Where There’s Will, There’s What?

When I wrote I was a bit ‘fed up’ with my lack of purchase on some of my habits (in the last post) that didn’t feel quite right. Sometimes there’s a bit of fairly good humoured disbelief but most of the time I’m just intrigued. What makes something happen? For example, what makes me have a cake with my coffee or resist the impulse and it not happen? Who or what is driving that decision and how much is it under my control? How are my choices made?

This has been an area of curiosity in my practice for quite a while. To explore it I’ve deliberately let go to some extent of looking to control myself. I don’t mean allowing myself to act unethically but loosening ‘will’ and substituting awareness. How can I learn to see what’s actually happening in the mind if I’m always modifying and interfering? So I let awareness be in charge!

One dharma list I love that I’ve only seen in Bhante Sangharakshita’s books is the ‘5 restraints’. Only one of these is restraint by applying a consciously ethical framework. So we can clearly restrain ourselves in other ways where ethics are in a more implicit supporting role. Mindfulness is one of the other ‘restraints’ and Wisdom is another. If we are aware and we see clearly what’s happening then we have a chance to act skilfully and in accord with reality.

In actuality letting awareness be in charge is a risk! What I’ve learned watching my mind is that mind moments are very fast so things change very quickly. If you think of a thought “I’m going to have an ice-cream” and another thought “No, I’m not, I’m sticking with the diet” – which one is going to win out? Which one will be followed by an action?

Perhaps there is an internal race going on in the mind with all the mental factors running in it. The competitors could be any combination triggered in the mind in those few ‘deciding’ moments.

In Lane One is ‘Greed (you can feel that desire in the body and pleasure in the mind)’, Lane’s 2 & 3 are ‘Imagining’ (yummy eating ice-cream and bigger bottom images). Lane 4 might be Awareness (seeing the different mental factors in play), Lane 5 Wisdom (which is interested in the bigger picture of what is helpful to practice), Lane 6 Moha – delusion (doesn’t really believe this action will have consequences). And finally in the outside lane in Lane 7 is Intention or Volition.

Intention or Volition is in every race towards an action. What is undecided is which other factors will be on the finishing line. If Awareness is lagging behind Wisdom will also fade. Delusion will gain momentum on the inside lane but the conditions are all in play for Greed to streak ahead and win with ease!

At this point all Mindfulness and Wisdom can do is watch what’s happening, observe the conditions that led to losing the race and learn from them. They have no power to affect Intention but they can still use their own qualities of observing and understanding (the mind).

By allowing Mindfulness to be in charge you have to be prepared to lose the race. There are lots of training races. You have to put it down to experience and be in there for the long haul. You’re after the Olympic Medal after all!

What I’ve found really helpful is to learn more about Intention in my direct experience. I’m curious about those moments when I feel a decision is being made. This might be an action to move the body or simply a mental act, for example forming a mental judgement about someone. Joseph Goldstein talks about an ‘about to‘ moment when something is about to happen. I feel as if I’m ‘about to’ say something in a conversation for example. You can feel energy gathering in the psyche. Or you feel it as a ‘deciding’ moment that can be felt as an impulse in the body/mind. It’s not a thought though it may well be accompanied by a thought.

When Intention happens out of awareness we assume it to be ‘me’ making the decision or 2 ‘me’s’ in conflict over a decision (whether or not to eat ice-cream or offer to help someone). And at other times things just ‘pop out’ (I find myself speaking angrily) without our conscious approval (a surprise factor pips another at the post).

Awareness is key to seeing the mechanism of Intention. To see its impersonality. To experience it as simply an urge in the body. Or an impulse in the mind. Nothing more than that. Another mental factor that can be known in awareness. And the stronger Awareness is and the more clearly known is the factor of Intention the more Wisdom can grow in the mind.

And the mind in that moment is free.

The Story of Me

Sometimes I get a bit fed up with how little purchase I seem to have on various long-standing habits. I eat too much and I enjoy treats so I’m either on a diet or gaining weight. I’m addicted to reading and would like to be spending more time reflecting, meditating or ‘doing nothing’. Instead, I read novels or sometimes watch DVDs. As well as the habits there is dukkha from the discrepancy between how I am and the view or idea of how I think I should be.

As some of you will know through my Facebook page I recently got sparked off by an article on the BBC news website by Matthew Syed. It was about ‘cognitive dissonance’ or how we hold to a particular view or outcome regardless of evidence to support our reasoning. The example he gives is of Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq which was justified by his certainty of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Despite WMD, never being found and the evidence pointing to them never having been in Iraq, Tony Blair switched his argument repeatedly to other justifications for starting a war.

Syed makes it clear it isn’t just Tony Blair, or even politicians, who are prone to this sort of behaviour but all of us. And it’s not so much about behaviour but about thinking and views. While cognitive dissonance seems to be more about the discomfort or anxiety produced by the possibility of a strongly held view being incorrect – an emotional reaction – ‘confirmation bias’ is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Probably both are working together with the emotional discomfort driving the need for a view or belief that will close the gap and make us feel safe.

The Buddha was also alert to this phenomenon and saw it as a fundamental part of practice for us to get to grips with. He saw that we reinforce our own views to shore up a sense of self. We feel more secure when we are constantly using data to establish and remind ourselves ‘this is what I think and know’ ‘this is who I am’. Or ‘I like this’ or ‘I’m not the sort of person who…’ In other words – the story of ‘me’ that we retell ourselves over and over again. Over the years it can refine and develop but it takes a lot to fundamentally change our views and particularly our view of a fixed self.

Ken Wilber, who writes on trans-personal psychology and integral spirituality thinks that ‘most of us are only willing to call 5% of our present information into question at any one point.’ It’s too scary – even for the most rational of beings! We are a long way from the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who made a practice of believing impossible things for half an hour each day before breakfast!

The Buddha saw that it is extremely important to understand through direct experience what we can call ‘the view forming process’. Views don’t come out of no-where. We are conditioned by the experiences we have and the influences we’re subjected to. We have a back story based on our familial, cultural, social, religious and educational history. If we understand the way in which our views are formed and how they influence us a process of deconstruction or de-conditioning us of biases about the content of our views and opinions can happen.

There is not only what happens to us – but how we respond to it. Two people can have the same experience, say, a bike accident as a child, and react differently. One might grow up hating sport and the other winning an Olympic medal!

However getting a handle on views doesn’t necessarily involve looking back into the past at our story, but bringing awareness into our present moment experience. We start to understand the role of feelings in relation to the likes and dislikes that our views and opinions grow out of. We start to see how a simple feeling at the level of the senses – a pleasant sound or an unpleasant sight or taste – conditions wanting or not wanting that thing to continue, and we form views to justify the rationality of our thinking and desires i.e. the mildly unpleasant physical sensation of coolness on your exposed skin in bed can lead to ‘ it’s better if the bedroom window is shut at night because it will make me ill.’

This innocent little view can set off ‘window wars’ on retreats with others who have opposite opinions on the vital health-giving properties of an open window or two! It can be surprisingly difficult (emotionally) to see another’s point of view as having validity because we believe our own to be true. The ‘evidence’ is much less important than this feeling of ‘this is true’. This was Tony Blair’s position. The more strongly we hold to our views, usually, the stronger the sense of self-involved and the more defensive or threatened we feel by another’s views. If we can ‘stay with‘ the feelings of threat, with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance without moving into further justification, then there is a real opportunity.

This concerns ‘process’ rather than content. We don’t just know our ‘story‘ but we know it as a story, something that is constructed out of tiny bits of experience through the senses and including thoughts and feelings. If we can become aware of our own point of view at any moment as a mental position that’s been taken up in the mind this is an aspect of Right View.

This little mental/emotional ‘flip’ is fascinating. When we’re not invested and identified with a view we are free from it and free to examine it. Is it true? Is it helpful? What is it based on? A recent view I’ve spotted is around how drab my experience will be without daily ‘treats’ in my life. Drabness feels unpleasant and I don’t want it and the way to avoid feeling it is to indulge myself. Treats are tied up with how interesting and lively I am as a person! This is what I’m thinking without having any conscious idea that I had such a weird view! And it’s influencing my weight, my joints, health and the quality of my mind. cake

So I’ve been noticing ‘drabness’ from the outside rather than being wrapped up in believing I have to eat cake and read thrillers to be fun. When I can be aware enough to ‘stay with’ the feeling it no longer feels unpleasant but satisfying. It’s then possible to understand that the whole ‘treat’ view is very selective in the reality it believes. Not reaching for the chocolate becomes easy. The kindle ‘daily deals’ seem unappealing. The wise choice has become natural in that moment.

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