“Ought” vs. actual experience

A comment on a previous post:
Our dukkha (stress or suffering) comes from three major sources. (1) We want something we don’t have, or want some form of …

This is perhaps one of the hardest things for me to overcome, though I try! My concepts of what “ought” to be feel to me so logical, reasonable, and excellent, that I forget that they’re just more attachments, liable to cause me suffering.

The commenter quoted above points out that we normally see the world through a filter of “how things should be”. This feels natural, automatic and normal for most of us. However, we can interrupt ourselves when we hear the thought “it shouldn’t be like that.” No one is listening to this internal monologue; it only serves to keep us tied in a knot of resistance to our actual experience.

Part of the worldview many of us grew up with includes the idea that there is someone (usually a God) in charge of all that happens on earth. Some power, which uncannily thinks in human terms, is deciding who lives, who dies, who gets rewarded and who gets punished. In the Buddha’s teachings, there is no such power, only an unimaginably large universe of causes and results. One could think of the laws of physics as an analogy. No one needs to manage the workings of gravity and momentum; they just respond to stimuli according to their own logic, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t.

In our world, sometimes it rains and sometimes the sun shines, according to the laws of nature, at no one’s command. Sometimes people (including ourselves) are kind and sometimes unkind, sometimes thoughtful and sometimes careless, sometimes selfish and sometimes generous. Material things are made, used or not, and after a time they fall apart. Everyone who is born must die; some suffer a lot and some only a little. These are not personal judgments, just the facts of life on earth. Can we accept, with humility, how little we have control over?

We could replace the usual inner “should” commentary with asking ourselves some questions: “What’s going on here?”, “Is this mind-state wholesome or unwholesome?”. If it’s unwholesome, then “How might I refocus or redirect my attention in a more wholesome way?”; if it’s wholesome, then “How might I sustain this wholesome mind-state?” If we stop labelling ourselves and our experience as good or bad, better-than or worse-than someone/something else, then energy is freed up to observe with a broader lens, without ourselves and our judgments at the center.

Mindful investigation takes place mid-stream in our experience. If we can step back from the feeling that we are the all-seeing, all-knowing center, then we can start to observe and experience the world as a flow of interdependent events (including our effects on others) rather than as a universe of things to be claimed or rejected.

I recognize that this is a challenging concept – it was invisible to me through many years of practice. But some of you will appreciate that our assumptions about the world and our place in it may obstruct our understanding, and that these unhelpful assumptions can be abandoned when we’re ready.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Mindfulness

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