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In my previous episode, I shared with you what I believe to be the best, if not the only, system for leaving suffering behind: the power of staying in the present and breaking the cycle of attachments and rejections of our mind, or “sankaras,” which is the name that Gautama Buddha gave to these instinctive behaviors of the mind when he understood them.
I hope I’ve managed to explain why it’s so important to make every effort to train ourselves to unlearn this compulsion to cling to things that bring us pleasure and reject those that don’t please us. However, I want to delve a bit deeper into this logic because in doing spirituality and science, it’s not enough for an enlightened person to have said something for us to believe in it and apply it to our lives.
I remember that when I first encountered the path of Dhamma, thanks to the Vipassana meditation course lectures, I thought that sankaras were attachments to malicious things or rejection of natural things, or better yet, that suffering is generated when we cling to things that harm us, such as a toxic relationship or a substance that gives us pleasure but makes us dependent.
In the same way, I thought that pathological rejection was the feeling we experienced when letting go of our children when they grow up or an unrequited love or a job that enslaves us. The truth was that in both cases I was wrong, or rather, my vision was incomplete: these attachments and rejections that I just mentioned are part of the behaviors that generate suffering, but what opened my eyes and made me think with a new perspective was understanding that the key to leaving suffering is to let go of even what we consider to be good in our lives and stop rejecting what we consider to be bad.
What does this mean? Well, if we look closely, the greatest suffering arises when we lose something we love, something we consider to be a positive part of our life, things and people to whom we attribute, at least in part, the reason for our happiness. I think we can all understand or even justify a long suffering from losing a loved one, a good job, our health, a part of our body, or losing our life.
Rejection then comes from opposition, when something that causes us pain has already arisen, and we refuse to accept the new reality. In all the examples I just mentioned, what we cling to: a loved one, our health, a respectable job, are things that we all want, and it would be illogical to think that to achieve inner peace, we have to stop yearning for them, fight for them or value them.
But this is not what Buddha tells us. Gautama did not say that suffering came from longing, effort or gratitude; he said that suffering stems from attachment. At this point it seems important to define exactly what attachment is.
Our scientific “Wikipedia” bible tells us that attachment is a strong and lasting affective bond whose goal is the search for and maintenance of proximity because it provides security and comfort. It also says that one of the main characteristics of attachment is “resisting separation by feeling anxiety, desolation and abandonment upon loss.”
Note that in this definition, which uses books of psychology and not Buddhism as a source, it is clear that attachment implicitly carries a rejection: the rejection of losing the object of our attachment. Now, rejection, which we have not defined, is a slightly more generic term and denotes the act of rejecting, i.e. not accepting something. So, attachment is a feeling, but rejection is an action. You reject something that can cause you harm, such as an attack, a proposal that goes against your principles, an unjust accusation. There is nothing negative there because rejection does not imply revenge or counterattack but as I said before “non-acceptance,” “denial,” it’s as if we dodge something that hurts us. Rejection viewed in this way protects us and can save our lives.
So, what’s the problem with rejection? Rejection becomes pathological when we do not accept reality. Whatever the reality is, if we reject it, if we reject it, then it becomes sankara.
Now that we have understood a little more about what rejection is, let’s return for a moment to attachment: We saw in the definition of Wikipedia that one of the characteristics of attachment is “resisting separation by feeling anxiety, desolation, and abandonment upon loss,” that is, attachment implies rejection and this rejection is to one of two things: the possibility of losing the object of our attachment or a rejection of the temporary or permanent absence of what we are attached to.
If we reject a real absence, we are denying reality, if we reject the possibility of something leaving our side, then we are rejecting something that does not exist, and do you know what the word that defines rejection of something that does not exist is? Fear.
We then reach the essence of sankaras after this “dissection” of attachment and rejection: At the bottom, attachment and rejection are two sides of the same coin and each side of that coin has one of two origins: fear or denial of reality.
Fear and Self-Deception
With fear, something similar occurs as what I said regarding rejection: sometimes it’s demonized because according to some “spiritual” people, fear is the opposite of love. Which, by the way, I think doesn’t make sense, the opposite of love is the absence of love, just like the opposite of light is darkness.
Fear is not bad in itself, just like rejection, when it’s an immediate reaction to a real threat like aggression or a dangerous situation, fear is a survival tool that all animals have, some even think that all living beings have it. The problem arises when fear arises from something that’s not real, or at least when the perceived threat is too big compared to the real threat.
Just like rejection becomes harmful when we reject reality, fear becomes damaging when our fear is not based on reality.
Reality: Accepting reality as it is, not as we wish it were (attachment) and not as we wish it weren’t (rejection). The cure for attachment and rejection is acceptance of reality.
Accepting reality sounds simple, just look, listen, smell, taste, feel and don’t reject what our senses tell us, right? Well, if it were simple, humanity wouldn’t be lost in endless cycles of attachment and rejection.
In the episode about the awakening of consciousness, back when we talked about Plato and the cave myth, we said that humans are programmed to tell each other stories or fictions to fill in the information that we lack about the world around us. With our senses so limited, our brain needs to fill in the many gaps it finds in order to grasp the overall picture.
The problem is that these stories have never helped us truly understand the universe or know reality. On the contrary, historically, our fictions have been the biggest obstacle we have faced in advancing towards knowledge. The reason why science has flourished as it has in the past 500 years has been precisely because we stopped believing in our stories, accepted that there were many things we did not know, and began to value rigorous observation and testing more than any ideas we might have, no matter how attractive or pleasing they might be.
However, no matter how much our tendency to create and believe in baseless stories may discomfort us, this ability of our brain, developed by natural evolution over millions of years, is not going to disappear in the near future.
Denying reality and blindly trusting in the lies we create is too great a temptation for our primate brains. Being certain in a lie that answers all our questions brings us much more peace than resigning ourselves to the fact that we know very little and can control even less.
We have already seen that it is this soothing, analgesic ability of lies that makes us so susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories (See Episode: The Nature of the Matrix: The World of Illusions). Accepting reality is not easy, it requires careful training and the conquest of many fears that take hold of us each time we face the unknown abyss.
Acceptology and Self-Observation
Philosopher, humanist, and sociologist Gerardo Schmedling coined the term “Acceptology” in what he called the “School of Magic of Love”. It was about the concept of learning to accept reality as it is, without embellishments or prejudices. This is also what Vipassana meditation, mindfulness, and other healing techniques and therapies teach.
However, it is important to clarify something about the concept of accepting reality that often causes confusion: accepting does not mean justifying or accepting. Accepting means observing what happens without rejection or opposition. If the reality is that the person next to you is causing more harm than good, you can accept it and still decide not to conform to that situation but to fight to change it or to distance yourself from that relationship. I can accept that there are reasons why some people become murderers or rapists, without the need to justify murder and rape. Acceptance is the door to making change possible, denial on the other hand prevents you from moving forward because you cling to the idea that there is no better alternative, that nothing can be done or that things are better than they really are.
The same happens with the world around us. Humans are experiencing the dramas we are experiencing because we refuse to accept that our lifestyle is destroying nature, that for most of us comfort is more important than the lives of people we don’t know or that people who think differently have the right to some things.
But we also sometimes deny the reality of how much we have evolved and achieved as a species, that the world is not as bad as the news and newspapers show us. I will talk about this in detail in a future episode. In short, accepting reality means learning to see, hear, and feel with understanding, but without judgment or reaction. This is what science seeks and that is why true spirituality is science applied to oneself.
When Goenkaji tells us to sit down and meditate by simply observing our breath in a small part of our nasal passages, what he is actually doing is training us for two purposes: to free the mind from the constant internal dialogue and to train us to limit ourselves to observing what our senses tell us without making a judgment about each sensation we receive.
The Vipassana training teaches that during meditation, if a pleasant sensation arises, we should simply observe it, analyze it, scrutinize it, but not cling to it, not pursue it, not desire it, not think about it when it’s gone. In the same way, if an unpleasant sensation presents itself, we should observe it, analyze it: How does it feel in my mind? How does it feel in my chest? How does it feel in my stomach? How does my breathing change? In this case, what the technique suggests is that we should not reject that sensation, nor think “when will it go away,” or try to mentally escape and think of something pleasant.
The word Goenka uses to refer to the way we should behave in the face of each sensation we perceive is equanimity. The exercise is to learn to observe our sensations without judging them, even if the judgment is instantaneous and automatic: pleasant or unpleasant, not to react to the sensation, neither cling to the pleasant nor reject the unpleasant.
But how can I realize that I’m reacting with attachment or rejection to a sensation? Well, this is something that also isn’t easy the first few times we decide to practice Vipassana meditation. The reason? We usually deceive ourselves: “No, I’m not clinging to this sensation,” or “No, I’m not rejecting that thought.”
The solution is given to us by the same technique: to be able to observe the moment when attachment or rejection arises, we must train, develop, and enhance our observation capacity. Some refer to this as “moment-to-moment observation.” It means our ability to be aware of each subtle change that presents itself in our environment, our body, or our mind during a certain period of time.
This is the goal of the exercise of observing (or perceiving) the air passing through a small section of our nasal passages as we breathe normally. At the beginning, it happens that after a few seconds of meditation, your mind gets distracted and focuses on the tasks to be done for the next day, the bills that need to be paid, or the upcoming anniversary. Meanwhile, your unconscious is already dealing with a new rejection, maybe rejection of the boredom you are feeling, or a small back pain that starts to develop.
At first, you won’t see the point of the exercise, just like Daniel San couldn’t understand why Mr. Miyagi had him paint fences and clean cars in Karate Kid. You don’t realize it, but your mind is getting a little more disciplined every day, your observation capacity is becoming more acute, your ease of being distracted by any thought is getting weaker.
After a few days, if you’re consistent, you’ll notice how quickly you return to the present moment after distractions, how you quickly identify an attachment as it arises, or quickly detect rejection as soon as the unpleasant sensation presents itself. Just like Daniel San was able to stop the rain of attacks that Mr. Miyagi unexpectedly threw at him in Karate Kid, you can stop the sankara when it presents itself unexpectedly.
The Power of Breathing
In all this, it seems that breathing is just a utility resource or a tool for focusing the mind and training moment-to-moment observation. I’m going to tell you an impressive story so you can realize the incredible power of breathing, besides keeping us alive, of course!
US Navy Officer Jake D was on duty in Afghanistan when his vehicle ran over an explosive mine. After the confusion of the moment, he looked down and noticed that his legs had been almost completely severed below the knees. Instead of giving in to panic, Jake remembered a breathing exercise he had learned from a cadet book. Thanks to the exercise, the officer was able to stay calm enough to check on his men, give orders to request support and make a tourniquet on his own legs before losing consciousness.
The doctor who assisted him when help arrived declared that if Jake had not made the tourniquets and kept his heart rate under control, he would have bled to death. The US army has been using breathing techniques known as SKY Meditation and Mindfulness to treat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress and anxiety, achieving remarkable improvements in their mental health up to a year after the application of the techniques .
From a scientific point of view, what happens with breathing is that it has been proven that each emotion is associated with a different type of breathing. For example, when we feel happy, our breathing is regular, deep, and slow. During an episode of anxiety or anger, breathing becomes irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When we feel fear, we also tend to engage in accelerated and shallow breathing, but when we are in love, well, imagine when you’ve been next to the person you love or if you have children, nephews or pets, when you’re cuddling them very closely: I bet you notice that your breathing becomes slow and very deep, the inspiration becomes much longer than the expiration and that’s where the sighs of love come from.
Well, each type of breathing is a consequence of these emotional states, but since time immemorial, it has also been used in reverse: as a tool for causing emotions. In other words, when you become aware of your breathing, you can change its pace at will. When you breathe slowly and deeply, your blood receives more oxygen which reduces your heart rate and stimulates your vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, that is, the one that connects your two brains as we saw in the episode “The Power of Intuition and Energies”.
This stimulation of the vagus nerve triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you calm down, making you feel better and allowing your ability to think rationally to return.
Meditación en tu vida diaria
With this, we can understand the tremendous power that meditation gives us: we stop that thought machine that constantly bombards us with regrets about the past, fears about the future, and takes us away from the present moment. It trains us to detect the exact moment when an attachment or rejection arises and gives us the ability to see reality as it is. As if that were not enough, it gives us an emergency exit for moments of crisis through conscious breathing.
Now, here is my personal experience with meditation: I have never meditated for more than an hour continuously, I don’t do it every day, and I have almost never had a mystical experience or samadhi during my meditation. It is likely that if I practiced with more discipline, I would have already achieved experiences similar to those I have had with Ayahuasca, but the truth is I have not considered it necessary to do so.
Firstly, because for almost 10 years I had yagé at my disposal to experience those moments of mystical rapture that I have been describing in this podcast. I have also used other entheogens for this purpose such as marijuana and tobacco, so my search in meditation has not been for altered states of consciousness but for balance and inner peace.
Once you have learned to meditate and your body has internalized the mechanism, it becomes a kind of superpower that you can use when you need it. In moments of stress, anger, fear, or sadness, you can turn to meditation to return to your center, regain your rational thinking, and move on with your life without taking on a new burden on your shoulders.
When you have experienced this power in your daily life and realize that you don’t need to remain in states of anger, sadness, anxiety, or fear for an indefinite period of time, then begins the real empowerment that is required to traverse the path of spiritual initiation: you understand that your peace and happiness do not depend on anyone but you.
Moment-to-moment observation is another power that you acquire through practicing meditation, and this power becomes your best ally for personal growth. You see, when you meditate and observe your mind with attention, you gradually realize that you are not your thoughts, nor are you your joy or sadness. But also, if you can observe someone thinking, feeling joy or feeling sadness, then you are not the one who thinks, feels, or breathes either. You are a consciousness that is beyond thought or sensations. You start to disidentify with yourself.
When you no longer identify with your self, then you discover your inner voice, the internal wisdom that guides you through life. For some, it is your inner divinity or your connection with the Divine. Whatever your view, the fact is that this disidentification is the foundation for your personal growth: if I am not the one feeling this sadness, I can observe the sadness, understand it, and live it without judging it. Then sadness will not become a sankara, it will fulfill its purpose and help us heal a wound, but then it will go without becoming suffering. You will be able to observe your own fear, study it, understand it, and move through it without being controlled by it. This is the power of mindfulness and self-awareness, and it is the key to unlocking your true potential.
The greatest secret of spirituality keeps you in your eternal present, you just have to breathe in and release…