Live the questions now.
Question: Can a practice of awareness help one pay the bills on time?
On the surface this sounds like a reasonable question, especially since keeping commitments is a large part of a practice of awareness, but as awareness practitioners it behooves us to pause and consider: Who is asking the question? What wants to know? If we don’t pause to inquire, we may not be aware that the question is a set up to set us off down a rabbit hole of suffering. To be in the practice of inquiry is to sidestep ego’s uncanny ability to make up meaning and connections that have no bases in reality!
All things are without a self.
— Daily Recollection
One of the first principles of Awareness Practice is that practice is not about self-improvement. Attempting to improve a “self” that doesn’t exist is futile, not worthy of attention! Much of Awareness Practice is realizing that the “self” we identify with is a construct of conditioned mind that feels absolutely “real” but isn’t. The “I” that feels like “me” is really the by-product of attention habituated to a process that manufactures the illusion of “me,” rather than an existential fact of being.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
— Lao Tzu
The process of awakening involves clarifying what we’re not (the illusion of a self that is separate from life) as one way of realizing what we are (That Thou Art). Any content (paying bills on time, fear of heights, addiction to sugar) we bring to Awareness Practice is simply a point of departure into the realms of the spiritual. It’s the first step in the journey to dissipate the illusion of ego. As we bring the spirit of inquiry to the behavior (not paying bills on time, fear of heights, addiction to sugar), what is revealed is the process that maintains the illusion of “me” (ego).
The journey begins with an invitation to watch how a behavior happens.
Say I’m paying attention to not-paying-bills-on-time. Procrastination as a pattern is pretty universal. When the moment arises to pay the bill, one of two things happens. I “forget” (code for not being here in the moment), or the in-the-moment impulse to pay the bill is overridden by an internal voice whispering “do it later.” Later never arrives. The bill doesn’t get paid. There is some consequence to nonpayment, at which point there’s feeling bad. We cope in some way to feel better about our lack of discipline and then make a decision to do better in the future. The cycle repeats.
Practitioners of awareness know this as the battering cycle, the components of which are:
-- the decision to be perfect around some area of content,
-- the inevitable voices that cause us to go unconscious and do the very thing that results in distress,
-- the coping strategy that provides temporary relief,
-- the feeling bad that fuels a future resolve for perfection.
The content of the cycle can vary infinitely. The “voices” may also vary infinitely so it’s hard to spot that we are caught in a process that is maintaining an ego-identity. If we map the process, we can clearly see the identity being maintained.
-- If procrastination is the process, the ego-identity (me) is someone who cannot pay bills on time, regularly flubs taxes, is often late for an appointment.
-- If fear is the process, “I” might be someone who doesn’t fly, is insecure about finances, never signs up to do something new, won’t speak in public.
-- If the process is addiction to sugar, “my” story might be that I’m someone who cannot lose weight, is on endless diets, is unhappy with how I look and so can’t find a meaningful relationship.
-- If control is the process, perhaps I would say that I’m the kind of person who is constantly attempting to manage their environment, volunteers to be in charge so everything is done the way I want it to be, is disliked because I tell everyone what to do and no one likes a know-it-all.
No matter what we find at the core of the process under investigation (control, fear, avoidance, procrastination, worry), the meta process is always ego maintenance.
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
— Mary Oliver
Getting an ego maintenance process on a map is in itself a practice success. After all, we can’t map a process if we’re in it. To map a process, we have to be aware, paying close attention, looking at the process not through it.
Once a process (procrastination) is mapped, our perspective is transformed from being unconsciously controlled by the process to being conscious of the mechanism of control. Since we’ve mapped the process, it’s now possible to train to recognize the terrain when “I” is traversing it. A message, a phrase, an emotion, a sensation, (a stickie on the map) can be a clue that the attention is on a process of “me.” When we see the process of ego maintenance, we exit the map and practice not giving it attention, not fueling it further.
Bringing attention and awareness to an ego process is a giant first step. Retaining attention on “what notices,” on the “what is witnessing,” catapults us into spiritual practice, into developing intimacy with what we are: conscious compassionate awareness. This is why, in a recent yearlong assignment, we redefined self-discipline as the devotion to choosing True Nature (the Self of Whole Mind), instead of identifying with ego (the self of conditioned mind).
One process does not lead to another.
The process is the outcome.
— Practice Sayings
And will the bill get paid on time?
Who is asking the question? What wants to know?
It is safe to conclude that any ego maintenance process leads to suffering, not to a “desired” change in behavior. Procrastination, for example, is a process of not doing things on time. One cannot pay a bill on time from within a process that is designed not to pay bills on time. We have to step out of the process maintaining the behavior to have a different result.
If we’re not lost in the process of “not-paying-bills on-time,” the bill is likely to be paid on time. As we train to pay attention to how ego maintenance happens in the content areas of our lives, we’re training to be more and more present. If there is more present moment awareness, there is less unconsciousness. At some point in the training trajectory, there is an expanded awareness when it’s time to pay the bill and the bill does get paid.
It is also possible that the bill doesn’t get paid, even if we are watching the process of not-paying-bills.
What we are, in and of ourselves, is all we ever need.
— Sweet Zen: Dharma Talks
Exiting the not-paying-bills process can be flipped by the ego program into a misery-producing contest. Changing a behavior isn’t a matter of redefining “me” as someone who has or doesn’t have willpower. We approach ego transcendence with the humility that recognizes the ego is absolutely capable of maintaining itself as a “sincere practitioner of awareness,” with a subtext of being a failure in that very same practice. Availing ourselves of the supports practice offers (reminders on our calendar, recordings, process maps on the walls, dates with the Mentor, participating in workshops) allows us to keep in conscious awareness that the journey is not just about changing behavior. Practice is about changing consciousness, transforming from identifying with the “process of me” to being consciousness itself. In other words, we have to learn that what we are is the Well-Being that remains unaffected by whether or not the bill gets paid.
The practical application?
The important point of spiritual practice is not to try to escape your life, but to face it – exactly and completely.
— Dainin Katagiri
Practicing the choice for Life wherever we “come to” in the process of suffering is our best opportunity to end suffering. We don’t want to get confused that ending suffering is the result of the bill getting paid. The first step in ending suffering is always ending any conversation that maintains the illusion of a self separate from Life.
At whatever point we catch on to the ego maintenance process, we pause and ask, “What now, Life?” Training to be here for the guidance of the moment is the change in behavior that is always available! That’s how we train to be self-disciplined. That’s how we choose the present moment, That Thou Art, True Nature. That’s how we can live in the process of the “joy of Intelligence knowing itself,” a much happier resting place for attention than any process of ego maintenance.
Live the questions now.