I have just finished reading Don’t Take Your Life Personally by Ajahn Sumedho who is an American Buddhist monk. This is a review of sorts but mostly it’s an observation on the tyranny of personality that pervades modern society and how we can overcome it. The book and its views form the backdrop to this observation and cements long held and similar views I already had. I highlight passages from the book and meld my observations amongst them. What has become a scourge of epic proportion that blights our mental wellness does have remedies though, which I found in the pages of this book.
The tyranny I refer to is not by a singular person or collective (like a government and often referred to as the cult of personality). This is a view on the individual and the hold personality has over our imagined selves.
The ego is the main culprit. It’s perpetuated by social media. Social media at its worst, provides the tools with which to construct and then idolise our imagined selves, our ego. Not in all cases, this is not a sweeping generalisation because social media has many good uses when used in positive ways with good intent.
And not to diminish Freuds work in any way, but in my view and in large part based on Buddhist philosophy, the secret is not to find and perfect our personality as is often the case in modern western society, but to lose it. Not to take our lives personally in other words. The overcoming of this tendency is through awareness, simply put.
...awareness, mindfulness, looking into the reality of this moment and not getting caught up in beliefs, views and opinions. ...the real challenge is to develop attention, awakenedness, in the flow of life. Just be the observer of whatever is. ...being aware as a continuum. Pages 7, 12, 13 and 17.
One begins to realize that liberation is through letting go, through allowing life to flow, through openness and attention. We limit ourselves all the time by committing ourselves to the personality; we bind ourselves, often, to very unpleasant limitations that we habitually get caught in. Pages 32 and 66.
...the basic delusion ― putting it in Theravadan terms ― that ‘I am the Five Aggregates’ (khandha), identifying with the five aspects of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness (rupa, vedana, sanna, sunnata, vinnana). There is that which is aware of thought and there is the perception that you create, and you begin to separate the two. So the awareness is the focus. Pages 71 and 72
Through the passages above you begin to understand the separation between pure awareness and the delusion we create in our minds and chase that is personality. The only reality is the present, perfect moment, always being formed, created. Not the one we think is the reality, the person we think we should be in our minds that fluctuates and changes on a whim and is open to (mis)interpretation. More on that below.
Ego is conditioned through ignorance. It wants to live; it wants to perpetuate itself. That is how it is. It is a desire. So when your relationship to the ego comes from the deathless awareness, you begin to have perspective on what arises and ceases in consciousness every moment ― on feelings, thoughts, memories, and the physical side. This awareness includes everything. It is not the same as thinking, which is linear and can only generate one thought at a time. Awareness is unitive; whereas thinking is divisive. By not attaching to thought, you recognize that your true nature is not something you can define. You cannot define yourself as anything; you cannot find yourself; you are no thing. At the same time, however, awareness is pure, intelligent and wise. So this is what I recommend you put your faith into. Page 166
Meditation is the beginning of breaking down the conditioning process, but it is not getting rid of it; it isn’t a rejection of conditionality. Until you can separate yourself from the conditions of body and mind, however, you will be caught in changing conditions and have no perspective on them. That is what is generally referred to as ‘samsara’, the endless cycle of birth and death where we are helplessly caught in the movement of thoughts, emotions and change, and which for many people, I think, leads to despair. Page 209
When you begin to trust in the awareness, you see personality belief, doubt, and attachment to conventions in terms of dhamma. You also see that you create them. They are not natural energies; they are artifices that you add to the present moment, that you put onto your experience. Once the illusion is broken and seen through, you see the path; you see the way. So that is stream-entry. Page 247
Meditation is a best practice for building awareness. It builds awareness of the reality of things, the ability to pay attention and provides the insights needed to see things as they truly are. Also to understand that everything is impermanent: conditions, personality and our physical selves of course. Another great reason not to take ourselves too personally, nor seriously. More on that below.
I have heard people say, ‘Well, everything is impermanent,’ as though it isn’t worth grasping anything at all because ‘it’s all just going to disappoint me!’ That is a kind of wet-blanket approach, isn’t it? ‘I’m going to fail and I’m going to die anyway, so what’s the point?’ This is not vipassana (the word literally means ‘insight into the nature of things’) or yoniso manasikara (getting to the very root, the very cause of the thing, direct knowing rather than knowing about). Vipassana isn’t a function of thinking, but rather of trusting intelligence ― and that is a universal. Intelligence is not a personal thing; it isn’t cultivated in the sense of having to increase anything; it is more a matter of learning to recognize and appreciate the natural ability we already have. We have the potential for enlightenment, for seeing in this clear way without attachment to anything whatsoever. Page 257
Attachment and letting go
It is the same for everybody; there are no exceptions. It is a matter of recognizing your true nature and finding that you are not what you think you are. Every thought and every attachment gives a sense of limitation. The very fact that you can open to infinity, to space, to consciousness, however, gives you perspective on that; it frees you from just this endless rebirth, this habit of going from one thing to another. Page 266
‘Letting go’ is another concept that might help us understand this sense of relinquishing rather than holding onto anything. We are allowing ourselves to be present without getting caught up in ideas that we have to get something out of this, that we have to control everything or get rid of negative thoughts. Page 277
Buddhism is about awakening, paying attention to life, being aware, being present here and now. Thinking, on the other hand, is about ideals. Page 280
When you understand that everything is impermanent, it liberates you of the need to attach too rigidly to anything. A mental construct of who we think we are or how we want others to see us, ideals of how we want the world to be, outcomes that we think are crucial to our wellbeing, etc. When we can let go and put these fixations in their proper place, we can focus on the present, unadulterated moment of being and enjoy it for all its worth, including what we are doing in the moment. This is the path to wisdom.
Wisdom, then, is the ability to discern the difference between consciousness without attachment, and conscious experience with attachment. It isn’t a judgemental thing; it is a discerning ability. If I am attached and then I get lost in my attachment without awareness, I become what I am attached to. When I recognize pure consciousness with non-attachment, however, there is just this simple reality of attentiveness here and now. Then this is it! This is the path. Page 299
Things that we have no perceptions for, we try to fit into recognizable ones, or we dismiss them. We want to say what is right or wrong, what should be done or shouldn’t be done, what is good, bad, acceptable or unacceptable. We want to spell it all out and live according to that. This is what we call ‘conditioning ’ or ‘institutionalizing’; it is like computer programming. We put in the programme and operate from that. The Buddha, however, pointed to liberation, not to acquiring a Buddhist computer programme ― well, some Buddhists do create a programme. They go along with the convention without using it for awakening and become the convention itself. That isn’t liberation, is it? Even though it is a good convention, it is still a convention; it is still impermanent; it is still basically subject to change, to birth and death. Page 302
Dharma Hacking is a term I coined and a philosophy for the modern day experience. When technology pervades so much of our daily lives, we cannot, should not ignore it. We just should not get caught up in it as the passage above refers to it. Its precisely what I said at the beginning, when technology like social media becomes the means to the end, to the construction of selves that have no real meaning, then its not good use of technology and leads to suffering. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad and if you use technology to help you understand and evolve your lived experience, then it can be a force for good. As you’ll see if you follow the link, that is the essence of Dharma Hacking.
How can we ever feel complete, whole, or liberated, while attached to things that are delusions, that are not real? Human suffering is the way it is. This age that we are living in is a time of great confusion. The old cultural boundaries, the racial boundaries and identities, nationality and ethnicity, the sense of superior and inferior, the prejudices that have been instilled in us through our cultural conditioning ― these are all being challenged. Everything is under investigation. Yet consciousness is here and now; and it is boundless. Page 308
The Buddha did not force anything on anybody; he merely encouraged awakening, this sense of wake up! pay attention! notice! observe! The teachings of the Buddha are meant for that. They are for investigating reality in the present. Page 312
So, instead of operating from the personal which tries to get more control, puts a greater demand on life, and leads to the inevitable disappointment that goes with not getting what we want, we can let go of everything. Then there is a sense of flowing with life, flowing with the kamma-result (vipaka-kamma) of our lives as it manifests in its good and bad forms. Our refuge then is in the deathless, in the dhamma, rather than in death-bound conditions. Page 326
Relax with the breathing and consciousness; just relax with that. Then you will start awakening to the way things are rather than always moving through time and not noticing, not paying attention but merely aiming for goals in the future or being caught up in compulsive, obsessive habits. Page 340
At ease and relaxed but attentive, awake and aware with the attitude of the knower, the observer, just witness the feelings, emotions, thoughts, memories and sensations that come and go; just observe the breathing, the experience of the body sitting, and maybe the ‘sound of silence’ (the background to the sounds of the traffic). This attitude of being here and now in the present is what we call ‘cultivation’ (bhavana), which is reminding oneself that there is only the present. The body is present now ― it is ‘like this’; the breathing is now ― it is ‘like this’; the ‘sound of silence’ is ‘like this’. Page 375
In closing, I’ve tried to categorise the passages into a logical, ever progressive flow that makes sense to me. Hopefully it does to the reader. But this is just my way of making sense of the golden nuggets of truth I took from this book. I highly recommend that you read it yourself. I hope it leads you to expanded awareness, wisdom and blissful consciousness as it has done for me.