The illusion of control

While insight into non-inherency, or the illusion of separate existence, is the meat of serious practice in my eyes, it is the ramifications of it that are most worth discussing. To whit: if none of this is to do with you, it’s not under your control.

What I hear from roughly 95% of people when they hear that I practice ‘meditation’ (it’s a good short hand for contemplative practice) is that they’ve tried it, but they couldn’t do it. I used to find this endlessly annoying, as I felt they were missing the point somehow. They looked into their mind and saw a shitstorm, and wrote themselves off as defective or insufficient to the task of telling it to sit down and shut up. Nowadays, I just say ‘that means you’re doing it right’ or something similarly brief, as I don’t find it irritating any more, and I don’t feel the need to defend meditation. That I was annoyed by it is a classic example of the compulsive need to control: I thought the wisdom that comes from practice was the most important thing in the world and I wanted to get everyone to realise.

To do an inept and whistle-stop tour of your brain, it’s basically question mark shaped. The bottom of the question mark is the brainstem, the oldest part of the brain that evolved first, concerned with breathing, sleeping, panicking, thermoregulation, sex. You can make a swiss cheese of the rest of it and the organism will carry on living, albeit not pleasantly. As we go further up the brain we reach more and more voluntary and sophisticated functions like speech and fine motor movements, and these are so clever they need a large dense amount of brain tissue. The generation of self-awareness, if memory serves, is somewhere in the middle. Rationally no one is going to dispute that life processes such as respiration and the maintenance of body temperature are anything but autonomic. However, it would seem tautologous that voluntary movements are under control, and this assumption is extended to things like thoughts and feelings very often.

At the beginning of meditation practice, as laid out by the vipassana insight knowledge framework (‘the ñanas’), there is insight into the difference between mental and physical objects: pain and the frustration caused by pain, for example, are untangled from being one big mess of dukkha. I’m sure a lot of people work this one out on their own, as it is relatively straightforward to discern them. Then there is insight into cause and effect: that events don’t happen in a vacuum, but occur according to their causes and conditions. It is worth noting, here, that intellectual knowledge of these things is different to direct insight into them, though one cycle through these insights isn’t enough to give complete understanding and thus liberation. Then, we get to touch on the three characteristics of impermanence, non-inherency and dukkha directly for the first time, now that the tangle of sensations has been separated out somewhat, perhaps by noting them, concentrating on the breath formally, or just paying good attention to life as it happens. These three insights are those that I and many other interested parties would argue are the focus of therapies that mix ‘mindfulness practice’ and cognitive behavioural approaches.

‘Bringing consciousness’ to actions is the phrase often used by the more psychologically minded side of contemplative culture. When talking about virtue practice, this is very useful; it implies the goals of many mindfulness-based therapies, to recognise, accept and act on habits that start off shrouded in a lack of awareness and so a lack of ability to affect. However, from the perspective of contemplative practice, the only awareness that is brought to bear is the recognition of the changeable, non-inherent and so dissatisfactory nature of the phenomena that make up experience. TL;DR: you can only see appearances, and once you see them, you’ll realise they aren’t ‘I, me or mine’. Vipassana therefore objectifies sensations, pulling them out from the side of the subject so that they are seen as ‘not I’.

My experience of vipassana is clear enough that I wonder whether I’ve been working back through layers of the brain, from the youngest higher functional areas towards the ancient, more mysterious depths. This is bourne out by the separation out of thoughts, feelings and behaviour, then the understanding of their interlinking, coming first- very cerebral, rational, conceptual understandings. But quickly, this descended into areas that I had considered deeply a part of me, and delusively considered under my control and not under my control when they suited me. first, the objectification of intentions, which seemed to arise before the seeming choice to act on them rather than being ‘decided’ upon by me, and then the objectification of attention itself: not as some kind of field of awareness, or piercing beam that I shone on objects, as but instances of attention arising upon objects. This is bizarre when you first start out, as the idea that you can be aware of attention itself alighting on objects seems illogical: doesn’t there have to be attention on attention? Round and round we go. This made more sense later on when I accepted there was only internal logic, and no external Witness as an absolute ground of consciousness. Go further and you start to hit some primal emotions from the old lizard brain: be prepared for bizarre combinations of urges that might be embarrassing to your socialised mind, from terror to sexual lust. And around around we seem to go, starting at the top and pushing through to a deeper level each time if you get it right.

I slightly digressed in the name of pointing out that the brain is not some homogenous tool that we have full power over, and by extension, the self. Things we think are part of ‘us’ – that seemingly permanent entity in charge – simply aren’t. Some contemplative traditions hit you right between the eyes with this and discuss, for example, the Tao: the flow of things that is always just so, out of our hands, that we can nevertheless commit to surrendering to. In contemplative practice, in the end, the only task is to bow, however paradoxical that might seem if even the bowing is not under our control. But I reckon that jumping straight to that kind of viewpoint is both false and dangerous. I’m a firm believer that contemplative teachers can’t drag people up to their level of understanding, and must meet them where they are. The student will either do the practice as suggested and develop the insight, or for whatever reason fail to, all according to – you guessed it – their causes and conditions! If you are thinking ‘well I can’t win then,’ hold onto that thought, because that is a damn good insight. When you stop sulking about it, that’ll mature into acceptance. More on this topic later, as we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Suggested practices

  • Do what your teacher says. Trust that they know what they’re doing.
  • When you don’t do what your teacher says, trust that God made it so for a reason.
  • When you find yourself trying to work out why God did it that way, note it / pray for submission / do the dishes.