The Magician in Your Head
There is a little speech I like to share with clients during our first one-to-one session, and it goes something like this:
“The reason you have ended up so off track in life is because your mind has been tricking you. Now, you can believe or disbelieve what I’m saying here, but to be honest with you, it doesn’t matter much either way because believing your mind is tricking you probably isn’t going to be enough to stop your mind from tricking you – in the same way knowing a trained magician is performing tricks doesn’t stop this person from fooling you. In order for you to stop being tricked by the mind, you need to understand the trick, and this is the goal of our mindfulness program”
The claim that our minds are deliberately tricking us is a bit simplistic (it is more like a misunderstanding), but this way of looking at things does give us an idea of what we are up against. There is something amiss in the way we are perceiving reality, and this is the source of most of our suffering.
How to See the Trick
In my experience, the insight into how the mind has been tricking us is most likely to arise by observing the mind for a sufficient amount of time. In order to be able to do this most effectively, we need to develop deep concentration through practicing meditation. This concentration serves two purposes – it illuminates the mind while also stilling mental processes enough so we can see clearly.
The deeper our concentration, the better we are able to see the magician at work. We are able to experience this increased clarity and mental stillness through letting go of certain obstacles to meditation including sleepiness, restlessness, doubt, desire, and ill-will (read more here) – the ‘opening up’ stage of the Hope mindfulness program is designed for dealing with the final three and the ability to deal with sleepiness and restlessness arises with practice.
The Tricks our Mind Plays
By observing the mind from deep states of concentration, we begin to gain insights that lead to permanent changes in our behavior and increase our sense of well-being. We get to understand how the mind has been tricking us and we lose the ability to be fooled by those tricks. There are three key insights that once we have fully experienced them lead to complete freedom from mental suffering and these are:
Life is in a constant state of change, yet we humans tend to want things to remain the same. This can put us in a state of conflict with reality. Life is never going to conform to our desire for stability – it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into building our sandcastle, eventually the tide is going to come and wash it away. It is only by fully accepting impermanence, not just believing it intellectually, but by living our life in accord with this insight that we can end our war with reality.
One of the most profound insights we gain through this practice is that we cannot be our thoughts – at least not in the way we generally think we are. We assume there is a person (me) doing the thinking, but this belief doesn’t hold up when we observe the mind in deep concentration. It comes as a shock to see how thoughts are just arising in much the same was as sound arises – rather than creating the thoughts, we are only observing them. This insight can feel disturbing at first, but once the full implication of it hit us, it leads to the ‘peace that passes all understanding’.
Non-self is not something I would expect anyone to just believe in – it has to be experienced. I paid lip-service to the idea of non-self for years because it was part of my identity as a ‘Buddhist’, but it was only when I set out to disprove it that I began to gain insight into it. Be skeptical. I ask you to ponder these questions though – if you really are your thoughts, why can’t you control them? What process do you use to create a thought (e.g. when I speak it involves movement in my voice box)? If you sometimes disown certain thoughts as not being ‘you’ (e.g. cravings), why should the other thoughts be you?
Nature of Suffering
The insight into the nature of suffering arises due to our understanding of non-self and impermanence. We now see how it has been our relationship with thoughts that is the real source of our suffering. Once we have gained this insight, we lose the ability to delude ourselves – we are free.