The mind not only makes us sick, it also cures. – Aldous Huxley
One person can pick up a chainsaw and carve an intricate sculpture with it. A five-year-old could pick up the same chainsaw and experience an entirely different outcome.
This is essentially the situation we’re all in. Everything we are has a purpose, a utility. The body moves through the world guided by feelings, perceptions, volitions, and attention. It’s a tool that we use to attain incentives that are conducive to survival, reproduction, and well-being.
Volition moves the body based on the feelings conveyed through the senses. Habits, thoughts, and urges direct the body toward the pleasant and away from the unpleasant (the pleasure-principle). Perception exists to fine-tune this process; it helps us to make rapid-fire decisions based on forethought, insight, and past experiences. Attention zeroes in on what volition finds relevant from moment-to-moment which makes it easier for us to attain our goals.
When we (the aggregates) live without purpose, we fuck everything up. When we live with a purpose that contradicts the facts of life, we fuck everything up. The Path encourages us to learn how to use ourselves to our advantage. We can use fire to light our way, or we can use it to self-immolate.
The Buddha said, “All the world’s ablaze.” Each being, consumed by longing and fixation, is running in circles while engulfed in flames.
But, we don’t have to be ablaze. It’s just that a lot of the basic skills we learn we pick up by observing others. That’s fine when it comes to things like speaking, walking, and tying our shoes. But there are other skills—like thinking—that we can’t learn from others because we can’t witness another person’s mind.
In Buddhism, there’s a list of traits called the Seven Factors for Awakening. Each living being possesses these Factors. When our minds are tamed, mature, and skillful, they’re unwavering:
When our minds are untamed, immature, and unskillful, they waver and become:
- Mind wandering & indecisiveness
- Ignoble striving
- Conditional well-being
These Factors can either make or break our affinity with understanding the facts of life because, when the mind is tamed and mature, these Factors support wisdom and compassion. When the mind is untamed and immature, they support ignorance and selfishness.
Untamed, the mind and body abide by the pleasure-principle. We become destructive tools aimed at satisfying desires by grasping onto people, places, ideas, and things. We reject impermanence and ignore dependent arising.
Tamed, the mind and body abide by the reality-principle. We become creative tools aimed at satisfying desires by living in accord with the facts of life. We accept impermanence and pay attend to the arising, peaking, declining, dissolving, and non-arising of all things.
Samatha meditation uses concentration (applied, re-applied, sustained, and unified) to transform a mind that wavers and sways between extremes into a mind that doesn’t. A wavering mind can’t grok the facts of life; it’s perpetually indifferent or prone to a shallow understanding of them.
Even the best of tools are inadequate in unsteady hands. Even the most skillfully plotted map is useless if someone doesn’t know how to read it.
That’s why early Buddhism stressed skillful intention, effort, speech, action, livelihood, mindfulness and calm abiding first, using the teachings on the facts of life as an inspiration rather than a set dogma to be accepted or rejected. Because a busy mind isn’t attentive and receptive enough to do the work that insight meditation requires.
By moving through the four jhanas, the Factors for Delusion are slowly transformed into the Factors for Awakening. With them as a support, we can investigate the facts of life without running into roadblocks or misunderstanding them.
It always pays to be mindful of what’s supporting the experience we’re having.
That’s why, out of a calm abiding context, insight can never truly be trusted because it has afflicted habits as its support. If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter how astounding or earth-shaking the insight might be, it’s probably not gonna take root, and putting down strong, wise roots is what this is all about.
Anyway, the point is that the tools we were born with can either help or harm. We can trade our never-ending inner-monologue for watchfulness, never wasting a thought on useless BS. We can trade elucidating daydreams for crisp analysis of what’s actually going on here and now. Instead of striving to accumulate fleeting pleasantries, we can strive to gain a foothold on an inner poise that doesn’t collapse when faced with the slightest breeze.
We can place our well-being in the hands of things as they are, rather than shackling it to fantasies of permanence. All the other Factors can keep tranquility from slipping into laxity, and we can transform that frustrated fixation we all live with into a finely tuned concentration. Finally, we can turn defeated apathy into a Victor’s unassailable peace.