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A Technique of Living

Leonard A. Bullen

The second month


YOU’ll agree, no doubt, that one of the most important things in your mental life is self-understanding. You’ll agree also that most of us have much too little self-understanding and therefore need some sort of training along these lines. And, further, you’ll realize that we all possess a natural and inherent tendency towards self-deceit.

It seems that each of us in the ordinary way has a "sense of ego", an unreasoned conviction that he a distinct ego or self, unique and separate from the rest of life.

In some cases, you find a person whose sense of ego is so strong that he finds it necessary at all costs to feel the rightness of everything he does and the rightness of everything he says, as well as the rightness of everything he possesses. When he can feel this rightness (and too often it is a false rightness), then he feels superior. When he can feel this rightness, he feels inferior and inadequate; and thus he develops various complexes and neurotic trends.

Because of this false need to feel a false rightness, he must continuously deceives himself in various subtle ways; he must pretend to himself that his motives are better than they are, and he must repress all unwelcome knowledge about himself and about all things that are his.

All this, just to keep his sense of ego intact.

How on the other hand there are those who have learnt honestly to recognize their own deficiencies and just as honestly to evaluate their own virtues. These few have made some progress in self-understanding.

Most of us, however, stand somewhere between these two extremes. While we are not entirely free from self-deceit, we haven attained tocomplete self-understanding; we need, therefore, to develop and to practice some kinds of psychological techniques directed towards an increase in self-knowledge.

One of the difficulties we find is that we treasure some of irrational loves and hatreds; we cling to our emotional biases and try not to lose our complexes. Because we have grown up with them we have become attached to them. In some way or other, these irrational loves and hatreds, biases, and complexes, seems to provide a barrier against something we prefer not to face. This barrier has been called the "dread of enlightenment".

This dread of enlightenment is to be found to a greater or less extent in all of us except the few who have attained a considerable degree of self honesty. Thus it is probable that, in common with the majority of people, you tend to resist the process of self-analysis because it demand that you let go of these treasured evils. You resist the process of disentangling the web of attachments.

Why is it so? Why do you prefer self-deceit to self-knowledge? Not only do these irrationalities give you a barrier against mental factors that you don wish to face, but they also give you a kind of individual character, a sort of distinction that helps to build up your sense of being different from others.

Another reason is that you want to retain unaltered all those concepts connected with all the things you love. If you subject any of your emotional-laden concepts to the scrutiny of self-analysis you might have to alter it, and in altering it you might need to apply effort. It is much more comfortable to leave things as they are.

It is much the same with the things you hate or dislike; if you subject your concepts of these things to the strong clear light of self-examination you might have to prove yourself wrong, and to relinquish your hates and dislikes requires a great deal of adjustment. Again, it is more comfortable to leave things as they are.

Self-analysis may sometimes turn out to be temporarily very painful. What, then, is the point of it all? If you can be just as happy without self-understanding, why bother?

This, of course, is like saying since you are quite comfortable in your dark cave, why bother to build a house with windows? Once your mind becomes firmly established in its habit, the general trend of awareness becomes less acute and your whole mentality becomes less adaptable. It tends to become more lethargic and to resist change.

Then you think more emotionally – that is to say, more subjectively and less objectively. You become disturbed with less cause, your judgment is more like to be impaired, you lose your poise more readily, and your self-control crumbles easily. All this, when you prefer self-ignorance to self-understanding.

What is needed, then, in order to break down self-deceit and to increase self-understanding? Buddhism offers a principle of right mindfulness.

You’ll find this principle of right mindfulness to be simple enough in its general concept; it’s primarily the development or cultivation of the ordinary normal faculty of attention; it’s applied to many different field of experience, but in particular in needs to be directed inwardly. In this sense, mindfulness can be described mainly as self-observation.

While simple enough in its general concept as the cultivation of attention, there are so many filed of experience to which you can apply mindfulness that the whole sphere of mindfulness becomes very comprehensive.

For example, ordinary everyday activities – those of work, family life, and leisure, for example – offer a broad scope for increased self-understanding. With regard to your ordinary actions, the Buddhist system states that you must have a clear comprehension of your own motives and purposes. Without this clear comprehension you may be caught in the unthinking drift.

You know, of course, your own motives behind many of the things you do. But it may be, with some other thins you do, that you do them merely because other people do them. If so, on self-examination, you’ll find that you do these things largely to gain the approval of the people with whom you associate. The mind feels a need to retain a sense of importance and superiority, and to keep this sense of importance and superiority intact it must employ self-deceit in various forms. And to discover your real motives, you must learn to break through this self-deceit. The clear comprehension of motive, then, once of the major aspects of self-understanding.

It maybe that you have a clear comprehension of your overall motive in life, of your ultimate purpose, or it may be that you have no sense of purpose and perhaps no ultimate purpose at all; yet some sense of purpose is necessary for progress. Mindfulness in the form of self-observation is a forward step in the process of gaining a purpose of life and of becoming aware of what that purpose is.

You, in common with mankind as a whole have inherited an emotional jungle, a profuse and tangled growth of greeds and hatreds existing side by side with more noble tendencies. It’s a natural tendency – even though poor psychology – to try to ignore the vicious elements of the mind, and this is how self-deceit arises.

In its early stages, self-deceit is a refusal to recognise these vicious elements of the mind; but at a more advanced stage it may become a complete inability – much more than a conscious refusal – to recognise them. Sometimes the mind plays tricks on itself in order to keep undamaged its sense of rightness and superiority, and these tricks serve to hide its real motives and desires.

Sometimes the mind twists and distorts the meanings of experience; it avoids thoughts which offend it and which show it up to itself in an unfavourable light, and it diverts its attention from unwanted thoughts to those which bring out its pleasant aspects.

Psychology knows these tricks as the mental mechanisms, such as the mechanisms of avoidance, divertance, and fixation.

Another aspect of self-observation is concerned with the sensations as they’re perceived through the various sense organs as they’re received in the mind with special regard to their pleasure-pain content.

The point about sensation in relation to its pleasure-pain content is that it’s at this level that attachment has its origin; and attachment is a major cause of unhappiness. All things in the world change; all things arise and pass away; and the more you become attached to anything at all the more you will suffer when you lose it.

To control attachment, therefore, you must keep watch at the door of sensation. As you become more critically aware of all your experiences at the level of sensation, you learn to prevent the pleasure in one and the pain in another from taking control. That is, instead of being controlled by your pleasures and pains, you learn to pass through them without being swept away by them. It’s when you allow your pleasures and pains at the sensational level to dominate you that you become swept away by your emotions, pleasant and painful; and you’re then fully enmeshed in the web of attachment. And then you’re incapable of objective reasoning and wise decisions.

You can see, then, that it is desirable to train yourself to keep a critical watch on your experiences at the level of sensation, and just as critically to evaluate the pleasure and pains at this level. You can extend this objective self-observation, then, to the factors that go to make up your mental state.

According to the Buddha-doctrine, there are three basic mental factors that retard the mind’s progress. One of these is called selfish desire. It exists in various forms such as greed and possessiveness, and it may be either intense on the one hand or mild and unobtrusive on the other. Then there is aversion, which we find also in the guise of anger, hatred, and resentment, and irritability. And the third is called delusion; this also appears in different forms, principally as self-assertion and self-deceit.

The observation of the mental state is a form of mindfulness whose objective is to shine the full light of consciousness on to theses "roots of evil," as they are called, and on to all mental factors derived from them and allied with them. These include not only such factors as envy, conceit, and stinginess, but also rigidity of mind, morbid remorse, and restlessness or agitation.

When, by self-examination, you become aware of these tendencies, you are of course more able to deal with them, and the very realisation that they exist will often act as a controlling factor.

However, it’s desirable to discover and uncover not only your adverse and retardant mental elements, but also your good qualities, because these need to be nurtured and developed as instruments of progress.


You can see, then, that the principle of mindfulness can be of value to you in various ways; it can help you to avoid the traps laid for you by your own pleasures and pains, and it can help you to evaluate your progress in breaking down the retardant elements in your own mind and in developing the progressant elements.

While development along such lines is largely a matter of self-observation, and while this is of the utmost importance, it can well be supplemented by observation directed outwardly. That is to say, the observation of other people, together with the understanding that comes from this observation, can be of great value in the task of observing yourself.

In fact, this works both ways; as you observe your own behaviour and learn to know your own motives better, you see this behaviour reflected in other people, and their motives become more transparent to you. In the same way, as you learn to interpret other people’s behaviour in terms of their motives (sometimes hidden from them), so your own motives become more transparent to yourself.

So you see that the Buddhist approach to self-understanding is by way of mindfulness, directed primarily internally, and secondarily externally; or in other words by the critical observation of yourself and the penetrating but kindly observation of others.

Practical work


While the extravert directs hi attention mainly to the external world around him, one who is introverted tends to neglect this objective observation of his external world. He is concerned, not so much with what is happening, but with his own emotional reactions as well as his own likes and dislikes of what is happening.

This form of introversion brings with it subjective thinking, and carried to extremes it becomes pathological. Objective thinking, with its clear evaluation of facts and conditions, becomes impossible when emotional thinking of this kind takes over.

Now in view of this it may appear strange that Buddhism advises a kind of introversion – an "inward turning" – as part of the technique of right mindfulness; but it is an introversion of a completely different sort. It is a process in which the mind is trained to turn inward on itself, but in an objective manner instead of in the emotional way of the other kind of introversion.

Your practical work for this month, therefore, consists of forming the habit of objective and unemotional self-observation, taking in your mental processes as a whole.

In other exercises in this series you take specific retardant tendencies and watch for their appearance. For example, in the Third Month you look for false valuations, in the Sixth Month for undue anxiety, and in the Seven Month for irritability and resentment, while in the Eighth Month you watch for self-assertive tendencies.

During this moth, however, the work is not so much the observation of specific retardant elements; it is more a matter of watching for that subjective type of thought that is governed by emotional bias and prejudice. It’s a process of replacing one type of introversion by another, of replacing emotional thinking by self-analysis.

Assuming that you are working on a self-contract basis, at the end of each day, or at some convenient time, you can think back to see whether your introvert tendencies have taken a constructive and analytical form, or whether you have allowed yourself or become emotionally dominated. You can then enforce your self-contract accordingly.


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last updated: 03-04-2005