“It is not necessary to search far and wide for what stops you from seeing shunyata. Simply realize that the way you perceive the sense world every day of your life is completely wrong, that it is the misconceived projection of your ego.”
– Lama Yeshe, Becoming Vajrasattva
One of the most profound, all-encompassing, and difficult-to-practice lessons I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is this: without mindfulness and transcendence of the ego, you have no idea what you’re doing.
You think you’re in control, that you’re making choices and navigating this crazy thing called life, but without constant mental discipline, you’re really just following a series of nonsensical, preprogrammed pathways in your brain that more or less determine what you do.
This lesson, and its importance, recently came home in a major way.
I’d come back to North Carolina for a few months (I need a new visa/passport to continue my journey in India), and, to my dismay, quickly found my days just slipping away from me. I’d want to get up and meditate, or do yoga, or call old friends or camp or cook dinner or any number of things, but I wouldn’t.
Instead, I found myself – almost unconsciously – re-engaging with old habits, like waking up at noon or scrolling for forty five minutes on Facebook or playing Pokemon Black for eight hours in a row. These things weren’t bad, per se, but they weren’t what I wanted to be doing.
I got trapped by these old loops, and two weeks vanished without me even knowing it. As someone who strives to be constantly growing, practicing, and improving, this seemed wrong, to put it mildly.
What on earth was going on? Why was I doing this nonsense?
When I rationally examined my own behavior, I realized that most of the choices I made weren’t made the moment I acted on them, but earlier, when I mindlessly interacted with a certain stimuli and it led me to a certain predisposition. For example, if I woke up late and didn’t complete my morning routine, I’d be more inclined towards ordering pizza and a binge-watching marathon on Netflix that afternoon, instead of going for a run and cooking dinner.
The moment I turned on my TV, I’d think ‘eh, screw it, let’s watch some Stranger Things,’ but that thought wasn’t what caused my decision.
No, I ended up watching this show because, the moment I woke up late, I didn’t come to terms with the frustration, impatience, and self-judgement that went through my brain as a result of missing my routine. Instead of taking the 90 seconds to sift through this negative emotional dynamic, come to terms with the reason for my delay (maybe I stayed out too late the night before), and craft a new, positive plan for my day, I thoughtlessly swept this potentially unpleasant examination under the rug.
I did this – and we all do this – because to rationally examine the reason for our negative behaviors is to directly attack our own egos. Our egos don’t like this, and so they divert this analysis, instead getting us to reflexively engage in some sort of avoidance behavior.
Our ego wants us to think that we’re fine, perfect, bulletproof, that we’ve got it 100% figured out – or it’ll tell us the opposite, that we’re worthless, broken, and never going to be better.
Obviously, neither of these are true. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. In the words of a Zen Master: You’re perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.
However, this Middle Way is a paradox, and much harder to relate to – and practice in our daily lives! – than either self-loathing or arrogance. As a result, when we are presented with our own negative actions, our knee-jerk tendency is to either uncritically dismiss it or viciously castigate ourselves for it. Neither reaction leads to much good; in fact, each leads into its own type of loop.
These loops can be short or long, ho-hum or catastrophic. They can be something as mindless as checking Instagram when we’re bored, or something as dramatic as sending ten desperate texts to an ex when we feel poorly about ourselves at the end of a long day.
However, no matter what kind of loop we experience, they all have the same base cause: they occur when we fail to fully examine our current (typically negative) situation, and, instead, distract ourselves with this or that thing. Herein we find their loop-like nature; when the distracting activity is done, we find ourselves right back where we started: bored, sad, angry, and so on.
This is the reason that when people talk about their negative choices and behaviors, they often sound like they’re not in control:
I know I shouldn’t have done this…
I don’t know what happened…
I couldn’t help myself…
From the perspective of being trapped in loops, these statements are pretty much true.
Without consistently and mindfully engaging with and resolving negative stimuli as and when they arise, we chain ourselves to a baseline level of stress and discomfort. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to avoid getting sucked into unproductive and self-destructive behaviors. Because we’re not aware of how our mind avoided dealing with our late morning, we can’t actually see the reason why we ended up staying up until 2 am watching Netflix. We literally don’t know what happened, and couldn’t help it.
Of course, none of this really bothers our ego, which simply (and illogically) justifies the behavior and keeps on its merry little way. In order to maintain the illusion that it is you and not a transitory collection of selfess aggregates, the ego is quite happy to play along with this nonsense.
Make no mistake about that: it is nonsense. All your loops are nonsense, founded on ignorance and a lack of examination regarding the fundamental nature of your mind.
Thankfully, there is a way around the nonsense, a way to cut through the loops. All it takes to break out of our self-imposed prisons is this: become constantly mindful. Learn to watch your thoughts every moment of every day.
Sounds impossible? It will seem to be – at first. Cultivating mental awareness and self-control is a lifelong journey, and even highly experienced meditators aren’t always able to control their minds 100% of the time. Starting to watch your mind is a little like starting to tidy a room that hasn’t been cleaned in 30 years – it’s going to seem like an incredible, insurmountable task at first.
Then it gets easier.
You clear out a little corner, then a bigger area, and before you know it, half of the junk is gone. Things begin to seem orderly, almost organized, and you can start to really move forward, to really make progress.
This is the whole point; a loop keeps you stuck in the same spot, over and over and over again. It is only when we truly come to respond to outcomes, and not react along the same staid pathways, that we begin to get anywhere.