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Are we the one who is in charge of our decisions?
If not, how are they produced in our mind and who put them there?

Let me start with a story told by Gil Fronsdal about an experience he had during a long meditation retreat. After weeks of nothing but meditating and only talking once a day to his teacher, he entered a room one day and saw a beautiful Buddha statue on an altar. He immediately felt the desire to own this wonderful piece of art. So far so good. Sounds familiar.
However, due to his long weeks of meditating and getting still, he was able to realize something that amazed him (and me when I heard the story). Apparently, before the desire to own the statue kicked in, there was a tiny moment – so small that in everyday experience he would have missed it completely – where there was nothing but just a pure appreciation for something beautiful. No wanting.

Somehow his brain was so used to jump from <seeing> to <wanting> that over time the process of just <appreciating> got smaller and smaller, until the mind just skipped it entirely.

Now, that society likes us to want more and more stuff for ourselves is not really new. That the underlying processes in our mind will at some point just ‘give in’ to the sheer force of external conditioning, which steamrolls our perception, is a bit disturbing to me.

As another small inspiration, please add to this an astonishing finding that scientists revealed in 2008. Using a fMRI study they were able to show that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 seconds before (!) it enters awareness. [Soon CS et al. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci. 2008 May]

So, in summary, our brain skips crucial decision making processes without asking and then comes to a conclusion way ahead of us. Now that is just lovely.
Is that surprising? Well, if you ask the Buddha, it is really not. Because our mind is an untrained mind.
An untrained mind is a corrupted mind.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

[Dhammapada verse 1&2, translated by Gil Fronsdal]

So, is meditation the solution? Does meditation fundamentally change the way our brain processes information?
Yes, of course it does. It might take a couple of life times to make that work, though.
It is also – counterintuitively – not the most important step.
Start at the beginning.

The important part is the realization, that we are not in charge.
The realization, that there is nothing to be in <charge> of.
The realization that there is no <we> to be in <charge> of anything.

Yes, I know, it’s confusing…

Becoming human

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This topic is one I feel particularly strong about. It is more or less the basis for all my training and I got the lesson behind it from a very small old man.

It was a Japanese Zen teacher with whom I got involved briefly a couple of years ago. He made this point one day very casually during one of his talks, but it immediately stuck with me as something very important.

He pointed out that we are not born as humans.

What does that mean? The moment we decide to reincarnate into this strange realm of existence we are given this weird body of ours as a vehicle to carry us around. It is a four dimensional representative for our mind to interact with others in what we call >conventional reality<. It is a body that could be described as a crazy naked monkey with incredible potential. Potential to become wise or evil, depending alone on our choices.

The point is: Getting born as a crazy monkey is a given. Becoming human is an accomplishment.

If we make an effort, there is a chance for us to become human, if we want to.
That what defines us as humans is what we do, how we act, what we say and how we treat us and others. Becoming human is therefore an endless work in progress which requires a lot of effort. It involves cultivating our mind, our body and our speech.

Sadly and rather obvious to anyone following the news, a lot of people choose to become something rather questionable. Questionable enough for me to sometimes wonder why the whole system of conscious development even makes sense at all.

It is very hard for us to evolve past our evolutionary monkey heritage. It takes great effort, dedication, determination and faith. However, I strongly believe that this is what we are here for. Our sole purpose to reincarnate into this strange and absurd place in the universe. Also, becoming human is just one more bus stop on the way up the consciousness ladder.

But that is a different story.

Letting go

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Sometimes we would really like to get rid of things in our life. Things we are attached to in an unhealthy way. A simple example for this can be an actual physical item that consumes our life (e.g. the Playstation). The more complicated version are the habits we collect over the years, the views we take on and finally call >our personality<. Like in: I’m always messy/aggressive/afraid like that, it’s who I am. At some point we finally want to do something about this. We may want to start loosing things.

Buddhism has a technical term for that. It is called: >Letting go<. It’s a very popular term in spiritual circles and I don’t really like it. It misses a crucial truth of the human nature. The part where we can’t actively let go of anything. It doesn’t work. The thought alone that you should better let go of something already implies that you will keep holding on. It’s like not thinking about pink elephants. If you could do that you would not even bring it up, since you already lost the memory. Without noticing. Without thinking about it.

So how can we than loose stuff we really want to get rid of? Something small maybe? Something that is stupid, but we like to make it vital for our survival. Like e.g. coffee? Can you come to a point where you don’t cling to coffee anymore, so you can forget about it and just loose it? How would you do that? How would you go inside yourself and find that little stupid switch that is labeled ‘coffee’ and turn it from ‘need desperately’ to >can have it or not< and then to >forgot about it<.

First of all – You cannot >work< on letting go. It doesn’t work like that. Our brain in not wired to process the >not doing< of something. If you tell a child to >not< fall into the pool, it will fall in because the brain jumps over the >not<. We cannot >not< think.

However, what you can work on is cultivating a different pattern that will replace the thing you are trying to loose. In case of the coffee you could just drink tea. No that’s not pleasant, who said cultivating new habits is pleasant? You are not substituting, you are re-conditioning. However, if you keep doing that for a long time, you will start craving tea. Humans are simple conditioning machines. If you like you can call it practicing, but it’s a real simple mechanism. Also, nobody really does that. It is a long process and hard work. People don’t like that. They rather obsess about replacing the coffee with different coffee, something like coffee, but not really, and so on. Basically they will do anything, rather than seeing the clinging and suffering go.

This is the much more serious underlying issue here. People don’t understand the immense benefit of losing things. We have a tendency to immediately crave what is not there any more. It’s a problem of perception. In >conventional reality< we are missing our cup of coffee. In >ultimate reality< we would not loose the cup of coffee; we would actually gain the immense power of not having to worry about our desire to need a coffee. It is said that for every desire that is let go, a happiness is won.

Btw, for personality traits it works the same way. You just can cultivate different ones.
The tool that is used for that in Buddhism, is called >Meditation<.