I’m becoming increasingly convinced that most of the depression and unhappiness we experience in this world comes from living in an illusory state of mind. If I could take most depressed people and hit a button on the side of their head which cleared their mind to a state of peace, leaving them in a restful present, without distraction, I’m fairly confident that that alone would solve most of their problems. It wouldn’t solve physical ailments such as headaches, or bodily sickness, or aches in one’s joints, but it’d solve most other causes of unhappiness.
I say all this from firsthand experience. Rewind time back ten years ago, and I was a very unhappy person, no matter where I was or what I was doing; I just couldn’t escape this heaviness. I’d feel bursts of relief, but then it’d come back on me and I had no idea how to get rid of that dark feeling. You know, the opposite of that light, joyous feeling. I just felt heavy and burdened, and I didn’t even know what was going on. What was it? I didn’t know, and in that confusion I tried to fix it by changing my life circumstances, thinking if I change my environment to some different state, you know, a different job, relationships, etc., then by osmosis or something that new better life would seep into me. It didn’t.
Then once I hit rock bottom, I began to reexamine spirituality, which got me into meditation. After a few years of deep self-reflection and looking into the nature of my consciousness, I learned exactly what was going on. And you know what? All the misery I was experiencing was self-created. I was doing it to myself, but was so unaware of who and what I am, and how my consciousness operated, I was beating myself up and blaming the external world.
So how can we describe this state of “presence” without distraction, a state of peace? I think Tibetian Buddhists have done a wonderful job in their texts on a process they call Dzogchen meditation. They describe something they call ‘Rigpa’. This state of peace I’m referring to is basically saying that if you want peace of mind, you must keep your conscious awareness locked into direct Rigpa. So what is Rigpa?
“When one past thought has ceased and a future thought has not yet risen, in that gap, in between, isn’t there a consciousness of the present moment; fresh, virgin, unaltered by even a hair’s breadth of concept, a luminous, naked awareness?
– Yet it doesn’t stay in that state forever, because another thought suddenly arises, doesn’t it? This is the self-radiance of that Rigpa.
– However, if you do not recognize this thought for what it really is, the very instant it arises, then it will turn into just another ordinary thought, as before. This is called the “chain of delusion,” and is the root of samsara.
– If you are able to recognize the true nature of the thought as soon as it arises, and leave it alone without any follow-up, then whatever thoughts that arise all automatically dissolve back into the vast expanse of Rigpa and are liberated.”
— Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying
Say you’re in your bedroom, just sitting on the side of your bed. Then all of the sudden your mind wanders off, and you’re worried about all the concerns of the day, angry about something a coworker did, irritated with your screaming child, or whatever it is. That goes on for a while, but eventually that thought-stream ends and you snap back to reality. You’re back in the bedroom, aware of just being in the room. You feel yourself sitting on the bed, you feel a breeze from the window unit air-conditioner, you hear birds chirping outside. Then, once again, your mind wanders off. It starts thinking about your wife, or your husband, worrying about finances, thinking about some snide remark made by your stepparent, I don’t know, something. That all goes on for a while, then you snap back to reality, and you’re once again in the bedroom.
Those moments when you were in your bedroom, not thinking anything, your mind not wandering all over the place, just aware of a present reality, that is Rigpa. It’s raw awareness of life. That’s reality, true reality. Those were your moments of peace and contentment. You want to learn how to stay there and not wander off. Why? Because if you could stay there, without wandering, you’d exist in this pleasant, peaceful state. You’d feel the bed supporting your rear-end, and it’d feel nice. You’d run your hand across the covers of your bed, and it’d be pleasant. You’d look around the room, and it’s just walls, picture frames, and sunlight beaming in from the window. All quite pleasant, when this is done without judgement or comparison with what others have, or what you think you “should” have. You’d hear the birds outside, listen to them chirping, and there’s nothing wrong in that moment. Reality is generally quite pleasant, if you don’t sabotage it with your own mind!
If you could only stay in this direct Rigpa, you’d enjoy your entire day. But what happens? You leave reality. You jump into what the Tibetan Buddhists call “the chain of delusion”. You go into some depths of your mind, and bring things that are not happening into your present moment, and most of them are negative. Your wandering mind takes you to places of anger, regret, jealousy and greed for things it wishes it had. It starts weaving these stories and narrating your entire experience, playing back your life and interpreting it all in some framework that you’re an unfortunate victim and life has given you such a poor hand. Oh, how unfair it all is! Look at all the rich, beautiful, happy people! Why couldn’t you have been them? You sit there brewing over things you want, and dream up reasons for why you’ve failed to get these things that would supposedly save you from your present suffering. You look at yourself in the mirror and start projecting all these illusions that you’re ugly, or fat, or undesirable in some way. You go out in to town and this little voice on your shoulder tells you, “You don’t belong. People don’t like you.” You then feel discontent and you want to be someone else, somewhere else. I could spend all day all talking about these illusions. They’re not real. None of it is real.
That world of illusion, diving out of the present and going into some depths of your mind, trying to run from certain experiences, or chase after other experiences, that’s what’s stealing all of your happiness. It’s what’s leaving you feeling drained. Oh, and the the mind is so sneaky! So sneaky! It does this in a million different ways, but it’s all lies, lies, and more lies. Thing is, if you believe what this mind is telling you, and let it drag you away all over the place, oh, it’s nothing but misery, misery, and more misery.
How does one overcome this nonsense and learn to stay in the present? Meditation and self-reflection. There’s no one particular way this has to be done. It’s also such a big topic to get into. I can only give you a rough outline of the process I went through.
The first technique I started utilizing was one I learned from Paramhansa Yogananda called Kriya Yoga. You just sit in a chair, in this upright posture, breathe in, and breathe out, taking long breaths, and while you do so you direct your conscious attention up and down your spine while inhaling and exhaling. When you inhale you think the thought, “I am not this body”, and when you exhale, “Neither am I this mind.” There are many different breathing meditation practices. You don’t necessarily have to do Kriya. But anyway, as you practice this, the mind wants to wander, but each time it tries jumping off, you jump back to focusing on your breath, and you go back to doing this repetitive technique.
But why this exercise? Why breathing? What’s that all about? A primary reason this is so effective is due to how your brain is wired. If you are short on breath, your brain begins to pay special attention to the breath, thinking, “Hey, I need air. What’s wrong?” The brain immediately directs its attention to what’s going on with the whole breathing system, so it will help you focus attention all on its own. This is training wheels for mental silence practice! You want to exploit this mechanism. That’s why you take a deep breath in, hold it, and then do a long exhale. You don’t suffocate yourself, but you do hold it a bit. The more you do it, the better you’ll be able to keep your mind from wandering off. The only real goal of the technique, at least for a long long time, is simply to be aware of yourself sitting in the chair, and sitting there for longer and longer periods of times without your mind wandering off.
When you first begin, you’ll sit there in the chair, begin, maybe last for one or two breathing repetitions, and your mind will already wander. You’re not even twenty seconds in. You come back, and it wanders again. And again. And again. Then you realize, my gosh, my mind is a noisy mess. And you see all that noise? Take a good look at it all. It’ll be like sticking your head over a garbage dumpster and taking in a huge deep breath. Mmmm. All these thoughts bouncing around, dragging you off? There they are! There’s your problem! There is the source of your misery. That’s our next objective. It’s time to enter self-reflection, analyze these thoughts, figure out what’s causing them, why they’re happening, and shut them off.
But how do you shut them off? Great question. What do the Tibetan masters say? You have to 1) understand the true nature of what that thought is, and 2) don’t entertain it in mind, or chase after it, or try to avoid it. In other words, don’t go on requesting more of it, or try to mentally resist it. If you know what the thought is, and just let it come and lovingly go, it’ll calm down on its own and you’ll quickly return to emptiness, peaceful silence. You don’t fight it. That’s not how this works. But if you don’t realize the thought for what it is, and you wander off with it, you leave reality and wander off into illusion; suffering is bound to follow. This wandering off into misery is samsara.
“So when you are in the state of Rigpa, and when thoughts and emotions arise, you recognize exactly what they are and where they are springing from: then whatever arises becomes the self-radiance of that wisdom. If you lose the presence of that pristine, pure awareness of Rigpa, however, and you fail to recognize whatever arises, then it will become separate from you. It goes on to form what we call “thought,” or an emotion, and this is the creation of duality. To avoid this and its consequences is why Tsele Natsok Rangdrol says: “Not to clinging to the risings, make concepts out of them, accept or reject them: this is the heart of the practice for the bardo of dharmata.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying, talking about how thought can form from true Rigpa, if not dealt with correctly.
So ok, how do I determine the true nature of the thoughts? Ah ha! That’s a big one, eh? Here’s what I have found. You have to know who you really are, so that when thoughts come and go, making this claim or that, lies won’t stick to you and trouble you. Illusions will be immediately seen through. Which brings us to another important point. Depending on who you think you are, and what you believe in your mind, that will in turn determine how much peace you will experience and how much you will suffer! Welcome to what can be quite a maze!
The most common is to identify with the body. I am the body. Then there are all kinds of thoughts on bodily preservation, fears of death, worries about aging, etc. If you identify with your thoughts, then you begin to feel alienated when you are in an environment that doesn’t align with those thoughts, or perpetuate those thought patterns. Religion, political affiliations, and nationalities are examples. You could even identify with various activities you perform, such as your career or trade. I am a physicist, a craftsman, a school teacher, a secretary! Then you become bound to whatever you believe a person of that label should be, and how such a person should behave. You can identify with pretty much anything, though those are some common things people believe themselves to be.
The problem then arises when this label and what it entails conflicts with some other label and what it entails. So now a fight has to take place because unfortunately, both labels often cannot co-exist. For example, you grow up in a Christian nation, with Christian holidays, and Christian festivities. Then some migrants come in with different holidays, and they’re in your town, in your streets, celebrating things you don’t understand and you’re uncomfortable. “Are we or aren’t we a Christian nation, gosh-dangit!” You feel obligated to protect “your” heritage. BOOOMMM! The conflict begins.
These limited false egos are the source of all conflict. This is especially true the more greedy each ego gets. One person’s false ego has this vision for reality, somebody else’s false ego wants this other vision, and so on, and not everyone can have their way. The more grand and far-reaching these visions, the greater the conflict. People get really wrapped up in the labels. They even come to believe their happiness completely depends on these egoic visions for how reality should be.
I don’t have time to really dive deep into this. All I’ll say for now is notice how the Tibetan master is talking about duality in that last passage. What does that have to do with pristine awareness? EVERYTHING. It’s the general pattern, “I am this, and I am separate from that.” Then the false identities are born and conflicts arise. I am Christian, but not a Hindu! I am an American, not a Mexican! I am an educated professor, not some lowly secretary!
That reminds me, just the other day, a secretary at the university told me that she had complained to her boss about health insurance rates rising, making her lose $15 out of each paycheck. She exclaimed to him, “Well, it’s a tank of gas! I need that money.” The professor looked down on her and said, “It doesn’t bother me. Unlike you, I made better decisions with my life. I don’t even notice $15.” THAT is ego. He identifies one way, and looks at her as separate. That’s YOUR problem not MINE. Then he’s filled with pride and she gets filled with anger, and that’s the sort of dynamics duality and false-egos create.
That’s why over this last year all of my meditation has been on concepts of duality! But why? When you identify some things as yourself, and other things as not, you then set up the grounds for conflict. That’s the recipe. Improper, limited identification with things you are not is what will cause all the suffering. That’s the formula for creating thought-streams which drag you out of reality. Instead of identifying as the I AM, a consciousness without properties, ever-present in all, you identify with specific forms and events within your perception, and then get lost in the delusions of thought and ego. The false you takes over and is very intent on preserving itself, and weaves all kinds of stories around itself. It steals your attention because that’s the only existence it has!
I’ll give an example. You see, if I was that secretary, and my boss said something like that to me, I do not identify as a secretary, it’s just something I’d be doing to make some cash. Therefore when that identity is attacked, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t associate with this chain of events and life choices as “me”. The arrogant professor’s comments would just deflect off me, but if you’re caught up in the labels, you’ll sit there in your mind thinking, “Who does the think he is! I do a great job! That guy doesn’t appreciate anything. He doesn’t know his head from his butthole, the jerk.” That’s you trying to preserve the label when it’s attacked. And then you suffer. You can learn a great deal about yourself from these emotional rises. That’s an indication of some inner label within yourself, just waiting to be explored. I’d highly recommend dismantling it.
“Of course, there are rough as well as gentle waves in the ocean; strong emotions come, like anger, desire, jealousy. The real practitioner recognizes them not as a disturbance or obstacle, but as a great opportunity. The fact that you react to raisings such as these with habitual tendencies of attachment and aversion is a sign not only that you are distracted, but also that you do not have the recognition and have lost the ground of Rigpa. To react to emotions in this way empowers them and binds us even tighter in the chains of delusion. The great secret of Dzogchen is to see right through them as soon as they arise, to what they really are: vivid and electric manifestation of the energy of Rigpa itself.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche
I know this post is too short to go over all of this, but I hope I’ve at least helped you identify the problem, and introduced you to the gateway to delusion and suffering, how to stay out of it, and shown you at least some steps to come back to reality.