This last weekend I have been with the second year MSc students on their first weekend of insight training. It was an awesome weekend with insights coming thick and fast. It struck me how this approach really works in enabling us to become free of our individual and complex set of habitual patterns that limit us and cause us to suffer!
During this weekend we look at different models of mind including the Buddhist model of dependent origination, which underpins the model of how thought arises, is engaged and becomes thinking.
The key point is that when a thought arises it is free and although it has a potential of ‘my’ thought conditioned within it, it can be experienced as ‘a’ thought. When a thought arises it does so with a conditioned flavour of like, dislike or indifference. It is an interesting thing to note that as a thought arises we already know our attitude towards it: in terms of whether we like the thought or not and whether it is of interest or not.
If we can refrain from engaging with ‘a’ thought, then it arises, it displays in the mind and then it dissolves. Our experience moves through us with ease. There is some freedom.
However, this is not what generally happens. Instead we engage the thought and mindlessly get caught up in thinking. Here there is no freedom and we are trapped in our conditioned habitual reactions.
The aim of the insight training is to cultivate the potential to refrain from engaging and cultivate habits for more skilful responses to unfold.
Graeme Nixon, the MSc Program Director gave an excellent talk on free will and determinism. Current thinking in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience mainly agree with the Buddhist thesis: that there is very little free will unless we train the mind.
Some neuroscientists talk of free won’t. This is based on the understanding that our thoughts, emotions and behaviours follow ingrained conditioned habits. Rob Nairn sometimes refers to us humans as ramshackle collections of habitual patterns – an apt description in my experience. However, we can train to refrain from the habits – to not follow them – and in so doing gain some free won’t!
These ideas provide a fascinating map for our Insight journey. However, the journey is our own. We each find our own way to relate to the map and through insight practice gradually come to understand experientially how our minds work. Once we understand this we are able the navigate our experience in a way which is more in tune with the reality of how our mental experience actually unfolds.
Otherwise, notice any habitual patterns that are unfolding in your day. What you eat and drink, what you say, how you think. Try refraining and doing something different and notice how that feels!