In your response to Trapped in Disappointment, you wrote at the end about planning for the future free of learned experience, free of those thoughts. How can you plan without thinking? Please explain.
How To Know What To Do
Dear How To Know What To Do,
The problem that arises when we plan for the future is that we use our thinking mind ... which is to say our ego mind ... to decide what we should do and how we should go about it. That is a problem because it is impossible to divorce our thinking mind from our learned experience, from our ego. It cannot look at something from a fresh, unbiased perspective. Thus when we make our plans, they are built on the very cravings and illusory perceptions that form our samsara. And so as experienced by Trapped by Disappointment, the cycle just continues and nothing really changes. We may have a new job, a new relationship, or live in a new location, but our samsara remains as it was. We cannot move forward because our thinking mind is trapped in the past.
By developing the practice of being present free of the intervention of thought, of experiencing the present without the intervention of our thinking mind, with the understanding that that is the only reality, everything else is thought and therefore an illusion, we arrive at a purer state of awareness. We are in touch with our true Buddha nature.
When you are in this state, you don’t “think” about things with your thinking mind, you observe with the awareness of your true Buddha mind. There are several lines from the ancient Chinese poem, Affirming Faith in Mind, which speak to the importance of this.
“If you would clearly see the truth,
discard opinions pro and con.
To founder in dislike and like
is nothing but the mind’s disease.”
“If mind does not discriminate,
all things are as they are, as One.
When all is seen with ‘equal mind.’
to our Self-nature we return.”
When you are able to see into yourself, into your true Buddha nature, free of your learned experience, your likes and dislikes, and of course all your cravings ... when you are able to see yourself and the world around you through the eyes of your true Buddha nature ... you will see intuitively, without the intervention of thought, what the right path is for you and how to go about it.
Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. All my life, including most of the period I’ve been walking the Buddhist path, I have planned for the future (I’ve always been big on planning) with my thinking mind. And so I was never really changing anything about myself, I was just changing the context in which I lived and worked. Whether it concerned personal relationships or jobs or whether to live in the country or the city, my decisions were all based on the very factors that caused my samsara, and so my samsara just moved with me to the new venue.
I may have grown in various ways because of these plans and achieved all kinds of good things, but I never made any headway at ending my suffering. Ideally though, when we plan for the future, it should be with an eye towards ending our suffering. That’s why my counsel is to plan without the use of your thinking mind. That said, I must in all fairness acknowledge that that’s not an easy feat.
Recently though, as a result of my own developing practice of being present without the intervention of thought, of experiencing the fullness of the moment, of being aware of myself and everything around me in a direct way, I came to an awareness at last of what I truly needed to do, or did not need, to experience peace, contentment, and happiness. This awareness rests on the foundation of my acceptance of my life as it is and my faith that if I live each moment well ... that is, in accord with the Five Precepts ... the future will take care of itself. What I found was that I needed to:
1. Spend most of my time in the company of loved ones and friends - Being in a nurturing environment is one of our Four Basic Needs (see my book, The Self in No Self). It’s an elemental need not just for humans, but indeed for most animals. Regardless of what is happening in the larger world, being able to feel safe and to laugh and love within ones personal circle is critically important.
2. Respect my body : stay physically fit - To have respect for oneself is to have respect for all aspects of oneself, including ones body. Staying physically fit is being respectful of one’s body, as well as taking care of one’s health. This is not to be confused with the current cultural obsession with physical fitness. This is a craving which stems often if not mostly from a lack of equanimity, from a need to be admired and acknowledged; it stems from insecurity. This is an example of a Right desire that can be turned into an unskillful desire and a craving if the origination of the desire is not equanimity.
3. Respect my mind : keep my mind engaged - The motto of the United Negro College Fund is, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Our brain, our ability to think and analyze, is what differentiates humans from their animal ancestors. To have respect for oneself is to use it, to stay mentally fit. But it’s not just keeping our mind engaged that’s important, it’s what it’s engaged in. To engage my mind in something that’s not in keeping with the Five Precepts would not meet this need and indeed would add to my samsara. One has but to read the papers every day to see examples of people whose minds are very engaged, but who are engaged in efforts which are harmful to their fellow man and thus quite unaware increase their samsara.
4. Whatever I do, do it in a way which offers others joy or helps relieve their suffering - Throughout the day, we have an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives, even if just in a small way, and thus make a difference in our own lives. In our work, interacting with others in a way that offers them joy brings joy to ourselves. In our daily activities, whether it’s going grocery shopping or anything else, we have the opportunity again to either offer joy or be an anonymous cipher. This is the Five Precepts in action.
5. Be in touch with nature - As I explained in my first blog post, “If This Is Practical Buddhism, Why the Pastoral Setting?” in nature we see reflected the essential truths of the Buddha dharma ... that all things are impermanent and changeable, that all things rise and fall, and the oneness of all things. And thus it is in nature that we can find inspiration. This doesn’t necessarily mean living in nature, or surrounded by nature. It does meaning having easy access to nature and remaining in touch with it. It could be a simple garden oasis in an urban backyard or it could be a nearby nature preserve. It could not be, however, a caged bird or other animal who is constrained in a way nature did not intend, because then I would not be in touch with nature; I would instead be in touch with man’s subjugation and use of nature.
6. Live within my means and thus be financially secure - For most people, being financially secure means capitulating to out culture’s craving for always more money and more things. What I’m talking about here ... living within one’s means ... is a decidedly counter-cultural, almost subversive, perspective. One of the Four Basic Needs is security, and certainly a key aspect of that is financial security. But here I’m not talking about how much money one has, I’m talking about one’s attitude towards money and how one lives one’s life. There are many poor people around the world whose lives are far happier and content than many in our culture with great wealth because they do not crave what they don’t have; they have not yet been infected with the virus of Western capitalism and consumerism. (Granted, the numbers of such people are growing smaller with each year as our culture spreads into further and further corners of the world.)
ALL ELSE IS EGO. Even though I have spent most of my professional life trying with honest intent in some way to make this world a better place and help relieve the suffering of others, all of my efforts have been tainted by my ego-mind, by my thinking mind. Everything I have done, regardless of its good intent and its often good results, has been driven equally strongly by my craving to be accepted, to be admired, to be loved. And so regardless of the venue in which I worked, my desires were unskillful desires because of their at least partially unskillful origination in a lack of equanimity.
This statement neither denigrates what I have done nor myself. It is just an honest aware statement that my samsara was a major factor in what I did and therefore I was not at peace or happy, regardless of what I accomplished. When I first wrote this my ego-mind said, “Aha, see, if it wasn’t for my influence you wouldn’t have done these good things.” But I know that that is not the case. If I had been able to ignore my ego-mind, to observe without the intervention of thought, I am quite sure that I would still have undertaken these tasks because they were the Right thing to do.
“But,” the reader may say, “what if one doesn’t have any friends or loved ones, what if one has a physical disability, what if one is retarded, etc.” Regardless of one’s state, one could pursue similar goals with acceptance and equanimity.
For example, if one has no friends or loved ones, it is often because we have, due to our past negative learned experience, distanced ourselves from others. If we can free ourselves from this learned experience, we will be able to achieve human interaction that seemed impossible before. If we are physically disabled, we can treat ourselves with respect and keep that part of our body that is not disabled physically fit. Likewise if we are mentally challenged, there is much we can do that maximizes the use of our mind; the relatively recent transformation in the lives of people with Downs Syndrome is a perfect case in point.
And so it is with all things. It is the attitude of us towards ourselves, which usually means the attitude of others towards us which we have absorbed and internalized, that keeps us down. Regardless of our status in life, we must free ourselves of that learned experience in order to be free, at peace, and happy. It is only when we can see our ego-mind working in all things that we do and think that the door is open to our finding a different way of pursuing life ... one that will bring us peace, contentment, and happiness.
So meditate and find the answer for yourself to the question, what do you need to do to find peace, contentment, and happiness. Even if you cannot be totally free of your thinking mind, your ego, be aware of its impact as much as you can. When it arises, and it surely will, acknowledge it, have compassion towards it and where it's coming from, but say that you are looking deep within yourself for guidance and listen to the voice of your true Buddha nature. (For more on this, see my blog post, "Not Engaging Your Thoughts.")