An aspect of the Buddha’s teachings that makes them distinctly different from world religions, is that his main focus was on the importance of awareness. Awareness is the main healer of the split in consciousness that every human experiences, in early childhood, with formation of ego, the identification with being a separate “me”, distinctly different from all other life. Awareness heals that split. Awareness is closely related, if not the same thing, as love—unconditional love, the big love.
What the Buddha called right action, right speech, right livelihood, are not moral injunctions at all, but are awareness exercises meant to foster an atmosphere of peace in the mind, resulting in a mind less cluttered with regret and guilt. When followed, those recommendations promote a more harmonious society in which people are not stealing from each other, or killing each other. On Earth, we are very far from that kind of utopian idea, aren’t we? Meditation practice creates a situation in the immediate moment that promotes more awareness of self. The Buddha taught a manual of self-inspection, without judgment, that allows us to look closely at how we behave in the world, and how our minds work—without condemning ourselves. I’ve always thought that to be a very pure aspect of the teaching. It’s very reasonable and makes sense. When we get involved beyond the surface of the teachings and begin to practice the methods that he recommended, the workings of our mind become more visible. I’m thinking, particularly, of Vipassana meditation, which is oriented toward developing awareness of our experience in the moment, in the mind and the body, without the need to make up stories about the experience—the practice of bare attention. Bare attention, just noticing things as they are, is also called mindfulness.
Have you noticed that we’re always talking to ourselves? Even if we don’t listen very much, sub-vocally and subconsciously, it’s pretty continuous. We go around talking to ourselves, inside. We talk to ourselves constantly. Each of us has particular favorite topics that we talk about. We might talk to ourselves about our relationship life. We might talk to ourselves about our health. We might talk to ourselves about other people and what they need to do to make the world better. We might talk to ourselves about our home situation or about nature. We might talk to ourselves about what we need to do that’s undone. We may talk to ourselves secretly about what we hate and what we love. So many topics, it’s unlimited. But the fact is the talk is going on all the time, verbally, sub-vocally or in images. No matter what we’re doing in the world, the talking is going on, and very often the topic is not related to what we’re actually doing at the moment. There are two main voices: the parental “top dog”, giving directions, and the “underdog”, the get off my back, I’m doing my best I can voice. They have discussions back and forth, the constant nagging of that talking as sub-vocal speech. And then, when we’re alone at times, we find ourselves talking out loud. Then we think: Oh my god, I’m talking to myself out loud. If you go to a big city in the United States these days, you run into people on the streets having running conversations out loud with themselves, and hardly aware of anything external that’s happening around them, because they’re so involved in their inner conversation. A large part of what we call the reality of our lives is nothing more than what’s being said about life as the talking in our heads. Of course it’s all about us; it’s self-referential. It has to do with the need to be safe and to survive, to protect oneself. Talking to oneself is a way of dealing with the reality of emptiness, the reality of loneliness, isolation, and the realization of: I’m here alone. Talking to oneself is a way of being somewhat comfortable with being here, because there is, at least, someone to converse with then. As long as that’s going on, what’s not directly being felt is the fact of aloneness: Oh my God, I don’t know what’s happening here, really, and I don’t know who I am. This all seems very dicey and there’s the possibility of getting hurt, and the possibility of not being loved and making mistakes and not doing it right. Doing it right is a big part of all the talking—about how we can do it right. Although what “it” is, or what “right” is, are not really explained.
We use talking to ourselves as a way of dealing with the fear that comes from the ego finding itself alone in empty space, without foundation, without any real proof of its existence. So, we find favorite topics and we talk about them constantly. Very often we talk about the past, mulling over what’s happened—a lot of reminiscing and visually re-experiencing past events. We examine and analyze them and look for the lessons in them, wondering how it could have been different or what we did that screwed it up, or about what we did that was wonderful—going over and over the minutia of the past.
The reason I’m even speaking about this is that for most of us, the listening to the talking is so natural, second nature, that we think it is truly what’s happening in our life. We really believe in what’s being said and consider it to be quite important. In fact, it has become a very vital part of who we are. We’re familiar with the one who’s talking in our head—that voice or those voices. In a way, they’re quite comforting, because when we’re really listening to them, we’re not quite so afraid. We think that what’s being said in the mind is who we are. But, listening to the constant talking inside actually makes the problem worse. It doesn’t solve anything, never has, never will. Instead, the more we listen to the talking in the head, the more alienated we become from the world, because listening to it is isolating. The voice that’s talking to us inside our head becomes our best friend, our companion. The more we cozy up to that voice and believe it to be the truth, the more the outside world becomes something just to manipulate and to manage. That friend in the head teaches us how to scheme, and build emotional defenses that can be very successful for awhile: Well, I’m a really strong person. I know how to take care of myself; so therefore, I don’t have so much to worry about. I can always take care of myself. I’ve done it so far and I will from now on. I’ll be okay. Besides, someone’s taking care of me. That’s a talking in the head that’s really quite comforting and common. Another one might be: Well, I’m not so strong and my life has really proven that I’m somewhat of a weak person, and I tend to be sick and I have illnesses. So, therefore, I need to be careful of how I take care of myself and I don’t want to expect too much of myself and I don’t want others to expect very much of me either. So, I’ll keep listening to how weak and how troubled I am. All of those conversations are oriented toward filling up the void with noise. There isn’t anything in that conversation that really brings ultimate understanding, nor is it very helpful in solving big problems.
The main insights that have occurred in our lives haven’t come through voices in the head. They arrive spontaneously and are experienced directly. Einstein’s discoveries didn’t come from
thinking; he said that clearly himself. He loved the time between wakefulness and sleep, the intermediate twilight time where everything is kind of dream-like. That’s when information came for him—directly, not through the conversation in the head.
The Buddha’s teachings, if taken seriously and put into practice, bring us to the realization that this inner conversation is continuous. It gets very loud when distractions on the outside are minimized. In a retreat setting, where there are not the normal diversions, but an open space, a huge silence, that talking gets very loud: I’m gonna go crazy. I have to stop this. My God, I had no idea. It’s a universal experience. When the content of the story—sex, money, power, self esteem, how others think about us—is no longer so important to us, we realize that the thinking, itself, is the distraction. But if it were to stop, what then? Who are we when we’re not thinking? What’s here when inner dialogue isn’t the focus?
In the grand history of spiritual practices which are oriented toward expanding awareness, there are classically three approaches. There is the body-oriented type of practice: yogas, extreme sports, austerities such as radical fasting—stress situations for the body. Other aspects of the practice can be more mental and deal with all the cacophony in the mind, by using thought itself. Mantra is repetition of a thought or a phrase, like a prayer, or something subvocal that goes around and around and over and over again, that when focused on, can mask the talking. The same is true for chanting practices. The third kind of practice is devotion or bhakti, where a figure becomes a beloved object like a Jesus or Mohammed, living or dead. Some figure is considered venerable, and the practitioner focuses adoration on that figure, to the exclusion of everything else in the mind. It’s not leading into the past and it’s not running into the future solving problems. It’s a “here and now” practice.
All of the practices really are oriented toward taking attention away from the conversation in the head to something else: a feeling in the body, a mantra repetition in the mind, a loving feeling towards some savior. All of it is engineered to deal with the discourse that’s happening constantly in our minds. It’s that simple. The ignorance that becomes our suffering is most often the result of our thinking process, much less often from what we experience directly. That’s what the Buddha saw. His whole orientation toward teaching was for people to look at what is actually happening, and how we suffer. When we actually believe all that’s going on in our mind is truth, we’re going to suffer, because the talking mind is adversarial, it’s alienating, it’s narcissistic, it’s unreal, and it separates us from the greater whole. I’m speaking, of course, of the ego self.
The ego self is the aspect of the mind that does all the talking and the thinking, to the exclusion of the open awareness of the greater whole—openness itself, aliveness itself. So, in the practice, we become more and more aware of the need to do something about the chattering. If the people around us could hear what’s going on in our heads, or if we could hear what’s going on in everybody else’s head, we would scream and run out of the room, because it’s just total madness—having nothing to do with anything—except perhaps that this occurrence is the curriculum that we need to study.
So the practices are very specific ways of leading our attention away from the inner conversation that fascinates us. It’s no small thing because the habit is really strong. We can only do it for moments at a time, because we get scared. We get really mightily scared when we’re not listening to that talking, because the possibility opens up of not knowing anything, of not having any ground on which to stand, of opening into the great nothingness. The only thing that separates us from the “great nothingness”, the great unknown, is the discourse happening in the head all the time.
When we practice meditation, we can actually begin to enjoy what it is that’s running through our mind: Oh, look at that thought. Where did that come from? There are also those moments of: Wow, who’s thinking this up? Where did that thought come from? Bizarre things, irrelevant things. It’s actually kind of fun. But when the fascination with the talking loses its power, we begin to listen to something else. We can shift attention and listen to something that isn’t quite so “self” oriented, that is a little bit more invoking of the greater world, the greater universe, the unknown, that which is divine, the vastness. At that point, the practice has reached another level of subtlety, and it becomes the practice of listening, itself. Not to thought, but the practice of listening into the silence out of which all of the thinking comes, out of which everything comes—all of our experience. We become more and more adept at listening into the silence—the awareness of the experience of “being here”, itself, without all the stories about it. The awareness of what’s truly here makes itself known. We become listeners of nothing-ness. In that way, just as the habit has grown of listening to the chatter and the gossip in the mind, the habit gradually grows of listening to the greater emptiness, the openness, that which we call God, that which is the greater context. It is the river of life itself arriving in the present moment, arising here and now—not through thought, but directly.
We have fear of being in the present moment. We touch it briefly from time to time, and then run away into the thinking, into the familiar. The more we are aware of the present moment, the more we’re involved in the mystery of our lives. Life itself, the magic of being here becomes foreground. It’s not the same thing as listening all the time to the gossip. It’s quite different, and requires listening deeply.
Listening deeply is listening beyond the talking mind, into the emptiness where there is no boundary, where there is no longer opinion, judgment, thought, and no longer fear. Fear always comes with the talking. Fear and thought are inextricably related; they go together. When we’re not caught up in our thinking, there is no fear. Fear is always future oriented. Even in an instant of being threatened, we fear the future, what’s going to happen.
practice, when one surrenders into listening closely and carefully and
sacredly to the moment, there is no longer fear. Awareness becomes foreground.
But then, fear jumps in and pulls us back into the discourse, commenting
on everything. The ego self calls us back to live in the every-day,
relative, conditioned world. We will always remain ignorant if we don’t
realize the greater possibility. When we tune into that openness, we
become vessels of love. We become conduits of compassion without even
having to work at it. We just naturally are that. We open to the spirit
which enlivens everything. We learn to listen deeply.