Shakyamuni Buddha has been practicing fulltime for the last 2500 years and
He’s still only halfway there.
Does awakening end the need for spiritual practice? Do all deeply conditioned patterns and habits disappear with awakening? My experience and observations say no. With even the deepest awakening, which is not an experience but a continuous and unbroken direct awareness of reality, conditioned habits and automatic reactions survive. In general, these conditioned reactions do not dominate behavior. They are usually quickly noticed and dissolved without endless drama. The process of noticing and dissolving these conditioned reactions can be taught to anyone who is interested and open to learning how to live in a more peaceful, less self-centered manner. This practice, which I call the ego deconstruction process, is the subject of this and other posts.
In general I like to use ordinary English words to describe the phenomena of interest to us. However, there is nothing new under the sun, and all of the issues that arise in our spiritual practice have been addressed very well in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist (and occasionally Christian, Jewish, and Sufi) traditions. It behooves us to learn from those who have gone before. The Sanskrit term vasana, often identified with the Advaita Vedanta tradition, is useful in helping us define and understand these automatic, conditioned reactions. Below is a definition of this term, taken from the website Vedic Knowledge Online:
vasana (Sanskrit: "subconscious inclination; conditioning, tendencies, or self-limitations; predispositions and habits") from vas (living, remaining) — the subliminal inclinations and habit patterns which, as driving forces, color and motivate one's attitudes and future actions. Vasanas are the conglomerate results of samskaras (subconscious impressions) created through experience. Samskaras, experiential impressions, combine in the subconscious to form vasanas, which thereafter contribute to mental fluctuations, called vritti. The most complex and emotionally charged vasanas are found in the dimension of mind called vasana chitta (the subsubconscious). http://veda.wikidot.com/vasana
Vasanas are traditionally understood to be quite subtle and subliminal, and to persist throughout multiple incarnations. I would like to use this word in a broad sense to include all conditioned, programmed activity, including thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Our goal in learning to observe and deprogram our ego is to reduce the influence of vasanas, meaning any unconscious conditioning which obscures our ability to see things as the actually are and to act freely and spontaneously in response to this direct seeing.
The word goal grates on some, mostly those who are stuck in a purely nondual understanding of reality. A goal implies, of course, someone who is trying to accomplish something at some future point in time. All of these concepts are anathema to pure nondualists. Yet we live in a world that involves both dual and nondual, and to negate either end is to miss the whole. Ultimately both dual and nondual dissolve into just this. In this just this no one is speaking or acting and yet words are spoken, actions are taken and goals are pursued. The discussion below is intended to facilitate an active and deliberate effort to reduce the effect of vasanas in our lives.
The Ego Deconstruction Process
With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, pp.130-131.
There are three fundamental steps involved in the deliberate self-deconstruction process. This description addresses the first step, which is becoming exquisitely aware of the automatic programming. The second step takes this increased awareness and teaches us how to lose interest in our programming. Much loss of interest is effortless and inevitable, but can be facilitated by specific attentional practices. The third step involves an active effort to further identify and consciously deconstruct automatic assumptions and beliefs. These steps will be addressed below as if they are discrete and sequential, although this is not always the case. For example, the observation, loss of interest and deconstruction aspects may occur simultaneously and without deliberate effort. However, it is useful to consider each aspect individually to clarify its purpose. The ego is sneaky and tenacious. It doesn’t surrender without a fight. There is great value in carefully honing our skills as we begin the ego deconstruction process.
In normal awareness, ‘we’, meaning who we take our self to be, identify completely with the ongoing flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This identification is the root of suffering. The beginning of freedom is the development of the natural ability to observe this continuous process of becoming without the automatic identification with it. Long periods of silent meditation often allow for this development to occur, although not necessarily. It is possible and desirable to develop this self-observation ability with or without the benefit of meditative practice. The more we learn to observe without identification the ceaseless flow of thoughts and other internal experiences, the more unencumbered we become.
With relentless self-observation, it gradually becomes obvious that the content of our minds is tedious, boring, repetitive, and without value. There is no reason to take any of it seriously. Unfortunately, we are continuously programmed to believe that because we think something, it must be valuable and true. Nothing could be further from the truth. This realization can be explained in a logical, consistent manner so that most any open-minded person who is motivated to reduce suffering will agree wholeheartedly. However, it is not nearly adequate to merely intellectually agree with the foregoing assertions. It is necessary to determine the truth of these assertions for yourself, as a result of your own efforts at self-observation. Only then will the understanding sink in deeply enough to effect real internal change.
How to Self-Observe
The goal is to observe your internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, and sensations) without automatically identifying with these transient and ultimately meaningless phenomena. These internal reactions are the direct result of programming and conditioning, all of which is arbitrary and capricious. Virtually everything we currently take to be obviously true is merely a result of the particular programming we have encountered. If we had been born and raised in a different time and place, our deeply held, fundamental convictions about the nature of reality would be quite different. Self-observation with as much detachment and lack of critical judgment as possible is a powerful tool to help us recognize and begin to deconstruct our most cherished assumptions.
Begin by sitting quietly with nothing to do other than observe the flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they occur. Do not attempt to interfere with this flow. Allow it to continue in exactly the same way it would occur if you were not watching. It is analogous to watching and listening to another person speaking. You could compare this process to watching a movie or theater performance. When watching, we do not usually confuse the actor’s lines with our own thoughts. Actually, your own thoughts are no more ‘yours’ than an actors’ lines are hers. By carefully observing the content of the mind as it spontaneously arises, we can become aware of our programming. Programmed reactions and automatic, unquestioned assumptions is all that occurs in our minds under usual circumstances.
The purpose is not to control, direct, stop, interfere, redirect, censor, suppress or otherwise obstruct in any manner this natural flow. Just watch-nothing else; pure observation. There is no goal to achieve from this process other than gradually developing skill at self-observation and becoming more self-aware. This practice is not another self-improvement project, destined to fail. An ideal time to practice is when you feel upset by something. Watch yourself be upset. Notice how you create the feeling of being upset by the way you are thinking about an experience. How we experience anything is heavily determined by our way of perceiving and interpreting the experience. Perceive it differently and your reactions to the experience will change accordingly. There is never just one way to perceive anything. How we tend to perceive events is the direct result of how we are programmed to perceive and interpret. Ideally you will observe this relentless mental, emotional, and physiological content without comment or interpretation. If you do comment on or otherwise interpret your experience, which you will do, notice that you are doing so. Notice also the effect this interpretation and commentary has on what follows next.
There is no right or wrong here, and no good or bad. Nor is there a right or better way to do it. Just begin, and learn as you go along. The crucial step is to have the intent to impersonally observe ‘yourself’ without taking what you observe so seriously. None of it matters, really. It’s merely a very common misunderstanding of reality to believe that the content of our minds is actually important. The fact that thoughts and feelings occur does not create suffering. Our unhappiness is the direct result of the deeply unfortunate tendency to believe our conditioned perceptions, beliefs and reactions to be true. Over time and with repeated efforts, witnessing the ongoing flow of our internal experience can help us develop an increasing detachment from our particular programming. We gradually realize directly that our beliefs and assumptions about reality are the result of conditioning and programming, and therefore of no consequence.
Observe the content of the mind for a few minutes. Don’t interfere with the ongoing flow of mental content. It happens of its own. Let it happen. Allow the mind to do its thing, the way it does all day, every day. The only difference now is that you’re observing you being you. Watch the continuously constructed mental content as if watching and listening to a play or a movie. There’s no good content or bad content. None of it is true or false, right or wrong. There’s just the mind being itself, perfectly. Notice how the content changes. One thought inevitably leads to the next thought.
This content is what we call thinking. It is not thinking. In real thinking problems are solved, plans are made, and realizations arise. Real thinking is useful, productive, and emotionally neutral. It’s enjoyable, satisfying and not taxing. What we usually mean when we use the word ‘thinking’ is our normal mental process of ruminating, obsessing, worrying, and creating fantasies of the past and future. Fortunately, it is not necessary to stop this ongoing mental obsessing. Just observe it as it occurs.
As we relax into this open, curious, accepting awareness of what is, we’ll gradually notice the emergence of other inner experiences, such as feelings and bodily sensations. Our goal is absolute acceptance of whatever arises. Everything that occurs is ok, just as it is. Nothing needs to be any different than it is. When beginning to self-observe, begin with whatever seems most insistent. If emotionally upset, the most insistent experience will probably be a feeling. If in physical pain or discomfort, it will probably be a bodily sensation. Approach these internal experiences in the same manner we described earlier for observing thoughts. It doesn’t matter where you begin. Just start observing and follow your experience wherever it leads you.
It’s important to take the pressure off yourself to accomplish anything or become different in any way. Remember, this is not another doomed-to-fail self-improvement project. If you become aware of internal judgments of some of your self-created mental, emotional, or physiological content, notice this also. Judgment is normal, and one of the many activities the ego is programmed to perform. We are all programmed to continuously judge ourselves and others. Just let it be exactly the way it is for now. Later we will discuss how to become aware of and then deconstruct the unconscious beliefs and assumptions that fuel our incessant, repetitive fears and worries.
If so inclined, stop reading for now and let this simple self-observation practice continue for five minutes or so.
Observing the content of the mind for a few minutes several times each day will help us embark on a remarkable journey into Reality. Many believe that spiritual practice is about reading, thinking about, critiquing, discussing and intellectually attempting to understand spiritual literature. Although there can be some value in this sort of practice, it often reinforces the mistaken notion that the thinking mind can transcend itself! The thinking mind will never transcend itself. You will never, ever realize reality directly yourself by reading and thinking about another person’s realization. Our wonderful touchstone Affirming Faith in Mind says it clearly: “The more you talk and think on this, the further from the truth you’ll be”.
Observe this mind objectively, and all interest in it will inevitably be lost. This is the Way, the direct path. In The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, the great Chinese Zen master says, “If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything” (Blofeld, J., 1958, p.33). You will then step into the stream of wisdom revealed directly-solid and incontrovertible. The endless flow of mindless chatter we notice when beginning self-observation is not itself a problem. Our identification with mental content causes the problems we experience, not the content itself. Fortunately, it is not necessary to stop thought. It is only necessary to disidentify with the thoughts that arise in our mind.
With sufficient practice, we’ll begin to notice that this mindless, meaningless mental chatter is normally taken very seriously. When mental content is taken seriously and believed to be true, feelings and sensations inevitably arise. We then assume that these feelings and sensations are important, because they appear to be happening to us. We take ownership of them-they are my feelings and sensations. When we observe an inner feeling or sensation, we will almost invariable begin to tell ourselves a story about this experience that seems to help explain or justify it. We believe that creating a story about our experience is beneficial. We become very attached to the stories we create, and are convinced they are true. We tend to forget that our stories about reality are not reality. They are merely stories.
For now our goal is merely to dispassionately observe this story telling process as it naturally unfolds. As our observing awareness is brought to inner experience, over time we begin to understand how we create our experience by the way we think, interpret, and perceive. Our beliefs, assumptions, and expectations determine our experience. It will also be seen that none of this needs to be taken seriously. Yet we are taught throughout our lives to take all of it very, very seriously. The beginning of real freedom occurs when we no longer need to take ourselves so seriously. We aren’t nearly as important as we thought!
Try to remember as often as possible during the day to self-observe and witness. You are not trying to change yourself. Rather, you are accepting yourself exactly as you are. Nothing needs to be any different than it is right now. You are merely bringing the light of neutral, objective awareness to previously automatic, unconscious beliefs and assumptions that have done nothing but create suffering for you and others. Most of these pernicious beliefs and assumptions are universal and impersonal. Everyone believes the same nonsense. Everyone is equally trapped on the same merry-go–round. Neutral self-observation is your ticket out of this endless cycle of self-created delusion.
It can help sometimes to write down realizations that spontaneously emerge as this process continues. Try to remember especially to observe when you are upset about anything whatsoever. Many people have found that the instant they remember to shift into observing mode, there is a significant lightening of the feeling tone. An internal space is created which allows for a previously unexperienced sense of freedom and possibility. Try it and see how it goes. Attempt to refrain from self-judgment or criticism of your efforts (“I’m not doing it right”), but if these emerge, take notice and move on. Good luck!
Blofeld, J. (Ed.). (1958). The Zen teaching of Huang Po on the transmission of mind. New York: Grove.
Thoreau, H.D. (2004). Cramer, J.S. (Ed.). Walden: A fully annotated edition. New Haven: Yale University.