Mindfulness has become such an unobtrusive part of our cultural landscape that we can forget how radical and counter-cultural Buddhism really is. It’s become subsumed into the well-being movement: if we take five minutes to close our eyes, breathe slowly and relax, then we can live our normal lives on a slightly happier and more even keel. That’s the promise of mindfulness.
But the Buddha was suggesting something much more radical and difficult than that. He suggested our ego-centric model of reality is completely wrong. We think that our egos are real and permanent, and the main point of life is to help the ego find satisfaction and security. This idea is the organizing principle of our reality, the magnetic core of our emotional lives, the sun around which all other objects revolve. But it's an error, says the Buddha, and the cause of all our suffering.
When I close my eyes and try to meditate, I get a glimpse of the noisy subterranean drama that is going on all the time. My mad inner monologue is all about me – my likes and dislikes, my plans, my memories, my relationships. My ego constantly scans the horizon, looking for opportunities for happiness (food, sex, friends, career advancement), and potential obstacles (frustrations, insults, failures, illness…but not death, that’s inconceivable). Or it’s just going round and round, hopping from random subject to random subject, like Donald Trump tweeting and channel-surfing at 3am.
This ego-centricity goes extremely deep. It’s an illusion we constructed as babies – life, the universe and everything is all about ME - and we ingrain it every day, sleeping and awake. If Buddhists are to be believed, the ego is an illusion we’ve been strengthening over thousands if not millions of lives. It’s a root stretching down for thousands of miles into the earth. That’s the root of our suffering. And we’re trying to pull it up with ten minutes of mindfulness. Good luck with that.
We also happen to live in a post-religious, liberal-capitalist culture which celebrates self-expression and self-gratification as the supreme values, and has few cultural resources for ego-transcendence. We live in the era of the internet, where we all have pocket megaphones to shout about ME and listen for an echo. We stare into our distorted reflections, entranced by the drama of ME. Even self-appointed spokespeople for well-being on Twitter (mentioning no names) are caught up in ME – in fact, using social media to promote mental health is like using a blow-torch to put out a fire.
Project Me sucks in energy and feeds off it. It's not so much a sun, as a black hole. It feeds off our desire and fear and anger and self-pity. It becomes so heavy, so full of mass, that, like a black hole, it totally distorts the surrounding reality. Perhaps you’ve seen people with serious emotional disorders – depression, anxiety, addiction etc – and noticed how their ego-beliefs warp reality, like a coffin they have nailed around themselves.
I remember coming across a homeless man in Tottenham Court Road. It was right after I’d given a talk, and I was feeling saintly, so I said I’d buy him some food. This guy was an ex-serviceman. He was so emotionally disturbed, he could barely walk down the street. He was so full of pain and rage at the wrongs life had done to him, he would stop and rail against heaven every few metres. He could not bear his self. It was like the earth was a dry, hot wasteland and he couldn’t stand still for a second. He was swept this way and that by the winds of suffering. He was filled with horror – he could not believe his life had turned out so badly, that people treated him so cruelly. The more he despaired, the hotter the ground beneath him grew, and the stronger the wind of aversion blew.
I thought, this guy is going to kill himself soon. He is close. Make no mistake, he was in hell. Hell is right here, among us. You might be sitting next to a person on the tube, or walk past them in the street, and they are in hell.
You ever been in hell? I feel like I’ve been in the outer circles, back when I had social anxiety. My basic daily reality was hellish. My ego had become so painful, like a suit made of broken glass, that it hurt me in my dreams, and as soon as I awoke it hurt me even more. Ow, ow, ow! I couldn’t rest, couldn’t interact, couldn’t breathe, without cutting myself. I was filled with horror at my life, at my self: How did my life turn out like this? How did I get so fucked up?
That’s the extreme version, but we’re all living in a dream, laughing and shouting and sobbing in our sleep. Most of the time it’s not a horror film, more a consoling and absorbing soap opera, like Neighbours. Wouldn’t life be so bland and boring without all those little dramas, the little victories and villains and consolations? So we spend our entire life watching the show, devoting all our energy to that drama, and then we die, and we’re almost immediately forgotten. Or, if we’re unlucky, we find ourselves in hell, like that poor soldier. And we look around in disbelief – how did I end up here?
One can sometimes get a glimpse of a reality beyond Project Me. A break in the loop. As we were walking along, the homeless guy calmed down for a second, and he said to me: ‘how do you spell silk?’ ‘S-I-L-K’, I replied. ‘What do cows drink?’ ‘Milk.’ ‘No they don’t’, he replied triumphantly. ‘They drink water don’t they?’ I laughed. And then, a few seconds later, the clouds re-gathered, and he was raging. But there it was – a tiny glimpse of sky.
On meditation, very very occasionally, one finds one is not totally absorbed in Project Me. You go through the narrow claustrophic tunnel of the ego, and emerge somewhere more spacious and joyful. All the heavy mass of the ego lifts somewhat. It feels light and quiet and free.
There is something in us – something in reality itself – that wants to help us wake up and see through the stories we cling to so tightly. Buddhists believe our natural birthright and the nature of reality itself is primordial mind – empty, luminous, concept-less, pulsating with energy, wisdom and love. And we can sometimes get a glimpse of it, a calm, bright clarity amid the raging storm. The problem is, the ego fears it – it fears emptiness, it fears non-existence, it fears silence, so it would rather assert its own existence, even if that means terrible suffering. It invents enemies to justify its own bloated bureaucracy.
On the retreat I went on last month, we were taught about the three doors through which we can sometimes notice the ego illusion. Three glitches in the Matrix. The door of impermanence – realizing that the dream of the stable, permanent self in a world of stable, permanent things is a fiction. Everything changes, everything arises and passes away, so spending your life chasing permanence and security is a delusion. Secondly, the door of suffering. Realizing that the dream of ego always turns into a nightmare, however benign and enjoyable it seems now. Thirdly, the door of no-self – realizing the deep habit of ego-centricity is just a habit, that there is a limitless heart-mind beneath and below and around the little ego - and that is our basic nature.
These doors are always there, but it is so hard to wake up from Project Me. It’s hard on a retreat, let alone back here in the city. I’ve been back two weeks and I am totally captured, totally enmeshed in my old habits of ego-attachment, ego-aversion and ego-addiction. It is so real, so absorbing.
Some psychologists believe the basis of all emotional disorders is a mechanism they call ‘capture’ – your open, spacious mind becomes captured by a certain narrow pattern of thinking, about you and your life-story, or by a particular event, object or behaviour that you’re obsessed by. You get absorbed in it, open mind gets sucked into tunnel vision, the wind of desire or aversion blows you along, and you’re caught. I get caught again, and again. And again. And again. And again.
I feel so embarrassed and ashamed when I realized I have been captured once again. I try to take this path seriously. And here I am in the muddy ditch again. What a joke. And a voice says: ‘nothing has changed, you’re kidding yourself’. But I try not to go into a cycle of self-recrimination and self-indulgence – that’s just more drama. Instead, I’ll pick myself up, laugh at myself, and try to be gentle with myself and whoever else I meet today.