Know Thyself and then Get a Move On!
Exercises in Mindfulness
While the Buddha taught the self is delusion, if we get to know this self instead of denying it’s existence, we find a powerful way to form new habits.
The words ‘Know Thyself’ were famously written above the entrance way to the Oracle at Delphi. As another Greek, Socrates, also said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But how much do we really ‘know’ ourselves?
I grew up in a small seaside town. During the summer school holidays my mother used to insist that my older brother take me with him during the day and look after me. He was a few years older and, I suppose, he must have not relished much the fact that his younger brother had been foisted on him and his friends, but he had no choice.
He and his friends liked to go fishing and so I went along with them. For bait we used to use mussels bought from the fishing tackle shop. These were not the nice ones you can get in restaurants, they had been sitting under hot lights and by the time of purchase had a ‘perfume’ that I suppose the fish like! Anyway my job was to bait the hooks and I spent most of the morning doing just this. By lunchtime my fingers were stained deep orange as if I had been smoking French cigarettes for 50 years and they stank! No matter how much I washed them I could not get rid of the smell, it was so bad that I could not eat the sandwich my mother had made for me. Ever since then I had an aversion to the look and the smell of mussels.
In the 1980s, suddenly, mussels appeared on restaurant menus all over the place. Every time I went to a restaurant and someone at my table had mussels I trotted out this story. For years I told people just how much I disliked even the smell of them.
At the turn of the millennium a friend of mine was moving away and we met up for a meal. When he ordered mussels for his meal I, again, trotted out the story. His meal arrived and on the spur of the moment I asked if I could try one just to see if it was still true. So I ate one… to be honest, it wasn’t the greatest thing I had tasted but there was no revulsion or gagging, which I thought might happen. At that moment it really struck me that my tastes had changed, and what is more I hadn’t noticed.
Ven. Myokyo-ni used to say that insight is usually by hindsight. What is meant by this is that there is a time lag between a change happening and that change being noticed. What hampers this insight is ‘self-beliefs’. My convictions about who I am, what I like and dislike, what I can do, how things must be if I am to be capable. Just these beliefs, if strong, will keep ‘me’ away from exposure to challenges to these limiting self-beliefs. This is where the power of restraint comes in, which produces situations that challenge such self-beliefs leading to an expansion of possibilities, and a confidence that the grasping at limiting self-beliefs seeks to erode.
A regular discipline also helps us to challenge such beliefs, although we need to be aware that such convictions in fact have a powerful emotional charge underneath them. There inevitably comes a point where the aspiration comes into conflict with the desire of the moment; - “Not right now!”, “Why me?”, “This is so boring!” All the excuses come up and there is a real ‘battle of wills’ to be endured. The Sixth Patriarch, Eno Daikan’, once said: “Before thinking… “. This is something that we can use practically to overcome these moments.
For example, getting out of bed in the morning when ‘I’ don’t want to, can become a real bugbear. The more I lie there debating with myself about whether or not I will get up the more difficult it becomes to act. So there is a great importance in learning to move quickly before ‘I’ can get too wrapped up in my thoughts. Once we act, it becomes much easier. This ‘Before thinking… ‘ is a habit that can be learned. When asked to do something - do I have a habit of procrastinating? Do I say I will do it later? Change this habit and do it straight away. Little by little, we can develop a habit of acting quickly instead of just consulting whether or not it suits ‘me’. Out of this a genuine smoothness of acting is developed and a deeper insight into how these fleeting desires work.
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