Choices and Practice

My investigation of the kilesas last week left me with more questions to consider, this time around the role of choice. I found that even though the kilesas are impersonal processes, it appeared that there was still a requirement to make choices about how to deal with to them. This also posed me another quandary – if the kilesas are not-self, and they just happen, then who is it that can do the choosing?

These questions initially found me working through some apparent contradictions in the approach to practice. At times it seems we are asked to take action, while at other times we are asked to just leave things be. By and large, the teachings in the Pali canon seem to make it clear that we are expected to make decisions about what is skillful and unskillful, and to act upon them. But up until this point I had never considered that making choices could be a fundamental part of the practice.

In the sutta How to Stop Thinking (MN20) the Buddha gives five methods for stopping thoughts from taking over your meditation. The mere fact that he is telling us that we should intervene when thoughts come up indicates that we act with agency in this process. He uses the famous simile of a carpenter using a fine peg to knock out a larger peg, telling us that our first line of attack should be that we knock the errant thought out with a more skillful one. He also tells us to reflect on the drawbacks of the thought, to ignore the thought, to try to stop all thoughts completely, and finally to use sheer willpower to crush the thought. This clearly indicates not only an element of choice but an expectation that we should use it.

Again in MN152 the Buddha shows that choice has a clear role when he is talking about advanced practitioners and how they train themselves:
“And how are they a noble one with developed faculties? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes, liking, disliking, and both liking and disliking come up in them. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the unrepulsive in the repulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the repulsive in the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the unrepulsive in the repulsive and the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate perceiving the repulsive in the unrepulsive and the repulsive,’ that’s what they do. If they wish: ‘May I meditate staying equanimous, mindful and aware, rejecting both the repulsive and the unrepulsive,’ that’s what they do.” trans. by Ajahn Sujato

He seems to be saying that when we undertake investigations in our meditation that we are making a choice about what area we are going to explore, and having made that choice that is what the mind then focuses on. Choice, then, is a key element in investigative meditation practices.
But when you see that the actions of the kilesas are not personal, they are just processes, then it can make you wonder to what extent you can make choices. If you choose to think only kind thoughts but your unkind kilesa is churning out mean thoughts at every turn, then what is it that you are choosing and do these choices impact on your kilesas at all?

In his book Head and Heart Together, Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that the answer to this conundrum is that we do have a choice, not of what comes up in our minds but of how we react to it:

“Past kamma is not entirely deterministic. Even though past kamma shapes the range of options open to the mind in the present, it doesn’t have to determine present kamma — the intentions by which the mind chooses to fabricate actual experiences from among those options. Thus present kamma can choose to continue creating the conditions for more ignorance, or not, because present choices are what keep ignorance alive. “ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So the presence of the kilesa, and the output of its action are not choices that we make, but how we respond to the output is very much our choice. If we choose to keep ignorance alive we will cling to the output, and we will make it a source of self. If we choose to end the ignorance we will recognise it as the action of a kilesa, and let it go.

Does this negate the practices we do around cultivating the quality of letting go though? The Sabbavasa Sutta (MN2) gives us a way to understand these different approaches:

Mendicants, I say that the ending of defilements is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know or see. For one who knows and sees what? Proper attention and improper attention. When you pay improper attention, defilements arise, and once arisen they grow. When you pay proper attention, defilements don’t arise, and those that have already arisen are given up.
Some defilements should be given up by seeing, some by restraint, some by using, some by enduring, some by avoiding, some by dispelling, and some by developing. trans. by Ajahn Sujato

The Buddha tells us to endure things like cold, heat, hunger, thirst, insects, animals, criticism, and physical pain. He tells us to restrain the six sense bases, to ‘guard the sense doors’. And he tells us to dispel sensual, malicious, or cruel thoughts; to not tolerate any unskilful qualities that arise but to get rid of them. So while some things are to be just left as they are, some things – unskilful qualities – are to be uprooted as soon as they appear, and that requires choice on our part.
But this might beg the question about why we need to make any choice at all? Why don’t all of the kilesas respond to the same treatment of simply leaving them be and not reacting to them?
Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers this explanation:

“Discernment is insight into how the mind fabricates its experiences. This process of fabrication is going on all the time right before our eyes — even nearer than our eyes — and yet part of the mind chooses to ignore it. We tend to be more interested in the experiences that result from the fabrication: the physical, mental, and emotional states we want to savor and enjoy. It’s like watching a play. We enjoy entering into the make-believe world on the stage, and prefer to ignore the noises made by the back-stage crew that would call the reality of that world into question.

This ignorance is willed, which is why we need an act of the will to see through it, to discern the back-stage machinations of the mind.” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

In Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s opinion our ignorance is a choice, albeit one that we have made in ignorance. Our mind knows that it is distorting reality, but chooses to not acknowledge it because the outputs of the process are often very enjoyable. But he says that “the mind’s own choice can pierce its own ignorance”; so not only are we able to take action to stop the mind from overlooking reality, we have to because otherwise we will just keep buying into the illusion.

This can still leave a question about who does the choosing if the kilesas are not the site of self. I think this question hinges on how easy it is to get in a tangle when thinking about self and not-self. In our practice we are called to thoroughly investigate the phenomenon of the world and of our experience, and to see that self does not reside there. The Buddha never says that there is no self, he only ever says that the things that we commonly attribute a sense of self to do not have any self in. To uncover the lack of self in all conditioned phenomenon and then turn your mind to trying to figure out where self could be instead is like escaping out of a burning building through the front door only to run around the back and climb back in one of the windows. Looking for self is a kilesa, and one that we need to choose to not follow. Self is a concept that only exists in human minds, so if you are operating beyond conceptual thought then there is no self.

What we are looking for is a mechanism for volution, intentional action, this doesn’t need to require a self. Everyone who has used mindfulness practices has experienced that there is the ability for the focus of attention to be moved from one place to another. There is some quality of discernment present that interacts with our experience, and there is a means to act upon the judgement of mindfulness that allows us to redirect our attention away from the unskilful. We are not mere passengers on this ride, not just passive witnesses to what is unfolding before us, there is clearly choice. We know this because we can experience it. But to say that because there is choice that there has to be a ‘self’ doing it is a mistake because ‘self’ is just a concept.

Again Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an angle on this, saying that commitment to preserving the truth is crucial in our practice, and that by doing so we can stop ourselves from going off down a rabbit hole:

“…the determination to preserve the truth grows from seeing the mind’s capacity to lie to itself about whether its actions are causing suffering. You want to be honest and vigilant in looking for and admitting suffering, even when you’re attached to the actions that cause it. This truthfulness relates to the path in two stages: first, when looking for unskillful actions that keep you off the path; and then, as the path nears fruition, looking for the subtle levels of stress caused even by skillful elements of the path…” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Our minds have an incredible capacity to bullshit us and we need to stay on our toes to intercept its fabrications. We frequently tell ourselves that something is alright when it clearly isn’t, and that our actions are harmless when ultimately they aren’t. The Buddha tells us repeatedly that noodling about existential matters is going to confuse us and distract us from the path, but if we aren’t honest with ourselves we can go down this line of thinking quite easily. We can tell ourselves its just a bit of harmless speculation, but this is the output of a kilesa, the kilesa that spins a tale to cover up when we are indulging in some kind of sense pleasure or when we are trying to avoid some kind of discomfort. If we’re not careful we could have an insight into how things really work, and then allow our mind to speculate and obsfuscate, until it has convinced us that our insight is wrong and that following it – instead of following the mind – would be the unskilful action.

The evidence of the requirement to make choices in the practices in the Pali canon is abundant, and that is something I have always known. By asking these questions about choice and self, I came to uncover a long standing piece of wishful thinking going on on my part. Perhaps I had been encouraged to see it this way by certain teachers, or perhaps I had assumed it based on previous experiences, but somewhere deep down in the back of my mind there was an idea that once you could see through the processes of ignorance that all of your bad habits would just fall away, as if by magic. Now of course that does happen to a certain extent at times, sometimes you have an insight into the nature of reality and then suddenly the baggage around it just vanishes. On some level I must have assumed that any problems I did still have were down to a lack of insight, and if I could just see the issue from the right angle then they would just fall away effortlessly too. I definitely have a kilesa for being lazy, so it’s no wonder that I might choose to allow that kind of delusion to persist in my mind.

Yet as I saw the actions of the kilesas for what they were, totally impersonal and just the result of processes and old habits, I saw that this knowledge alone wasn’t enough to stop the kilesas from being active. Worse still, I saw that this knowledge alone wasn’t enough to stop me from attaching to the outputs. Eventually I realised that perhaps there was no silver bullet, these habits weren’t going to just disappear, and I was going to have to make the choice to let the outputs of the kilesas go every time they came up.

Reaching enlightenment, it seems, is:

“contingent on intentional actions chosen in each present moment. And even after stream-entry, you’re constantly faced with choices that will speed up final Awakening or slow it down.” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So even after we have enough insight to see the mechanisms at work the illusion can still hold sway over us, so we need to continue to act to make the right choices.

This made me wonder about whether the time between kilesas was important. Is there something that we should be doing when our mind isn’t being kilesa-ed, something that is fundamentally under our control and therefore a big part of choice that we make between the skilful and the unskilful? Is there a choice we should be making that lessens the draw of the kilesas without us having to keep activating them and letting go of their outputs all the time? These questions brought me all the way back to the very beginning point of my own practice – mindfulness. It seemed obvious that the choice I should be making inbetween the outputs of kilesas was mindfulness, carefully watching where attention was landing and steering it towards something wholesome whenever possible. I needed to recognise the quality of the mind between kilesas was pure, and that the quality of the experience was peaceful. Making the choice of tending to the pure and peaceful aspects of the mind instead of leaving the mind free to roam all over the place was the choice that I needed to make.

I admit that I did feel something of a burden of responsibility when I realised this. Once I had put down my wishful thinking that all the kilesas could just disappear on their own, I realised that there was actually an awful lot of work to do, and that I had to make choices – the right choices – every single time. But even feeling like this is a lot of work is the output of a kilesa too, and as long as I keep looking for the kilesas hiding in amongst the stories that my mind will tell to try to hold onto something more fun then I’m still making the right choices. It isn’t complicated though: do good, avoid doing evil, purify the mind. Once we have seen through the illusions that make us think the outputs of the kilesas are real, then these three simple choices are all we really have to deal with.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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