I've been re-reading one of my favorite spiritual books, Steve Hagen's "Buddhism Plain and Simple."
I love how Hagen strips out Buddhism's religious and supernatural aspects, leaving the genuine teachings of the Buddha.
Hagen's key idea in the book is seeing. Here's a passage I read today that illustrates what he means by this.
Breaking the grip of ignorance and craving comes with just seeing, not with doing something particular about it. Once you see, your course of action will naturally follow.
The problem in dealing with craving is that when we try to squelch it, we only step it up somewhere else. It comes bursting out more intensely than ever. For example, suppose you notice, "I'm craving a pizza now."
That's fine. Just notice it.
But we usually don't stop there. Rather than just seeing, we act upon what we notice instead. "I shouldn't be wanting pizza. I must stop this desire for pizza."
This very reaction is already more craving. We're desiring an end to desire. We're doing the usual thing again -- reaching for, insisting, grabbing. This is bondage, not freedom.
This is a subtle but crucial point. There's no bandage to use on this problem that will not itself be the same problem all over again.
The only way to eradicate this problem is to see it and thereby no longer feed it.
This is not a call to complacency or inaction. To act or not to act is never the question. You can't help but act. The question is whether or not you see. The entire issue rests on this.
Recently I experienced something along these lines.
Laurel, my wife, is a vacuum fancier. She has several vacuums, a large corded one, a smaller battery powered one, an even smaller hand-held one.
A few days ago Laurel came up to me while I was in the kitchen. "I've been working on this for half an hour," she said. "I can't figure out how to get the vacuum filter back in the plastic case."
She'd only removed the round filter once before, since the vacuum had a clever way of cleaning the filter that didn't require removing it. She showed me the instructions. They just said to replace the filter after cleaning it.
But the plastic cover wouldn't snap into place after the filter was inserted.
I tried myself for about 15 minutes, rotating the filter assembly every possible way, observing that, as Laurel had said, it seemed there was only one way to put in the filter.
I was doing a lot of trying, without success.
Then I decided to stop what Laurel and I had been trying, because it clearly wasn't working. I focused instead on what simple thing I was missing, because it seemed that no vacuum designer would make replacing the filter so difficult.
Ah... instead of inserting the filter into the top of the plastic case, I inserted it into the bottom of the case. Two seconds later the lid clicked shut without a problem.
Laurel hadn't noticed which way the filter had come out, so we both were fixated on an assumption that turned out to be false -- that the filter went in the top of the case.
So this is one way to look upon the seeing that Hagen speaks of. Seeing reality clearly, rather than through the fog of erroneous thoughts and assumptions about reality.
Another way, a more profound way, is repeated by Sam Harris in just about every guided meditation in his smart phone Waking Up app.
Harris will ask the listener to either look at the outside world with eyes open, or at the space behind the eyes with eyes shut. In either case, Harris asks, "Are you aware of someone who is seeing within your head, a see'er, or is there simply seeing?"
In my experience, the latter. Simply seeing. I've never come across a see'er who is separate and distinct from the act of seeing.
Which, of course, is a core Buddhist notion. There is no self, no soul, no enduring entity anywhere within us. Things simply arise and pass away.
Thoughts. Emotions. Perceptions. Cravings. And so on.
Thus when Hagen urges us to simply see, arguably the most important sight to see is that there is no see'er doing the seeing.
Looking for our true self, eventually we grasp that there is no self to be seen -- in somewhat the same way as I came to realize that there is no way the filter could fit in the manner I was trying to insert it.
Looking in a different fashion made all the difference.