The real challenge today is not how to create even greater freedoms in the world around us. It is to start looking inside ourselves and asking, “How can we free ourselves? How can we free human consciousness?”
Until now, our culture and science have largely ignored consciousness. We know so much about the material world—quarks and quasars, DNA and quantum physics. And we can build wonderful things with this knowledge. But we still don’t understand how thoughts arise in the mind. Looking at my own mind, I think it would be wonderful if I could switch off 90 percent of my thinking. Most of my thoughts, I have to admit, are totally useless. Or, consider our feelings: It would be nice not to feel so anxious at times, or to be more compassionate, but we know very little about how to do that. Nor do we understand much about how to direct our attention. I doubt that any of us can keep our attention on one single thing for a whole minute. Our minds are always wandering.
Some people, of course, have explored these questions. Mystics, yogis, philosophers, and others have examined their own minds firsthand and looked at how the human mind gets trapped in habitual patterns. Their quest has been to free the mind—to allow it to be more at peace, and more compassionate. This is probably the most important question that we now need to ask. How can we free up the human mind?
A Shift in Perception
The answer is much simpler than one might expect. It’s an answer that has been discovered time and time again throughout the ages. The Greek philosopher Epictetus put it very succinctly some 1,800 years ago: “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” It’s not what happens to us that makes us happy or unhappy, but the way we interpret events that is key.
An example that I often use when I’m working with corporations, which gets the point across to people who probably have no interest in anything spiritual, is to ask if being stuck in a traffic jam makes them upset. Most people say yes. But, despite what seems to be happening, the traffic jam itself is not causing the upset. All a traffic jam can do is stop cars moving. If you’re getting stressed, upset, or angry, it’s because the voice in your head is telling you this isn’t good. This is the voice of fear, the voice of worry. You’re no longer in the present moment; you’re thinking about the future. You’re going to be late for that appointment, or late getting home, and if you’re late things won’t go so well. You may be criticized, or you might miss something. So you start feeling upset.
Now, somebody else could be sitting in the same traffic jam, but be saying to themselves: “This is wonderful. This is the kind of situation I’ve been waiting for all day. I’m not sitting through another boring meeting, nobody is presenting me with their problems, there’s no pile of papers to wade through, and no computer beeping to tell me I’ve got an e-mail. I can sit back, put on some music, and relax for five minutes.”
So we have two totally different responses. One person is taking a step closer to a heart attack; the other, a step closer to enlightenment. The only difference is what is going on inside their head. It has nothing to do with the external world.
So much of the suffering and dissatisfaction we experience is self-created. This is what so many of the great spiritual teachers have recognized and taught. The Buddha recognized this 2,500 years ago. His story is interesting because it closely parallels what is happening in the world today. He was born a prince in a very wealthy family. But in his early 20s he realized that his riches didn’t bring an end to suffering. So he decided to leave the palace, give up his luxury lifestyle, and seek a way to end suffering. He spent six years as an ascetic, studying under various yogis and gurus, trying just about everything, including nearly starving himself to death.
Then one day he realized that maybe that was all wrong. He was sitting under a tree, meditating, when he realized that the causes of suffering lay within, and so, therefore, must be the way to end suffering. Some children were passing by and said, “You’re looking very happy today. What’s up?” He replied, “I am awake.” So the children said, “We shall call you Buddha,” which in their language meant “the awakened one.”
The Buddha encapsulated his awakening in the four noble truths. The first is that we all suffer. We all experience dissatisfaction in some way. The second truth is the realization that we create our own inner discomfort because we desire things to be different than they are. The third truth is recognizing that it needn’t be this way. As in the example of the traffic jam, there are different ways of seeing anything—some lead to suffering, some don’t. The fourth noble truth explores how to change your way of relating to the world so as not to create unnecessary suffering in yourself or others.
We, today, are in a parallel situation. We have riches and luxuries far beyond those of Buddha’s time. Yet still we find that having almost anything we desire—Chanel dresses, BMWs, or whatever—doesn’t end our suffering. And many of us are likewise seeking other ways to end suffering. That is one reason there is a such a growing interest in meditation, personal development, and alternative spiritual practices. Gradually we are waking up to the realization the Buddha had. We always have a choice about how we see things.
The trick is learning how to make that choice. One thing that I’ve found very useful is to just ask myself: Is there another way of seeing this? Whoever I’m dealing with, whatever I’m faced with, I simply ask if there is another perspective. I don’t go looking for something, but turn the question over to my deeper self. When I do that, the still, small voice within often comes up with a much more compassionate perspective. It’s a perspective that feels a lot easier, and is freeing for me. And it usually opens a whole new way of approaching the situation.