What This Book Can Do for You
This book teaches a rational and pragmatic spiritual path. Like other spiritual paths it comes with promises of happiness and special knowledge, but, unlike most of them, it doesn’t offend rational, skeptical minds that enjoyed a modern, scientific education.
If you practice as described in this book, you will progressively find yourself to be less tense, negative, agitated, anxious, frustrated, annoyed, drowsy, fatigued, discontent, lonely, suspicious, driven, miserable, and suffering, and instead be more relaxed, positive, calm, confident, patient, interested, alert, energetic, content, belonging, trusting, free, happy, and at ease. In the presence of other beings, you will find that you are less selfish, hostile, cruel, greedy, and envious, and instead more altruistic, kind, compassionate, generous, and able to share in the joy of others.
You will discover that a single phenomenon1 is solely responsible for all of the struggle, stress and suffering in your life. You will learn how to change your perspective so that this phenomenon is absent, and in its wake, ease, peace and happiness will exist independent of your personal circumstances.
Maybe you don’t believe this is possible, or, if you do believe it, maybe your mind fabricates all kinds of stories about why you wouldn’t even want this. The thing is, though, unless you have actually had this experience, your imagination is probably quite different from what it’s really like. If you can give this book the benefit of the doubt, and invest some of your time and energy to practice, you will see for yourself.
How It Works
The following chapters teach a form of concentration training called meditation. In order to meditate, you choose a phenomenon from your current experience as your meditation object. Then you continuously pay attention to the meditation object, i.e. you practice sustained attention or mindfulness. You will probably find that this is not an easy task. The mind tends to forget about the meditation object and get distracted, usually by stories of its own creation. Whenever that happens, you bring your attention back to the meditation object and keep it there.
At some point in your training you will notice that the mind has become very calm and alert. Mindfulness has become effortless and distractions are few and far between. Previously, meditation required effort and daydreaming happened on its own, now meditation is happening on its own and daydreaming requires effort. Meditation has become the new default mode of the mind. This is called a meditative state.
Meditative states of mind are far less elusive and rare than you might think. In fact, they are known to occur during all kinds of activities that require concentration, e.g. while working, playing sports or performing music, and also sometimes in particularly stressful or threatening situations. In psychology, meditative states of mind are known as flow, in hypnosis as trance, in Buddhism as samādhi (commonly translated as “concentration”, “absorption” or “tranquility”), in arts or sports as being in the zone, and in BDSM as subspace.
The actual experience of meditative states varies with the person and the meditative activity, but they have in common that the sense of “I am doing this” drops away and the activity is experienced as naturally unfolding, without the bother of anyone having to “do” it. This switch from manual to automatic control is actually extremely common, it’s just that we are usually unaware of it. For example, in this very moment, are you breathing deliberately or is breathing happening on its own? Or when you are walking, do you deliberately move each leg or is walking simply happening? Whenever we learn a new skill, at first we pay close attention to our performance in order to quickly notice and correct any errors, but over time performing the skill becomes more and more automatic, until it eventually just flows on its own. At this point the mind usually no longer considers the task worthy of attention, and drifts off into the narratives of memories, plans or daydreams. In a meditative state, on the contrary, the mind remains aware of the meditation object because the task that becomes automatic is “paying attention to the meditation object“.
Meditative states are limited to the specific circumstances that brought them about. In most cases that means you have to eventually come out of the meditation in order to take care of bodily needs and other aspects of daily life. You may have fascinating meditation experiences, but once you are back to your regular old self, the regular old problems return. There is, however, one meditative state that is different.
Self-awareness is the awareness of internal phenomena, i.e. anything you experience as part of yourself. This includes your body, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and awareness itself. There is a marked shift in perspective whenever you become self-aware that has a powerful effect. For example, normally, when an unpleasant feeling arises, it is experienced as “I am feeling bad”, but when there is self-awareness, the same feeling is experienced as “I am aware of this unpleasant feeling”. The feeling is still unpleasant, but the unpleasantness no longer causes suffering. This may work even without any meditation training, so give it a try the next time you are feeling bad. However, under normal circumstances this perspective cannot be maintained for long. This is where meditation comes in.
When you practice mindful self-awareness to the point of entering a meditative state, the same thing happens as in any other meditative state: The sense of “I am doing this” drops away, which in this case means that “I am being aware of myself” becomes automatic, calm and joyful self-awareness. In this state of mind, any time a phenomenon arises, it is automatically observed as such. Due to the self-aware perspective, it is not “your” phenomenon, and due to being in a meditative state, “you” are not doing the observation either. Consequently, in this moment, there is no experience of “you” at all. The difference between internal and external disappears. I will elaborate on the phenomenology and conceptualization of this perspective in a later chapter. Suffice it to say, for now, that it brings absolute freedom, peace and happiness.
If you integrate mindful self-awareness into more and more aspects of your life, eventually a subtle meditative state gradually emerges as part of everyday experience. At first you may not even notice this, as it is little more than a calm background alertness and increased enjoyment, but when problems arise in daily life, you may find that they are somehow less problematic than before. This is the beginning of the mental transformation described above. The more you cultivate this meditative state, the less of a sense of self is experienced, and the clearer the realization becomes that the self is the one phenomenon that is single-handedly responsible for all of your suffering. Life is truly blissful once it is experienced as naturally unfolding, without the bother of anyone having to “do” it.
- A phenomenon is a unit of experience. Put simply, if it’s experienced, it’s a phenomenon.