The Buddhist philosophy says we suffer because we do not know ourselves. Because we do not understand the workings of the mind and the world, our mind remains reactive and anxious and we continually make poor judgements, and become fettered by addiction and craving. As long as we do not understand ourselves, we remain trapped, shackled by our own bad habits, entombed by our own self-defeating worldview.
Understanding these aspects of suffering that keep us chained to our mental agony is a key component in any serious meditative practice – when understanding ripens it is called insight, vipassana. Both philosophical and experiential understanding – in other words not just mere mental activity, but practice and embodiment of the principles in actual life – are required to overcome one’s own suffering and/or help another overcome theirs.
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Through certain meditative exercises designed to improve attention and focus as well as develop insight, you begin to see how your mind really works and take control over your life. At first the mind is like a wild monkey; uncivil, easily distracted, and led around by emotions and desires. This “monkey-mind” never does what you want it to, instead you have to do what it wants you to. The monkey-mind is wild and crazy, provoking endless distractions, self-judgemental narration, debasing thoughts about others and the world, and a general attitude of unruliness. Because the mind is conditioned towards reactivity and stress-anxiety, we are slaves to our own habits and desires.
Eventually, though, as the mind is trained, it is likened to a great elephant: powerful, intelligent, and able to accomplish great feats. Through meditation, we calm the reactive, craving, distracted tendencies of the mind while fostering tranquility, attention, and wisdom. The mind eventually learns to remain quiet and unattached from any cravings or desires, when this is accomplished the mind is said to have samatha, tranquility.
If you come to know yourself at a deep enough level, you start to get ahead of the distractions and negative self-talk which reduces a huge amount of mental suffering. You start to retrain many of the neural circuits responsible for this reactive and anxious way of thinking and being. Because there is a learning effect, the more you train yourself to become non-reactive and abide in pure awareness, the deeper the tranquility gets over time.
Meditation can help you develop a kind of sixth sense, you can train yourself to become so conscious that you catch yourself in the act of doing the bad habit or having the negative self thought. This sixth sense, instead of seeing the external world, observes instead the interior landscape of the mind; sometimes this sense is referred to as the third eye, the eye that peers inward to the psyche. As this new sense develops, periods of mind-wandering get shorter and you’re able to remain at a higher level of consciousness throughout the day. Instead of realizing hours after the fact that you’ve been distracted by a daydream or emotional content, you will start to catch yourself sooner and sooner. The ultimate goal of concentration practices is to train the ability to notice every single distraction (mind-wandering, negative self-talk, and other unhelpful thought patterns) immediately, let them go as quickly as possible, and resume abiding in the calm awake awareness without disturbing the mind in the process. This may seem impossible, but there are steps and stages to the process that will help you acquire invaluable skills and navigate common obstacles.
The amazing thing about meditation practices is that this is not all talk, I’m not just spinning what sounds like a great story: there are scientific studies and real ways to verify that this stuff does what I’m suggesting it does. There are people alive today who have completed the training, reached the goal of the path, and are willing and able to explain it to you. This isn’t some wishy-washy thing where good works and prayer might get you some elusive, ill-defined prize in the after life.
What I’m saying now is different than the claims of other religious nutjobs because it can be falsified or verified. Meditation actually changes the brain, and this is not a matter of faith. Regardless of whether you believe it to be working or not, if you meditate properly there will be effects.
To read more about the science of meditation, click here.
Dhukkha and Mental Suffering
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and in conversational Buddhism, this term you hear a lot, dhukkha, is often translated as ‘suffering.’ Other times it is called ‘stress,’ and sometimes it is left alone and just called dhukkha. The continually arising discomfort caused by our wild, reactive mind is dhukkha. The continual narrative in our heads, that voice inside that is always judging, commenting, filtering our experience, is dhukkha. The constant barrage from waking until sleeping of cravings, desires, thoughts and judgements is dhukkha. Does any of this resonate with you?
Here the Buddha explains rather clearly the conceptual foundation, or the context, of meditative practice – called the Four Noble Truths:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dhukkha. Birth is dhukkha, aging is dhukkha, death is dhukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are dhukkha; association with the unbeloved is dhukkha, separation from the loved is dhukkha, not getting what is wanted is dhukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dhukkha.
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of dhukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dhukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dhukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.Gautama Siddharta – Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
The aim in this ‘Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion’ sutra is to bring about the cessation of dhukkha, the end of suffering, for the individual through coming to understand the causes and conditions that created the mental suffering in the first place. At its deepest level, meditative science is an applied science. In the above excerpt from Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha mentions four important points:
- That mental suffering, anguish, the reactive and untrained nature of the mind, called dhukkha, is real and present and deserves consideration.
- The cause of that suffering, dhukkha, should be understood. The cause is said to be craving, desire for sensory experience. That the cause of suffering is worth discussing is a huge milestone in contemplative thought. Causality is now firmly established.
- Through understanding the cause-effect nature of the reactivity of the mind, one can actually stop the reactivity. Through contemplative practices you can actually focus on the mind and its reactivity so deeply that you can recondition the mind.
- The way to recondition the mind is the Buddhist Noble Eightfold path. This truth I suppose is up for debate, and it should also be recognized that this is only one possible path which may be suitable for some and not for others.
So yes, there is a theoretical and philosophical orientation, but a real, lasting transformation and spiritual renewal of the personality occurs if you’ll investigate the insights and teachings for yourself, with a skeptics attitude, work deeply to understand your own mind through meditation, and recondition your reactive mind.
My personal approach for this kind of work is outcome-based. That is, if you’ve been applying the same methods for years or decades and not getting the transformation you were expecting, consider that you might be missing some aspects of the path or methods. I am not particularly attached to a specific method, and I know that with the wide variety of personality types, circumstances, and life conditions, each person must work to find their own path. I work with each individual to help them make the most of their contemplative practice in a way that works for their vision and particular situation.
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