When you turn on your computer, do you have specific programs that automatically start along with the operating system? Both the Windows and Mac Operating Systems let you select programs that will turn on immediately each time you boot up. In daily life, most of us have specific mental programs that automatically start as we get up and move into our day. Its unlikely we made a conscious decision to activate these programs and we may not even be aware of them, but they regularly influence our thoughts, emotions and our perceptions of who we are.
Even during meditation, these programs are often running stealthily in the background, affecting the quality of meditation. At times the programs may induce anxiety and restlessness, making it difficult to concentrate or cultivate presence on the cushion. One of the basic benefits of meditation is the enhanced awareness that allows us to see our hidden programs. Even for experienced meditators, however, the hardest mind programs to see clearly are related to self identity and the need to affirm that identity.
To work with these programs in meditation you first have to recognize they are running. If you regularly feel anxiety or restlessness on the cushion, for example, you may discover familiar themes playing out in your mind as you look more closely. Perhaps you are anxious about how you will perform on an upcoming project, maybe you’re criticizing yourself for not living up to your or someone else’s expectations or worrying about how effectively you’re navigating an important relationship in your life. These programs are related to our perceptions of who we are, yet they are not our “dharma operating system.“ They are only a limited element of our consciousness, just as our favorite computer programs have no functionality without the operating system. Our mental programs are a byproduct of something larger, our great nature that sustains life and allows life to pass away.
Your identity needn’t be caught in repetitive, often invisible programs. With consistent practice, you can gradually cultivate your awareness to recognize when the programs are running. When you truly realize they aren’t who you are, the programs might still run but not run your life nearly as much.
Your true nature includes the totality of what you experience in this moment, nothing excluded. All of the sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings; the barking dog and the wind in the trees, the pain in your knees, tightness in your chest, and the joy of realizing all of this is continually arising and passing away. So let the programs run if they must, but expand the scope of your consciousness so you can see them for what they are: only a small part of the greater whole of awareness. Soon the programs will lose some of their power over your mind and you’ll discover you can operate quite effectively without them.