The monastic life also includes dedicating time to solitude, which I have often experienced. For me, these were beautiful times, but I wouldn’t claim that being alone was an exceptional feat or that I had to struggle in any way. I think it’s in my nature to be inclined towards a solitary life. However, it seems that others have expressed more enthusiasm on my behalf, wondering how I could endure for so long without losing my mind! This, of course, made me laugh, but it also led me to reflect that it’s not just a joke. It’s definitely possible for our minds to become confused if we are completely lost in the world and lack inner peace. I understand that for someone more accustomed to a fast-paced life and who has never experienced solitude, it might be similar to confining a squirrel that can’t survive without freedom. Such a creature would experience great suffering. However, if I had our old cat here, then this solitude wouldn’t be a problem. Each of us is a slave to our mind until we are liberated; only the masters are different.
Stressful living certainly alienates the mind. The busier we are with our beloved world, the more we lack peace. Stress is particularly evident in the current times of global crises, as we all strive for a dignified, healthy, and stable life. Unfortunately, people are losing jobs, and some families are even finding themselves literally on the streets. With the fear that the same could happen to us, we are constantly struggling to survive. Additionally, technology and the pace of life are getting faster and faster. In order not to let society escape too far from us, we must constantly adapt to new demands as quickly as possible. This steals our time, energy, and warm interpersonal relationships. We are always in a hurry and sacrifice things that don’t bring us material benefits or profit, seeking friendship where it can bring us material gain, status, or sensory comfort. Even thoughts, which are already filled with information, become completely absorbed in them. And when we exhaust ourselves, we collapse like pigs into armchairs, absorbing ourselves in sensual gratification… and tomorrow is a new, fresh day, but not much better: suffering, hardship, and various other discomforts will continue to plague us, and there will be no end to it. Buddha illustrates this beautifully:
“Monks, when an uninstructed ordinary person feels a painful feeling, he grieves, he laments, he beats his breast, he weeps, he becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then a second time so he felt two pains. So too, when an uninstructed ordinary person feels a painful feeling, he feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.” (SN 36:6, first part)
So, for the stress we experience, we can’t blame anything in the world: not our politics, modern society, culture, jobs, or families. The suffering from stress or any mental discomfort is simply due to our ignorance about the nature of human existence. Suffering is part of existence, and there is no existence without suffering, and we (or I personally, and you personally) are that existence. With this perspective, it seems like we are completely lost! Wherever we go, this burden goes with us, regardless of whether we go to India or to the ends of the earth, dive into the ocean, climb the Himalayas, or even fly to the moon. We live existence. But! There are beings who have completely freed themselves from this burden.
“Monks, when a learned noble disciple experiences a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not beat his breast or weep, and he becomes free from agitation. He feels one feeling—a bodily one, not a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, but they did not strike him a second time so he felt one pain. So too, when a learned noble disciple experiences a painful feeling, he feels one feeling—a bodily one, not a mental one. When he experiences that painful feeling, he does not resist it. When he does not resist it, the underlying tendencies to resist it do not obsess him. And when he feels a painful feeling, he does not relish sensual pleasures. Why is that? Because the learned noble disciple knows of another escape from painful feeling apart from sensual pleasure. When he does not relish sensual pleasures, the underlying tendencies to relish them do not obsess him. He understands the feeling’s origin, its cessation, its satisfaction, its danger, and the escape from it. When he understands these things, the underlying tendencies to ignorance do not obsess him. When he feels a pleasant feeling, he does not get attached. When he feels a painful feeling, he does not get attached. When he feels a neutral feeling, he does not get attached. Monks, therefore, he is called a learned noble disciple who is not attached to birth, old age, and death, who is not attached to sorrow, lamentation, pain, discomfort, and despair. I say that he is not attached to suffering.” (SN 36:6, second part)
This means that the cause of stress is ignorance. Ignorance of what? Ignorance of the nature of our mind, what it actually is, how it works, why it works that way, what conditions it, and how it ceases. And we must replace this ignorance with knowledge. As I wrote in the article ‘Dispute with Impermanence’, our experience is hierarchical. Because this matter is difficult to understand, I won’t delve into deeper waters here, but I would like to give you a rough idea of what this is about. Despite its difficulty, this matter is very important because all problems revolve around this nature.
If we imagine the most basic or universal part of our experience, some essence or something we could call mind or soul. Of course, we can’t exactly point to it, as it’s not a specific unit, but rather a vague nature that extends before us and every time we try to grasp it, it slips through our fingers. Yet, even when we try to be aware of this mind or soul, we recognize that we are somehow aware of this mind. But what is it that is aware of mind? Mind. And then I am aware of that mind that is aware of mind. And then I am aware that I am aware that I am aware that there should be a mind somewhere. And then there’s another new level that recognizes all this, and… it never ends. This is an example of the hierarchy of experience, which extends limitlessly. But it’s even more complex. Let’s say we choose some universal level. Within this field, there are countless potential side paths and peripheries that can form a present and actual unit (dhamma) at a higher or lower level. Consciousness rises and falls or ‘moves’ three-dimensionally within this hierarchy and fixates on those things in our experience that give a sense of stability (nicca), pleasantness (sukha), and reinforce the sense of ‘self’ (atta). Thus, there is nothing in the world that we experience as stable. We don’t even have to wait for things to change materially; it’s enough to know that if nature allows something to exist and be conditioned among us, then that same thing must be conditioned. Being conditioned means change, and being transient means suffering. The conditioned is subject to impermanence and change. However, the ignorant mind does not see this (or does not want to see it, as it is obsessed), but due to inclination or obsession, it sees the thing as perfect nonetheless. And we try to reinforce this perfection with desire, resistance, and ignorance. The Buddha says, “When we are obsessed with sensory pleasure, the mind is obsessed. When we are obsessed with resistance (or anger), the mind is obsessed. When we are obsessed with ignorance, the mind is obsessed.” (MN 48) In short, whatever consciousness is attached to, the mind is obsessed and does not know the way out. As the saying goes, “It’s easy to start a fire, but hard to put out a fierce one.” This is the general nature of our experience, regardless of what comes into our awareness.
However, the Buddha also says, “This matter changes and transforms. When this matter changes, consciousness becomes scattered due to this change. Agitation and a constellation of mental states born from the scattering over this change obsess the mind. Because the mind is obsessed, it is frightened, desperate, and nervous, and due to clinging, it is agitated.” (SN 22:7) And this manifests as stress.
When we are stressed, it seems as though we are split in two. One part is completely lost in this diverse world and seeks to fill the cracks of our existence even more (which, of course, has no end). The other part can’t endure it anymore: it is thirsty but never satisfied. And the more distant they become, the more it threatens to split our mind in two, that is, to become insane and lose balance with the world. This is probably quite a drastic example, but each person approaches this depending on the strength of their immersion and busyness with the world (kamma or karma). This is called saṃsāra and it is nothing more than being continuously in the stream of life. If we were truly aware of this, we wouldn’t need to explain much more. However, since wisdom is probably still weak, we must decide to practice.
We will not recognize the truths of this nature until we receive the advice given to us by the Buddha: do not surrender to the stream anymore, but decide for a radical change of course: where else but against the current. The problem at the beginning of practice is that we still don’t know how to swim back, as we don’t know of any other option but to lie in the waters of sensuality and let them take us to… well, probably to waterfalls, rocks, or dangerous oceans. What awaits us when we swim carelessly, we still don’t know. We start hitting rocks or rubbing against pebbles in shallow water and curse all these discomforts: “Hey, who the hell put this rock right here?! … Ouch! Who lowered the water level?! … And who dared to speed up the water? … Damn willows!” But let’s hope that over time we realize that the problem is not in the rocks and waterfalls, but in the current. Only then do we start thinking that we need to find another solution. This is the first insight that leads to the end of all these sufferings. The first thing is to not let ourselves be carried away by the current for anything in the world and therefore try to resist it. Of course, this will take some effort and perseverance, especially when the current is most pleasant and gentle. In order to succeed, we must rely on the advice of a person who speaks to us from the shore. He knows where the dangers in this river are and knows the whole process of gradually getting out of the water, down to the smallest detail. If we trust the person on the shore, we will also get out of the current without major problems. This person is the Buddha and his noble disciples.
This means that we must first stop bad physical actions and start improving our behavior. We do not allow ourselves to react immediately when we feel an itch, but we observe the nature of tendencies. The general guideline is not to kill anything (not even a mosquito), not to steal, not to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior, and not to drink alcohol (you know, “alcohol takes money out of the pocket, and sense out of the head.”). To cure this poisoning, we take the antidote, such as helping all beings, generosity, and healthy friendship. Of course, this action can also be further purified and avoid all harmful behavior and ways of life. An important factor in this is also that our mind gradually purifies bad habits. In doing so, we develop mindfulness of the body. Instead of rushing carelessly down the sidewalk, jumping into the car, and hopping around without awareness, we start to become aware of our actions: whatever we do, we do it with knowing. Exercise such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga is very good, as it requires attention while we move.
The second, more subtle – and therefore more difficult – level is improving speech. If our physical behavior is already too weak, then forget about the possibility of recognizing the mind, let alone purifying it. Even when speech is still poor, it will be impossible to improve thoughts. In doing so, we avoid thoughts of desire, angry and cruel thoughts. And instead of daydreaming and fantasizing, we think about useful things: we have thoughts that are kind-hearted, compassionate, friendly, and indifferent. The general essence is that we are not slaves to our thoughts and that we have complete control over them.
Some people are more obsessed with thinking and do not know how to silence it, let alone turn it off. The reason for this obsession is precisely that our speech has not been sufficiently purified. What we say and what information we gain, in this, consciousness is lost and the mind becomes obsessed. Constant thinking follows. The same applies if we face bad speech habits and find it difficult to succeed. This is because our actions are still too weak.
And if we really want to solve the problem of stress, then meditation is the right thing. In meditation, of course, we do not speak and over time, the body also calms down. When the body and mind are calm, thoughts also calm down. With such attentive practice, the pressure of our tendencies gradually loosens and with that, suffering is also released. The more our actions, speech, and thoughts are purified, the less stress there will be. And when the mind is completely purified, then we have completely freed ourselves from stress.
If you follow this “therapy,” you will no longer have to suffer so much. Over time, the mind will be peaceful and free from stress. And when we realize the truth about the structure of this nature, which we call the soul or mind or whatever, then we will see no reason to be obsessed with anything at all. We will no longer need to desire anything.
And finally, one of the many Slovenian wisdoms:
“You are happy if you do not desire what you cannot have.”