Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Neurotic Nature of Doing

In my handwritten journal entry of December 5, I jotted down a few notes from the dharma talk I was listening to that day, as it hit home.

The talk is by Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher-guide at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, and was delivered on June 18. However, as Audio Dharma maintains a cache of Gil's talks—more than five-and-a-half years' worth—they can be listened to at your convenience. They're in mp3 format, are free-of-charge (though a donation is appreciated), and can be played via any number of free mp3 software programs.

At any rate, today's Mindful Living Guide post is inspired by Gil's June 18 talk, entitled "Doing Being and Knowing".

In it he distinguishes between being and becoming, and explores both concepts in relation to doing. The upshot of his message is that, contrary to oft-held opinion, being is not necessarily in opposition to doing. While many, today, are caught in the never-ending cycle of doing, and suffer as a result of this addiction, doing itself is not the problem. Rather, it is the becoming—the false sense that a self is in the process of becoming, or is being bolstered—which is at the root of doing-induced suffering. The doing is fine, it is our identifying with the action or the result which is problematic.

Although from another dharmic tradition, this reminds me of Krishna's advising Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita, that so long as Arjuna could free himself of delusion—for example, thinking that by warring against his friends and relatives he would be destroying them—he could, in fact, avoid accruing karma if he were to act selflessly (and in devotion to the Blessed One).

I said earlier that Gil's message about the neurotic nature of doing hit home.

As alluded to in the December 11 post to my other blog,, I have the propensity to be rather neurotic when it comes to thinking, and the doing which often follows, and vice-versa. If thinking, our conceptualizing aspect, is given free rein it seems likely that the becoming of the false sense of self will soon follow. We begin to take credit for the work we've done, without giving the myriad other conditions which supported our work their due. We begin to identify with our actions, the ego becoming an inflated sense of itself.

I became aware several years ago of how my own self is like a sandcastle precariously perched on the water’s edge. The natural flow of the tide—which is perhaps analogous to reality constantly crashing in on us—inevitably acts to wash away our vulnerable walls, our selves. We, then, work voraciously to rebuild and fortify the walls, to protect our sense of self. We repeat whatever story line we’re trying to convince ourselves of, against our innermost realization that the story line lacks existence. Why else would we so obsessively carry on this inner dialogue were we not to know, deep down, that our selves are built upon ever-shifting sands? If our selves were stable, solid entities, they wouldn’t require such hard work to maintain.

This blog thing provides us with a simple, real-life example of "the neurotic nature of doing". It is so easy just to keep doing, to add new bells and whistles, and to fritter away countless hours constructing a "Metadata" section (refer to the handiwork of my self becoming in the lower right-hand column of this blog for proof!), rereading past posts, editing them, adding links which perhaps no one will click, and, the worst-of-breed, falling prey to "checking my stats" instead of mindfully doing something more meaningful.

But as Gil wisely points out, such mindless doing creates habitual traces the momentum of which—if not observed in a state of peaceful being and recognized for what they are, and then consciously let go of—are likely to carry us further and further away from the wisdom present within each of us. And we shall suffer accordingly.

Rather, we can practice at simply being, not to the exclusion of doing, but learning not to get caught in the content of our thinking nor to identify with our doings. In this way, we may begin to keep that false sense of self from emerging out of the quagmire of constant goings-on, and becoming a root source of our suffering.

Much of what we neurotically do needn't be done in the first place, but is done in the wake of prior actions with which we have identified ourselves. Our minds become habituated to continuous doing—or entertainment—anything to keep us from looking within and acknowledging the grand illusion of self which we willingly, if secretively, uphold. The possibility of coming face-to-face with our illusion scares us into submission. It's like we create a part in a play for ourselves and in acting it out enter into a pact with our false sense of self to forget that the play is a creation of our own minds, and that we needn't perform the role for life. We don't realize that it's the very impermanence, the spaciousness, of the self which offers us the freedom to live each moment afresh, unburdened by the momentum of habit.

Let us, instead, begin to breathe and to do, mindfully ...

In Peace,

Sean M. Madden
Mindful Living Guide (spiritually/meditatively mindful aspect) (politically/intellectually mindful aspect) (email the aspect of your choice)


  1. The general impression gained by reading Gita is that Arjuna was in delusion. It was Krishna (and the priests who tried to present him as God in Gita) were in delusion. Krishna made Arjuna to kill millions of soldiers, elephants and horses by misleading him. Fighting for a Nation is different from fighting for throne in an internecine quarrel. If Pandavas and Kauravas were in conflict for their justice, they need not have dragged millions of soldiers. Krishna unnecessarily made it an issue of religion and spirituality. The quarrel has nothing to do with spirituality. Kindly do not be misled by the word Dharma used in Mahabharata. That Dharma was just four caste dharma controlled by priests in the name of Krishna. Full text of Gita with unbiased commentary

  2. Thank you for your comment, Bhaskara. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my post.

    Perhaps it will help if I explain that I did not intend to offer a moral stance on the interaction between Krishna and Arjuna, or to liken "dharma" as it is used within the Mahabharata (which I would agree with you sets forth the dharma, the laws, appropriate to each caste) to the Buddha, or any other spiritual, dharma.

    Rather, the phrase, "Although from another dharmic tradition," was intended to explicitly acknowledge that the two traditions differ.

    By relaying a widely held interpretation of Krishna's teachings to Arjuna within my post on "the neurotic nature of doing", I was simply including mention of another tradition -- which differs in many ways from Buddhism -- that also suggests that it is possible for actions to be performed without accruing karma, or habitual traces.

    Thank you, too, for including your link to the Bhagavad Gita. Earlier this week, I researched various online translations of the Gita (and the Upanishads) to consider providing links to via my blog for those who may be interested in exploring this (these) text(s).

    I hope readers find your link helpful, though I am skeptical that any commentary on any text can be without bias. Commentary is by its very nature an interpretation, and carries with it biases, deliberate or unconscious. This is not to say, however, that commentaries are not helpful; quite the contrary.

    Thanks again, Bhaskara, for your interest in this post. Please feel free to comment again on this or any other post in the future.

    Readers: Click here for the "Bhagavad Gita" entry in Wikipedia, where additional resources concerning this text can be found.