Coming to understand that your feelings and perceptions are just a product of your mind, that they have no basis in reality, is difficult. Or better put, we don't want to believe that.
Let me clarify. Facts are real; things happen. It's how we react to those facts, those events, that are a product of our mind and not real. For example, if one is unemployed or not making much money, that is a fact. To label yourself a failure, however, is not reality. That is a dependent thought that comes from family, peers, or the larger culture. The fact that your environment supports that label makes it no less illusory; it makes it seem very real and makes it harder to free ourselves from that perception, but it is still just a creation of our mind based on our learned experience.
As difficult as that may be to grasp, to understand that our ego-mind is not our true self, and thus all the emotions, judgments, cravings and attachments that flow from our ego-mind are not our true self ... this is beyond difficult, it is unsettling. All our lives we have identified ourselves with our ego-mind, and now we learn that the ego-mind is not our true self.
Because of its critical nature, I have written on this subject in both The Self in No Self (the chapter, “Behind the Clouds the Sky is Blue”) and in Scratching the Itch (the chapter, “Discovering the Emptiness of Thought”).
The easiest way to see the truth in this maxim that our feelings and perceptions are a product of our ego-mind is a practical one … look at the experiences of your everyday life. For example, think of almost any element of weather … heat, cold, rain, snow. These are very objective, measurable facts. Yet one person will thrive in a particular weather condition while another can’t stand it. Our reactions to the weather are entirely subjective and change from person to person.
What causes these differing reactions? It’s our learned experience. Whether it’s the weather we grew up with, whether it’s how our parents or peers reacted to the weather ... a variety of learned inputs form our individual response to the weather.
And this subjective view in turn causes many of us suffering. How often have we been in a weather situation that we didn’t like … whether high heat and humidity or unrelenting rain or snow … which had the psychological impact of making us miserable and depressed?
What has happened is that our learned experience has caused us to put mental labels on everything that we experience … labels that something is good or bad … which interfere with our perception of the true quality of things. When a sensory image goes from the eyes, nose, or ears to the brain, it is these labels that impact how the images are received. Our conscious mind does not receive them neutrally.
The point here is that heat, rain, cold, snow, etc. are neither good nor bad … they just are. And they are all an essential part of our environment, of our ecological system. Our perception of the “lousy” weather may seem very real to us, but it’s all a function of our mind and thus illusory, not a reflection of reality. Take away the labels and we can perceive the value and wonder of all types of weather, with the possible understandable exception of natural disasters. But even in the case of a disaster, having no labels and understanding that it's just the way it is changes how we react to it.
And so it is with all things in life. We cannot know the true nature of things because the labels in our mind interfere with how we perceive all things, including ourselves.
Especially ourselves. Most of us have been stuck with an image of ourselves which in important aspects is negative and which we therefore deplore or even loath. We don’t respect ourselves. Even famous and successful people suffer because there is part of their self-image that is insecure and which they loath. That is what drives them, creates the craving, to be so successful.
How do we come to understand that these feelings and perceptions are not our true self? The Buddha said, "If it causes you suffering, it is not you, it is not yours, it is not your self." Remember your work on Step #1, remember how much suffering you acknowledged was caused by your feelings and perceptions. They are therefore not your true self.
Having worked this step we thus realize that this image, this person, that we sometimes loathe is not our true self. It is an amalgam of emotions and perceptions that we have been taught, that have been imprinted upon us. by our life experiences. The same is true for how we relate to the world around us.
Affirming that this “person” is not our true self is an essential part of the healing process of this step. A monk taught me one way of affirming that this "person" is not my true self. He would recite his cravings and emotions, and after each, he would snap his fingers with a flourish and say, "Not me!"
Knowing and understanding this truth intellectually can take one far along the path. But ultimately, in order to progress further, one needs to experience this truth directly, from within oneself through meditation. As related in my post, "Proof of the Nature of Mind - Fear, Ego, and Buddha Mind," only then are the creations of our ego-mind known for what they are and they lose their power.
But if our ego-mind is not our true self, what is? It is critical to fill that sudden void with something positive. The answer to that question is that our true self is our true Buddha nature. And our true Buddha nature is our heart. That is again hard for many people to wrap their hands around.
Your heart is nothing but purity and peace and harmony. There is no fear, no hatred, no anxiety, no judgment, no craving in your heart. Those are all product of the ego-mind which have impressed themselves on the heart and burdened it, that have wounded you. Touch your heart, hold it lovingly, and know you have found your true self, you have rediscovered your home.
While I mouthed these words for years, I did not really connect with my true self. Perhaps because it seemed foreign. Then one day when I was meditating, I saw a photo of me as a smiling toddler in my mind’s eye. Happy, open, unwounded, smiling for no reason at all other than just being. I knew at that moment that was my true Buddha nature, and I wept, tears rolling down my cheeks.
Later I learned of an exercise which I encourage you to undertake to more completely connect with your true self. Imagine yourself in a room. And imagine finding your true self in that room; for me it was my smiling toddler. Say to it, “I’m coming home.” See it reach it’s hand out to you. Take that hand and let your true self lead you out of the room into the world.
Every time I am in some negative situation, and I feel that smiling toddler beside me and my hand in his, I feel his positive radiance course through me and outward. I am filled with light regardless what is happening around me.
Finally, we also acknowledge that all things are impermanent. As the Buddha taught, all things rise and fall. It is an inescapable fact of life. Permanence is illusion. And so we realize the futility of attaching to whatever we are seeking to attain because even if we attain it, we will suffer knowing its impermanence.
Bringing our acknowledgment that our feelings and perceptions are just a product of our mind into our daily lives, connecting instead with our true self, our heart, throughout the day, and being aware of the impermanence of all things, we enable ourselves to be present each moment, free of the intervention of our thinking mind. And thus be able to receive all that the present moment has to offer, be grateful, and find happiness in the moment..
For a fuller discussion of this topic, see either of the books referenced earlier in this post as well as other posts on being present.