In his book “Why Buddhism Is True; The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment,” Robert Wright discusses the Buddhist concept of not-self. The view of “not-self” is hard for westerners to appreciate. We think we’re in charge – we’re our very own CEO. In control our mind, the beliefs we hold; the world we see from our very own eyes.
The Buddha asks . . . where is the “Self” found? He walks us through the five “aggregates” which in Buddhism comprise the human experience. Can you find it here?
- The physical body – including the sense organs like the eyes and ears
- Basic feelings
- Perceptions – identifiable sights and sounds
- Mental formations – emotions, thoughts, inclinations, habits, decisions
- Consciousness – awareness; especially of the other four aggregates
Who’s in “control?”
If I’m Queen of “Me” … wouldn’t these aggregates obey my wishes?
If I were Queen of Me … my body would behave as instructed, I’d feel happy, joyous and free ALWAYS! My Queen would ensure my perceptions are noble and true; my emotions steady and pleasing. There would be no radical committee in my head hi-jacking my thoughts, inclinations and habits. No! My Queen would be consciously aware in all things.
If I were Queen of “Me.”
So why does my body fail me? Why are my feelings untidy and complicated? How is it that my habitual thinking creates warped perceptions? That insurgent committee in my head? – has far too much power over my thoughts. Would love to say I’m always conscious … except when I find myself home after a long day, and really don’t remember much of the ride.
Wright quotes Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula:
“… the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities, and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.”
Who the hell’s in charge then?
According to Wright, there is no boss; “if there is something that qualifies as a constant amid the flux, something that really does endure, essentially unchanged, through time, that something is an illusion: the illusion that there is a CEO, a king, and that “I”—the conscious I—am it.”
“… it’s a jungle in there, and you’re not the king of the jungle. The good news is that, paradoxically, realizing you’re not king can be the first step toward getting some real power.”
Using a “field of evolutionary psychology” that asserts “the mind is ‘modular’,” Wright proposes we look at how our brains evolved for the source of thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This psychological approach says people primarily behave in ways that ensure our genes get passed on to the next generation. The choices we make, the theory goes, are all a factor of evolution.
The primary mental modules are:
- “attracting mates
- keeping them
- enhancing your status (which can mean derogating rivals)
- taking care of kin
- tending to your friendships (which includes making sure they are reciprocal and that you’re not getting exploited)
- And oddly … looking forward to a reward” (aka beer, sugar, tobacco)
“When your mind is wandering it may feel … like it’s strolling along the landscape of modules and sampling them, indulging one module for a while, then eventually moving on to another one.” Or consider that “the different modules are competing for your attention, and when the mind “wanders” from one module to another, what’s actually happening is that the second module has acquired enough strength to wrestle control of your consciousness from the first module.”
“… your mind isn’t wandering within its own terrain so much as being hijacked by intruders.”
These thought modules become habit and “it takes practice to try to break this conditioning, to be mindful of the thought rather than be lost in it.” We all love a good story; and the story we tell ourselves is what we tend to believe.
What are my stories? I’d love for the “I can’t resist sweets” story module to be wrestled to the ground by the “I eat healthy foods” story module. Evolutionarily-wise … eating healthy should have lots of muscle! But NOOOOO … I allowed the sweets reward module to become The Hulk! How can I tame this monster?
Wright provides what he calls “A New Approach” to turn around what could be considered a self-discipline issue.
“… suppose you think of the problem as instead being this particular module that has formed a particular strong habit. How would you try to overcome the problem then? You might try something like mindfulness meditation.
“Judson Brewer, who did a study at Yale Medical School . . . said the basic idea is to not fight the urge. . .
“That doesn’t mean you succumb . . . it just means you don’t try to push the urge out of your mind. Rather you follow the same mindfulness technique that you’d apply to other bothersome feelings—anxiety, resentment, melancholy, hatred. You just calmly (or as calmly as possible) … examine the feeling. What part of your body is the urge felt in? What is the texture of the urge? Is it sharp? Dull and heavy?
“The more you do that, the less the urge seems a part of you; you’ve exploited the basis irony of mindfulness meditation: getting close enough to feelings to take a good look at them winds up giving you a kind of critical distance from them. Their grip on you loosens; if it loosens enough, they’re no longer a part of you.”
Wright provides an acronym to describe the technique: “RAIN”
R: Recognize the feeling
A: Accept the feeling
I: Investigate the feeling
N: Non-identification; and eventually Non-attachment
Naturally I experimented with my “sweets” addiction story! DAMN if it didn’t help! This reward module being The Hulk will probably require reinforcement – but I don’t doubt a healthier module will rise up with sustained mindfulness.
It’s impressive the way Robert Wright brought together the disciplines of Buddhist meditation, psychology and the science of habit. I do love a good mash-up!
This practical application of mindfulness meditation is a different kind of sweet – one that has the potential to improve my life in many quarters. Let the paradox of releasing the Queen – relinquishing control – give power to my something other.
“Let go or be dragged.” ― Zen Proverb