Let’s start first with the endpoint ... Nirvana. Yes, nirvana! As I said in my post, “Nirvana - It’s Right Before Your Eyes,” it’s not some spiritual heaven or impossible goal, but something in the here and now. As the teachings I cite make clear, it is a state of mind ... being free of the intervention of your ego thinking-mind. Then you are free of all fears and obstructions, free of all confused illusions, free of all cravings, able to experience things directly just as they are, and your mind rests undisturbed. You are at peace and are open to experiencing happiness.
Right away you probably feel some push-back. Yes, you want to be free of suffering, at peace and happy, but give up everything that has defined you? It's one thing to be free of fears, but free of your cravings? You now understand the fundamental challenge in walking the path!
And so, before going any further, it is important to affirm why you are embarking on this spiritual journey. This can't be lip service. It must come from your heart, your gut.
Ask yourself what is most important to you, what you value most. If the answer is not immediately "peace and happiness" then continue asking "why" regarding each answer you receive. Even if you initially answer something like "money" or "security," when you go deeper eventually you will arrive at the core, which is the yearning for peace and happiness.
This is important, because you will be met with lots of challenges and obstacles while walking the path, it is not a walk in the park, and your knowledge of why you are doing this helps both overcome those challenges, or if you are pulled from the path, get yourself back on it. Until you can affirm that your peace and happiness is what's most important to you, you will not go far on the path because your cravings and emotions will continue to dominate you.
An important note: Being at peace and happy, free of cravings, does not mean existing in some static space with no desires, no goals. As you will learn, what it means is having skillful desires and goals that come from a place of equanimity, not dissatisfaction or unhappiness. It's being able to say, "If it happens, great! If not, that's ok too."
A further important note: The ego thinking-mind is the part of your mind that places labels or value judgments on things. It is also the part of your mind that endlessly seeks answers about the future, “what if ... ,” like a gerbil in perpetual motion. It is not the part of the mind that decides how most efficiently to get from point A to point B, or weighs the merits of different procedures. These are factual questions, they have nothing to do with ego. Whereas value judgments and wanting are all about ego, our learned experience about how we feel, or how we are supposed to feel, about something. I wish I could come up with a different phrase that wouldn’t require this explanation, but so far I haven’t been able to.
So the question becomes very specific ... how does one become free of the intervention of your ego thinking-mind? I believe that there are three stages on this path: building a platform of serenity, coming to a deep understanding of the truths of the Buddha dharma, and, knowing that the choice is yours, complete working the 12 steps on the Buddhist path. The essential factor underlying all three is faith in the teachings of the Buddha.
The first stage is building a platform of serenity, which I describe in each of my books, so important do I feel this initial stage is. As I said, “Just as space explorers need to go to an orbiting platform before venturing into deep space, I felt I needed to create a platform of serenity upon which to build further explorations of my mind. For meditation to be transformative, I believed that not only is it important to create a physical atmosphere that is calm, it is important to have a psyche that, if not abidingly calm, at least is not in constant turmoil. Otherwise, try as I may to focus on my breathing during meditation, my mind would be bombarded with thoughts of the unfinished business of my life; my ego would not give me much rest.”
At the end of this stage, one begins to understand that things are the way they are because it's just the way it is. It has nothing to do with you. This awareness together with the various techniques I describe will bring the beginnings of serenity into your life.
Once we have achieved some semblance of serenity in our lives, we are ready to go deeper into ourselves and become aware of the truths of the Buddha dharma ... this is the second stage. Here faith becomes understanding. The following 8 steps have been discussed in various postings or in my books and are summarized here:
1. Awareness of breath: Whether you’re sitting on your meditation cushion or at some other point during the day, you need to be focused on your breath. Recite the mantra, “Breathing in, I’m aware I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I’m aware I’m breathing out.” And stay with it.
2. Become present: When you are focused on your breath, continue the mantra with, “Here there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today. There is only the present moment, and this is the only reality, all else is thought.”
When you are fully focused on your breathing, there is no interference from your mind, and so there is no yesterday, tomorrow, or today because putting yourself in those places all requires thought. And the present is the only reality; thought is not reality. We can’t imagine what something was like or what it will be like because we can’t with the power of our mind put ourselves in situations that are not real and know what the reality was or will be like. It is unknowable.
“Ah,” you say, “so that’s all I need to do to be free of my thinking mind?” Unfortunately, not so fast. One can’t focus on one’s breath 24/7. You need to build a whole alternative support structure for yourself to be free of the intervention of your thinking-mind for as many moments of the day as possible.
But what this momentary freedom provides is the clarity to proceed further and build that support structure.
3. Awareness that the source of our suffering is our cravings: When the Buddha set rolling the wheel of the dharma and for the first time set forth the Four Noble Truths, he stated that the origin of suffering is craving. Your suffering is not caused by what’s happening to you, what’s happening in the world, or even what happened to you in the past. It’s caused by how you react to those things, by your craving for things to be other than they are. It's caused by a lack of equanimity. (NOTE: One can work to change things, but it must come from a place of equanimity.) Freeing us from our cravings is thus at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. Awareness and acceptance of this truth is central if you want to end your suffering and experience peace and happiness. And what causes our cravings? See the next step.
4. Awareness that all 5 skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence: The 5 skandhas again are ... appearance of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness-ego. It is our attachment to these products of our ego thinking-mind, our learned experience, that cause our suffering, our cravings, our fears and anxiety, our doubts and confusion, our anger and negativity.
Initially, we learn from the teachings of the Buddha that all these aspects of our ego thinking-mind are of dependent origination, they only exist because we were taught, and thus they have no inherent or intrinsic existence. They are a product of our mind. They are not a reflection of reality. My favorite and easiest to understand example of this is how we feel about the weather. The weather is what it is; it is a fact. Yet one person with one background may label it negatively and feel terrible in a given situation, whereas another person with a different background will have positive thoughts about it and feel very comfortable in that very same situation. It’s all in the mind. The facts are not in dispute here, it is how we react to the facts.
Even when we come to understand this on an intellectual level, though, while it begins to provide us with some relief, we have not absorbed this understanding in our gut. It has not become our default way of observing the world. And so our learned way of looking at ourselves and the world around us continues to press upon us. But over time, as we reinforce this understanding, it slowly enters our bloodstream and becomes more and more our default.
5. Being one with all things: In many ways, this is similar to the next step, “experiencing things directly,” but it has a different emotional/spiritual aspect. In this step, aware of the emptiness of everything in your ego thinking-mind, you feel at one with all things ... whether it’s the weather, animals, trees, or people, even unkind people. It is often put that one affirms “not two.” And one develops unconditional loving kindness and compassion for all beings and things, including yourself.
We are all part of the same force of nature, and as for fellow humans, even unkind ones, we know that suffering is universal and that we all have the Buddha nature inside us. No matter how evil or powerful someone may be, that person suffers just as you do; indeed, the worse someone’s acts of evil are the greater the turmoil that person is likely suffering, hence the nature of his acts. We are indeed all one, all children of the same force of nature.
A strong practice that bring this state about is first to be one with yourself by opening your heart to embrace all aspects of your being and experience (see my post, "The Heart's Embrace). When you do this all internal struggle ceases and your see yourself through your heart, your true self. And it enables you to see others through your heart as well, experiencing them directly.
6. Experiencing things directly: Aware of the emptiness of all five skandhas, which is to say they are all just a product of our mind, and at one with all things, we become able to experience all things directly. This means to experience them as they are ... with dispassion, free of labels, and free of the intervention of our ego thinking-mind.
To be dispassionate is to neither romanticize nor demonize something. It is to view something impartially, free of bias ... objectively rather than subjectively. To be free of labels is to be free of the value judgments we place on things based on our learned experience (remember the weather example). To be free of the intervention of our ego thinking-mind is to be free of all the neuroses housed in that mind ... primarily our habit of constantly asking ourselves “what if ...” which brings on fear, anxiety, and frustration either because of what we foresee or because we have no way of knowing what will happen in the future.
This is to be aware that things are just as they are (see my post, "It's Just the Way It Is). When we are in that state, our mind rests undisturbed and thus we are open to receiving all that the present moment has to offer, embrace the moment, and find happiness in the moment. For when our mind rests undisturbed nothing in the world offends, and when no thing offends all obstructions cease to be ... all cravings, doubts and confusion, fear and anxiety, anger and negativity cease to be ... for things are things because of mind as mind is mind because of things. Both at source are emptiness.
7. Knowing what it’s all about: One of the bedeviling questions we ask ourselves when nothing seems to be going right in this world, which is quite frequently, is, “What is it all about?” And of course there is never a clear answer; we are subject to so many inputs from various sources in our culture and family.
But when you are present, aware that feelings and perceptions are all just a product of your mind, at one with all things, and experiencing things directly, you perceive that your only purpose in life is to offer others joy and to help relieve the suffering of others. You have nothing to prove. All the other purposes you have felt come from family or cultural inputs, not from within.
And beyond that, you perceive that the only things you need to experience peace and happiness is to open your heart and embrace all aspects of yourself, to offer others joy, be in contact with loved ones and friends, respect your body, respect your mind, be in contact with nature, and live within your means. All else is ego. Everything else you think you need to be happy are things that you have been taught to want, to need.
8. Peace and happiness are always available: Peace and happiness as I’ve just described is an experience that is available to all people in all circumstances. It is a state of mind. It depends on nothing other than you.
For example, even in extreme situations like living in poverty, or being terminally ill and in pain, or even being in a prison or worse, one can experience happiness. One can always offer others joy. One can always be in contact with loved ones and friends, not always physically, but mentally. One can always respect one’s body and mind. One can always be in contact with nature, even if it’s through a window or living in an urban ghetto. And one can always live within one’s means.
You come to understand that you have what you need, what is important to you every moment of every day. And so you free yourself to receive all that each present moment has to offer and to embrace each moment, experiencing happiness in each moment. As a result, you not only experience peace and happiness in the moment, but have faith that regardless what the world throws at you or how far you may stray from the path, all will be well because you will always return home to your true Buddha nature and be at peace and happy.
Now we are ready for the third stage. We have come to understand all the steps I’ve described and perceive their truth while we’re sitting on the cushion, focusing on our breath, meditating. But what happens when we get off the cushion?
Typically, our best intentions go out the window and we get pulled into the vortex of our ego thinking-mind and its dance of death. Our rediscovered Buddha nature is at this point still no match for the power and craftiness of our ego thinking-mind which has been the dominant force in our lives, in how we view ourselves and the world around us, for almost our entire lifetime. We have watered our Buddha seeds, but the roots have not yet had the time to ground us firmly.
So even though we know at this point that we have a choice, we are still at our ego thinking-mind’s mercy, and it has none. We know that if we really want to experience peace and happiness, there is only one answer. It is not to satisfy our ego-thinking mind, not to satisfy our cravings. It is to follow the path of the Buddha and be present, aware the five skandhas are all just a product of the mind and have no inherent existence, at one with all things, experiencing things directly and thus at peace. We should have compassion for our ego thinking-mind but decline to follow its lead and not accept its invitation to the dance of death.
But nevertheless, we are constantly pulled into its vortex, consumed with craving and fear, from which we sometimes only escape the next morning when we sit on the cushion and focus again on our breath and meditate. What is the way out of this conundrum?
In The Self in No Self and Scratching the Itch I describe the Fourfold Path to Freedom, which I learned from my Vietnamese Zen monk teachers. The last step of that path is surrendering your ego to your true Buddha nature, turning your will and your life over to the care of your true Buddha nature. Here we go beyond faith and understanding, becoming one with our true Buddha nature.
But as will be known to anyone who has been reading my blog posts, despite the fact that I took this step many years ago in what I would call a macro-spiritual way, I continued to be assaulted by various aspects of my ego, its cravings, and its fears and anxieties. And at times I was not aware of my ego thinking-mind arising, or if I was I didn’t always have the strength to just allow it to subside and instead was pulled into its vortex.
The answer I found to this conundrum is described in my post, “12 Steps on the Buddhist Path.” We must be aware and accept that our cravings are addictions. And the only way to free ourselves from them is to treat them as such and follow the well-proven path of 12 step programs, turning our will and our life over to the care of our true Buddha nature in a micro-spiritual way. Each fear, each craving needs to be named and faced before we can be free of it.
By following this path, you will by and large free yourself from suffering. But to be truly free, rather than, as they say in 12-step programs, be a "recovering addict," there is one final step to really seal the deal. And that is, through meditation, to realize the truths of the Buddha dharma, especially those contained in Step #4 of my 12 Steps (see also the Heart Sutra), from within yourself. Not from being taught, not by intellectual understanding, but by personal realization or knowing.
The path of the Buddha is a never-ending one, for the ego continues to coexist with our true Buddha nature. It is part of us. Nevertheless, by walking the path with discipline. we experience greater freedom from the known and thus more peace and happiness as our practice deepens. Take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.