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Waking Up from Groundhog Day


Patterns repeat. That is how they become patterns. Daily habits, ways that we respond to situations, people and events; these unexamined responses to life become well worn grooves in our psyche. The mind is very good at learning adaptive behaviors and automating them so that we can focus our attention on other things.

The mind is tasked with the work of making meaning out of the string of events and sensory input that we experience throughout our days. It creates a story about who we are and what is safe and unsafe. It is also masterful at computation and problem solving. The mind has been mankind's greatest survival strategy. We have no fur or claws, our teeth aren't very sharp, we can't fly-and yet we are the apex predator on the planet Earth. We can owe that to our creative, adaptive, and resilient mind.

The mind, with all of its capacities, is also inherently limited. The mind does not have direct experiences. The mind extrapolates information from experience to make meaning and to develop strategy. The mind does not know love, or the sweetness of a baby's skin, or the wonder of a sunrise. The mind translates these sensory experiences into information, but it does not experience. There is another part of us, a much deeper and more ancient part of us, that directly experiences this world.

Patanjali, writer of the Yoga Sutras, tells us that Yoga is cessation of the mind, so that the witness, the part of us that directly experiences life, can take its seat as the primary identity of the Self. When we can stop feeding the mind by relying on it to create and sustain our experience, we are able to have a direct experience of life, as it is, right now.

The way this shows up in my life is pretty insidious. The mind occupies itself with finding "Truth." It is constantly asking me to feed it books, philosophies, perspectives, strategies, etc. The mind then looks for synchronicity, congruence, and other validation on its quest to "know." This strengthens and fortifies the mind, making it feel more "right" and in control, and thus usurping more of my experience as I chase after information to feed my meaning making machine. The mind tells me that once it finds just the right nugget of information, it will have what it needs to solve all of my problems. My life will be perfect and I will finally be able to help the world to solve its problems, too. Meanwhile, life marches on around me, in all its beauty-which I am largely oblivious to while I engage fully in this righteous, endless, search for meaning.

This can often feel very justified, especially when the mind sees the chaos of this world. Mind tells me that it can find solutions...it just needs a bit more time, a bit more information, a bit more training....

I have read thousands of books. I have been to thousands of hours of training. I know a lot about a lot of things. And I still suffer. Michael Singer, in his book Untethered Soul, warns that we have given the mind a job which it was never designed for. We have asked the mind to predict all of the ways that our lives can be less than satisfactory and to prevent them all from happening. This task is not only impossible, it is maddening. And so the mind has gone from its rightful place as problem solving appendage (like an arm or other organ of action in the body) to a tyrannical master who is mercilessly running the show.

The mind continues its shenanigans at night while I sleep, sending me on quests for meaning even amid my dreams. Upon awakening, it searches out news stories and other pieces of evidence in my waking life to convince me to keep marching to its drum of war-war against this moment, the joy of just being here and being alive. Mind wants me constantly examining the past and projecting the future.

The tyrannical mind tells me that if I stop worrying, stop searching, stop projecting, stop planning that I will be a lazy good for nothing part of the problem. I cannot trust myself to do what is right unless I am constantly digesting the words and opinions of other people in order to inform my right action.

Patanjali tells me that this is nonsense. This mind that is speaking to me, is not me. This meaning making, problem solving machine is a part of me-just like my arm or liver. It has a function to do as part of the whole but it is not the master of this human. The sages of ancient times asked us to answer the question "Who am I?" When we go looking for the self, we notice that we can hear these voices within us, and if we can hear them-we are not them. Deep beneath these voices is a place that directly experiences all of this. This witness, this seer (or drashta in Sanskrit), is the seat of the true self.

Yoga is the practice of letting go of the mind as master, allowing it to take its rightful place in the whole, and to identify with the witnessing self. In this place, we are able to connect deeply with Truth as it arises in this moment. We can be deeply touched and affected by the circumstances of this moment, and we can be moved to action that is inspired by this deep resonance with Self.

When we are identified with the mind (we think we are the mind and its endless thoughts), the mind offers us habitual reactions based on the stories it has developed as a solution to the problem of life. This is suffering. We are living a Groundhog Day of reactions and worry and compulsion that sustains the mind-but does not alleviate the suffering of the human or do much to help heal the planet.

I am grateful for all of the training that I have had, I am grateful for the many books I have read and the wisdom I have gleaned. I am grateful for this mind that is sharp and eager. I am also aware of the prison that the mind maintains, and I am aware of how much beauty and love and joy I am missing out on by endlessly serving the quest of this hungry mind. I think that our current technology boom is a perfect reflection of this tyrannical mind. It can be a wonderful servant to life, but it does not know how to prioritize life or have any experience of life. It is up to us, the human beings, the drishtas or seers, to put limits on these technologies to protect what is real. To protect what is beautiful and whole and precious.

If you are wondering where to start, I recommend the practice of vipassana meditation. In vipassana, we practice watching the mind to get familiar with its antics. We don't try and stop thinking, we don't judge the thoughts, we just watch them and see how it functions. When we are watching, we are identified with the part of us that watches-the witness or seer-the part that actually experiences life. We practice identifying with this part of the self-and this part of the self is actually the most Whole self-where Wholeness emanates from. Here is more information on vipassana from Tricycle magazine: https://tricycle.org/magazine/vipassana-meditation/


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