Thursday, December 9, 2010

Self-Help vs. Nonduality

Most people who find their way to nonduality have spent years studying and applying self-help methods, such as positive thinking and what is referred to as Law of Attraction.  So I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of the key differences between self-help philosophy and nonduality.

If you are relatively new to nonduality, this discussion may be a helpful gauge of whether you are open to nondual investigation and self-inquiry.  If you have considerable resistance to the points raised here, or feel this discussion is irrelevant, my guess is that you are not ripe for nondual investigation right now.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.    If you are not receptive, that is simply what is.  Honor that and move on.

Most self-help methods are based on the assumption that there is an individual person (located inside the skin line) who is able to choose thoughts and emotions and thereby cause certain outcomes to occur that are consistent with those thoughts and feelings.

Nonduality takes a very different view.  Nonduality does not recognize the validity of the individual, personal identity.  There is simply no limited entity inside the skin line that can be identified.  However, for purposes of this message, let's not concentrate on that aspect of nonduality.

Instead, let's confine ourselves to the other issue I raised above -- the degree to which we choose and control our thoughts and actions.  We can even assume, just for purposes of this message, that there IS an individual entity within the skin line.  The aim is to focus on whether we are able to control thoughts, emotions and actions. 

Do you, the individual person, control your thoughts, emotions and also your actions?

If you're ready to look into this, it's important to make a thorough, ruthless investigation of the evidence.  Put aside your preconceived beliefs for a moment and look only at your actual experience of your thoughts and feelings.  Make believe you're an investigator of a homicide case, where you will take nothing for granted, and will leave no stone unturned.  Each assumption will be rigorously tested.  Your only objective is to solve the case and arrive at the truth.

Traditional self-help says we choose our thoughts and have control over them.  A few exercises might shed some light on this.

To begin with,  I'd like you to spend five minutes without thinking about anything.  Find a time when you can relax.  You can keep your eyes open or closed.  That's up to you.  Keep your mind free of any thoughts.  If you control the thought mechanism, all you need to do is shut off the "faucet" of thoughts and don't allow any thoughts into your mind.

Unless you are the one in a million exception, you won't be able to keep thoughts away for the five minute period.  The overwhelming majority of you (including skilled meditators) will have thoughts in the first minute.  Some people will not last two seconds in a thought-free state.  Why?  Because the thoughts are just arising -- you are not controlling them.  If you were in control, you could stop them.  But you can't.

Your day-to-day experience also reveals that you don't control your thoughts and emotions.  Each day, you are going about your regular business of living, and a thought pops up out of the blue, such as:

I wonder what I'll have for lunch today
Did I shut off the lights in my bedroom before I left?
I really should call my friend tonight

While doing your work, you might suddenly think about a classmate you haven't seen for 20 years, a terrible movie you saw last week, or your cholesterol level.

You had no intention of thinking these thoughts (and experiencing any emotions that came with them), but they just popped up.  How can you say that you were in control of them?  They just appear.  These thoughts actually intruded on something else you were thinking or doing. Who or what is putting these uninvited thoughts into your mind?

For decades, I too believed that I was in control of my thoughts.  To prove it, I would ask people to think about a pink elephant.  They could think about that and even picture it.  Then I would ask them to get a picture of an ice cream cone.  They could do that too.  Thus, I had proved that we could control our own thinking. However, my test was not a valid proof at all.

All I proved is that if you're directed to think about an object, you can think about that object and even form an image of it in your mind.  However, you can't retain that image or thought for any period of time, and you can't control the thoughts and images that come streaming in, without your permission, right after you focus on the initial object.

Therefore, if I ask you to think of a pink elephant and nothing else for ten minutes, you won't be able to do it.  Other thoughts and images will rush in, without your invitation.  Thus you aren't in control of the thoughts.

Some might quibble over my use of the word "control."  You may believe that you often control your thoughts, although some idle thoughts push their way into your mind now and then. 

Let's get real about what "control" means. When you control something, you control it.  You have dominion over it.  When you are invested in the truth of self-help principles, you tend to take great license with the meaning of  this word "control."

Consider this example.  You own a car and you attempt ten right turns by turning the steering wheel to the right.  On five occasions, the car goes to the right.  On five occasions, the car goes straight or turns left.  Would you say that you had control over the car?  Of course not.

If the car does some things on its own, you don't have control over the car.  Same thing is true with your thoughts and feelings.

Let's try another angle, which is even more basic.  If you control your thoughts, why would you ever allow negative thoughts and images to be in your mind?  If you were in control, you would decide to have only thoughts of happiness, wealth, harmonious relationships,  business success, vibrant health and other goodies like that.  You could even choose very specific thoughts in each of these areas (such as earning a million dollars a year), as self-help teaches.

Yet you know that even if you make a decision to harbor only positive thoughts, other "non-positive" thoughts would creep in.  And you also know that even if you kept thinking, affirming, and visualizing a million dollar salary, you might not reach that goal. Why does that happen if the individual has control of the thought/emotion/image mechanism?

We can also learn about our thoughts if we investigate what happens when we dream during sleep.  How much control do you have over the thoughts and images that arise while you're asleep and dreaming?  You know that images and thoughts are arising.  Yet, you are not selecting them.  Who controls these?  Who or what is putting them into your awareness?

People often refer to these images as coming from the "subconscious" mind.  No matter what name we use to identify the source of these images, they aren't coming from any conscious thoughts YOU are controlling.  Some other force appears to be putting these images into your mind.

As we know, these images and thoughts can relate to something we're facing in our lives right now -- or they can be very bizarre and involve people we don't know or those we haven't seen for many years.  We can have dreams that involve people who are deceased.  Some of the plots are wild, to say the least.

Who provides the content of these stories?  Who selects the cast members that will appear in our dreams?  If thoughts and images can appear without your effort while you're asleep, what makes you think they can't be supplied to you, without your permission, while you're awake?  What evidence do you have that the rules are different in the waking state as opposed to the dream state?

Can you really be sure that you control your thoughts -- or do thoughts arise spontaneously?  Look only to the evidence.

I'll be the first to admit that positive thoughts and positive emotions seem to yield positive results and a more satisfying life (as compared with negative thoughts and negative emotions).  BUT....there is still no proof that the individual person is choosing to have these positive thoughts or has control over how and when they arise.

The proponents of Law of Attraction will excitedly tell you about the car or house they obtained by visualizing and affirming it.  They will say that they attracted the car or house.  But for every car or house they attracted, there are a dozen or more conditions in their lives that they don't want -- and have been seeking (unsuccessfully) to change for many years.

Plain and simple, Law of Attraction hasn't worked for them in those areas.  Perhaps they have the car but they don't earn the salary they want.  Or they've had three failed marriages and two bankruptcies.  They affirmed and visualized their ideal salary, their ideal partner, their ideal career and perfect health.  And it hasn't happened.

Why hasn't Law of Attraction worked in all these areas?  The mind is clever and these people will explain that they have some subconscious barriers or limiting beliefs they still need to work on.

It comes down to whether you want to cling to your old conditioned beliefs... or face the evidence regarding the control you exercise over your thoughts, emotions and actions.

More than 25 years ago, I became interested and passionate about self-help principles.  They revolutionized my life.  I read hundreds of self-development books and listened to thousands of hours of motivational audio programs.  I loved speaking and writing about self-help principles and found great meaning in my work.

However, about three years ago, after more than 20 years as a self-development speaker and author, I knew something was not quite right with the self-help model.

There were some things I knew I couldn't control, no matter how hard I tried and no matter how positive I was.  I realized that positive thinking and Law of Attraction principles would never offer the peace and harmony I sought.  That led me to STOP and to investigate the nature of my thoughts and emotions.  Once investigated, I could see right away that I wasn't controlling my thoughts and emotions.

It is not my intention to bash self-help material or denigrate those who believe in its effectiveness.  It serves its role.  In fact, if a person is not open to nonduality, I would recommend that he or she attempt to cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions to the maximum. 

However, there are serious limitations with this model and when one is ready to examine the evidence, the flaws in the model become obvious.

Here's an interesting video about the extent to which we control our decisions.  I don't offer it as conclusive proof of anything, but it certainly suggests that there are many things about our thoughts and decisions that are not explained by mainstream beliefs.