TLDR: We all think we are the master of our surroundings and of ourselves. But on closer look, we have little control over our human experience including nature. When we see the limits we have in our thoughts, speech and action, we learn to live in harmony with the Dhamma and let go of the self.
Most religions in the world teach the letting go of the ego. If it doesn’t, it may not be a spiritual practice. A spiritual practice is an exercise of the mind, which is also referred to as consciousness. Consciousness has not been a focus of scientific research due to it being immaterial.
However, religions have tackled the mystery of consciousness, what it is and how it arises. After all, if you are not conscious you will not be aware there is a you who is experiencing happiness, sadness or pleasures, or reading this article. You will not be aware of your free will if you aren’t conscious that you can make a choice.
But, if everyone shares this awareness without differentiation, do ‘I’ as a person really exist?
The Human Experience
In contrast to other religions that seek to find the self, the Buddha taught what is not self. What did he mean by not self?
The most important of the teaching of not self is found in the Anattalakkhana Sutta. It was the second discourse the Buddha taught to his first five disciples. In this discourse, the Buddha broke down the human experience into five parts. They are – the body, feelings, perception (memory and recognition), mental formations (thoughts) and consciousness (sense consciousness). These five parts the Buddha referred to as the five aggregates or five heaps. He named them heaps because these five parts need to be heaped together to create a personal identity (ego). But as it is a heap of things, they are easily collapsible. How so?
The body is the most obvious thing we identify ourselves with. The Buddha asked his first disciples if the body is permanent or impermanent? They answered it is impermanent. He then asked if it is happiness or suffering? They answered suffering. Why did the disciples say it is suffering? The Buddha stated if we truly own this body, we can tell it not to grow old, fall sick or to die. But we can’t. The body doesn’t listen to our needs and wants and causes suffering.
The same goes for feelings. If we truly own our feelings, we can tell it to always be happy. But instead we seek pleasures to keep up with good feelings. But the effort to find pleasures or pursuits one after another is tiring. Instead of being owners of our feelings, we are actually serving them.
The same applies to our perception.
Can you decide not to dislike a person you recognise to be irritating? Can you drop the memory of having had a bad experience in a restaurant? Both the recognition of an irritating person and memory of a bad experience causes unpleasant feelings.
Unfortunately most of us can’t help being identified with our perceptions and therefore we are also not owners of our perception.
When it comes to thoughts, it is obvious that most of us cannot control our thoughts. It thinks mean things and good things as it wants to based on our perception and feelings.
What about our sense consciousness? Our everyday consciousness is associated with our senses such as the eye, ears, nose, tongue, touch and thinking mind. Imagine yourself having a peaceful time reading in your room. From outside your window, you hear a woman shouting. Will you be unaffected by the shouting and refrain from looking out of the window to see what is happening? Are you able to tear yourself from seeking to be occupied with your senses when there is nothing to do? Don’t we seek sense contact all the time with food, Netflix to podcasts? The mind is a sense contact in Buddhism because it comes into contact with the world of ideas.
The five aggregates are all linked and our human experiences and are constantly changing. With the advent of technology, it seems we are finding it harder to maintain a sense of rest with these five aggregates. Why? Because we are continuously bombarded with sense stimuli without our mastery over them.
If we are able to master our perception, it would change our feelings and thoughts. Changing our feelings and thoughts from unfriendly to friendly ones reduce stress in the body. When the body suffers, the mind also suffers less if we are able to change how we experience the aggregates.
Are You Beyond The Dhamma?
The Dhamma means many things in Buddhism. It includes the entire teaching of the Buddha-from impermanence to nibbana. Generally, the Dhamma refers to the law of nature and of the mind.
We all know the laws of nature from gravity to special relativity. But when it comes to the law of the mind and actions, we are completely lost.
But why should we be bothered with the law of the mind and our actions? Why bother with spiritual exercises such as meditation and mindfulness for the mind?
In our everyday experience, we go about our lives feeling like we are different and apart from nature (flora and fauna). However, the laws that govern nature apply to us too. Like our environment and the animals on this planet, we have no lasting bodies. Although we humans think we are masters of our nature, we are not because we cannot overcome change or decay. It seems the more we try to conquer nature, the more nature reacts with unpleasant changes such as drought, heatwave and famine.
Also, if we truly are our own master and self, we would not experience the limits of our thoughts and actions. For example, we cannot think about a beloved person non-stop. We are also unable to keep eating our favourite food or watch the same film numerous times. It makes us feel mentally sick when we become obsessive or indulge in something. When we refrain from acting at all it also makes us feel restless.
Speaking and acting in untruthful ways also hurt our being. Some people are unable to sleep well after committing a crime. Some feel a burden in the heart after telling a lie. There is that guilt that weighs in the body, when it performs untruthful speech and action. For some who bury this guilt, they may find that pain develops in certain parts of the body. We all know how stress and anxiety produce symptoms from high blood pressure, pain in the shoulders to irritable bowel syndrome.
For those who notice their limits in thoughts, speech and behaviour,because it brings distress or dissatisfaction, seek to find an answer. But many people don’t notice these things because there are many ways we can get help from these maladies. We may go to doctors repeatedly or find ways to distract ourselves despite still suffering distress internally.
What To Do After Discovering Our Limits?
From the above examples, we can clearly see we are no masters at all. We are not masters of our human experience, or are we the master of nature. We are limited by the boundaries of physical and mental laws.
Does realising these limitations and seeing there is no substantial self who is a master of anything cause depression? On the contrary, no. Seeing the reality that we aren’t anyone at all brings joy because there is no more burden to maintain an ego or a self. We are free to let go, to change and choose habits that are different from the ego we thought is the self. It is the false belief of an ego that has caused much suffering in this world – from depression to numerous wars and tragedies.
Understanding that we are not beyond the Dhamma teaches us to live according to the laws of nature. Lay Buddhists follow the five precepts given by the Buddha as a way of learning to live within the Dhamma.
We usually do not like laws and restrictions. But rather than seeing it as a law, think of it as learning to live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings.
The five precepts itself are not so much a not-to-do list. But rather, it is training the mind to be aware whenever we act unskillfully against the Dhamma to cause ourselves suffering.
- Take a pause and notice if you are always seeking to fulfil your senses with sense contact such as entertaining your eyes, ears or mind. If you can’t take a pause from sense pleasures, are you serving your senses or are you a master of your senses?
- Before going to bed, reflect on your day. Have you said or acted truthful or untruthfully? How does it affect your mind and heart?
- Observe your feelings or sensations in your body. Are you able to master pain, discomfort or unpleasant feelings to change them into something manageable or pleasant? Are you a master or a servant to your feelings and body?