If someone wants to change their life, what impedes their success? When we attempt a seemingly simple goal — losing weight, giving up a bad habit, acting nicer to people, etc. — often something intervenes. This “something” exists in the relationship between the mind, which issues a desire or intention, and the brain, which is the physical apparatus for carrying out desires and intentions.
The relationship between the mind and the brain is subtle—most of the time the mind is automatically dominant. If you want to raise your arm, the brain sends the appropriate signals without obstacle of interference.
But sometimes the brain interjects its own feedback, and then the signals become confused. Our brain wants us to obey old conditioning, habits, and memories. There are endless examples of how brain-training limits your freedom of choice - such as:
When you reject suggestions without giving them any thought.
When your relationships repeat the same negative patterns.
When you react to situations with anxiety, anger, or any negative emotion automatically.
When you feel threatened by change.
When old traumas rear their heads.
When you’re stuck in your ways.
Getting “un-stuck” requires brain training. When the mind finds itself blocked, without freedom of choice, we must find a way to make the mind dominant in the mind-brain conversation.
A needle on a record can get stuck in the same groove—to make the music go forward, you have to lift the needle. Being stuck in a mental groove is more challenging because mind and brain are so tangled and intertwined.
Some workable solutions are:
- Replace the old with the new—acquire better lifestyle habits and repeat the new ways over and over - eventually making the new habits stick.
- Take up meditation or other contemplative practices. These practices allow the mind to stop warring with the brain. The new relationship is one of peaceful coexistence.
- Apply focused attention so that unconscious habits are brought into the light of awareness. This happens in mindfulness - where you witness yourself as if examining a situation without becoming involved.
- Seek therapeutic intervention, or practice self-help. Cognitive therapy, where the therapist points out self-defeating thought patterns that can be changed for more positive, realistic ideas, can be very helpful.
- Make self-awareness a primary goal. Knowing yourself completely untangles the hidden knots and obstacles that limit freedom of choice. Examine your behavior and asking “why do I do this?”
Brain training is very stubborn and persistent. Most people find it next to impossible to know where mind ends and brain begins. If you say “I hate spinach,” are you obeying old triggers, or are you expressing yourself as a person making a free choice?
The Eastern spiritual tradition takes a different tack. It assumes that no one can step outside their own conditioning to the point of breaking free. The only way to be free, then, is if freedom already exists.
Beyond the working mind-body system, there has to be an entirely different state of awareness, one that is neither trained nor trainable, neither conflicted nor confused, neither involved or uninvolved.
You cannot think your way to a state of awareness, because the ego-self was created from the play of opposites. Every time you choose A over B, you are defining yourself by the choice you make. Big or small, choosing keeps the game going—the brain gets trained to accept, record, remember, and install the choices that make you who you are today.
The Eastern tradition believes in a state of choiceless awareness. We all exist; we all have a self; we all participate in life. Thus the state of choiceless awareness is defined as the source of the mind, the starting or zero point that gives us our existence. The project of getting free is to realize that you are free to begin with.
Instead of choosing new ways to act, think, and feel, we can shift our allegiance to a state of awareness where we automatically synchronize with what is needed. Choiceless awareness mean dealing with life effortlessly, once we get out of the way.
So what does getting out of the way entail? Here are the steps derived from the world’s wisdom traditions:
- Recognize the state of duality.
- Find reasons for why you no longer want to be trapped in duality.
- Find a teacher or teaching who convinces you that there is a better way.
- Test the teaching on yourself, being neither too credulous nor too skeptical.
- Keep in mind that expanded awareness is always the goal.
- Shift your allegiance away from “I, me, and mine” toward a higher sense of self.
- Hang loose and allow the process of higher consciousness to work its way through.
These steps have been effective for centuries—see how your own inner world can be expanded and liberated.