Skip to main content

Mindfulness and Transcendence of the Small Self


The goal of spiritual practice can be seen as
1) relieving stress and emotional agitation wherever possible and
2) alleviating our attachment to the small, trapped, limited sense of self.

The latter is achieved by learning to break down and separate our inner experience into discreet, separate entities. When the mind adheres to the limited sense of self, it believes that our identity consists entirely of our inner events: body sensations, emotions and thoughts. Unfortunately, our inner experience, all those images, words, emotional sensations, etc become interwoven and tangled. Enchanted by confusion and drama, the mind becomes imprisoned, as awareness shrinks and identifies —tammayata in the Buddha’s languages—generally with thoughts. We begin to believe our thoughts comprise our “self,” while external sensations (sights, sounds, etc) are deemed to be “other.”

Of course, the problem with firmly believing our thoughts to be 'me' or my 'self’ and outer experiences as 'not me' or ‘other’ (other place, people, etc) is that it conceals one of the most important insights a human being can attain and sustain: everything we experience, whether we consider it to be inside of us or outside, is filtered and represented by the mind. Everything is subjective—or nothing is from another point of view.

As the Buddha taught in the first words of his Dhammapada:
"Everything we experience (sankharas) are preceded by the mind, authored by the mind. If you speak and act from a distorted view of the world, suffering follows us like a cart follows the ox that pulls it. If you speak and act with a calm, clear mind, happiness follows you like a shadow."

Everything we experience is a result of our mind’s sensory habits, expectations and neural firing patterns. Although our impressions of the outside and inside world seem accurate, we don’t perceive an accurate representation of external physical reality. The neural processes that interprets impressions arriving at our eyes and ears is also creating our wholly imagined fantasies and worries. What we consider to be “out there” in the real world and “in here” in subjective inner realm are created by the same brain.

So, how do we start breaking down the illusion of “self” and “other?” If we practice long enough, we can clearly discern between these inner events and begin to free awareness from its entanglement. It’s essential to disentangle the inner mess, and for this process we can use what the Buddha called the four foundations:
1) the breath and non-emotional body sensations
2) emotion based body based (somatic) sensations, otherwise known as ‘feelings’
3) the energetic quality of awareness (is it flowing towards or away from an object, is it distracted or present, small or large?)
4) mental images and language based thoughts

Learning to tell apart these experiences reduces the entanglement. We can use awareness to clean up a messy parade of thoughts, emotions, sensory impressions, etc. We begin to know when we’re lost in the brain’s “default mode network,” a state that pulls us away from larger awareness (of what we consider to be outer experience) entirely into worries, plans, memories and other reveries.

To tell apart the four foundations, we use what the Buddha called “knowing” or “clear comprehension” (sati sampujhanna). As an example:

For example, if we’re maintaining awareness on the first foundation—breath and ambient body sensations—we may become aware of the sensation of pain in the leg, and so we may label that as “pain.” We focus on the sensation and keep it separate from emotional resistance to pain (in the locked jaw or tight abdomen perhaps) and thoughts about the pain (“oh no, this will never go away.”) If we become aware that the pain is subsiding, label that as “going away.” When the pain is entirely relieved, label the experience as “ease.” When labeling its important not to get caught up in choosing the exact right word, simply go with whatever label arises first; keep it simple.

The same process can be used for emotions and thoughts.

The third foundation is perhaps the trickiest, in that we’re not observing a sensation or thought (image/word), but rather the quality of our awareness. In this case its perhaps easiest to focus on a single, repeating sensation—ambient external sound or one’s breath—and note how awareness moves towards or away from the sensations, becoming distracting, jumping here and there, then returning. With time the process of discerning awareness itself from its objects becomes easier.

A’t first its best to highlight’ or ‘focus on’ one sensory element at a time: breath, emotion, thoughts, etc. Eventually we can ‘take it all in’ and allow the mind to take in all the four foundations of our subjective experience. Focusing increases our concentration and clarity, as we’re only taking in one event; the mind becomes less jumpy; eventually this practice becomes easier than we might imagine at first. When it comes to ‘take it all in’ the whole inner realm we be crisper and less entangled than before we started our practice.

Knowing when we’re in each foundation allows us us to break down mind states into:
1) “negative mental states” = difficult emotions, limiting views about our capabilities, impulses that push us towards harmful behaviors.
2) “positive mental states” = positive emotions that counteract negativity bias, empowering beliefs, impulses towards compassion and care.

As we come to know these inner states, and incline towards the beneficial, we develop a place where awareness can reside, but from which we can also broaden awareness towards a larger sense of identity. This practice can be achieved by gradually reducing awareness of the sensations that confirm the outline of the body (sensations of skin, clothes contact, contact with chair, etc). We can replace these sensations, which are generally overly emphasizing by the brain's parietal lobes, with sound awareness, or we can simply blur the contact sensations enough to lose a sense of where the body ends and the outside world begins. We keep in mind the truth that everything we experience is not happening ‘out there,’ but entirely ‘in the mind.’

The goal is to remove the sense of “out” or “in” and know everything as simply arising and passing events; even mind states dissolve. We’ll become aware that maintaining an “inner self” that has to be protected and controlled is stressful; letting go of inner and outer, knowing its all the product of the mind, produces the greatest peace imaginable.

Comments

  1. Thank you kindly for this information! The elusive notion of 'self' has baffled me for awhile. Thanks again for not only publishing this insightful information, but providing it in such a way one can comprehend!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
    Our advocacy is to promote the positive effects of meditation, yoga and inner wellness.
    Help us, visit our website at http://www.iamthechangeiseek.org and also www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja. You can also download the app at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.goodbarber.iamthechange.
    Thank you and have a great day!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Is There Life on Earth?

Our ancestors knew that physical proximity, being seen in the eye of others via direct, face-t0-face contact was, and is, the core foundation of mental and physical health. Without the emotional co-regulation that community provides, our sympathetic nervous systems never switch off, we’re forever on guard. 
Remember: The human species survived and thrived because we lived in tribes where individuals labored not just for themselves, but the benefit of others; we didn't survive by outrunning predators, for we are without wings, shells or claws; we survive because we are pack animals, wired to connect, our primary means to survive threats and heal our wounds; without connection chronic stress is the inevitable result.
     Loneliness is not a spiritual state to seek, it’s a health risk: the bonds of community, emotional mirroring, acceptance heal our wounds, help us grow, produce states of ease and confidence. People in communities live significantly longer, healthier lives.
     Withou…

Integrating the Head with the Heart

Integrating The Head With The Heart
Summary of Insights Winter 2016 - Josh Korda


~

I’m an empowered Buddhist dharma teacher, which means I spend a lot of time addressing groups of students, in the course of annual retreats and two or three weekly classes around Manhattan and Brooklyn; however, the focal point of my life’s work involves providing one-on-one spiritual and psychological mentoring to individuals. What’s of central importance to my interpersonal work is emotion integration, by which I mean the practice of bringing one’s underlying, spontaneous, instinctive feeling states into ongoing conscious attention and decision making. Now, you may well wonder, why would anyone need help perceiving or assimilating emotions? Aren’t they readily apparent? However, I’ve found, over the course of working in depth with hundreds of individuals, that many of us live at estranged distances from our authentic feelings, depending on strategies of denial, numbing, and other repressive tools to main…

Imagination And Creativity as Spiritual Practice

It’s worth noting how few of childhoods’ freewheeling exercises—the entertainments that were once synonymous with youthful delight—journey through to adult life. To a great degree, we’ve moved, en masse, toward consuming entertainment via television, video games and social media rather than creating our entertainment: drawing, making pottery, dancing, singing, and other inventive endeavors. Those same kindergartners who sing, draw, dance, and engage in all kinds of play, will, in only a few years’ time, be streaming their content via iPad screens, which requires less imagination and effort. 
Consider the mind’s two dominant cognitive networks: the first is the default mode network (DMN), a mental state wherein we can visualize possibilities or solve problems, but where we often wind up speculating about unknowable future outcomes or ruminating about interpersonal conflicts. DMN is largely activated by subregions associated with inductive reasoning centers of the brain (the dorsal and m…