Exercise to Harmonize the Various Aspects of Our Personalities
Another application of this meditation method using the five types of deep awareness is as a method to become more aware of all the various facets of our personalities and to try to integrate and bring them into balance. We do this without being judgmental; instead, we objectively see the advantages and disadvantages of each facet in order to bring them into balance. This requires particular attention to those facets that we tend to neglect or those we exaggerate and that tend to overpower us. Let’s begin the exercise by doing the following:
- To harmonize all the facets of our personality we begin by bringing to mind, with mirror-like deep awareness, the various facets of our personality, as many as possible.
- Then with equalizing deep awareness, we regard all the various facets as equal parts, none more important than any others.
- With individualizing deep awareness, we focus in on one particular facet that perhaps we have trivialized or neglected, or, on the other hand, that we have over-emphasized.
- With accomplishing deep awareness, we extend our energy and willingness toward this facet of our personality so as to attend to it and not ignore or exaggerate its importance.
- With reality deep awareness, we are aware of what this facet is and, by recognizing and enhancing its good qualities and recognizing and diminishing its negative ones, how to bring it into balance in our lives,
- Then we quiet down, focus on the breath and let the experience settle. Slowly, we open our eyes and return to the present moment.
Question about Applying This Method to Our Lives
During the exercise, almost like a menu list of the different aspects of my personality came to mind, as if automatically, listed from the coarse ones to the subtle ones. Also, I discovered that even when focusing on the inconvenient or negative aspects of my personality, I could find something positive that could be taken out to enhance its potential in a positive way. My question is: In daily life and in our Dharma practice, do you suggest that we should work with these aspects of our personality one at a time or as a whole?
The system that I’m using comes from the Karma Kagyu tradition, examining our personalities with what this tradition calls “basis awareness,” “general awareness” and “specific awareness.” These three types of awareness are correlated respectively to the mirror-like, equalizing and individualizing types of deep awareness. In each moment, our mental activity gives rise to the cognitive field of appearances, which we’re aware with basis awareness, the general picture of what appears in the field, which is what we’re aware of with general awareness, as well as the various details, which are the objects we know with specific awareness. Basically, the three work all together, but here with this exercise, we take these in stages. Within the field of our lives, we bring to mind the entire scope of our personality, but then work on bringing each aspect into balance individually within the context of the entire scope.
We each have many different facets or aspects to our personalities. These are the basic materials that we have to work with in this particular lifetime. For example, we may have a good sense of humor or a very short temper; we may be slow or very quick. We could be very serious or rather casual, athletic or intellectual. We may be a social or a private type of person. There are all sorts of personality traits that we have, and we need to acknowledge and work with them all in our lives. How do we work with them? How do we put them into balance and minimize the negative aspects and maximize the positive ones? This is what this exercise is intended to help us do.
Now, of course the question comes up: Can we really change our personalities? Perhaps this is an artificial distinction, but I think that there are, on the one hand, personality traits and, on the other hand, disturbing emotions. The disturbing emotions aren’t necessarily an integral part of our basic personalities of this particular lifetime.
For instance, having a good sense of humor or being serious is quite different from being very greedy or very angry. Within the context of the disturbing emotions, of course we can all work with the Dharma methods to get rid of greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy, arrogance and so on. Within this distinction between disturbing emotions and traits, however, a preference for being with a lot of people or being alone would be more of a personality trait. Neither of these two preferences is necessarily a troublemaker.
Some things, like our level of intelligence, for example, are not that easy to change. Obviously, we can increase our intelligence with various methods, but it’s sort of a basic trait that we have. We might have a really strong imagination or not. Again, we can train our abilities to imagine, but there is a basic level that we begin with in this lifetime. Other personality features, for example, could involve being creative or not so creative; having a need for affection or having very little need; having a very strong sex drive or a weak one. We can try to bring into balance whatever we can, such as taking advantage of the strong points and minimizing the weak points of each of these facets.
However, regardless of whatever working materials we possess, it’s important to try to combine them into a harmonious, well-integrated blend, like having many different instruments in an orchestra. We want to blend them together to play a beautiful symphony, and not have them be discordant and combative with each other. To use this approach, we really need to work with each facet of our personality – first, one at a time – and then harmonizing more and more facets together.
Applying the Method to Harmonizing the Various Relationships in Our Lives
This methodology can also be extended to other dimensions in our lives. For example, we can look at all the different relationships that we have. We have relationships with various members of our family, friends, teachers, business associates, and people who run the stores that we buy from. We can examine all of these relationships and apply the same steps to maximize the positive aspects of each relationship and minimize the negative qualities or unhealthy qualities of these connections. We can try to bring all the different relationships that we have in our lives into harmony.
This doesn’t mean, though, that all our friends and relations have to get along with each other, or that we’re with all of them at the same or equal amounts of time. The point is how each relationship fits into our life. Are we over-exaggerating the importance of one relationship and neglecting another? Is one relationship sabotaging another relationship? It’s an interesting area to explore, and these five types of deep awareness can help us do so.
Sometimes we don’t recognize the importance of a particular relationship in our lifetime. For example, we could be very involved with our family and not realize the importance of having independent friendships outside the scope of family and not only having mutual friends of our partner’s. It’s very important for a woman to have female friends and for a man to have male friends, regardless of being in a relationship or a marriage. If these are neglected, this can cause difficulty in our lives, contributing to the feeling that there’s something missing.
Integrating Other Aspects of Our Lives
Another dimension to the application of this method is to examine the various chapters of our lives and try to integrate all of them. Very often, there are certain aspects of our history that we tend to over-emphasize. For example, at a certain stage of life, we might have been bullied or abused. This becomes the main event of our entire life. There may be other chapters that we really want to forget completely, like a period of being in a not-very-healthy relationship. We could also look at the various topics we’ve studied during our education. How do we integrate all of these elements? If there were bad experiences, what did we learn from them? What positive results can possibly be derived from our negative experiences? Again, we try to get a balance in terms of our whole life.
Recall our earlier discussion about the conventional “me” and how, as a person, the conventional “me” is an imputation on a basis for imputation. In our previous discussions, we spoke, in general, about the basis for imputation of “me” being the five aggregates: body, mind, and so. But, actually, the basis for imputation includes everything about us: all facets of our personality, all the relationships that we have with others, now and in the past, and all the things that have happened to us in our history. That’s the basis for the imputation “me.” The larger the basis that we consider, the healthier the sense of conventional “me” we can have. Additionally, we should always be open to extending that basis to new relationships, new things that we learn and new aspects that we develop.
The false “me” arises when we identify “me” with just one or two aspects as the real “me” and forget about all these other aspects that are actually also belong to the basis for imputation. Then, we get a lot of problems. Let’s think about this for a moment.
The Relation of the Exercises and Understanding Voidness
With reflection on the exercises with the five aggregates and the five types of deep awareness, I have discovered that there are many thoughts, emotions and feelings at any particular time. I have the capability of bringing them to maturation in a positive way or in a negative way. I’ve also noticed that there’s a short space in time before each of these thoughts or feelings happen, and that whatever I think or feel is a process of arising and disappearing. With all of these things, I have the possibility of working with all these aspects constructively or destructively. Will all of these new discoveries help me to approach the understanding of voidness, the understanding of rebirth and the understanding of the bardo experience?
All of these discoveries are indeed very helpful for understanding voidness. As just mentioned, a person, the conventional “me,” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the five aggregates. The factors that make up our five aggregates in each moment are constantly changing; there’s nothing static that remains the same in each moment. The five types of deep awareness that help us to perceive and cognize things are also constantly taking different objects and changing from moment to moment. The conventional “me” is merely an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of that; there is nothing findable on the side of that basis that is a static, unchanging, monolithic “me.”
But what makes me “me”? That is a very important question. If the basis for “me” is what we experience and all the different factors of our personality, relationships and history, and if all of them are constantly changing, then what is there that’s making me “me?” From the Gelug Prasangika point of view, as we’ve discussed before, just as the conventional “me” cannot be found on the side of the aggregates, there’s nothing findable on the side of the conventional “me,” like an individual defining characteristic mark that, by its own power, makes me “me.” Since neither a person nor a person’s individual characteristic mark can be found on the side of their basis for imputation, the only way to establish the existence of either the person or the defining mark is that it is merely what the word “person” or the phrase “characteristic mark of a person,” or the concept of a person or the concept of a characteristic mark of a person refer to when designated or mentally labeled on the basis of a set of aggregates.
Further, if there is no findable characteristic mark on the side of the person with the power to make me “me,” then there isn’t any sort of hook on the side of the basis on which we can attach the word “me” or our name, like with a hook and eye in sewing. There’s no eye on the side of the basis that we can hook the hook of the word “me” onto.
If we can’t find “me,” that doesn’t mean that I don’t exist and I’m not a person. But what proves or establishes I exist as a validly knowable person, a conventional “me?” This is the question that the various Buddhism tenet systems address. We could say that what proves that I exist is that I do things and I experience things. That’s one way of looking at it. But Prasangika addresses this question from another point of view.
We all have the concept of “me” and the word “me” and Gelug Prasangika says that the self, the conventional “me” as a person, is merely or exclusively what the concept and word refer to on the basis of the ever-changing five aggregates. There is nothing findable on the side of the self or on the side of the aggregates that establishes the existence of “me,” even in conjunction with mentally labeling the aggregates with the concept “me” or designating them with the word “me.” There is no findable defining characteristic on the side of the aggregates or on the side of a findable “me” that has the power to make me “me” and offers an eye on which to hook the concept and word “me.”
We all accept that there is the convention and word “me.” Anyone who sees my body walking on the street sees me. No one with nonfaulty vision would disagree. But that “me” and something making me “me” cannot be found on the side of the body, because there are no such things, and no one who correctly understands voidness would disagree. These three points establish that there is such a thing as the conventional “me” as merely what the convention, or concept and word “me,” refer to on the basis of the aggregates.
Mind you, mentally labeling the concept “me” on the aggregates and designating them with the word “me” do not create the “me” and if we didn’t mentally label and designate it, the “me” wouldn’t exist. The conventional “me,” the person, is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the aggregates, and that is a fact. But, that “me” is like an illusion because it appears to be solid; it feels as though it’s solid and can be known all by itself, but it’s not. It’s changing from moment to moment because our experiences are changing from moment to moment. And this doesn’t mean that “me” as a person is some solid thing that’s changing in each moment into another slightly different solid thing and then into another slightly different solid thing, but always remaining basically the same. That’s also not the case.
What is difficult to understand is that there’s nothing on the side of “me,” or on the side of the basis for “me,” that makes me “me.” There is no findable defining characteristic mark; yet, nevertheless, we are each an individual person, and we can correctly distinguish one person from another, just as penguins can correctly distinguish one penguin from another in that flock in Antarctica.
So, there are defining characteristic marks that allow our aggregate of distinguishing to correctly differentiate one thing from another. But if such a mark were findable on the side of an object and had the power to establish that object as a validly knowable thing, it would be as if it were sitting there inside the object, generating a plastic coating around it and so making it into a thing, separate from anything else.
A simple example of how that is not how defining characteristic marks work is the spectrum of light and the range of colors. Is there anything on the side of the spectrum of light that divides it into distinctive colors – for example, this is red, this is orange, this is yellow, etc. Is there a plastic coating around each color demarcating its range and beyond which the light is a different color? Is there something existing there that laminates a plastic coating around a certain range of light in the spectrum, making it into a specific color and then later on people give it a name? That’s impossible. There are no dividing lines on the side of the spectrum of light. The various colors are merely conceptual conventions. Some people got together and agreed that, between this wavelength and that wavelength of light, we’re going to call it red or orange; they just made up words. If we think in terms of the cave people, they just sort of put together grunts and sounds and agreed that some meaningless combination of sounds would be a word – a sound that conveyed a meaning.
What establishes, then, that there is such a conventional thing as the color “red”? We can only say that what establishes that there is such a thing as red is its being merely what the concept and word “red” refer to on the basis of a certain predefined range of wavelengths of light and a group of people agree with that convention. The conceptual mind divides the light spectrum into specific colors, not anything findable on the side of light.
Despite that fact, red is not blue. The colors are individual colors. They’re not just one big soup. How then do we distinguish the colors from each other? We do so from the side of the mind, using the mental factor of distinguishing and the aggregate of distinguishing. We are distinguishing according to conventionally defining characteristics, which are entirely made up.
What about the object that our conceptual minds label with a concept of something and designate it with a word? Is the object just a solidly existing blank slate onto which we can project anything? No – if it were, then we could give any name to anything. Words and names are valid simply by the power of the conventions that a group of people adopt. If we didn’t have the conventions of a language, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other. We need to agree with each other what we call things.
Although nothing can be found on the side of anything that has the power to establish the existence of something as a validly knowable object distinguishable from other objects, nevertheless, things function. They produce effects; they work. The table serves the function of holding a glass on top of it. It doesn’t matter what we call this object. There are so many different words in so many different languages that mean what we mean in English by the word “table,” but still this object in front of me performs a function.
On the basis of objects being able to do things, some Buddhist tenet systems then go on to say that what truly establishes that something is really a table is that it performs the function of a table. But what the word “table” refers to can perform more than one function and many quite different types of objects can perform what is called “the function of a table.”
Is the ability to perform a function findable on the side of an object? Again, Prasangika says “no.” Even the function of a table can only be established as existing merely and exclusively as what the concept and expression “function of a table” refer to, by convention, when mentally labeled and designated on this object.
Regarding our example of this table, it is doing a lot of things. It is supporting the glass, the pitcher of water, the recorder and the tablecloth. It is adorning the room and making the room look nice. It’s performing the function of providing a background for the flowers in front of it. It’s also making a shadow. Clearly, it’s doing lots of different things. Are each of those functions encapsulated in plastic as things findable somewhere on the side of this object, like separate colors encapsulated in plastic somehow findable existing on the side of the spectrum of light? No. On the other hand, is it just a blank object that we can mentally label as having any type of function and it will then be able to perform that function? No, this object is not keeping thieves away from our house or preventing the sky from falling, for example. We can’t just mentally label any function onto it.
What establishes that this object actually performs any function? It has to be valid cognition, and this is established from the side of the mind. The object functions in terms of cause and effect in accord with verifiable results. Anyone with a valid unimpaired mind can see that it’s holding a glass, but it’s not keeping the sky from falling. Clearly, you would know that. If we moved this object away, did the sky fall or not? No. The sky didn’t fall. It was not performing that function.
Gelug Prasangika would say that we can’t even find something on the side of the object that establishes its existence as a validly knowable object. If we think that there’s some plastic coating around it, some imaginary line that makes it into a thing, an object by itself, if we explore, can we find that? Where’s the solid boundary between the atoms of the table and the atoms of the air? There’s no line, is there?
Let’s apply this to the topics that we’ve been speaking about in the spectrum of all emotions and feelings, which are parts of our aggregate. Is it possible to find somewhere inside our bodies or minds these encapsulated things called a sense of humor, intelligence or any of these types of personality traits or emotions that we have been talking about? It’s like the example of the colors. Their existence as this or that personality trait or emotion can only be established by their being merely what the concepts and words for them refer to on the basis of moments of experience.
Even the definitions of each trait and emotion are established exclusively by convention and mental labeling alone. For example, different cultures will define differently their word for what we call “loyalty” in English. Japan, America and medieval France each have quite different concepts of it, don’t they?
Even within one culture, various emotions still retain their individuality: anger is not greed. Just because there are no solid dividing lines making things into separate packets like ping-pong balls, doesn’t mean that everything is like a big, undifferentiated soup. There are individual things; however, there’s nothing on the side of things that, like plastic coating, makes them anything.
The same thing applies to our relationships with other people. Is there some plastic coating around any of our relationships with another person that isolates and insulates it from everything else in our lives and all the other people that we and they relate to? No, of course this isn’t true. The basis for the imputation phenomenon “me” is like this; there are no solid dividing lines on the side of the basis, and nothing encapsulating this and that as a relationship, personality trait or emotion that we have. And even “me” as a person, as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of these traits and emotions, is not something findable, encapsulated in plastic.
Using this image of ping-pong balls can be quite helpful: if our personality traits, emotions and the other mental factors that make up our aggregates were like ping-pong balls, and “me” as a person was like a large jar contain them, then none of them could ever change and we could never grow or change. Nothing would affect them as they would just be like a collection of balls in a big jar. They couldn’t really interact with each other; the balls could just be next to each other. They couldn’t be integrated with each other and would just remain a collection of ping-pong balls in a big jar.
However, they don’t exist as ping-pong balls. There’s nothing on the side of any of these things that makes it into a solid ping-pong ball. Because of this, they can interact, and they can change. And because of that, the “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of them is not like a jar containing them but can also change and grow.
So, to answer your question, yes, in this way, our study of the five aggregates and our study of these five types of deep awareness can lead us more deeply into an understanding of many aspects of the Dharma, and particularly the aspect concerning voidness.
To make our dedication more meaningful, let’s take a minute or two to digest this last portion of our discussion and whatever we’ve learned or experienced in this series of talks. In other words, examine the positive force and understanding that have come from this discussion. Reaffirm that this positive force and understanding are not like ping-pong balls that we’ve collected and our dedication of them to enlightenment is not like tossing them into the basket of enlightenment. It’s not like that.
So, whatever understanding we’ve gained, whatever positive force has come from our time together, may this act as a cause for everyone to reach enlightenment for the benefit of us all … and not just my enlightenment, everyone’s enlightenment. Thank you.