Ni-Dan Personal Development Essay
Lots of people say that the sign of a good book is that it “makes you think,” but I’ve found the opposite to be the case. In my experience the most helpful and growthful books are the ones that stop the mind dead in its tracks. These books do not send us cascading into some new train of thought, or add to the content of our minds, but instead wake us up to a new level of awareness. This stopping of the mind is not the same as sinking below thought. It is not that we fall into a kind of stupor, like when we watch television or have had too much to drink. It is mindfulness, rather than mindlessness. We begin to experience reality more directly - through a sort of still and alert presence.
The way in which I’ve grown from reading these kinds of books, is in my ability to find this stillness on my own. Sometimes it only lasts for a few seconds and other times it lasts for a few hours. Often I still find myself caught in the ups and downs of the thinking mind and all of the patterns, compulsions and programming that comes with it. However, being free of the conditioned mind even if it is only for a few moments a day is still infinitely better than never finding it.
Whenever I am able to step out of the thinking mind, I begin to realize how repetitive most of my thoughts are. The majority of these thoughts are part of a collection of stories that I tell myself. I have a story at the ready for virtually every area of my life. And most of these stories (as is the case for many people) are negative. I tell myself these stories on a daily basis, but sometimes I am able to stop, take a breath and catch myself in the act. I have come to realize that the stories themselves are not all that important, the problem arises we believe in the stories and invest in them. This creates a vicious cycle, for not only do we believe in the story, but we begin looking for outside indicators to prove that our story is true. We would often much rather believe that we are correct, even if we do not like what it is we are believing. We invest in these stories and over time it begins to warp our perception of reality. We pay more attention to the things that confirm our story than to anything else. We begin to lose track of the distinction between how things are and how we think they are. In Buddhism this is sometimes called the two-fold truth, which consists of relative truth and absolute truth.
Relative truth is all of the self-produced content that we experience in our mind from moment to moment. It is our emotions, beliefs, likes, dislikes, attractions, aversions and so on. All of this feels very real to us and if often absorbs nearly all of our attention. The truth is, that none of this content exists for anyone other than ourselves. Relative truth is the reason why our own internal experience varies from those of everyone else. We can empathize or extrapolate on how someone else thinks or feels, but it will still be heavily biased by how we ourselves view the world. We only ever experience the world from our own perspective, which is filtered by our conditioning. What each of us experiences is therefore only of relative truth, because the world is not experienced the same way by everyone else, and so how can it be completely true? How each of us sees things is very subjective. Knowing this helps us to remember not to take our version of events quite so seriously.
Absolute truth means that reality simply is as it is. Two people may perceive the same situation completely differently from one another, but the situation itself has not changed. Only the individual perception of that situation has changed. Absolute truth is un-biased, it is not good or bad, desirable or undesirable, helpful or harmful. Realizing absolute truth is helpful in so far as it lifts some of the importance we place on how we (as an individual person) see the world around us. We come to realize that the seeing itself is unconditioned. It is how we react to or interpret our experiences that begin to separate us from reality. Recognizing absolute truth is the beginning of a separation between subject and object, between the observer and the observed.
This kind of reading has been helpful to me because it forces me to understand it through a different means than conceptual thinking. When I try and make “absolute truth and relative truth” something to understand or conceptualize, it is meaningless. I can usually tell with this kind of reading when I am in the thinking mind, versus when I am approaching it from a place of deeper attention. When I am in the thinking mind I usually become complacent and bored after a couple of pages. Therefore the act of reading itself is a good indicator of how clear my awareness is.
On a day-to-day basis, my attention can be as fragmented and sporadic as ever, but I am continually cultivating the capacity to notice the gaps and return to a place of centered attention. Even when I only remember to step out of the stream of thinking once a day, I realize that clarity, however infrequent is still clarity. Occasionally, I am able to see something I’ve done or said from an outside perspective, separate from my stories and my conditioning. In doing so I am able to make an unconscious pattern conscious, which is the first step in dissolving it.
I don’t feel the need to separate the different books I’ve read from one other, just as I don’t think my experiences inside and outside of the Dojo need to be entirely separate from one another. I tend to want to compartmentalize different areas of my life, be it: training, my day job, graphic design, music production, socializing, alone-time, family etc. There is something comforting about being able to go into a situation like that. “Ok. I am entering category 4B of my life, so here are the 3 parameters I can expect and the 5 people with whom I am most likely to interact.” This categorization undoubtedly feels safer, but there is a freshness in being able to be in a situation without feeling the need to label, judge, or compare it in any way. Going into a situation just as it is feels very vulnerable. The mind needs to at least believe that it knows what is going to happen. We need a reference point before we can be at ease with what is going on.
I realize reading, like training can only take me so far, but it is a good jumping off point for being more a little more awake and aware in day to day life. Learning to be in the world without superimposing our stories and on it is a daunting task to the mind, but it is perfectly natural for our spirit. I am always in fluctuation between being caught up in thoughts and experiencing the moment, but I know that all I have to do is stop and notice a breath or two and watch the pendulum swing back and forth, from story to reality.