Over the course of a lifetime, we will experience ten billion moments. Without mindfulness, will we squander them reaching for the future and dragging along the past? Who is it that spends these moments and how they’ll be spent will determine if the coming New Year is a happy one.
Andrew Olendzki tackles these questions and more in his latest book, Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are.
This book is an accessible, beautifully written and compelling case for the Buddha’s teachings on self and the implications they have for our lives. This is a practical text–an invitation to start making the personal transformations that the Buddha showed was possible with the help of mindfulness.
For the reader familiar with the Buddha’ teachings, this book is a welcome refresher with some depth around Pali translation and an appeal to applying the dharma to not just individuals but to the wider world.
For the uninitiated, he carefully explains Buddhist concepts and, importantly, how to apply these concepts to your own experience. This book is immanently practical.
For me, it is wonderful to spend time again with Andy. It’s been a few years since his last powerful book, Unlimiting Mind, and many years since I studied with him at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Reading this book is also timely for me because I have been thinking, researching, and writing about the Buddha’s psychology of self and mindfulness for another book that I’ve been writing.
This teaching is a tough one for us to understand. The Buddha is often misconstrued as having said there is no self or that self was an illusion that should be discarded. His message was actually different. He wasn’t denying self, he was simply pointing out that the self as we tend to think of it is nowhere to be found.
The consequences of not self are far from trivial. What’s on the line is nothing short of happiness versus unhappiness, well-being versus despair, and a world destroyed by greed, hatred, and confusion versus one predominated by compassion, love, and peace.
The relentless and unreflected pursuit of self can only lead to misery, limitation, and damage to self, others, and the world in which we inhabit.
According to the Buddha, the self is a view, perspective or attitude applied the ongoing stream of experience that emerges from perception. Olendzki explains:
Perception is the function of the mind that creates meaning, that paints a pictures or constructs a model of what is going on every moment.
Each moment of perception is a discreet event, yet is experienced subjectively as a continuity. This is like the illusion that a now old-fashioned celluloid film creates. The movie is comprised of thousands of discrete images and what we see is the fluid movement of the film. This is because our visual perception groups the images together into that flow. In the same way, our mind takes the discreet moments of experience and clumps them together into a self that somehow owns them.
This metaphor self gives rise to a mistaken notion of self. Mindfulness can reveal how this is so.
The self as typically experienced has these properties: constancy, agency, ownership, survival, responsibility, and awareness. Olendzki provides a helpful explanation as to how each of them is not accurate when viewed under the microscope of mindfulness.
In terms of constancy, the Buddha’s personal phenomenological investigations demonstrated no such constancy of self. Rather he experienced the way that self arose out of the normal functioning of the mind. There was no unchanging essence that was unfailingly him.
The Buddha recognized that agency was lawful, just as everything else in experience. That is, the sense of agency arose out of conditioned experience just like everything else. Intentions can help to hack the system but there is no widespread agency within the system.
The self did not own experiences either. The Buddha said:
These feelings, these perceptions, these dispositions, these [moments of] consciousness—are not yours.
Ownership is a metaphorical projection from the material world, misappropriated to experience.
Whether or not one believes in rebirth or whether or not you focus upon the Buddha’s statements that seem to support the idea of rebirth (that is, his attestations of knowing his previous, voluminous lives), no sense of a personality would transfer from one body to another. Thus, the self is not an eternal disembodied spirit (atman).
The Buddha’s notion of personal responsibility, likewise, does not require a transcendent self. Responsibility operates along recognizable psychological principles, principally, dependent co-arising—the cause and effect of experience. Olendzki explains,
The intentions of one moment alter one’s dispositions, out of which the next moment’s intentions will be molded. This allows for radical though incremental, transformation of character, brought about by moment after moment of healthy rather than unhealthy action.
As for awareness, Olendzki clarifies,
Finally it is a widespread reflex of human thought that this node of awareness that yields the rich yet mysterious phenomenon of subjective, immediate experience must have sacred origins.
Here again, there is no need for divine intervention. Everything one needs is available in the phenomenological investigation of momentary experience.
Awareness, while seemingly immaterial, is a natural function and should be treated as such. Once these assumptions are challenged, the noun-like nature of the self dissolves into the unfolding process of the moment. There is no need to add anything, as the Buddha urged:
It is in tis fathom-long carcass, with its perceptions and thoughts, that the world (loka) arises and passes away.
There is no world out there that is not constructed, influenced by individual perception. It is human arrogance to assume that the world is the way it is. It is only that way to us, as beings with the psychophysical capacities that we have. Beyond these generic limitations, there is each individual’s psychology—based on temperament, personality, and a lifetime of learning.
The conclusion that Olendzki presents is a bit of shocker, turning our notion of cause and effect on its head
Rather than being the starting point of experience, the essential agent needed to have experience, self is regarded as the end product of an elaborate process of assimilating data, constructing meaning, and building a world of local experience.
Self is finally a category constructed by the mind. This process can be interrupted. Mindfulness can help us to break the habit of liking and disliking that arises from the routine experience of pleasure and pain. When we do so, we are freed from the dissatisfactions, sufferings, and anguishes of life.
Andy Olendzki’s book is thoughtful, concise, and powerful. It’s an authoritative treatment of the Buddha’s notion of self that is fresh, juicy, and alive. His writing voice is much like his teaching voice, lucid, warm, and inspiring.
This book is a rich resource for the most essential of the Buddha’s teachings–that there are no essences, especially self!
And, of course, Happy New Year! May it be one filled with mindfulness.
If you suddenly lost a huge manuscript that you were working on, how would you react? Could you receive this news with equanimity and pick up your pen and start writing all over again?
This is what happened to Thomas Carlyle, as recently presented in the Writer’s Almanac (Sunday 4 December 2016). I have had this happen with short pieces of writing, like a blog post, but I’ve never lost anything more book length. Here is how Garrison Keillor describes it:
It was as a philosopher and social historian that Carlyle found his calling. He wrote The French Revolution, an immense tome, only to lend it to fellow philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose maid accidentally tossed it into the fire. Undeterred, Carlyle rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch.
For many of us, such a loss would be the start of a long winter of discontent. What would keep us from moving into the next moment without a great sense of loss? It’s hard to do because we tend to attach ourselves to the things in our lives, including our work, relationships, and ideas about ourselves.
We can complain about the time it would take to re-do the effort. There is a certain entitlement embedded there. Since we’ve done the work, we shouldn’t have to do it again. But, if you consider this, why is that necessarily so? Who said that had to be true? We need to get over our sense of personal deprivation. We manufacture this; it doesn’t exist in nature.
Imagining this scenario for myself, once I got over my self-importance, I would be fearful that I would not be able to re-produce what I had already done. There is a letting go here into a space of unfamiliarity. While, we may not be able to produced the same exact thing, we might be able to come up with something that is better. Of course, worse is an option too. These executions are real practice in non-attachment.
In the publishing world, Faulkner made the phrase “kill your darlings” famous. The point being that in order to write well, we must be willing to relinquish cherished words, phrases, and passages because, while cherished, they don’t fit with the larger thrust of the work or the work is simply too long.
Carlyle’s dramatic example is a metaphor for all of life’s disappointments, a wake-up call for whenever life doesn’t go the way we’d like it to go. Almost every day, there are moments, events, and situations where we are confronted with a choice: do I flow with this moment or do I fight against it?
Example: I was heading out the other night to the Member’s Art Show at the Helen Day Art Center where I had a piece on display. I especially wanted to bring my phone so I could Instagram a picture of myself standing next to my painting. About ten minutes down the road, I realized I forgot to bring the phone.
I was flummoxed. How could I have forgotten when I made it a point to bring it? Now I wouldn’t be able Instagram and that little attachment gave rise to a lot of anguish (if briefly experienced).
I was not in the flow of the moment, moving with the new contours of now. instead, I was caught in a story, fighting against what was actually so. Initially, I wasn’t willing to accept what had happened and my mood suffered.
There was no real problem here, other than an expectation that got disappointed. I used my wife’s camera to take pictures and posted to Instagram when I got home later that evening. The only drama existed in my own mind.
How unfathomably admirable was Thomas Carlyle’s ability to set aside attachment to rewrite is now classic tome. His is a powerful lesson for all of us.
Hold up the mirror of his example to your life and see what attachments you find. Whether large or small, we carry a lot of these around with us. If you feel intrepid, you can even practice letting go of things. Draw a picture, and crumple it up. Write a paragraph and then delete it.
Carlyle would have been unfamiliar with the term mindfulness but this is might have been what he was practicing when he sat down at his desk and began re-writing.
The celebrations of Thanksgiving have seen travel, entertaining, and being entertained. I am now recovering from all the socializing, eating, and cheer. I’ve tapped out my introvert reserves and am enjoying some quiet time now. I know this season is challenging, especially the introvert amongst us.
Starting a few years ago, after reading Susan Cain’s revolutionary book, Quiet, I started thinking about my own introversion and writing about. I’ve written two books on the topic. The Awakened Introvert explores mindfulness and Buddhist concepts in a practical workbook format. The first book I wrote: The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge is a playful, encyclopedic treatment of this important topic.
The Awakened Introvert: Practical Mindfulness Skills for Maximizing Your Strengths and Thriving in a Loud and Crazy World, is dedicated to my fellow introverts in the world to bring a greater measure of sanity to their lives.I am thinking about why I wrote this book. This book was a labor of love. I was really writing to myself and through myself. Three reasons come to mind:
1) It came out of my own awakening to the bias against introversion (some of this bias self-imposed). For years I knew about introversion as a psychological concept and I readily identified myself as one. However, it didn’t realize the prejudice that I and other applied to this introverted way of being. I felt guilty that I wasn’t more “out there,” “on,” and “positively cheery” all the time.
I thought something might be wrong with me. “Maybe I’m depressed or self-sabotaging,” I would wonder. But then I realized that, indeed, my reserved quiet was an introvert asset rather than a liability. It was endemic to who I am as a human being and it is the starting point on my path to spiritual awakening.
This discovery, if you will, is the main thrust of the book. I share what I know about being an introvert in an extrovert-dominated world and then provide a series of contemplations, exercises, and practices that can actually make a difference in how you cope moment-by-moment, day-by-day in the world.
2) I realized that my decades long mindfulness path was in some large measure facilitated by being an introvert. People often ask me how I got into meditation and I never have a clear answer for them other than the fact that meditation has also held an intuitive appeal for me. I like to be quiet, I value stillness (even though it can be challenging to realize), and I know how difficult it is to manage my ADD-like mind.
Meditation is a natural fit for introverts because it embodies quiet, stillness, and provides a technology that can actually change our brains likely increasing our capacity to withstand stimulation such that it is no longer experienced as aversive. It also gives us tools that we can use to better manage our energy.
3) The Buddha was an introvert (likely so). The Buddha recognized that the path to awakening was an inside job. It didn’t come about by impressing others, doing amazing feats, or being loud. Instead, his enlightenment happened in the quiet solitude of meditation and this is what he advocated for his followers 2500 years ago. The path of quiet is just as relevant and necessary today as the world becomes more and more self-preoccupied with attention-seeking. His basic teachings, included in the book, are a roadmap for introverts (and those intrepid extroverts, too, willing to do the inner work). I’ve devoted my life to trying to understand and live these basic teachings, and it is my honor to share them with you.
The Awakened Introvert is unique from other books by and for introverts because it is a workbook. You can work through the issues in writing, which is often a helpful way to make sense of things, connect to material, and to hear yourself thinking.
The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge
For those of you looking for a general introduction on introversion will enjoy the Introvert Edge. This book hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of my other book, an oversight you can correct this Holiday season.
Here is the Top Ten List from the beginning of the book, which gives a preview of what the book covers:
1. There is nothing wrong with you! Introversion is normal and valuable—it is a connection to your interior that gives you an edge!
2. Introverts revolt! There is an introvert revolution underway and introverts are reclaiming their rightful place in society
3. Don’t believe the messages extroverted society has told you. You don’t need to apologize for who you are and how you want to be.
4. Living in the extrovert culture, you will have to take care of yourself in special ways.
5. There are more introverts in the world than you realize. Half the population may be introverts.
6. Many famous, influential, and creative people throughout history have been introverts.
7. Being an extrovert is not ideal; it ignores the power of solitude, quiet, and contemplation.
8. Contemplative practices are the key to nurturing your introvert.
9. Introverts are subject to bias, discrimination, prejudice, and stigma especially in school and the workplace.
10. The Introvert Edge is available to extroverts, too, when they are able to tap into their interior depths.
Support your local bookstore: purchase on IndieBound
I’ve been writing about mindfulness for almost ten years now, practicing it for almost thirty (a few years shy of that). Despite the fact that there are too many mindfulness books in the world already, I can’t help myself–I keep writing!
My two mindfulness-focused book are now a lovely matched set–each a collection of 108 short chapters. These books are gifty in that sense that they don’t need to be read straight through. You can keep them on your night stand and dip into them as you please.
I am also pleased to announce that my first book–Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness is being re-released under the title 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness: from Wild Chickens to Petty Tyrants. It has the same metaphors that many people have grown to love and trust in their daily mindfulness practice in a new book design (astute obersvers will notice that it is very similar to Mindfulness A to Z. Here is an excerpt from the preface that I wrote for the new edition:
Since the initial publication of 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness in 2009, I’ve come to appreciate further the Buddha’s mastery with metaphors. Indeed, Buddhist scholar Damien Keown said, “The Buddha’s skill in teaching the Dharma, demonstrated in his ability to adapt his message to the context in which it was delivered. Parables, metaphors, and similes formed an important part of his teaching rep- ertoire, skillfully tailored to suit the level of his audi- ence.” The Pali Canon, which is the written record of the Buddha’s teachings, contains over 1000 met- aphorical references addressing over 500 different concepts.
Mindfulness A to Z is something of a memoir because it contains a variety of personal stories about times that I was mindful and times that I was not. The book is organized as the title suggests as a dictionary of mindfulness terms with listings literally from a to z. You’ll find entries on acceptance, Buddha, compassion, equanimity, and so forth.
The book has been beautifully produced by Wisdom. It’s not the kind of book that you’ll read cover to cover. You can march through the entries in order or you can skip around. You’ll want to read one or two per day and sit with the wisdom and guidance that it sets forth.
It is my hope that this book through its candid revelations about my own attempts to live a mindful life can help you to live more mindfully too. Each brief chapter contains some important teaching relevant to mindfulness and grounded in the teachings of the Buddha.
Here are some samples:
E is for Effort
Mindfulness A to Z official release is tomorrow!Here is an excerpt from “E is for Effort”
We may need to encourage ourselves gently in the direction of practice. Challenges arise. Daily life is complicated and busy; it may seem like we have no time to practice. But the effort required to be mindful in any given moment is small. After we bring our attention to what is happening now, the onrush of life works to pull us back into our story. Effort is the aggregate of many small moves, many small corrections in the direction of attending to the here and now. It is not about forcing our minds to stand still like statues. It’s about simply bringing attention back again and again. Good effort is the art of the gentle return to now.
N is for Nirvana
Mindfulness A to Z official release is 7 Days Away!Here is an excerpt from “N is for Nirvana”
Nirvana is one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts in Buddhism. It literally means “blown out,” as when the flame of a candle has been extinguished. Because of its usage in popular culture, nirvana is often imagined to be a transcendent reality—an ultimate existence that is more real than our ordinary lives. It is true that nirvana is a state quite different than our normal state of experience, but the idea has been blown somewhat out of proportion in popular culture. The Buddha chose the metaphorical term “nirvana” to describe his enlightenment, not as an otherworldly transcendent experience, but as the final extinction of the fires of suffering in himself.