“Free your mind and your ass will follow.” — George Clinton
I once lived with a husky puppy in a house with a picket fence. As he grew, he displayed the independence typical of his breed, and an impressive way of leaping vertically into the air before pouncing on things visible only to him.
One day I looked at him, curled under a tree next to the fence, and saw that he was actually big enough to clear the fence easily, and had been for a while. I worried about whether we needed to build a taller fence. But then I realized that he’d learned a long time ago that he couldn’t jump this fence, and had long ago stopped trying. He didn’t know that things had changed — that he had changed. His early relationship with the fence (I can’t get past this) functioned like a spell, keeping him in place, frozen in time and space. And I thought, this is how it happens to all of us.
We grow up in an enchanted forest of the mind whose scenery changes slowly, if at all. And often we continue to live under the spells cast by our childhood and culture without ever recognizing them, or realizing the extent to which our feelings and actions are driven by them, or noticing their surreal ability to remain unaltered while everything around them changes.
Buddhism sometimes talks about enlightenment as “waking from a dream,” or life itself as a dream, which would presumably make death the awakening. (This is how Shakyamuni Buddha’s death is described — as passing from life into nirvana.) In our everyday lives, we assume that we wake from dreams into reality. But reality isn’t the single, universal entity we like to imagine. We’re always living in a unique construction of reality: ours. This reality is colored by our karma — our experiences and actions, our thoughts and feelings, and all the spells we haven’t unravelled.
These spells are simply conditioning that has led to fixed habits of mind. Such conditioning includes ideas about who we are and how the world is. It arose in response to a particular environment, a specific time and place, but it doesn’t recognize or adapt to changes in that environment.
Buddhism tells us there’s no self, which means no fixed, unchanging self separate from everything that surrounds and pervades us. The true self is co-created in each moment by everything around us, and changes moment to moment in collaboration with myriad causes and conditions. This self is interdependent on everything, and remarkably flexible. It responds freshly to each new constellation of circumstances.
Yet it’s much easier for us to identify with a false self. We feel more comfortable with an idea of self that is a certain way: constant and discrete. This self is perhaps the way we think we should be. Or who we were told we were — how we experienced ourselves and the world when the spells were cast and time stopped. It’s this false idea of self that imprisons us in a realm where the deepest things never change, because we don’t let them. If we think we know exactly who we are, and if that conception hasn’t changed in a long while, then it’s time to get curious.
The past happened, though not necessarily as we remember it. We’ve been conditioned to think in certain ways, but we’re free to teach ourselves to think in others. And what we think can change our reality. Imagination is our ally in this unweaving of spells, in the creation of fresh perspectives on ourselves and our world. It’s not easy to re-imagine a self or a life; it takes practice and perseverance, because our minds tend to follow well-worn tracks of thought and feeling. We have to bushwhack new trails without knowing where they’ll take us.
Maybe we start by simply having a look around, inside and outside, scanning for what’s different, noticing what’s changed. Don’t be the scientist whose attachment to her hypothesis is so strong that it blinds her to contradictory evidence. Contemporary scientific understanding of the neuroplasticity of our brains is beginning to catch up with a spiritual insight more than two thousand years old: karma can be transformed; spells can be broken. Fences that have been standing for years can be cleared in one good leap.