An Xennial's Unlikely Journey of Spiritual Discovery
Fruits of the Practice: Thoughts and Emotions have Become More Transparent and Less Sticky
Lately, I've been reflecting a lot on what drives me to practice. At first, I practiced to be a little less stressed and anxious. To be a little more patient. To suffer a little less. To be, in Dan Harris's words, "10% happier". It worked. I felt a little less stressed out and anxiety-ridden. There was definitely more patience. The return on time invested was meeting or exceeding Dan Harris's ten percent benchmark.
But, as my craving mind would have it, this wasn't enough. I started hearing about this thing called awakening. At first, my atheist and secular mind dismissed it as religious woo woo on par with talk of an eternal heaven full of angelic beings. With time, however, I got more and more curious about this whole waking up process. It seemed like serious secular thinkers, such as Sam Harris, were on board with awakening being a real thing that lay people could, with practice and motivation, experience. I then started to seriously entertain the possibility that most of us can actually awaken, as Sayadaw U Pandita would put it, "in this very life". So, I seriously committed myself to the meditative path to see how much I could wake up. I'm happy and blessed to report that, other than marrying and sharing this beautiful existence with my wife, this is the best decision I've made in my life. And it's not even close.
While I don't consider myself - and perhaps never will - awakened, I have noticed significant positive changes in my life that can be directly traced back to my meditative practice. These are the "fruits of my practice", so to speak. In what follows, I will share what I take to be the two biggest changes that have come about in my life as a result of my journey along this contemplative path. In broad strokes, the two changes are that thoughts and emotions are becoming (1) way more transparent, and (2) way less sticky. This, in turn, frees me from significant amounts of suffering. I'll try to unpack this.
What I have in mind when I claim that thoughts and emotions are becoming way more transparent is that they are seen for what they are and they are seen quickly. By this I mean that it is now more and more common for me to see a thought or an emotion almost immediately as it arises. And when the thought or emotion is seen, and I mean really seen, the thought or emotion is quickly perceived to be insubstantial, fleeting and devoid of any inherent truth value. It's simply an appearance in consciousness that arises when conditions are ripe, much like sounds or sights appear in consciousness when conditions are right (e.g. lighting is good for sights, sound waves are emitted for sounds, etc.). The result is that thoughts and emotions become "transparent" in the sense that they are seen for what they are (temporary appearances in consciousness much like sounds or sights). And when seen for what they are, thoughts and emotions lose much, if not all, of their power to suck me in to a storyline.
Another way of looking at this is that thoughts and emotions are made transparent when one sheds the light of awareness on them. By bringing the light of awareness to thoughts and emotions one sees through them and understands that thoughts are just mental images and mental talk that arise dependent on other phenomena, such as sights or sounds. For example, you drive past a burger joint and that triggers a thought that takes the form of self-talk by, for example, silently saying to yourself "I'm hungry, and I could totally go for a burger right now". If you illuminate the thought with the light of awareness, you are able to see the thought as fleeting and insubstantial. More importantly, you will be able to see the thought as dependently arising based on other conditions. In this case, you are able to see the thought as directly arising as a consequence of your seeing of the sign for the burger joint. This external sight of the burger joint (labeled "see out" in Shinzen Young's noting system) triggers or causes a thought (mental talk or a mental image, labeled as "hear in" or "see in" under Shinzen's system). The thought, in turn, can perhaps trigger a bodily sensation (stomach grumbling, for example...which would be labeled "feel out" following Shinzen's system). That bodily sensation can then trigger an emotion, perhaps revealed to you as the realization that "I'm hungry" (labeled "feel in" under Shinzen's system). Then that emotion can trigger a knee jerk reaction to pull in to the burger joint, order a double bacon cheeseburger with super sized fries and a beer. An hour later you're stuffed, don't feel well, and wonder why the heck you ended up in the burger joint anyway. Boom - you have dukkha. But all of this could've been avoided had you shed the light of awareness on the initial thought as it arose. By making the thought transparent, you could have seen it for the insubstantial and dependent arising that it was and refuse to get caught up in its accompanying storyline. End of dukkha (only in that particular context, of course, there's way more dukkha to go around!).
Note that this kind of interconnected process of external sense contacts producing internal phenomena and vice versa is happening all the freaking time. It's just that we are typically unaware of it. Expressed differently, we are typically unable to see the process take place. But once you progress enough along the meditative path, you start seeing the process as it unfolds. And by seeing the process as it unfolds you are liberated from being swept up by the process without ever knowing what hit you. And this leads to less suffering, because if you pay close attention, most of the suffering in our lives is caused by getting caught up in these emotional and thought-based storylines. But once we see the process, we can get off of the train heading towards dukkha and choose a different, more skillful, path. This is what I mean by thoughts and emotions becoming more "transparent" and by the claim that this process of making thoughts and emotions more transparent significantly reduces suffering.
With regard to thoughts and emotions becoming way less sticky, what I mean is that the half-life of thoughts and emotions is considerably diminished as one progresses along the path. Sometimes when a thought or emotion arises it is very difficult not to get carried away by it and fall into some kind of storyline, if only for a second or two. This keeps happening to me even as I've continued to progress along this path. However, when it does happen, I'm able to: (1) see the storyline earlier and earlier and drop it pretty quickly, and (2) go back to a baseline state of general okayness pretty quickly after the storyline that emerged from the thought or emotion is dropped. The thoughts and emotions, and the storylines they create, are thus experienced as less sticky, in the sense that they do not tend to stick or stay with me for an extended period of time and instead they are dropped pretty quickly, allowing me to return to a default state of okayness in short order. The amount of suffering that this saves me from is significant. For example, the difference between getting caught up in an unskillful and painful thought, emotion, or storyline for 2 minutes and getting caught up in those states for 2 hours is staggering. As I keep making progress, my experience more and more often resembles the former (2 minutes of unskillful thoughts/emotions/storylines) and not the latter (2 hours of unskillful thoughts/emotions/storylines). This is a massive upgrade over what used to be the default half life of these thoughts/emotions/storylines prior to my more hardcore meditative journey.
As I hope I was able to convey, the changes that are produced as a result of this meditative journey are quite beautiful and skillful. People around you, and yourself, will be way happier as a result of these changes. However, some people worry that continued meditative and spiritual development may end up causing them to lose their personality or their "edge". But these concerns are just worries. And worries are thoughts. And thoughts, as I said before, have no inherent truth value and are not worth thinking about (pun intended, to the extent that there is one). So if you're navigating the contemplative path and you worry about these kinds of things, my advice is to stop thinking about what progressing through the path will bring. That's just more thinking. Just keep at it, keep progressing, and you'll see for yourself. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll look back at your concerns and see that you really had nothing to worry about.
Much Metta to you and may your practice continue to blossom and mature!