The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter—beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace—arise from beyond the mind. – Eckhart Tolle
The only things preventing you from being your Self are your mental habits called tendencies or predispositions. – Lester Levenson (1993, “The Self”)
Thoughts (vijnana), O monks, are not Self. If thoughts were Self, then thoughts would not lead to passions and one should be able to will: “May my thoughts be thus, may my thoughts not be thus.” And indeed, O monks, since thoughts are not Self, therefore, thoughts lead to passions, and one cannot will: “May my thoughts be thus, may my thoughts not be thus.” – Anatta Lakkhana Sutta
Whatever confronts you, don’t let it get the better of you. Learn to put a stop to thoughts. Whenever an object appears, shine your light on it. – Lin-Chi (Lin-chi 17)
Where do thoughts and feelings come from?
Without a desire, would you ever have a thought? – Lester Levenson
According to Lester, thoughts are a problem-solving process. One problem we have is figuring out what we want; another is figuring out how to obtain it. Another problem is figuring out why, despite our best efforts, we fail to obtain what we want, and still another is figuring out why we are still unhappy even when we succeed at obtaining what we want.
The world functions according to certain laws, according to which past events condition present events, and present events conditions future events. This law applies to our thoughts—and in truth, events are no more than manifestations of our collective thoughts. But bear in mind that we are not born blank slates: rather, we carry this conditioning from one life to the next in what Buddhism has named karma abhisamskara (expectations conditioned by karma).
In the Pali cannon, the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the patterns of thoughts and feelings we carry from one life to the next are called anusaya, or tendencies. Seven tendencies are identified, and these are ordered from those that characterize the lowest spiritual level to those that characterize the highest level. You grow by changing the patterns in which you think.
- attachment to the sense-realm (kama-raga – lit. craving for the sensual)
- aversion (patigha)
- views (ditthi)
- self-doubt (vicikiccha)
- conceit (mana – literally “measurement”: comparing one’s self to others)
- attachment to existence (bhava-raga)
- ignorance (avijja)
(Access to Insight: A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms)
We see that the lowest tendency is attachment to the sense-realm. A craving for the delights of this realm—food, intoxicants, sex and material things—conditions the “becoming” or birth of beings who have a long way to go. This is followed by aversion, because beings at the bottom of the spiritual ladder live their lives consumed by fear.
Views are third. To live in delusion is to believe in the reality of persons and things and to discriminate among them, regarding some things and people as good and desirable and regarding other things and people as evil and undesirable. Although you must learn to discriminate between right and wrong, you must only apply this discrimination to yourself, never to others. Rght and wrong refers to your thinking: right thinking liberates you and wrong thinking keeps you in bondage.
The sixth tendency warns us not to make rebirth in a higher realm our goal. If there is rebirth there is a self, and if there is a self there is avidya—ignorance of what you really are. Lester Levenson said that if we don’t go “all the way” from this realm, we can get stuck in higher realms for millions of years.
Yogananda was one person who yearned not for liberation (moksha), but to rejoin his guru, who had gone to a realm called Illumed Astral Planet to teach beings there. Even though Yogananda advanced to a higher realm, his attachment to a “self” and “others” and his craving to be loved kept him trapped in rebirth.
Monks, with the abandonment and destruction of the seven tendencies, the holy life is fulfilled. Which seven? The tendency of craving for the sensual, the tendency of aversion, the tendency of views, the tendency of self-doubt, the tendency of conceit, the tendency of craving for becoming, the tendency of ignorance. With the abandoning and destruction of these seven tendencies, the holy life is fulfilled. (https://suttacentral.net/an7.12/en/thanissaro)
In the fifth century, Buddhaghosa also classified tendencies, but he called them samyojana—fetters. To the original seven Buddhaghosa added three fetters: “identification with the self,” “restlessness,” and attachment to the form and formless realms.
The original list of tendencies included attachment to the sense realm (1) and attachment to existence (6), which includes existence in all possible realms. Buddhaghosa’s re-ordering of fetters replaced “attachment to existence” with attachment to the two higher realms of the triple-world (6 and 7), bringing his list into line with the triple-world of Mahayana philosophy.
Buddhaghosa’s ten fetters:
- identification with the self (sakkaya-ditthi)
- doubt (vicikiccha)
- clinging to precepts and practices (silabbata paramasa)
- attachment to the sense realm (kama-raga)
- aversion (vyapada) (patigha, above, is the feeling of aversion, and vyapada is avoidance or resistance)
- attachment to the form realm (rupa-raga)
- attachment to the formless realm (arupa-raga)
- conceit (mana – “measurement”: comparing one’s self to others)
- restlessness (uddhacca—The opposite of one-pointedness. “The excitement of mind which is disturbance, agitation of the heart, turmoil of mind” (Dhammasangani 429).
- ignorance (avijja)
The first five fetters are called ‘lower fetters’ as they correspond to the desire-realm (sense-realm); the last five are called ‘higher fetters’ as they correspond to the form-realm and the formless-realm. One who is free from the first three is called a Stream-winner (Sotapanna). One who has overcome four and five is called a Once-returner (Sakadagami). One who is fully freed from the first five fetters is called a Non-returner (Anagami). A Non-returner who does not attain liberation in this life will be reborn in a higher realm. One who is freed from all ten fetters is called an Arahat, a completely enlightened one, for whom there is no more rebirth. (Wisdom Library)
Regarding the third fetter, “Clinging to precepts and practices,” this is the same thing as the third tendency from the other list: “Holding on to views.” Clinging to precepts is self-righteous posturing. Clinging to views is a way of saying, “I’m right.”
Zen Master Guizong Zhichang once sacrificed a snake, in violation of the precept against taking life, to demonstrate for a student how he was clinging to precepts of right conduct.
A student of the sutras once visited Guizong Zhichang while he was working the soil in the garden with a hoe. Just as the student drew near, he saw Guizong use the hoe to cut a snake in half, in violation of the Buddhist precept not to take any form of life.
“I’d heard that Guizong was a crude and ill-mannered man, but I didn’t believe it until now,” the student remarked.
“Which one of us is crude, and which is refined?” Guizong asked.
“What do you mean by ‘crude’?” the student asked.
Guizong held the hoe upright.
“And in that case, what do you mean by ‘refined’?” the student asked.
Guizong made a motion as if cutting a snake in half.
“And yet,” the student said, “if you had allowed it, it would have gone away on its own.”
“If I’d allowed it to go away on its own, how would you have seen me chop the snake in two?” https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/GuizongZhichang.html
How to let go of tendencies
The reason why we’re not going free, we’re not reaching the ultimate, is we’re not quieting the mind. And for hundreds of thousands of years they’ve been telling us what to do. They tell you: Quiet the mind. But they have not given us the how-to, which is so simple. – Lester Levenson
Lester has left us a very effective method for letting go of tendencies, which he called releasing. He explains the reasoning behind it as follows:
Your mind is active twenty-four hours a day, on guard, in order that you can survive. All those programs, called apathy [pessimism, no will to fight], grief, fear, lust, anger, pride—every one of them is a survival program.
The mind will never, ever give you the answer, and you’re looking for it via the mind. You must start quieting that mind. And the thing that quiets the mind is no thoughts. And what motivates all thinking? Feelings. And all superficial feelings [arise from] two, called approval and control, which [arise from] one, called survival or security.
Every thought has a certain amount of limitation to it, and covers over the unlimited being that we are. So, we need a method that will pull out the motivation of all thinking, which are feelings, and that will quiet the mind. (Keep it Simple)
Lester observed that aversions are harder to identify than attachments, so he had his students try to accomplish goals in order to bring up fears.
The aversions to the world are difficult to see. Your attachments are obvious, and you’re chasing them all the time, but the aversions you push out of the way. So when you go for a goal, up come the anti’s—“Oh, I’m afraid,” “I can’t” and all that stuff. So, it’s a gimmick [skilful device] for getting up the aversions to the world, getting them up into sight so you can let them go. If you don’t get a thing into consciousness, you cannot see it or handle it. (The most effective way of releasing)
The craving for approval
According to Lester and Alfred Adler, the craving to be loved and accepted arises from a craving for survival. We have an instinctive fear of rejection because in many species, including the human species, separation from one’s mother or from the group can mean death.
Unlike animals, human beings can choose the groups they want to belong to. But even though rejection doesn’t put our lives in danger, we still fear it instinctively. We also fear the disapproval of people with some real or imagined power over us. The compulsion to be productive or useful arises from this fear.
To release the fear of disapproval, identify whose approval you crave. Ask yourself: Who is this “I” that craves approval?
• Use a thought such as “I am unwanted” or “I am worthless” to bring up the feeling of being rejected.
• Relax any tension there is in the body and exhale.
• Remaining relaxed, focus only on the feeling until it passes away. Who is this “I” that feels rejected?
• Use your “I” thought (“I am unwanted”) to bring up the feeling again, and observe the feeling it until it passes away.
The craving for control
The craving for control comes up when we feel threatened, and we feel threatened when fail to win people’s approval. To let go of the craving for control, we allow the feeling of anger to come up so we can release it. Some thoughts that might bring up the feeling are, “Why don’t they want me in their group?” or “Nobody cares what I think or what I want” or “Why are people so mean?” The desire to change people’s point of view—wanting them to see things our way—also comes from the desire to control them.
• Use a thought such as “I hate the way they behave” to bring up the feeling of anger.
• Relax any tension there is in the body and exhale.
• Remaining relaxed, focus only on the feeling until it passes away. Who is this “I” that feels angry?
• Use the “I” thought again (“I hate the way they behave”) to bring up the feeling, and observe the feeling until it passes away.
Self-doubt is a fear of failure; it is the feeling, “I can’t.” However, we only fear failure because we crave approval and control—after all, you can’t fail if you are the only one in the world. Identify who it is that you want to please or control, then ask yourself: Who is this “I” that craves approval and control over this person?
• Bring the thought of failure or “I can’t” up into your awareness. You might experience the feeling of fear or shame.
• Relax any tension there is in the body and exhale.
• Remaining relaxed, focus only on the feeling until it passes away. Who is this “I” that feels afraid or ashamed?
• Use the thought of failure to bring up the feeling again, and observe the feeling until it passes away.
The craving for existence
The fear of nonexistence is behind every anxiety, so don’t push anxiety away with “positive thoughts” or distractions. A thing doesn’t even have to be life-threatening to terrify us. People sometimes kill themselves when they are caught engaging in some wrongdoing: for them, being a social outcast represents a greater threat to their existence than physical death.
When facing the fear of death, remember that we decide when we leave the body, so we won’t have to experience a lot of pain. In Dolores Cannon’s Jesus and the Essenes (1992), beings witnessing the crucifixion reported that Jesus died soon after being nailed to the cross. In Between Life and Death (Cannon, 1996), there is the following account:
In one regression a young woman was being burned at the stake while the whole town watched. She was terrified but was also very angry at the bigoted people who were responsible for this. As the flames leaped higher, she decided she would not give them the satisfaction of seeing her suffer. So she left the body and watched from a hovering position above the scene. There, much to her chagrin and aggravation, she saw her body screaming as it went through the agonies of burning to death. (Cannon, 1996, p. 14)
Lester discusses releasing the fear of dying:
The number-one hindrance is wanting to survive as a body, which comes out as the fear of dying. Out of that evolves every other feeling. If I get everyone’s approval, I’m safe; I’ll survive. If I can’t get their approval, I want to make them approve of me so I’ll be safe and survive, and that’s control. But because you’re so fearful of allowing the fear of dying to come up, you need to work with approval and control first. And when you release that appreciably, naturally up comes the bottom fear of dying for you to release.
That first little release will allow you to move up to the place where you’ll realize that the fear of dying is only a feeling. And that right now you are equating it with actual death, and that’s why you don’t allow it up. If you didn’t equate the fear of dying with death itself, you would let it right up and you would go free in a matter of a week or two. And it is pushing hard to get up and get out; it’s the most suppressed feeling we have. And you’re doing a beautiful job of suppressing it and holding it down.
But I think you’re ready to allow up the feelings of the fear of dying and allow them to go out. Did you hear that word, allow? That’s just the way it happens. Instead of holding it down, you allow it up and out, because it’s trying to push up and out all the time—every suppressed feeling is. So when you do it, it’s easy. It comes up in waves and goes out, until the waves stop and you’re finished. (https://youtu.be/WpgNTmjQgO0)
“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit” – King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1).
There are several definitions of conceit in the Pali canon, but they seem to fall into the following categories:
• The conceit that I am or shall be something
• The conceit that I possess
• The conceit that I do
The first conceit, that I am or shall be something, is about measuring our social status.
If one regards himself as superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body that is impermanent, painful and subject to change, what is this but not seeing reality? Or if one regards himself as superior or equal or inferior by reason of feelings, knowledge of differences, expectations (samskara) or thoughts (vijnana), what is this but not seeing reality? If one does not regard himself as superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body, feelings, knowledge of differences, expectations or thoughts, what is this but seeing reality? (Samyutta Nikaya 22.49)
The second conceit, that I possess, measures our social status by what we have.
The eightfold conceit is pride engendered by gains, shame generated by losses, pride engendered by fame, shame engendered by ill repute, pride engendered by praise, shame engendered by blame, pride engendered by pleasure, and shame engendered by pain. (Mahaniddesa, Nidd. i.80)
The third conceit, that I do, is measuring our social status by our accomplishments. Regarding this conceit I am going to post an extremely apt passage from “Self-Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I have posted elsewhere on this blog.
Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world — as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. I wish it to be sound and sweet, and not to need diet and bleeding. I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.
Because conceit is the assertion of a separate ego-self by way of comparison to others, the way to release conceit is to let go of our craving for approval and our fear of disapproval.
Keep your attention focused on you. If you would do only this for weeks or months, you would get full Self-realization. – Lester Levenson (“Letting go of ego”)
Freeing yourself from your mind
Whose voice is narrating my life? (Stranger Than Fiction, 2006)
The good news is that you can free yourself from your mind. This is the only true liberation. You can take the first step right now.
START LISTENING TO THE VOICE IN YOUR HEAD
Pay particular attention to any repetitive thought patterns, those old audio recordings that have been playing in your head perhaps for many years. This is what I mean by “Watching the thinker,” which is another way of saying: Listen to the voice in your head, be there as the witnessing presence.
When you listen to that voice, listen to it impartially. That is to say, do not judge. Do not judge or condemn what you hear, for doing so would mean that the same voice has come in again through the back door. You’ll soon realize: There is the voice, and here I am listening to it, observing it. This I am realization, this sense of your own presence, is not a thought. It arises from beyond the mind. So, when you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. An new dimension of consciousness has come in.
We are at peace when we are established in witness consciousness. – Deepak Chopra
As you listen to the thought you feel a conscious presence—your deeper self—behind or underneath the thought, as it were. The thought then loses its power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energizing the mind through identification with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking.
When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream—a gap of “no-mind.” At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace inside you. This is the beginning of your natural state of felt oneness with Being, which is usually obscured by the mind. With practice, the sense of stillness and peace will deepen. In fact, there is no end to its depth. You will also feel a subtle emanation of joy arising from deep within: the joy of Being.
Instead of watching the thinker, you can also create a gap in the mind stream simply by directing the focus of your attention into the Now. Just become intensely conscious of the present moment. (1999)
Watch your thoughts: it’s a wonderful practice. If you thoroughly examine the mind, you will discover that it isn’t, that it’s an illusion. The ultimate witness is the Self. If you trace the source of the mind, you find it is nothingness. This whole world is a dream, an illusion, which means that it isn’t. – Lester Levenson (1993, Session 1, The Basic Goal)
No one is an effect of the unconscious mind, the unconscious habits and tendencies, unless he chooses to be. You are the cause of the unconscious mind: you set it up, you’re choosing to follow it. The day you decide not to, that day you’re through with it. (1993, “Take Full Responsibility”)
When we first see this infinite being that we are, the job isn’t finished yet; we still have the remaining habits of thought to do away with. Then, when there’s no more remaining thought, subconscious and conscious—and the subconscious thoughts are the difficult ones to let go of—when there are no more thoughts, that’s the end of playing limited. Then ‘we are totally free, forever. (1993, “Happiness”)
You discover that the whole world is nothing but you, that there never was anything but you all along, because there’s only One and you are It! But that isn’t the final state. You come out of it and there’s still a certain amount of mind left. So you go back into the meditative quest until there is no more mind controlling you. When you’ve eliminated all the habits of thought, all the tendencies of mind, you are free. (1993, “Meditation With a Quest”)
You actually do lose your mind, and then you reestablish it so that you can communicate. It’s far more difficult to reestablish the mind than it was originally to let go of it because the mind itself was such a clamping down of you, you don’t want to come back to it. But you will; you’ll start thinking again. The only difference in the before- and after-picture is that now your thinking is unfree, determined by subconscious, compulsive thoughts, but in the after-picture there are no more subconscious, compulsive thoughts. Every thought is totally free and without any conditioning by your tendencies and predispositions. (1993, “Why Not Go All the Way?”)
We all start by undoing single things at first. Then we master our tendencies or predispositions. This undoes all the numerous multitudes of thoughts that made up that tendency or predisposition. You should not keep undoing these single things piecemeal. That was all right for the beginning, [but] you don’t need it anymore. Drop a tendency or predisposition and you drop the millions of subconscious thoughts underlying it. (1993, “Why Not Go All the Way?”)
Lester Levenson: (1993)
No matter what the methods are, they all must end up doing the very same thing: freeing us of our concepts of limitation. The methodology must quiet our mind, must do away with thoughts. Every thought is a concept of limitation. When thoughts are undone, what’s left over is the infinite Being that we are. . . .
The methods, to be effective, must be in a direction of first quieting our thoughts, and then actually getting rid of our thoughts. Make a conscious effort to bring up subconscious thoughts, and when they are brought to the conscious plane, drop them. When they do come up, because they are very limiting and very negative as a whole, you want to drop them and you do.
After you have dropped an appreciable number of thoughts, then you can drop them in large amounts. . . . Later you reach a point where you can drop all the remaining thoughts at once, because having infinite power, you will have reached the point where you can see that you have this infinite power and you then can use it to wipe out the rest of the mind. That is why it is sometimes said that Self-realization is instantaneous. When you get that far that you can see that the power is yours, you wipe out all the remaining thoughts at once. Then you are totally free; you’ve gone all the way.
Q: Is just seeing the subconscious thought or motivation enough?
Lester: Just looking at it is not enough. You must consciously drop the thought or consciously cast out the tendency or motivation. I’m assuming you’ll want to let go of these thoughts because they’re all limiting and negative. One reason why we don’t like to dig them up is that we don’t like to see how awful we are. But there’s nothing good or bad; there’s just moving in the right direction or the wrong direction. When we move in the wrong direction, we move toward more limitation, and that’s really [all that] so-called bad [is]. But everything is experiencing, and when we don’t judge ourselves we move much faster.
Q: When we don’t judge ourselves?
Lester: Right. When we don’t judge ourselves. Whatever comes up, say, “So what?” To get this far in your limitations, you have [already] run the gamut of everything bad. (“Realization Through Dropping the Unconscious“, p. 312)
The Capala Sutra
There is the case, Moggallana, where a monk has heard: All dharmas are unworthy of attachment. Having heard that all dharmas are unworthy of attachment, he has direct knowledge of every dharma. Directly knowing every dharma, he comprehends every dharma. Comprehending every dharma, whatever feeling he experiences—pleasurable, painful, neither pleasurable nor painful—he remains focused on its impermanence, focused on dispassion, focused on the cessation of craving, focused on letting go of that feeling. As he remains focused on impermanence, focused on dispassion, focused on the cessation of craving, focused on letting go of that feeling, he is not dependent on anything in the world. Independent, he is unperturbed. Unperturbed, he is completely liberated right within. He discerns: Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.
* * *
Cannon, Dolores (1992). Jesus and the Essenes: Fresh Insights into Christ’s Ministry and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Bath: Gateway Books.
Cannon, Dolores (1996). Between Death and Life: Conversations with a Spirit. Bath: Gateway Books.
Tolle, Eckhart (1999). Practicing the Power of Now: Essential Teachings, Meditations, and Exercises From The Power of Now. Novato, California: New World Library.
Levenson, Lester (1993). Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Phoenix, Arizona: Sedona Institute. ISBN 0-915721-03-1 (download)
Levenson, Lester (2003). No Attachments, No Aversions: The Autobiography of a Master. Sherman Oaks, California: Lawrence Crane Enterprises.
Wisdom Library: https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/samyojana