The most important breakthrough is the uprooting of personality view. Recognizing that the self is really just an artificial creation and not an ultimate entity is the first really profound insight. It’s a very significant insight into impersonality.
The self is interpreted in different ways, but one primary interpretation is that it has control. This is my body, I can tell it what to do. This is my mind, I can tell my mind what to do. But if we look closer and more honestly, we see that we don’t always have control over our body. We’re certainly not always able to control our mind; in fact, it seems to have a will of its own. Try to direct it somewhere and often it doesn’t go there; try to think of something and you’ve forgotten it. You soon realize that you have only limited control over your body and mind, that they are not ultimately a permanent self.
We can have some intellectual appreciation of this. We recognize that there are certain uncontrolled impulses. An American psychiatrist wrote a book called ‘Emotional Intelligence’, which is about being mindful or more aware of our emotions. He coined the phrase ‘being emotionally hijacked’. Some people don’t know themselves very well and their emotions take them over, hijack them. Realizing this may encourage us to bring more awareness to the conditions of mind and emotional life.
Most people so identify with their emotions that they see those emotions as themselves, and are thus enslaved by them. However, by realizing the impermanent and impersonal nature of body and mind, we release this identification habit and see just conditions arising and passing, just bodily sensations and mental conditions, without grasping at a fixed self-entity.
If one knows one’s own mind fairly well and has been able to observe the conditions of mind that arise on different occasions, one can be in those moments of change and still be very confident and at ease with them. We can ride that wave of change with the breath; if we’re just with that breathing process as it’s happening, the moment of change can be quite exhilarating. We recognize that we can’t really know where the wave is going to break, but we can know the general possibilities. We can’t say exactly that ‘this mood’ or ‘that thought’ will arise, but by observing the conditions of mind that do arise, we have a general idea of where the wave will go.
Surfers can’t say exactly where a wave is going to break, but if they’ve experienced many waves, they have a pretty good idea. They can almost predict where a wave will go.
This reflection by Ajahn Thiradhammo is from the book, Contemplations on the Seven Factors of Awakening, (pdf) pp. 134-135.