit to reveal its peaceful, contented nature. However, as any meditator can tell you, trying to force the mind to stop thinking is like shoving a large bully, you may knock him off kilter for a bit, but he will come right back at you. So how then does one learn to quiet the mind and put an end to self harming thoughts? By developing an Awareness of Thoughts, through deep introspection, by becoming the watcher,the observer of thoughts.
The default state of mind for most people is discursive thought, the so called monkey mind that is constantly jumping from one thought to the next, always wandering off and hijacking our consciousness. We can become so deeply lost in daydreaming that we may not even remember if we stopped at the last stop sign or not. We were not actually consciously present in our own bodies as we drove through the intersection.
The deep introspective self awareness process is about learning to regain control of our attention through mindfulness and meditation practice, and then turning that attention inward to watch the flow of thoughts and emotions, as well as the results those thoughts and emotions have on our interactions with others and with life itself. In other words, we are observing our own Kharmic Creation.
The self awareness process is one of learning what the mind is doing to itself simply by paying attention. Attention is the state of consciousness the mind must be in to learn. Every school child knows that if they want to learn something, they have to pay attention and observe what they are being shown. Simply inquiring ‘I wonder what my next thought will be’, then looking closely for the answer, is a simple way of developing this skill.
Bringing the discursive wandering monkey mind under control requires developing two essential skills from within meditation, and combining those skills with a mindfulness practice outside of formal sitting meditation.
The first essential skill is to learn to steady the mind by developing strong concentration skills and increased awareness. This can be accomplished by simply paying attention to what is going on inside, with the intention of catching the mind whenever it wanders off, and continuously pulling it back to an object of meditation, such as the breath. With diligent practice we can retrain the mind not to wander off in discursive thought and mind theatrics. Over time the mind learns to become steady and controllable. It is not difficult to see how beneficial to everyday life it would be to build and develop a mind that stays focussed without constantly wandering off.
The second essential skill to develop is to take those increased awareness and concentration skills and turn them inwards, to observe the flow and patterns and content of thoughts and emotions, as well as the cause and effects thoughts have on yourself and others. In other words, learning to observe your own Karma. The goal is to 'Know Thyself' thoroughly and intimately, but to do so in a completely objective, non-judgemental way. Simply allow the thoughts to happen without allowing the mind to become engaged and lost in them, like what happens when we daydream. Practice being the observer of thoughts rather than becoming lost in them. Listen to the inner dialogue and observe mind theatrics by being aware of and paying attention to them.
Observing the flow of internal events, thoughts, emotions, feelings, and physical sensations, allows the mind to see and learn what it is doing to itself. Totally objective and non-judgemental observation is extremely important, because judgements can prejudice and influence the learning mode by pre-supposing outcomes based on our past experiences and conditioning.
Simple observation is sufficient for the mind to learn what it is doing to itself some contemplative reflection, such as The Bug in the Jar Method of capturing and examining, then releasing a thought, may help in seeing some of our self inflicted suffering quicker.
These essential skills develop symbiotically, each helping the other to grow and strengthen. Increased concentration helps the mind to remain on the task of self observation. As self awareness develops, the mind starts to connect the dots between the thought patterns, and the effect our thoughts have on our inner states and emotions, as well as our interactions with others and the world around us. We will soon discover that we have the choice and ability to stop indulging and blindly, subconsciously, following in thought patterns that are not serving in our best interests. When we stop indulging in them, we stop feeding them. When we stop feeding them, they die off. They are no longer consuming our energy. We are sending a message to the brain that says they are not important enough to deserve our full undivided attention. This process eventually brings about a reduction of mental activities and discursive thoughts, which in turn makes it easier to maintain concentration and awareness.
As this codependency develops, the practice begins to sustain itself. If we begin to slip back into old patterns of thought or behaviour, because the practice of watching and being aware of our inner world has become a habit, the Karmic result of those patterns becomes so obvious that any re-emergence of uncomfortable inner disharmony and turmoil will quickly steer us back on course.
The key to developing these skills is sustained attention (concentration) and awareness. Attention is simply the act of close observation. Awareness is a silent knowing. Knowing when you are thinking, knowing what you are thinking, what emotions you are experiencing, and what is going on within your five senses.
This practice will eventually bring about a calming effect on the mind, allowing quiet space between thoughts to open up. When you observe this silence between thoughts, allow your attention and awareness to shift toward sustaining the silence. This is not done through any forceful means, but by simply allowing the mind to rest and abide comfortably in that state, holding the intention that when the mind drifts, to keep pulling it back, in the same way as pulling back to the breath in Breath Meditation. Allow this silence to become your meditation object. From this silence, be on the watch for the earliest beginnings of any mind movements. Observed from this vantage point, the beginning of a thought can be easily dropped, returning to silence. Missing the beginning of a thought can allow the discursive processes to hijack consciousness again. As this practice develops, the duration of the silent periods will increase and eventually begin to appear spontaneously.
These periods of quiet mind need to be transitioned into everyday life, otherwise all of this work will have served little purpose. This is where mindfulness practice kicks in. Going about your daily activities of life, use the skills learned in meditation to maintain concentration and awareness, and to keep the mind focused on the five senses, as well as any mind activity. When walking, pay attention to the physical sensations of the muscle movements; when eating, pay attention to the taste buds; notice smells, sights, and sounds as they occur around you. Ground yourself in the present moment. When you find yourself without any place to put your attention and the mind wants to begin to wander, place it on your breath, just like in the breath meditation practice. When holding a conversation, give full attention to listening instead of trying to think of a response. If it does start to wander, maintain awareness and observe the content.
Keep training the mind in this way until it becomes second nature, just like the breath itself. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time and effort put into this, and the amount of results and benefits you experience. Poor effort equals poor results, great effort gives great results, 100% effort yields 100% results. Therefore, the goal is to train the mind to maintain awareness of itself 100% of the time. A mind that can abide in silence is a mind that is contented, at peace, free, and therefore a truly open mind. When the mind is quiet, it is free of all insanities and therefore is possessing perfect sanity. To strive for anything less than perfect sanity can only arise from a place of insanity.
Freeing the mind in this way will not prevent unfortunate events from occurring. Conditioned responses to those events may also still occur, especially if one has never learned of any other way of responding to the event. What does change, with enough practice, is a sort of disconnect from those responses. An event may still trigger anger for example, but from a position of observing, the identification with the response is lost. It no longer feels like ‘Me’ that is doing the responding. Without this conscious disconnect, the mind becomes absorbed into the anger, and in doing so can stimulate further releases of brain chemicals. Since there is no distinguishing between the real event and the mind’s reaction to it, this negative state of consciousness can spiral out of control, deepening the anger into rage. Disconnected observation, over time reduces the intensity and frequency of similar reactions to similar events. Eventually, the practitioner reaches a point of being able to see the event, feel the chemical release associated with the response, take control of the mind by diverting its focal point to something neutral, such as the breath, and watching the chemicals quickly dissipate and dissolve.
Understanding all the Ego’s inner workings and nature from an intellectual level is not sufficient to bring about any real inner change. It must be observed and experienced first hand by practising and developing these skills. As all great teachers have said, ‘You must do the work yourself’. You are the only one who can experience what goes on inside your own head, therefore, you are the only one who can do anything to change it. Watch what goes on inside, see through all of your self created illusions and delusions, and make some space for the peaceful contented nature of spirit to blossom from within.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” -The Buddha
Michael L. Fournier