The purpose of Buddhist practice in a word is to change how we have habitually reacted to our life experiences, changing an emotional reaction to a dispassionate response, and thus not suffer. The key is to free yourself from the control of your ego-mind.
The first step in this process is being aware that our emotions are a just product of our mind, that they are not a reflection of reality. Let me explain this with some real-life examples.
Facts have a basis in reality. Labels don’t. For example, if one is unemployed or not making much money, that is a fact. To label yourself a failure, however, is your ego-mind’s take on that 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. One could just as easily say, for example, things just didn’t work out; that would be a dispassionate response, very different from the pejorative phrase, “failure.” Same facts, different perception, strikingly different emotional outcome.
Another example is the weather. Heat, cold, rain, snow are 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.
What causes these differing reactions? It’s again our learned experience.
And this subjective view in turn causes many of us suffering. How often have we experienced weather 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 ego-mind has 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.
The point is that heat, rain, cold, snow, etc. are neither good nor bad … they just are. Our perception of the “lousy” weather may seem very real to us, but it’s all a function of our mind and thus illusory. Take away the labels and we can perceive the value and wonder of all types of weather.
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 them.
Especially and most poignantly ourselves. Our self-image develops from our interaction with family, especially during our formative years, and later with peers and culture,. Perversely, our self-image is formed by these external actions and valuations; our view of ourselves does not flow from within.
For most of us, the resulting self-image contains negative aspects that we often deplore or even loath. We don’t respect ourselves. We are insecure beings.
How does this hurtful state of affairs come about? It is the result of human nurture, not nature, and it begins almost from the moment of birth.
Birth, being thrust out of the womb, has to be a scary experience. When an animal is born, it is typically licked all over by its mother and is always next to the mother’s warmth until weaned. A baby in our culture is not so fortunate.
Babies need to feel secure and nourished, not just when it’s convenient for us, but 24/7. But when a baby cries, his parents are often busy, or they’ve often been told it’s good for the baby to cry … like it’s never too early to teach someone the hard fact of life that you can’t always get what you want. And so the baby feels unwanted. Every time this situation repeats itself, that feeling of not being wanted is strengthened. This is not good for the baby’s development.
When the ego develops around age 2 or 3, that feeling of being unwanted is given a label … insecurity. From that feeling of insecurity, which is the mother of all our neuroses, come feelings of fear and anxiety. This becomes our default emotional reaction, throughout our life, when we want or desire something badly. Surely you have experienced such fear or anxiety.
But it’s not only acs of the omission that impact us, the actions of those we depend on or look up to have a huge impact. When children are repeatedly called bad, stupid, lazy, fat, ugly, or similar names, something that many children experience, they come to believe it because they both value the source it’s coming from and are too insecure to fight back, too insecure to do anything other than meet those expectations in the hope of being loved. And so little Johnny comes to believe that he is bad or stupid and will carry that burden throughout his life.
Also from our learned insecurity comes the habit of labeling everything we experience in a way that judges it as either good or bad. We do this because it gives us a sense of power, the power to judge. “I think this is good; I think this is bad.” The power of self-righteousness. As an emotional bonus, if we feel something is bad, we feel superior to it. What an antidote to insecurity.
This is how your ego-mind develops. This is how our brain becomes wired. The ego-mind thinks it is protecting us with its emotions and perceptions, but instead they are the cause of our suffering.
It is often said that we are not in control of our emotions; that is because they are a product of our ego-mind and we are in its control.
Ah, but you say, what about the rich and famous, the powerful? My friends, don’t be fooled. Even famous and successful people suffer because there is a part of their self-image that is insecure. They may have been told their entire life how smart or talented they are, but they know how precarious their position is and how fast and far they could fall. That is in fact what drives them, creates the craving, the obsession, to be so successful.
Being aware of this truth, that all our emotions, judgments, and cravings are a product of our ego-mind and are the cause of our suffering, is an essential part of the healing process. Think about it carefully.