Mind killing and reactive patterns Download
Recognizing and countering four forms of “mind killing” in which reactive patterns are used to induce us to act against our own interests; idol of the cave: attempts to replace our experience with others’ goals; idol of the marketplace: language is used to mislead us; idol of the theater: theories or philosophies are used to overwhelm us; idol of the tribe: more cohesion is assumed than actually exists.
If I’m correct it’s Friday, August 13th. , morning session. Actually this will be our last recorded session.
Tomorrow, as I talked about last night, we return to “the full catastrophe,” though some of you may have thought this retreat was the full catastrophe. I assure you it isn’t. [Laughter]
There are a couple of things that I want to suggest to you. Some time ago a friend of mine, John Parmenter, came up with the phrase, mind-killing, which he defines as
the use of your own reactive patterns to get you to do something which is against your interests.
Now, one of the themes that we’ve explored here is that mind is how we experience things. So another way of looking at this is, how is your own experience of the world and of yourself undermined, negated or trivialized—any number of things—so that you don’t know your own experience or are unable to act on your own experience. Both would come under the category of mind-killing.
And this is something John and I discussed quite deeply over a period of time. And I’ve identified ten mechanisms of mind-killing. Six of them come from Noam Chomsky and you can find them in Manufacturing Consent, and there’s a YouTube video by that title. I’m not going to go into those six because they’re up on Unfettered Mind’s website in an article called Passivity and Freedom. And you can read it. It’s not a full exposition, but we’ve gone into them in great detail in some of the Warrior’s Solution and Power retreats.
What I want to turn attention to is another four I came across not too long ago which come from our old friend, Francis Bacon, who’s an interesting guy. Seventeenth century? Yeah. And he called these the four idols: the idol of the cave, the idol of the marketplace, the idol of the theater, and the idol of the tribe. Mind-killing or this undermining of our connection with our own experience operates on many, many levels.
It doesn’t matter where we start, I’m going to start from the outside in. We see it happening in our culture, principally in politics and advertising, where your own experience and way of looking at things is systematically undermined or replaced by somebody else’s.
One of the great examples of this is DeBeers’ fifty-year campaign about diamonds. There’s quite a good article, I think in the Atlantic, which describes how, through very, very subtle advertising tuned to this culture at each period of time completely suckered everybody into buying diamonds. You think it’s a slogan, Diamonds are Forever. It’s an extremely subtle message, because on the surface you buy the message as: this is how I show that I am; you are forever my love. But the way that it serves DeBeers is that you, by adopting that attitude, you never sell a diamond. Which is extremely important if they’re going to sell you diamonds, they don’t want you to start selling them.
And you come up with this phrase of investment grade diamonds, which was another brilliant one. Okay? And all of these things are intended so that you never sell a diamond. And if you’ve ever tried to sell an investment grade diamond, you find out it isn’t such a good investment. [Laughter] It’s almost impossible to sell. That’s just one example from advertising and one can go on and on and on. We find the same thing in politics, propaganda, and so forth.
And you have very, very large systems who pour immense amounts of money and research into figuring out how to replace your experience with the way they want you to look at the world, so that you can be manipulated in serving their interests. Classic mind-killing.
It also operates at the level of families, societies, institutions, etc. Academia is a wonderful place, many companies. And this is what I detail a little bit in the article on the Unfettered Mind website. One of them is, “You do things our way and you’ll be able to realize your dreams.” They just bought you. A very good movie for understanding this is, Thank You For Smoking.
And it also operates very, very frequently within spiritual and religious institutions. The power structures, people in positions of power will utilize teachings and traditions in order to gain or maintain power.
Stephen Batchelor has a wonderful take on Mahakasyapa in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Where the whole story of Buddha holding the flower and Mahakasyapa smiles and Buddha says, “If one person has understood what I’m talking about…” It’s a wonderful propaganda piece for Mahakasyapa. He’s the only one and he took control of the sangha at that point. And Stephen Batchelor says, you know, I mean, this is speculation of course but says, “It may have been the appropriate thing to do because it was in danger of disintegrating and fragmenting, so it benefitted from that.” But, it’s an interesting take.
Within spiritual practice, as some of you’ve heard me say, I’m not sure I said it very explicitly here, so I want to right now—All efforts in spiritual practice have to be volitional.
If someone is making you do something, they’re undermining your connection with your own experience and it’s a form of mind-killing. And one of the things that I’ve tried to do in this retreat, particularly in the interviews, is to put you in touch not only with your own experience, but the ways, and this takes us into the deeper level, your own reactivity prevents you from being in your own experience. And that’s where mind-killing operates, internally.
And one way of looking at spiritual practice is that it’s a way of coming to know and being able to act on our own experience. And for that—and this is why it’s so challenging—one can’t be emotionally attached to any part of yourself. Which is why equanimity becomes very important and why this open awareness is very, very important. Because, as we’ve talked about a couple of days ago, when you are able to experience everything, all the different parts of you, then they find their own balance, that’s how you are completely in your own experience.
But, as we well know, there are these parts of us that are…how many of you saw Finding Nemo? Okay. So you remember, he’s finally escaping, he’s got to run this gauntlet of seagulls to get back in the ocean? And what are all these seagulls saying? “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!!” [Laughter] Which I thought was brilliant. ’Cause whenever you see seagulls, they fight over food, and you know, one of them gets a clam or something or a morsel and you know, and then it’s everybody, all of the other ones are trying to get it from him. So, that’s what our parts inside are. They’re all saying, “Me! Me! Me!” [Laughter] And they’re quite ruthless about that.
So, as we go from here to our lives—what Francis Bacon talks about—the first idol, or mechanism, that undermines our connection with our own experience, our own prejudices and preferences, he calls the idol of the cave. ’Cause this is the cave we’re stuck in. We only see things according to our preferences and prejudices. And whichever ones of those are dominating at a particular time will lead us to act in certain ways, which may very well be contrary to our longer term or even shorter term interests. And this is one of the reason why in Buddhism, particularly in the Theravadan tradition, a great deal of emphasis is placed on developing equanimity, developing the ability to experience things without judgment.
And it’s very interesting when one of my students—we were working on the four immeasurables—and he’s a stockbroker, and there was a guy in the office that everybody just ignored, nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. And of course, this guy felt this, and was always trying to connect with people. And he brought this up and I said, “Well, why don’t you just try being equanimous?” So, the next meeting of the group, he came back, said, “That was really interesting. ’Cause instead of trying to shun him or anything, when he came in and he just said ‘Hello,’ and I said ‘Hi.’ And then we ended up having this great conversation; turned out to be a really interesting guy. He was just a little inept socially.” ’So, and this is a very trivial example, but time and time again, and I know this so well from my own experience, we won’t [unclear; microphone interference].
Student: [Unclear] stop. There’s something wrong with the mic.
Ken: I forgot, my apologies. Here we go. That should take care of it. How’s it now?
Student: It’s starting again.
Ken: Oh, then it may be the battery. We haven’t changed the battery for a long…
So, question your preferences and prejudices. And that’s how you free yourself from this form of mind-killing, or the cave is by questioning, and you can do it [unclear].
Ken: Phones are off. So, should I pick that up? Thank you.
So, question your own preferences. Why do I feel this way about this person? Why do I feel this way about that? And that will often lead you into an exploration of particular patterns that may be operating.
The second idol, and Eric, could you send me the clocks? I don’t have the timer at this point, is the idol of the marketplace. And this is the imprecise use of language.
You know, again in politics and advertising we find this all the time, where language is deliberately used imprecisely. The way that I want you to look at this, in terms of your spiritual practice, is in the context of what I’ve discussed several times, is viewing things in terms of existence when actually you are really viewing things in terms of experience. The difference between ontology and epistemology.
I’ll give you an example: buddha nature. Buddha nature doesn’t exist; it isn’t a thing. It’s an experience. And the main treatise on buddha nature is the Uttaratantra. The Tibetan name is rgyud blama (pron. gyü lama). And in it there is the statement that there is this awareness that exists before time, doesn’t change. I can’t remember the exact wording. And you have descriptions of…it’s like, a buddha image covered in mud. When you clean off all of the mud there is the buddha image. Or it’s like a jewel encrusted, something like that. It goes through, I think, 22 different metaphors or something for this. You’ll find them all in Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
There are a couple of famous interchanges about buddha nature. The most famous is, of course, the koan Mu. In which Joshu is asked, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” And he says, “Mu.” Which is a negative in Japan, but it doesn’t exactly mean no. And I thought about this and I think if I were to translate that, I would say, “No idea.” [Laughter] You know,
“Does a dog have buddha nature?”
“I have no idea.”
Because this points to the experiential component, “I’m not a dog, I don’t know.”
And in Q and A sessions with Jamgon Kongtrul, the Great, which is in the collected writings, Kongtrul is asked, “What does it mean, ‘Buddha nature pervades all sentient beings?’ ” And he says categorically, “It is not a thing which pervades. What is buddha nature? Buddha nature is what remains when the confusion of samsara is cleared away.”
Now, you can feel how that’s pointing to an experiential view of it. Buddha nature is an experience and when you rest deeply you discover this. “Whoa.” This awareness, which is nothing, it is in our experience, but we have to rest extremely deeply in our experience and clear all kinds of things for that crystal clear knowing which has no limits, no dimensions. And when that knowing arises we recognize: this is what makes everything possible. Then if you’re a poet or something like that, you sit down and you write the Uttaratantra to celebrate this. And you just go on for pages and pages and pages because it’s so fantastic. And of course, then everybody else comes along and says, “Oh. This is a thing.” Because that’s what people do: they reify stuff.
So the way you become free of the idol of the marketplace is you pay attention; you use language precisely and you question. Question usage over and over again: “What am I talking about here? What am I actually trying to say?” And I think this is one of the reasons some people find interviews with me a little uncomfortable. It’s because I will push you to put things in your own words and you go, “Urgh,” like that, but this is a good thing. We’ll have more of that tonight. [Laughter]
The third idol is the idol of the theater. What Francis Bacon was referring to here was the power of systematic philosophies and systems of thinking to completely overwhelm us. And we see this again and again. I’ll give you a few examples on the level of society—supply-side economics, which the first President Bush dismissed as voodoo economics, and he was right. And it all comes from Milton Freedman and the Chicago school. And just because it’s repeated again and again and again and again, it’s absorbed and people come to believe it. And it’s been absolutely disastrous.
The same thing happens frequently in medicine. In the nineteenth century, well into the nineteenth century, blood-letting was regarded as a very sound treatment for all kinds of ailments. And numerous patients died from loss of blood from blood-letting, until a more accurate theory developed.
Sociology, psychology, all of these areas are very, very subject to this kind of thing. And it’s the same within spiritual circles. We become accustomed to thinking a certain way, either through our culture, through our family system and so forth. And it cuts us off from our actual experience.
Something I think I mentioned earlier, what helps us here actually is compassion. Because compassion allows us to see suffering wherever it is, regardless of how we are thinking. And that may lead us to question the way we’re thinking, ’cause we see, “Oh, something is wrong here.”
Then the fourth one is The Tribe. This is very subtle and very pervasive. The idol of the tribe is the tendency to assume more order or cohesion than actually exists. So you feel you belong to something, or you’re part of something, which isn’t as solid a thing as you think it is. This comes up all the time in institutions because all institutions are based on a lie. And the lie is, “We’ll take care of you.” But as soon as you are no longer useful to the institution, or you come to think differently from the institution, then the institution gets rid of you in all kinds of different ways. Sometimes they just kick you out, sometimes they squeeze you out, sometimes they isolate you so you drop out. And we feel betrayed, hurt, you know, treated very badly and so forth. Why? Because we assumed there was more connection than was actually there. One could say, I suppose, I hadn’t thought of this until now, but you could say the whole sense of self is an example of the Idol of the Tribe. [Laughter] We assumed that there is more order there than there actually is, no, there’s a bunch of seagulls going, “Me! Me! Me!” And that’s it.
So, when we go from here into our lives, you may find these useful. Because the most important thing, I feel, from retreats such as this, is to be clear and freer to relate to the world through our own experience. And people say, “Well, what about morality and everything like that?” Well, this may be my own idealism, but, I don’t think so. I have just found that when people see things clearly they tend to do the right thing. And when I say, see things clearly, I don’t mean, see things the way that I do. Many, many times in meetings with students I’ll have a kind of idea about where they are and I’ll suggest it and they’ll say “No, that’s not where I am.” And they’ll come back with something, which is, you know, a really clear expression, but, in a way, my interpretation acted as a kind of sounding board or a bouncing board so that they could bounce and see things clearly. And you can hear the ring of truth in what they say.
The other thing that I’ve found over and over again is that when people are able to see and accept what is true, and I don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion of truehere, mind and body relax. I’ve seen that over and over again. Even if what is happening is extremely painful and they say, “Oh,” they just relax and then they’re able to relate to it.
So, this is why I feel it’s being able to know our own experience and act from our own experience is, I think, extremely important. I see that as one way of talking about what spiritual practice is really about.
Now, very closely connected with everything I’m saying is the ease in which we fool ourselves. And yesterday I made some comments about teaching and Carolyn reminded me of a very important principle for any of you who find yourself in teaching roles or moving into teaching roles, it is extremely easy for us to fool ourselves. The only way that I have found to guard against that is to have at least one or two people in my life from whom I have no secrets. Because if I tell somebody else, then it’s really hard for me to keep it a secret from myself. But if I don’t tell somebody else actually, that can happen all too easily. Sometimes it’s been very inconvenient, very uncomfortable, but it has served me very, very well. And it’s a way actually, of preventing these idols from having power over us, is to have one or two people from whom you have no secrets. Okay?
So, that’s everything that I want to say. That’s the last thing, well, not quite the last thing, but for purposes of the podcast anyway, the last thing that we have for this retreat. So we can stop here, Sophie.