So, you’re naked and you’re outside.
I don’t know why you’re naked; maybe it’s hot out? Maybe you don’t have any clean clothes because you just don’t feel like doing the laundry. Maybe you’re drunk off your ass, who knows?
Anyway, you’re doing whatever, and you see a fly zipping around, and you casually swat it away. A few seconds later, it lands on your nipple or your dingus. Naturally, you get pissed off, swat it away, and maybe jump around a bit while shouting obscenities.
Now you’re in a bad mood, and you don’t feel safe being naked outdoors anymore, so you go in, put some clothes on, and binge-watch Dexter while smoking cigars and drinking bottom-dollar gin before going on FB to troll some conservatives on a We Worship Trump page. One of those people is already super-stressed—they’re having problems work and home—so they snap and then beat someone to death with a tire iron in a fit of road rage.
Alright, let’s use mindfulness to reverse this whole scenario, and concentration and skillful view to look at what was actually going on beneath it. This isn’t theoretical, you can investigate any experience and see something like this happening for yourself at any time.
OK, so you’re doing this and that outside after seeing a fly. Now, you feel a light pressure on your boob or Johnson. That contact (touch) arises from your skin and the fly coming together. That particular touch doesn’t have a valence—it’s neutral, no pain or pleasure. In fact, sometimes a fly walking on your skin can even tickle.
Next comes the quest to understand. The mind goes into a long, complicated Q&A process with itself, relying mostly on memory to make sense of what’s going on. It silently asks, “What is this?” Without even looking down, you access your working memory and understand that it’s a fly (Remember, you’d just seen one flying around a few seconds ago). So that memory and the present experience become associated with each other.
Next, the mind asks, “What’s happening?” Well, there’s a fly on your or pecker or papilla. This creates another contact with another sense organ: the mind. The same way the skin and fly came together, the mind and understanding come together. This understanding comes packaged with a feeling, in this case it’s revulsion.
That’s because we know what flies are, what they do, and the nasty crap they land on. Also, we’re naturally protective of our erogenous zones. They’re sensitive areas, and we’re sensitive about them.
Now, the mind asks, “What do I do?” This is volition. The mind feels compelled to react in a certain way to achieve a goal. Sometimes we’re pushed to engage in approach-behavior, which means we try to create or prolong some kinda contact; sometimes we’re pushed to engage in avoidance-behavior, which means we try to deny or interrupt some kinda contact.
In this case, the goal is to relieve that sense of disgust by breaking contact with the fly: avoidance-behavior.
Now the mind cues up shock or anger to bring that behavior into being. So there’s another contact with the mind, and another understanding: I’m angry. Then, finally, there’s action: swatting the fly away and performing frantic evasive maneuvers.
This action, done out of anger, influences our state of mind, our mood. Mood makes reality. Mood provides the particular buffet of thoughts and feelings that we can choose from at any given moment. When we’re in a bad mood, most of the dishes are crap. The steak’s burnt, the mashed potatoes are runny, and the coffee you ordered is clearly instant.
When we’re in a good mood, our minds offer us good food for thought.
Mood and overall temperament are even what colored that entire experience from the get-go. If I have an easy-going temperament and/or I’m in a decent mood when the fly lands on me, my revulsion is going to be less, so my anger will be less too, and my reaction is gonna be less tumultuous, so the mood that action creates is gonna be less destructive as well.
If I have an uptight temperament, or if I’m already in a shitty mood, then the opposite’s gonna happen: I’m gonna experience more revulsion, anger, and then I’m gonna overreact. This is gonna make it more likely that I’m going to be in a bad mood when I’m around flies, because the same way that I figured out it was a fly on my ding-dong—thanks to associating the experience with memory—I’m gonna associate flies with the experience of one landing on a sensitive part of my body and the feelings of revulsion it caused.
So, then whenever I’m around flies, I’m gonna feel disgusted, and that’s gonna trigger that avoidance-behavior again, which is gonna trigger anger.
Wrapped up in all of this is a sense of taking things personally. In Buddhism, that’s called consciousness, or vijnana. Because contact wasn’t just contact, it was my contact happening on my body. The feelings were my feelings, the understanding was my understanding, and the disgust, anger, and the reaction were mine too.
By claiming dominion over the experience, I’ve made it into something vastly more complicated than it is, and I’ve done that—paradoxically—by making it seem simpler than it is. Because ordinarily, we’re not aware of this process behind experience, we’re just aware of the end result because it all happens so fast.
It’s kinda like how we’re not aware of the chef making our dinner at a restaurant. We’re not usually hanging out in the kitchen, watching all the ingredients come together as a meal; we just see it when it’s brought to the table.
If we could see all the ingredients coming together, though, then we’re 1) going to appreciate the end result a bit more, and 2) be less inclined to thinking of it as food, but as a process of ingredients coming together.
When we see it that way, it’s harder to think of it as ours. When we see life and ourselves as processes, it’s easier to not take things personally.
A lot of the old books recommend practicing tranquil abiding meditation before insight/mindfulness meditation, because tranquil abiding clears the mind. It’s hard to see all of this happening if our minds are muddy. Also, as we move through the jhanas and grow more and more at ease, the mind starts to slow down, and that makes it easier to spot.
The example in this post was based on something that happened to me this morning: a fly landing on me. Don’t worry, it didn’t land on my penis… thankfully. But everything else in the example was true to life. After the event, I used mindfulness to recall the experience and look at everything that went into it. When we’re tranquil and clear, we don’t have to investigate a memory like that, we can see it in real time—that’s insight.
I never recommend practicing insight or mindfulness meditation without either preceding it with tranquil abiding or practicing them both at the same time a la shikantaza or silent illumination practice.
This whole post was about dependent arising, a.k.a, emptiness, our nature or way of being. But it goes beyond our minds and bodies. Dependent arising is a natural law that’s at work in all things, all situations, at all times.
That situation with fly arose from contact, and that contact was made possible by the fly and I both having minds and bodies. We both only have minds and bodies because the universe exists, and the universe only exists because it was possible for it to arise out of the Big Bang.
That fly landing on me and the arising contact was no different than sunlight and rain landing on a seed, thus prompting the arising of the flower. The personal arises from the impersonal. The being arises from being, and at the same time, it’s never separate from being.
My response to contact is like the wind scattering more seeds from that flower. The quality of my response determines the quality and quantity of those seeds, which determines the quality of the flowers that will rise from them.
This is why morality is important. If I could respond to that fly gently and passively, embodying the neutrality of the initial contact, then I’m planting decent seeds, crafting skillful habits. So, the next time I see a fly, I’m not going to be filled with anger and revulsion. That brings me one step closer to well-being.