French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.” Anyone who has spent even a modicum of time looking inward knows how true this is. Populating our minds is a whole host of selves that one neuroscientist, borrowing the term historian Doris Kearn Goodwin used to describe Lincoln’s cabinet, called “a team of rivals.” It’s a group made up of competing factions whose struggle helps us to make decisions about how to behave.
Imagine waking up at five one morning and opening an eye in the dark. Half of you want to take advantage of the early hour, so you tell yourself how wonderful it will be to begin your day by doing a bit of sitting. You could then go to the gym and have a decent breakfast before going off to work. The other half of you demurs. It’s so nice and cozy in bed. You stayed up late last night watching a movie, and you know you’ll feel much better if you get another hour of sleep. Your zazen hasn’t been that great anyway, and you can’t imagine a half hour is going to make that much of a difference. You can always go to the gym on your way back from work, and even though you’re quite sure you won’t because you’re usually too tired by then, at 5 a.m. you can easily convince yourself of anything that’ll get you to sleep in.
Given these two competing desires, you—unconsciously—enlist the help of your host of selves. The disciplinarian states unequivocally that sitting and going to the gym is the way to go. No one ever did anything worthwhile by sleeping in. The parent is more concerned with you getting enough sleep. She reminds you it won’t do to be tired during your 10 a.m. meeting; it’s an important one. The practitioner brings up the commitment you’ve made to your practice and awakening. Look at the example of all the enlightened practitioners past and present. Did they waste their time sleeping? The friend counters that you’re too hard on yourself and should learn to let go a bit. Yes, sitting is important. Then again, have you really changed that much because of it? Can you even tell the difference?
If you need more evidence for either argument you can easily sort through your memory file, coming up with examples in which one or the other choice benefited you the most in the past. After twenty minutes, you decide to either stay in bed or to get up (you obviously can’t do both), followed by a bit more dialogue celebrating or condemning your own choice. The following day, you start the process all over again, perhaps wondering why you feel so exhausted despite that extra sleep.
Unfortunately for us, the brain apparently thrives on this sort of conflict. We humans have the rare distinction among animals to have the ability to experience inner conflict. “I’m of two minds,” we say—and that’s just when we break things down to opposing views. When we look closer, we see that a single issue can elicit all sorts of viewpoints and opinions, keeping us locked in a struggle to decide how to act. We argue with ourselves, we cajole, we berate, we threaten, we praise—all of it happening among me, myself, and I. From an evolutionary standpoint, this conflict does serve us well. Without opposing views, much of our action would be instinctual, and we wouldn’t have the privilege of choice—or is this only a perception, given that scientists haven’t been able to find any factual proof for the existence of free will? In either case, in our example, you could decide to sleep in for twenty minutes, sit for ten, then go to the gym. Or you could text a friend to sit with you in the evening. Or, knowing this conflict is bound to repeat itself, you could set up a daily commitment so someone else will be counting on you to get up.
Some degree of tension is good for us, it seems, because it keeps us searching for innovative solutions to our quandaries, which prevents us from falling into a rut. On the other hand, the downside is that ongoing conflict keeps us tied up in knots, and it often gets tangled up with all sorts of negative feelings like guilt, blame, and low self worth. What’s more, conflict keeps the self alive and kicking, because nothing thrives on disagreement more than the “I.” As we argue with or harangue ourselves, the self is getting exactly what it wants: attention. It’s like a politician in this respect. There’s no such thing as bad press for the self. And yet, there’s no question that these arguments cause us all manner of tension and anxiety. Surely there’s a better way to deal with all our selves?
My first teacher, Daido Roshi, used to love to quote Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
While it’s comforting to know that there’s an evolutionary reason behind the multiplicity of selves that Whitman and Montaigne so nicely named, it’s not comforting enough to just accept as the status quo. In service of our peace of mind, it’d be nice for those multitudes to get along. The first step to make this happen, within the framework of practice, is to be aware of the clashing parties, because as it turns out, the majority of the conflict happens under the surface of our consciousness. This means that instead of the freedom we think we’re exercising at any given moment, most of our choices are made for us—by habit, genetics, and circumstances. In other words, by our karma. But with practice we can bring the team of rivals into the room to lay out each of their views. Then we—the part of us that presides over the whole procedure—can apply mindfulness and insight to at least get closer to choosing the action or actions that will benefit us the most.
In the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, the Buddha delineates five progressive techniques for dealing with unskillful or unwholesome thoughts. Loosely defined, these are thoughts that create suffering, and they’re associated with desire, hatred, and delusion—the three poisons. Colloquially, we could also say these types of thoughts focus on short-term pleasure rather than long-term gain. Our job, therefore, is to teach ourselves that when it comes to true liberation from suffering, working on behalf of the long-term gain will be more fulfilling in the end.
Let’s return to our example of choosing whether or not to sleep in. As my teacher Shugen Roshi says, “We should practice when it’s easy.” Otherwise there’s no chance we’ll do it when things get hard. So, faced with the thought of sleeping in when we could be sitting zazen, the Buddha first suggests replacing the unskillful sign (thought) with a skillful one, much like a carpenter would use a fine peg to drive out a coarser piece. “Sleeping in feels good, but being awake (in every sense of the word) is even better.”
If this isn’t enough to coax us out of bed, the Buddha then suggests reminding ourselves of the danger of the unskillful thought, just as if the carcass of a snake or a dog or a human being were tied around our necks (how’s that for a graphic image?!) Shantideva, the 8th-century Indian monk and philosopher, was particularly good at this technique. He was constantly reminding himself of the danger of laxness:
“Today, at least, I shall not die,”
So rash to lull myself with words like these!
My dissolution and my hour of death
Will come upon me ineluctably.
So why am I so unafraid,
For what escape is there for me?
Death, my death will certainly come round,
So how can I relax in careless ease?
(The Padmakara Translation Group)
Please note this technique doesn’t include belittling or blackmailing ourselves. It’s simply bringing to mind the danger of delusion—particularly when it’s unacknowledged. “I turned to practice because I was feeling depressed. It helps me when I sit, more than sleeping does. The teachings say there’s an end to suffering but if I don’t engage them, I’ll always be stuck where I am.”
The third option is to ignore the unskillful sign and redirect our attention, just like someone would shut their eyes to avoid seeing something they don’t want to see. Instead of giving air time to the thought of sleeping in, we can just get out of bed the moment the alarm goes off, not giving ourselves time to second guess. If needed, we can give ourselves a little encouragement. “If I sleep in today, I make it that much harder for myself to wake up early tomorrow. A little more sleep won’t make that much of a difference, yet sitting definitely changes my day. I’ve been saying I’ve been feeling stressed lately. I need to give myself this quiet time. So get up! Get up, get up, get up.” As we can see, each of these techniques requires progressively more engagement from us. That’s why it’s imperative to make this process conscious.
The fourth tool entails retracing our steps to get at the root of the thought, just as a person would move from a grosser posture to a more subtle one. In the sutra, the Buddha traces a person’s movement from walking, to standing, to sitting, to lying down. Practically speaking, it means reflecting on the reasons that the unskillful thought or sign might be coming up. “I’ve been making excuses for not getting up early to sit. I say I’m tired, but when I think about it, I see that there’s reluctance underneath. I think I’m avoiding being with myself. When I come home at night, instead of taking advantage of the time, I busy myself with projects around the house. Or I turn on the TV and veg out. Maybe I’m afraid of the feelings that might come up if I really get still and quiet. At the same time, I don’t want to keep avoiding my life.”
Finally, the fifth technique pulls out all the stops. When nothing else works, it’s time to read ourselves the riot act. We “crush mind with mind,” the Buddha says, just as a strong man would beat and crush a weaker one. It’s an unfortunate image, and not one I quote often. Instead I think of this tool as the “pull it together, Zuisei!” call. When all reasoning, inspiration, and negotiation has failed, it’s time to just buckle down and do what I said I was going to do—because, despite the evidence, it’s ultimately what I want.
Mindfulness and insight won’t sweep away years of karma in an instant. But they will increase the likelihood that instead of reacting to what happens to us, we’ll be able to respond. In his 2001 book Understanding Our Mind, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of working with our afflictions by bringing them up from the basement of our consciousness to the light of day. We invite all those hidden selves with their many beliefs, ideas, and opinions, and we invite them to sit down with us in the living room. This way we can all look at each other face to face.
Our insight may be partial or imperfect but I’ll choose it over oblivion any day. Call me ambitious but, if as neuroscientists claim, ninety-five percent of our brain activity is unconscious, I’d like to enlist as many mes as I can in the project of waking up. In other words, I’d like to make the most of that other five percent.