One of the reasons for much of the suffering that we go through in life is taking life too seriously. It is not uncommon though; almost everyone is so serious about the drama of life. So, everyone has assumed that there is no way out of it. But, there is a potential for a change in your attitude towards life which will make you to treat life as the lifelong movie in which we all are just characters. There is also a potential to remove all the unwanted suffering that we have imposed on ourselves by removing the serious identification with the character called ‘you’ and your story.. I went through a journey myself that helped me to realize this potential and make it possible. (You can read more about my journey here: The Journey of a Seeker). I will call that whole process as ‘Awakening Through Mindfulness (ATM)’.
If you believe in God, you can use the belief itself as an aid towards changing your attitude. Many people consider themselves as a puppet of the God’s hands. That helps them change the way they react to the situations and stop taking everything personal. But it is just a coping mechanism; No one is actually sitting up there and directing your life. Life and the force of the life itself is a deep and interesting mystery. If you want to call that force God, you can. That is a beautiful personification. Warning! For many people, beliefs have actually been a hindrance in the whole process.
There is a way to really experience life as a movie and to be not affected by your self-image. You can completely detach yourself from the identification you have with the self image. .. Changing the attitude is the first step to ending the self created suffering and experience the life impersonally.. Your personality and your ego that projects the personality are just a part of the mask that you, as the character of this movie, are wearing. What hurts the mask doesn’t hurt you anymore, once you start experiencing life this way. Not only your ego and personality, but every thought, emotion, experience and knowledge that you witness in your consciousness is a part of that mask. Remembering this analogy of the mask and contemplating on it can help you to change your attitude to be favourable in the process of awakening.
As you proceed with this journey, you will eventually have to drop a lot of your beliefs and directly choose to know what you believed is true or false. Then, either you know or you don’t know. There is no need in believing something. The sense of security that we get from beliefs will not at all be needed anymore once you start experiencing the life devoid of self-created suffering. You don’t need any solace from the beliefs anymore. That life experience which stands apart and independent from your identity is what I call as an ‘awakened life’.
What you Call as Self is an Illusion!
The next step is just to realize and remember always that there is no self; I am not kidding! It is a scientific fact. What you perceive, think and experience every moment is the result of millions of neurons in your brain communicating with the neighboring neurons through electrochemical signals. This constant perceptual activity gives an illusion that there is a static self. This self which is experienced as being the one who inhabits the body, being the one who is thinking the thoughts, being the one experiencing emotions, being the agent of actions and having free will is an illusion. Also, every person you see is a complex network of forces communicating with each other in cell level, chemical level and atomic level. 2500 years ago, a man called Gautama Buddha revealed the truth of the no-self for the first time.
Seeing this in neuroscientific perspective, what you experience as you and your story is just a result of activity happens in a combination of brain structures called Default Mode Network DMN). This network is active when you are mind-wandering,thinking about others, thinking about yourself, remembering the past, and planning for the future. Hyperconnectivity of the default network has been linked to rumination in depression. Studies have shown that meditators and people who claim spiritual awakening have less or almost no activity in DMN.
This illusory self is not consistent and static; it is ever changing. But the only thing which is consistent and constant throughout your life is your existence; the conscious, moment to moment experience that you are alive.
Three Aspects of the Absolute Reality
There are three aspects to what that is consistent: Existence, Consciousness and experiencing.
Existence can be defined as whatever that exists in the ultimate, absolute level. You perceive and know that objects exist because of this. It is the sense of being alive.
The objects may keep changing but the existence itself is something that is constant. It is not a ‘thing’ though. It is the basis of anything that is subjective.
Consciousness is like a light that shines up everything in the existence. It can be compared to the light in a movie screen using which your thoughts, emotions, perceptions and experiences are constantly being played. The movie screen is static all the time. It also exists in sleep, but there is nothing to show. Since consciousness is completely dark and since voluntary functions of the mind are shut off, there is actually nothing much is happening that is worth to be recorded in the brain and stored in long term memory.
Experiencing is not about various experiences that you go through every moment. It is the base of all experience, which is naturally peaceful. Peace is always the first and last experience of the lifetime. Even in death, the final moment is peace; a lot of scientists believe that a neurotransmitter called Dimethyltryptamine or DMT released in the brain during the last moment of death which gives peace and bliss. You are so peaceful during the birth too. You can obviously see that in the new born babies. Even throughout the life, you go through a lot of peaceful moments where you are ultimately content, all drives seem to be temporarily satisfied and you experience the ultimate peace and contentment. That peace is not really something that comes and goes. It is the subtle backdrop of all the noisy perceptions happening in the mind and never changes too. It is the base experience of all the experiences. An awakened person may often go through peak experiences (rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter – Abraham Maslow) when they touch the ultimate level of peace. During peak experiences, the boundaries of experiencer, experiencing and the experience dissolve and they all become one. The same happens with the knowledge as well. The knower, knowing and the known become one.
Note that, when I say experiencing, I am talking about the ‘experiencing’ aspect of your existence; not about an independent experience. Any experience, including the peak experience com and go. But the ‘experiencing’ part of that which is consistent never changes. It would be better to use a different word than experiencing but I can’t think of anything that comes closer right now.
So, whatever that is consistent which has the aspects of existence, consciousness and experiencing can be called with any name you want to use. You can call it XYZ if you want! Some words that have been used in eastern traditions are absolute, Om, brahman, Sat-Chit-Ananda etc… Some call it as your ‘true self’. The problem with all these labels is that you start to see this XYZ as some object, a thing; Something that can be either perceived, experienced or known. But it is actually like the space or the field in which everything is perceived, experienced or known. So, it is very important to not to get too attached to the word.
Seeing the illusory self for what it is and completely removing the identification with it lets you to relax yourself in the truth of being alive and conscious. It will eventually let you free from hedonic treadmill and the pursuit of subjective self worth. You will feel liberated from the prison of this illusory self. This will give you a tremendous acceptance of what is; You will see life as a game with its own rules and challenges. But seeing that as just a game which will eventually end, makes you to play it with enjoyment and a great sense of peace.
Many practises have been suggested which help you to go through this process of awakening; self-inquiry, contemplation of the truth and so on. The practise that I can suggest for you is the one which worked for me.. It is called Sati in buddhism, Shikantaza in Zen, Shakshi bhav in Upanishads and mindfulness by buddhists as well as modern psychologists. Mindfulness is used not only as a path to awakening, but also in modern therapies as a means to decrease depression and stress, increase well being, control addictions, slow down emotional reactivity etc.
What is Mindfulness and How to Practice it?
Mindfulness can be defined as focused nonjudgmental attention to experiences of thoughts, emotions, and body sensation in the present moment that is practiced by simply observing them as they arise and pass away. The paper ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ which was published by University of Toronto in 2014 suggests a two-component model of mindfulness:
1) Regulation of attention in order to maintain it on the immediate experience
2) Approaching one’s experiences with an orientation of curiosity,openness, and acceptance, regardless of their valence and desirability.
When you try to observe your thought process, you may lose your attention many times. Once you notice that the mind has wandered, you just bring it back to the awareness of thought process or body sensations again. No matter how many times the mind wanders away, you must take it easy and accept it. You can do this while doing whatever you are doing, like walking, eating, working out, waiting in a queue etc. Notice the flow of thoughts as if you are watching a stream flowing or traffic moving. Eventually you can extend the time that you practise mindfulness to most of the waking hours of the day. This may take years and years of practise.
When practicing mindfulness, don’t approach it as if you are working towards a goal. That would simply mean that you are enhancing the self-concept and strengthening the identification with it .Awakening is not an achievement. It is getting rid of the craving for any achievement that increases your self-worth or enhances your self-concept. Seeing mindfulness as a means for something to be achieved itself is a trap which may slow down the process of awakening.
In a couple of months of practise you may start noticing gaps in your thought process.You may also notice reduction in the number of thoughts. Also, a lot of unconscious patterns and repressed thoughts may start to come up and appear in the light of your conscious observation. It is quite normal. Just pay attention to whatever that comes up without reacting to it. But if you do react to it, that’s ok. Just notice that and wait to see what comes up next. As you do it more and more, the gaps will be more frequent and you may even start to wait for the next thought or feeling to arise. In a few months, you will start to feel more peaceful and relaxed. Your emotional regulation would also have improved.
While practising, become aware of the defense mechanisms of the ego whenever you notice them. Notice the repeated thought patterns and your attempts to maintain and protect your self-esteem.
Reading the authentic sources of Zen and Advaita can help you a lot in moving through the process. Personally for me, reading the transcribed talks of Osho and J.Krishnamurti were helpful in understanding how mindfulness works and how to go about practising it. Osho called it ‘witnessing’ and J.Krishnamurti called it as ‘Choiceless awareness’. The names are different but the meaning is exactly the same.
Once you have practised mindfulness for long term for a year or two, you may go through a crisis at times, usually called ‘Spiritual Crisis,’ a form of identity crisis where you experience drastic changes to your meaning system (your unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus). It may cause a lot of disturbance, but don’t be alarmed. It happens to everyone but it will pass. The fruits of mindfulness always outweighs the disturbances caused by spiritual crisis.
Benefits of Mindfulness
I came across an interesting paper ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’ published in 2011 by Association For Psychological Science. It lists 4 major benefits of mindfulness and also lists the details of studies which support them.
Here are those four benefits:
- Attention regulation
- Body awareness
- Emotion regulation, including a. Reappraisal b. Exposure, extinction, and reconsolidation
- Change in perspective on the self.
The fourth one, ‘Change in perspective on the self’ is very important, which explains in detail about a lot of what we discussed about ‘Self’ in this post. You can search for this paper in ‘Academia’ and download it for free.
There have been many other studies done on mindfulness which show that mindfulness decreases suffering and increases subjective well being. Buddha prescribed mindfulness as the path to spiritual enlightenment. Whether you are looking for spiritual enlightenment or just improved well being, there is no doubt that mindfulness is the way to go.