Self-knowledge and Freedom
From: An Inquiring Mind's Journey:
a book about a life with Buddhism
by Bhante Kovida
Copyright © 1997, 2003 Bhante Kovida

A talk given at the University of Toronto, October, 1997
This evening we are going to explore together the significance of self-knowledge and the meaning of freedom. I say "together" because the speaker is not an authority, he is not trying to convince or convert you with a particular belief or philosophy. We are inquiring and exploring together as spiritual friends into some of the issues of existence. So what is important is the quality of your listening in which there is your own understanding and realisation. It is essential to listen with an open and relaxed mind in order to find out that which is true and obvious. Our conditioned mind with its ideas, beliefs, opinions, discriminations, likes and dislikes, is often an obstruction to seeing things clearly and directly without the imposing habit of labels, words and measurement.
Now, as you know, we have a great deal of knowledge today. You just have to visit the university or public library or check the Internet for a wide array of information or watch documentaries on TV or read encyclopedias. It is endless. Many people here are studying for degrees, Bachelors, Masters and Ph.Ds. Some people have more than one degree. We seem to judge intelligence by the amount of knowledge we accumulate but the most essential knowledge of all is self-knowledge and self-understanding that leads to wisdom, compassion and freedom. We may be very sophisticated intellectually, very clever and learned, very professional, but unless we understand ourselves, we are, really, unintelligent as our minds are in conflict and contradiction. We'll never be peaceful and mature human beings. In North America we may have a much higher standard of living than in most countries but there's a great deal of mental suffering in our modern society.
When Mother Theresa came here some years ago she pointed out that although there was a lot of poverty and many people living on the streets of towns and cities in India, there was a great deal of loneliness and isolation here, a great amount of fear, insecurity, depression, superficiality and pettiness. In this materialistic, consumer society, money and material things are often more important than our relationship with other human beings, and we tend to make a fuss over trivial things. So, we have to investigate what freedom really implies. Because freedom and self-knowledge go together. It is in understanding of ourselves, our human condition and experience, that we develop wisdom, compassion and freedom.
This topic of freedom is very relevant to me at this time because I'm visiting a group of inmates at a correctional center and this is an important issue I discuss with them in order for them to understand the deeper aspect of freedom regarding the nature of our mental defilements which cause us suffering and get us into trouble. Now, what is freedom? Normally we think that freedom means the freedom to do what we like; we like to pride ourselves that in N. America we are a free, democratic society, we can vote, we can think and say what we like, we can go anywhere we choose, make as much money as possible, buy anything we want and satisfy our desires, we can enjoy ourselves in so many ways. Yet if you inquire deeply, logically you'll see that we're really not free in our so-called free society. We may have the freedom to do what we like, go where we like, and so on, but we still have a great deal of fear and anxiety, stress, greed and frustration. In our society there is a strong urge to acquire material things; yet when we do get them there is the burden of attachment and worry. Very often our possessions possess us more than we possess them. I hope you see this fact. If we become too attached to our families and friends, they too become a burden, a source of worry, expectation and disappointment. So, freedom really means freedom from all this mental suffering and delusion. Because if the mind is clear, peaceful and compassionate, then whether one is in prison or one has only a few months to live, one can still be peaceful and free from fear, anxiety, craving and regret. Freedom comes when the mind is purified of its defilements--ignorance and delusion, craving and attachment, hatred and ill will.
As you all know, fear is a dominant aspect of the human psyche, a universal delusion of the mind. Our minds are constantly being deluded by thoughts, ideas, beliefs and images, opinions and views, conclusions and suspicions. We are deluded by self-centeredness, by pride, arrogance and conceit, by the belief that the self or ego or soul is a permanent and fixed entity, that we're at the center of the universe, separate and independent from the rest of existence. But, all this is an illusion. Nothing exists in isolation or in a vacuum. What the mystics and intelligent, aboriginal peoples realised a long time ago the modern environmentalists are now realising: that everything is interdependent and interconnected in a complex web of interrelationships. One of the reasons we think we're so separate and independent is because our lives are so busy and we've become so mobile and materialistic. Our consciousness is dominated by stress and anxiety, greed and attachments, goals, results and time schedules, pleasure and enjoyment. And we now have the ability to travel long distances by plane, car, bus and train. It's easy to forget that we're intricately a part of the whole. And despite our busy, mobile lives our bodies still require the elements of this planet--air, food, water, heat, and rest, exercise and medicines for sustenance and good health.
Most of us have an emptiness, a void within us. And because we don't like this void we try to fill it. Through romantic relationships and pleasures of the senses, through the acquisition of money and material things, through many kinds of entertainment including alcohol and drugs. Or we try to fill the void with some religious idea or belief: a creator God or Savior, belief in a guru, in eternal life or reincarnation, in miracles and psychic phenomena. Endless amount of things that we don't really need. But until we understand the nature of the void, this inner emptiness, it will always be there. And so will that sense of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, fear and anxiety, loneliness and despair. One of the things I noticed last year when I came back from Asia was that at least 60% of the people I knew were caught in some form of depression or emotional turmoil. It seems that being depressed has become like a plague. Medical science is producing more and more drugs for this condition; even children now take medicine for depression.
Why are we such complex and confused individuals? Our minds are so filled with ideas and ideals, concepts and opinions, cravings and attachments, fears and anxieties. The conditioned mind is always judging, comparing, analyzing, discriminating; we're caught up in a lot of likes and dislikes, personal preferences, our minds are so agitated and opinionated. Another thing I also noticed upon returning to Canada and being with friends was that most of the things they talked about concerned what they liked and what they didn't like; they would make such a big deal out of their personal preferences as if they were so important. We think our likes and dislikes are important because we think this "I" or "me" is so special; we take ourselves far too seriously, we're too attached to this sense of self or ego.
So, what exactly is this "self" or ego? Is it something to be taken seriously? To understand the "self" or ego, one has to understand the nature of the thinking process. These factors are connected. As you know, most of us are caught up in this restless thinking process and we think incessantly because it's such an automatic, mechanical phenomenon, and most of the time we're not even aware that we're thinking. We just get caught up in it and this creates our mental-emotional reality. We often get carried away with our restless minds and chase our thoughts and ideas, our feelings, moods and emotions, we get deluded and caught by them, and so we create a lot of problems for ourselves. Some people get totally carried away and do crazy, irrational things, even commit crimes and murder. We are the victims of mental-emotional states because we simply don't know how to watch our minds with awareness and let these mental states go. As we said, because we think so much, an essential aspect of self-knowledge is to put thinking in its right place. Thoughts and images dominate our consciousness. They suppress our natural intuitive awareness and intelligence; it's only in times of emergency and life-threatening situations that this awareness comes into the foreground.
Now, what exactly is thinking and why do we think? An easy way to understand this is to see the mind as a computer; actually the mind, the brain is a computer, but it is a biological computer which is a result of millions and millions of years of biological evolution; you know, the electro-chemical process. And somewhere inside the brain, I'm told it's in the mid-brain, are these memory circuits that contain all our past information since early childhood up until now, today. And that information is based on all our past experiences, all our accumulated knowledge which includes language, mathematics, geography, etc., and of course, memory. Now, every time we think, we're actually using information from these memory circuits; so thinking is a response to memory, past experience and knowledge, and with this past information and mental conditioning, thinking projects itself into the future. If you observe your mind you'll see this fact for yourself: that most of the time we're either thinking about the past, remembering some event which occurred either this morning, last week, last year. Or we're thinking about the future--later on this evening, two days from now, next week, next year, right? Some of us are already thinking about Christmas, I'm sure. [laughter]
So you see that thinking is a movement in time, from past to future, isn't it? This is just the nature of the thinking process; it is time-based. Thinking or thought is time, past and future; this movement is going on all the time. Our consciousness is time-based because of the thinking process; thinking conditions the mind with the idea of past and future. You can see how obsessed we've become with physical age, birthdays, wedding and other anniversaries. We take these things so seriously and we make a big fuss over them with desire and expectation; if people forget our anniversaries, there's conflict and suffering in the mind, right? Time-based events become a part of who we are because the self, the "me" is also a result of past conditioning, as we shall see. If we understand the whole structure of the thinking process, the nature of time and the self or ego, you'll see that these time-based events are not really important, we're only conditioned with these things from childhood and they create anxiety, desire and conflict in the mind. Time is really a delusion created by thinking. And it is because of thinking that there's so much anxiety, worry, insecurity and psychological fear in human consciousness. Later we'll be exploring into the nature of fear and you'll see how thinking itself and the concept of time are two of the main factors of fear.
Now, what is this self or ego or soul which we believe is permanent, unchanging and is at the center of experience and the vast Universe? First, we must understand that it is natural to have a sense of self but this self, the "I" or "me" with the idea of "mine", is only a result of conditioning. Who we are or who we think we are when we say "I" or "me" is just a collection of memories and past experiences. In other words, the self or ego is just a construction put together by the thinking process as memory, past experience and knowledge. I wonder if you see this fact. You can see that the thinking process and the self, the "me" are intricately connected, right? You can say that the thinking process is the vehicle of the self, carrying it along, sustaining it with past memories and hopes and dreams of the future, right? For example, if I'm meeting you for the first time today and naturally we begin to speak about ourselves, what do we speak about? Past experiences, memories, right? That's all. And as thinking projects itself into the future, thinking projects the self into the future as personal hopes and dreams, personal goals, plans and ambitions, personal fears and anxieties, right? This is most interesting; this is the real insight into human consciousness as realised by the Buddha and other enlightened beings throughout the centuries.
This sense of self, because it is a result of the past, has many regrets, guilt feelings and disappointments, sorrow, hurts, memories of happiness, fears and anxieties. Now this "me" center is not a fixed, concrete, unchanging entity: it is always growing, changing with new experiences and accumulation of knowledge. For example, your coming here this evening to listen to the speaker becomes a part of your self. I wonder if you see this? By listening and participating and exploring together with the speaker, this becomes a part of your direct experience, which later becomes a part of your memory, which becomes a part of you self, right? You, the experiencer, are not separate from your experiences, memory, knowledge, and understanding [and misunderstandings]. So later on, if and when you speak or refer to this evening, you'll realise that you, your "self" is intricately related to your memory and past experiences, right? So as you can see, our "self" is not something that is fixed and concrete, it's a result of past conditioning and it keeps changing and expanding with the addition of new experiences and knowledge.
Normally, we believe that this self is permanent and unchanging because of the delusion of thoughts and language, because of the constant use of "I", "me" and "my" in everyday conversation. Due to social convention, we need to use the labels "I", "you", "he", "she", "we", "us", "they", "them", but they're only labels for communication. Likewise, our names are just convenient labels for others to refer to us; our parents gave us names, labels, for social convention, initially used on our birth certificate, then on our student I. D., then on social insurance certificate, medical insurance, drivers permit, passport, and so on. But names are really just labels, likewise the "I" or "me", but we usually don't realise this fact; we're caught in the ignorance and delusion of social conditioning, and so we take our names and the "I", the self, very, very seriously. We cling to names and labels as a self or personality and so there's suffering. Someone forgets your name or you forget his or her name, and it becomes a big deal. But it's not really important; names are just labels, if you forget a label you forget it; it's no big deal! Actually, it's wiser to ask someone, "What is your label, please?" or "Excuse me but I forgot your label" than to say, "What is your name?" or "I'm sorry but I forgot your name", right? So we have to see this fact and go beyond the limited convention of names and labels; a name or label is not the actual person or thing!
As we said, we have to use the label "I" in order to communicate effectively and in daily life we use this "I" many times, don't we? Sometimes over a hundred times a day. And because we use the same label "I" as a center of reference, it gives the impression that this so-called self is permanent and unchanging, always the same. I wonder if you see this fact clearly? And it's only through observation and insight, through looking at the mind with awareness, calm attention, that we begin to see and cut through the deep-rooted illusion of a concrete center of experience. You begin to see that each moment the mind is different and the body is different. So, mentally, emotionally and physically, we're never the same from one moment to the next; the mind is a constantly changing process and similarly the physical body--there's nothing fixed and solid in us. It is only thinking itself and the constant, habitual use of the label "I", which creates this strong illusion of a permanent and unchanging self--center. Actually, we're alive at this moment because of constant change, a complex and interrelated series of biological processes. Yet, due to our ignorance and delusion, we become too attached to people, material things and ideas [mental formations] and we do not want them to change; we want the objects of our attachments to last forever. Please reflect on this fact of human experience! So life, existence, is based on constant change and impermanence. Everything is in constant flux; nothing remains still. An essential aspect of self-knowledge, insight and wisdom, is to see clearly this constant change, this impermanence.
With insightful understanding, you still continue to use the personal pronoun, "I", in daily conversation, but you are no longer fooled by it anymore; you realise the purpose and limitation of words, labels and thoughts; you're no longer attached to the idea of a permanent and unchanging self or ego, so you stop taking yourself seriously because you see that the conditioned habit of identifying with changing, impermanent phenomena only results in suffering and conflict; you stop taking things personally and the burden of life is slowly lifted and you experience more freedom, spontaneous joy, and compassion in daily life.
The mind is complex, confused and contradictory simply because it gets caught up with restless, neurotic thinking, with words and symbols, labels, ideas and ideals which we mistake for reality, for the way things are. Also, the mind has been conditioned to label, judge, criticize, compare, condemn, discriminate, to like and to dislike, to want and not to want, plus the desire to get rid of or to change that which you dislike. All this grasping and clinging, discrimination and constant measuring only help to strengthen the illusion of a permanent and unchanging self or ego-center. It is only with awareness, calm attention that we begin to see the reality of things as they are, to observe "what is" from moment to moment without the interference of words and labels and the discriminating mind. Such a mind is no longer confused and deluded, agitated and complex; it is calm and clear, simple and patient, watchful and compassionate. You can say that this clear, restful awareness or bare attention is our true self, the unconditioned state of being.
Not only do we see the self, ego or soul as a permanent, concrete, separate and independent entity, but we also see the body in terms of "me" and "mine"; we view the physical organism as a self or belonging to a self. We say things like, "My head is hurting me" or "I've got a stomach problem" or "I'm getting fat" or "I'm too skinny" or "I'm getting wrinkles, I'm definitely aging!" or "My hair is falling out, I'm getting bald. Oh no!" or "My face is so ugly, I hate the way I look", and so on. But, in truth, the body is neither "me" nor "mine"; it doesn't belong to a self or personality; it belongs to the changing conditions of Nature, a biological manifestation of the four elements--Cosmic Energy. We identify with the body out of conditioned habit and mental suffering arises as a result. Now let's investigate: Can you tell the body not to get hungry? Can you command the body not to get sick? Can you tell the body not to get tired, not to sleep, not to eat, not to go to the toilet, not to feel pain, heat or cold? Does it obey your wishes? No, not really. Because if the body was really "me" or "mine", it would never get sick, feel pain, get tired, dirty and smelly; it would never have to eat and go to the toilet, it would never get injured, grow old, and it would never die. But you see, whether we like it or not, the body does its own thing, it follows its own natural laws according to causes and conditions; but be cause of ignorance and delusion we cling to the body as "me" and "mine". Let us say that the body belongs to us in name only, conventionally speaking; likewise our children: they do not really belong to us, we're responsible for raising them healthily and safely, but they too belong to the changing conditions of Nature; they do not remain cute, cuddly babies forever, right? They too have to grow old and die someday.
The body is just a temporary shelter, we have to leave it one of these days; let's say that it's on temporary loan from Nature and the four elements. But like a rented house, we have to look after it, keep it clean and healthy, and give it proper rest, nourishment, and so on. Our house is like a hotel and so is our body. We'll have to move out of them both one day and leave them behind, only temporary shelters. There is no permanent, abiding entity or tenant--only mind-body process, only earth, water, fire and air. We should not get excited over it or infatuated by it. When we don't understand this there is suffering, anxiety and conflict. In modern society we've become very obsessed with the way we look; we're afraid of the ageing process and of getting sick, and we're terribly afraid of death. Death is no longer seen as part of the natural process of existence but rather as the cruel ending to a life of pleasurable enjoyment and endless attachment to people, money, material possessions and personal achievements. And physical death is the ending of all attachments and desires.
According to the Buddha, we have the wrong view, the wrong understanding of the body-mind process, clinging to it as "me" and "mine". We now have this disease called Anorexia Nervosa, where individuals become so obsessed with being slim that they ruin their health by not eating properly, some people even die from this condition. This is an example, although somewhat extreme, of this wrong view of the body-mind process, over-identification of the physical form. We spend a great deal of time and money trying to look attractive, youthful and glamorous; cosmetic surgery has become very popular. Our physical image has become all-important and our lives have become increasingly shallow, petty and superficial. So there's suffering and conflict resulting from ignorance and delusion. There's this thing now called Cryogenics where, if you have money, you can pay this company to freeze your body after death in the hope that medical science in the future will be able to bring you back to life again. This idea is, of course, due to the strong attachment to the body as a self with its craving for eternal life in the future. The belief in reincarnation also has its roots in the idea of a permanent, concrete self-wanting to come back again and again into worldly existence but in a different body each time. If you care to go into this matter deeply you'll see that this belief is the outcome of thought projecting itself into the future with fear and uncertainty of the unknown. Thought/thinking, being a response to memory and knowledge is always in the field of the known and previous experience, so it cannot possibly comprehend the profound mystery of death, the great Unknown. It's like a fish trying to relate to the experience of riding a bicycle or driving a car or of a bird gliding in the wind--it's impossible. We cannot really relate to and comprehend that which is outside of our day-to-day experience; we can only speculate and create theories. So, out of this profound uncertainty and fear of the unknown mystery of death, thought has creates the belief in reincarnation, likewise the idea of Heaven and Hell and Eternal Life, the Pure Land in the Western Paradise, the Great Hunting Ground in the Sky, and so on. In short, thinking/thought is afraid to come to an end. It wants to continue forever! Only in the silence of meditation does the fear of the unknown come to an end.
Upon wise and calm reflection, we begin to see more and more that the self or ego-center is just a conditioning, a programming in the brain, a construction of the thinking process as memory, past experience and knowledge. So, thinking and the self, the "me", are time-based; they're related to the past and therefore to the future, a movement in time. And so this self with its past conditioning and history feels that it has to become, has to achieve, has to acquire, and so on, in the future; we're educated in this manner, thus our parents often put unnecessary pressure and expectations on us. As a result there is tremendous fear of not becoming, not achieving, not having, and so on. Psychological fear is caused by thinking, and thinking is becoming, wanting, grasping, craving, needing, etc. Becoming with its fear of not becoming and not achieving is the root of all fear. If there were no thinking, there would be no fear. Becoming is fear. Not becoming, not achieving, not having, creates tremendous insecurity and therefore fear, anxiety, worry, frustration, despair, depression, suffering, dis-ease.
I remember when I was in university some years ago, my mind became very restless, disturbed, and confused, and I became increasing dissatisfied, disappointed and depressed with academic studies. I didn't know what else to do with my life, my future seemed very bleak and uncertain. I kept thinking, "What's going to happen to me next year?". "What's going to happen to me two, three years from now? What will I be able to achieve? Will I become a famous scientist? Will I be able to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, develop medicines and save the world?" My thoughts an endless becoming in the future, right? Naturally, I began to experience a great deal of fear and anxiety; there was this nervous tension in the chest and stomach area, which felt most uneasy and unhealthy--alcohol and cigarettes were the order of the day. I didn't realise, of course, at the time that it was this all-consuming neurotic thinking and worrying about the self which was creating this inner turmoil, suffering and dis-ease. Unfortunately, self-knowledge, mind training and cultivation [the art of skillful living] are not included in our education curriculum; the mental-emotional world is so powerful and strong, our minds easily get so confused and deluded, that we get carried away by emotions and moods or by the appearance of things; we tend to overreact thus becoming unbalanced, disturbed and irrational. In those days I was just another confused, frustrated, ignorant but hopeful college student facing an uncertain future in a much too fast-moving, materialistic world.
As we've said, thinking is a response to our past information stored up in the brain as memory and knowledge and it projects itself into the future. This is a natural, universal, phenomenon in human consciousness regardless of which language one is programmed with or using--English, French, Spanish, or Chinese. Now, let us proceed and investigate further: by merely thinking about the past and recalling various events, many kinds of feelings and emotions can arise to cause disturbance in the mind. For example, you can recall a happy occasion and a happy, jovial feeling will arise; likewise, recalling an unhappy experience will result in a sad, unpleasant feeling, right? You might remember some unskillful, irrational thing that you did or said in the past and it's likely you'll feel regret or remorse or guilt--we can all identify with this, can't we? We also have regrets about things we didn't do or say, don't we? You can recall some conflict you had with someone and it's likely that anger, hatred, ill-will, and resentment will arise, even after a year or two, even after five, ten or twenty years, interesting, no? And perhaps that individual with whom you had this problem is no longer alive, long dead and gone, with only bones or ashes remaining, and yet the very memory of that person is able to bring back intense emotions--amazing how the mind strongly clings to past events and negative emotions which only result in suffering, bitterness, sadness and dis-ease! This is the delusive power of thoughts and images! Then there are the memories of emotional or physical pain which tend to produce fear and foreboding, fear that this painful experience might reoccur in the future--once bitten, twice shy, yes? And it's interesting, on the other hand, how memories of pleasure and enjoyment produces the desire for more of the same; you want those pleasures to be repeated, there's craving for more sense pleasures, right? Without mind training, reflection and wisdom, we easily become slaves to the pleasures of the senses which are always impermanent and therefore unsatisfactory; we don't realise how powerful their seduction is on our psyche; attachment to fleeting sense pleasures usually result in frustration, disappointment and despair--pleasure and pain usually go together. So, you can see how thinking, responding to the past, can result in a variety of disturbing mental-emotional states.
Similarly, thinking about the future can result in anxiety, worry, fear, insecurity, anticipation, nervousness, and so on. This is obvious, isn't it? Also, you see that the more restless and agitated the mind is, the more desires and cravings there are, which result in more feelings of frustration and disappointment. If you ask teenagers whether or not they were confused about life, most of them would answer in the affirmative; this is, of course, partially due to their lack of self-knowledge and proper guidance within the home and school environment, and partially due to the fact that teenagers usually have a lot of restless energy and being very impressionable they're easily caught by constant desires and cravings, which increase with the strong influence of peer pressure. Hence, they're victims to a great deal of frustration, disappointment, envy, jealousy, inferiority complex, emotional turmoil and conflicts, which spell confusion in the mind. The root cause of this youthful confusion is, naturally, the restless, agitated, easily excitable mind, which is easily caught in self-centered grasping, craving and clinging.
Discursive, neurotic thinking also creates feelings of isolation and loneliness, sadness, despair, depression, and, of course, fear and insecurity. Thinking--with its associated emotions--is limited, self-isolating, divisive and fragmentary by nature. Thinking creates the illusory division, the duality between "me" and the world and society, between "me" and Nature, between "us" and "them", between the "thinker" and thoughts, between the "experiencer" and experience, and so on. This division or duality in the mind is the cause of conflict and neurosis. Thinking is so mechanical, automatic, repetitive and all-consuming, it fuels our emotions out of proportion and often out of control; thoughts have the ability to create big dramas out of small problems and conflicts, don't they? It's like starting out with a small fire and you keep adding more wood, paper and fuel to it, and before you know it, you end up with a huge, roaring fire which you're unable to control, right? This is another unhealthy, delusive aspect of the thought process; thinking is a necessary part of existence, it has its place and purpose, but it's limited and is the actual cause of our mental problems: obsessions, cravings, greed, attachments, fixations, fears, hatred, ill will, and other delusions. Also, thought is a linear reality, the immensity of life is multi-dimensional; thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions cannot possibly grasp this vast reality, this immensity.
To recapitulate, thinking is a response to memory, past experience and knowledge, and it projects itself into the future; it is therefore a movement in time. The self or ego-center is a construction of the thought process and is therefore a result of past conditioning. Thinking has its place and purpose but it's limited. Now, The Buddha, Shakyamuni, with his profound insight and wisdom, understood the nature of the human condition and the phenomenon of human experience including, of course, the nature and structure of the thinking process. He saw how consciousness was related to the six senses [seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking/imagining], and how our conditioned thinking was the main factor behind mental suffering and its source: mental defilements--ignorance and delusion, craving and clinging, hatred and ill will. And this is why the Buddha stressed the importance of mind training and cultivation in order to purify the mind of its defilements to end suffering and dis-ease. He constantly stressed the importance of awareness, mindfulness, calm attention [he used the Pali word: sati] because this aspect of the brain is unconditioned; it is not related to the past or to the future, it is always in the present moment. It is always fresh, innocent, clear--not neurotic or confused, it is unlimited and intelligent. It is the Buddha Mind, the one who intuitively knows, that aspect of our nature which is awake, calm and alert. It is awareness, attention which frees us from the delusions and tyranny of the all-consuming thinking process. It helps to keep the mind open, receptive, spacious and responsive, free from tension, grasping and clinging which cause the mind to contract around its obsessions and fixations, worries, anxieties, and other self-centered pre-occupations. We are often lost in the stories or mini-dramas of our minds. It is sati, mindfulness, which frees us from our mind-created worlds. Thoughts, images and moods are not necessarily connected with reality, with what is actually happening in the present moment. The Buddha taught us to pay attention, to be aware of them before we are influenced, deluded or caught by them.
With awareness, we feel more peaceful, balanced and secure, and less self-centered. Our attachments and desires become less and less, and our minds become more light, innocent, joyful and free. The path of wholesome living and simplicity, mind training/cultivation, self-knowledge and wisdom frees us from suffering and the burden of life. I remember one day in Sri Lanka at my mentor's temple: I was taking a short walk and enjoying the natural scenery but I also had several things on my mind--pre-occupations with different aspects of a monk's life: my increasing attachment to solitude and silence, my growing desire for bland, uncooked food, some health problems, learning to deal with desire, longing, clinging, expectation, frustration, boredom and doubt. Suddenly, I caught a movement at the corner of my eye; instinctively I froze in my tracks and slowly looked down to my right. Sure enough there was this cobra snake about two feet away, upper body raised with spread hood, ready to strike in self-defense. Normally, cobras do not strike unless provoked or stepped on, they're very shy creatures otherwise. At that moment I became extremely alert and awake, natural instinct clicked in. And I don't think I'd ever been so awake in my entire life! [laughter] One's whole being was completely at attention in the present moment; all mental activity concerning the past and future had quickly vanished; in that state of alertness the mind could effortlessly let go of all its problems and pre-occupations due to the immediate physical danger of the poisonous snake. All past conditioning/programming, including the self or ego, had ceased to operate. Interestingly enough, there was no state of panic or horror--I did not freak out--there was only an awakened state of clarity, attention and elation. The cobra and I looked intensely at one another: we were at the same energy level, at the same intensity; and we were meeting each other at the same place and at the same time--totally in the present moment! There was an intuitive understanding and respect for each other; words and thoughts, ideas, concepts and symbols were completely superfluous! Intuitive awareness and wakefulness were indeed essential for survival and well-being. Then suddenly, as quickly as the cobra had appeared, it turned its hooded head and quickly disappeared into the bush. I was amazed at its speed, agility and intelligence. On seeing the patterned marks on the back of its hood as it retreated, I could appreciate its beauty despite its potential danger. I felt no aversion to it nor was I paralyzed with fear; there was only a sense of exhilaration and awe, loving kindness and empathy for one of Mother Nature's creatures. It was a profound experience of wakefulness, emptiness and non-self. Standing there on the path and appreciating the peace and beauty of aloneness, the clouds in the vast blue sky never looked more lovely or enchanting as at that moment, eternal and beyond measure. When the mind is no longer judging, criticizing, comparing, condemning, without wanting to change anything, and is therefore capable of seeing "what is" from moment to moment, in that very perception is the eternal, full of magic and beauty.
Upon reflection, one realised that the state of pure awareness or bare attention was empty of a self or the "me" center; there is no self or entity being aware or paying attention--there's just that energy, that state of mindfulness, alertness, sati. I wonder if you see this important fact? Awareness, attention is a state of non-duality. It is thoughts and words [using conventional language] which create the self-center or ego-entity, thus creating the duality, division, between the observer and the observed [visible objects], the listener and sounds, the feeler and feelings, the thinker and thoughts, and so on. There is really no concrete thinker that is separate from thoughts; the thinker is thought; the "me" is put together by thought from memory, past experience and knowledge. Thought separates itself as the thinker, a thinking entity, in order to give itself continuance and permanency, security. Thought also creates the observer, the controller, the listener, the feeler, the smeller, the taster, the experiencer, and the separate center of experience.
Thought says, "I am thinking good thoughts" or "I shouldn't be thinking bad thoughts", or "I am seeing that tree, I am hearing that sound", thereby creating an "I" as a thinker separate from thoughts, an "I" as a seer or observer separate from visible objects, and an "I" as a hearer or listener who is separate from audible sounds. Do you see this illusion of separation created by thought and conventional language? This is real insight and investigation. This duality or division is the root of psychological conflict. Where there is an observer separating himself from the thing he observes, there must be conflict. As long as I say, "Anger [or envy] is different from me, I must control anger [or envy], I must change, I must control my thoughts and emotions", etc., in that there is duality, division, hence there's conflict. Conflict implies suppression, control, conformity, imitation, struggle, and tension. Only in the non-dual light of awareness that one can observe clearly, objectively, calmly, sanely, the totality of consciousness without analysis, and thus going beyond thoughts and emotions, these changing, impermanent, and impersonal conditions of the mind.
Thinking also creates the image one has of oneself, an extension of the "me" center. Sometimes we create a negative image of ourselves, which naturally result in conflict and dis-ease. We do this out of the conditioned habit of being too judgmental and idealistic of ourselves and others, don't we? We usually create images of people depending on pleasure or displeasure and conflict, right? And we cling to those images whenever we think of those people and when we meet them again, isn't that so? That's just the nature of thoughts, memory and attachment, isn't it? In other words, we see people with the eyes/images of the past so we are not really relating to them in the present moment; we don't "allow" them to change. So for harmonious relationship to take place, it is essential that we let go of the images of past memory, conflicts and hurts, right? And this is only possible when there's attention in the present moment, loving kindness and compassion. It's only this quality of energy that can free the mind of past hurts and conflict. This is goodness, virtue, and freedom.
Another realisation I had from that memorable encounter with the cobra snake was the limitation and pettiness of the ego or conditioned self. The cobra didn't care who I was; it wasn't interested in my personal history or my hopes and dreams, or whether I was rich or poor, famous or infamous, happy or sad. It didn't care if I was a monk or lay person. In short, the cobra wasn't interested in who "I" was or who I thought I was, including whatever images I had about myself. To the cobra, I was just one giant and potentially dangerous animal! A creature to be avoided at all cost! That's all. So much for self-centered pride, vanity, arrogance and conceit! It was indeed a most humbling and insightful experience. That cobra snake was one of my greatest teachers. That unexpected encounter gave me a much deeper understanding of the profound truth of non-self and emptiness, and of the benefits of being alert and attentive plus the freedom of letting go which goes with this awakened state of mind. Normally, the mind is very sticky like glue: it has the propensity not only to grasp, crave and want endlessly but also to cling to ideas, opinions and concepts, bad memories, pleasurable experiences, negative emotions, and so on. Cobras are indeed wise and noble beings!
A mind that is seeing clearly, penetrating deeply into the nature of things, experiences the arising and passing away [birth and death] of phenomena very distinctly, moment to moment. Purity of view means freedom from the view or concept of self or ego-center. All that we are is a process of mind and body unfolding, continually becoming. This is all; there is nothing apart from this--the eye and visible objects; the ear and sounds; the nose and smells; the tongue and tastes; the body and touch sensations; the mind and mental objects [thoughts, ideas, images]. Our whole universe consists of a very rapid sequence of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking/imagining. What we are is this continuity of process; this process of change is not happening to a permanent and fixed self. There is no one behind it to whom it is happening; the whole show is happening by itself. [It is thought which creates the experiencer and the duality of experience]. There is no abiding entity of which can be said, "This is I or me", because each consciousness and its object arise and vanish moment to moment.
Our whole existence is a continuity of the six processes. The names we give to them are many. Innumerable concepts describe our experiences. But the eye sees only form and colours; it doesn't see names and labels. What the ear hears is sound. We give many names to the different sounds but what is actually happening is that vibrations come into contact with the ear, which causes hearing consciousness to arise. A very simple cause and effect relationship. There is no one home; no fixed, unchanging, independent and separate entity in the mind. The rapidity of the sequence gives the illusion that it is all happening to someone, a center of consciousness. When the mind is quiet and clear, we begin to experience the purification of view in which our whole being is seen as just that continuity of process of knowing and object, a constant flow of sensations, perceptions, thought processes and emotional states, and consciousness, free from the concept of self. And as the purity of view deepens, we become one with the flow instead of trying to hold on to it. Purity of view is the clarity of understanding that sees things as they are, the beginning of a transforming vision, a different dimension of consciousness leading to wisdom and freedom. There is a happiness and peace, a restful awareness, a coolness beyond the mind-body process, beyond the limited dimension of thoughts and feelings.
The ego-center, self, I, me, mine are all ideas in the mind, arising out of our identification with various aspects of the mind-body process. From the beginning, this self does not exist, yet because we're so firmly attached to this deeply ingrained concept, we spend much of our lives defending or enlarging or satisfying this imaginary center, the essence of our being. Meditation helps us to see its conceptual nature, to see that in reality it doesn't really exist, that it's just an idea, an extraneous projection onto what's happening in the moment. This center is put together by thought, thought being a response to memory, past experience and knowledge. By detaching the mind from all of the sensory impingements and undermining with insight perception the delusive notion of a separate "I" who is experiencing, the mind gradually quits reacting or even pay attention to sense stimuli. The "I" feeling fades away and a state of undifferentiating, all-embracing, restful, selfless awareness is experienced--the unconditioned state of being. With self-knowledge and wisdom, life becomes calmer, more harmonious, a smoother flow, less fear, worry, anxiety, regret and resentment.
Summing up, thinking and the conditioning of self-view are factors that have to be clearly understood in order to be free, mature and wise. They have their place and purpose in daily living. For practical reasons including conventional communication, but they're limited and cause division and conflict--attachment to ego, taking oneself too seriously, causes suffering, conflict and disharmony in relationship. It's obvious that we need logical, rational thinking in daily activities but you see that even when we don't need to think, the mind keeps thinking unnecessarily--worrying, planning, anticipating, regretting, desiring, obsessing, hating, resenting. Have you noticed this? Thinking becomes completely irrational, illogical, when it creates and sustains desire and fear, doesn't it? This mental process is so automatic, mechanical and repetitive--there is only disorder and confusion. This unnecessary thinking dissipates a great deal of mental energy; mental fatigue and stress are common symptoms of modern society. A mind with order and cultivation thinks logically, rationally when necessary, and when there's no real need for thinking, the mind becomes quiet, calm but alert, attentive--it dwells in restful awareness. Thoughts are just tools to be used when needed: it's like drinking tea or coffee, we need to use a cup for this purpose, and when we finish drinking we simply put the cup down, without effort or struggle; there's no need to carry around the empty cup, right? This is common sense, intelligence, and order. So, what gives order to the mind is the energy of awareness, mindfulness, and calm attention. This order is intelligence and freedom, out of which comes kindness, compassion, patience, humility, innocence and joy.
I'll end here with a Tibetan meditation on the sky-like quality of the mind:
The mind is like the sky. The drifting clouds are like our changing thoughts and ideas. The gray, dark clouds and wind are like our emotions and moods. The thunder and lightening are like our anger and temper. The falling rain like our sadness, sorrow and tears. But above the ever-changing clouds and weather is the clear, blue sky. Similarly, above our constantly changing mental states is awareness, mindfulness--clear, vast and peaceful. The sky is clear and unaffected by what is happening. The clouds and wind come and go. So does the rain and sunlight. But the sky remains clear, vast and peaceful. See the mind as the clear blue sky or the night sky filled with stars. And let everything arise and pass away, come and go on its own. Then the mind will stay balanced, peaceful and free, observing the flow of events and our temporary mental states. Such is the nature of awareness, mindfulness--calm, bare attention.
May you be well and happy and free from ignorance and delusion. I wish you all a pleasant evening. Thank you.