I have just completed a 6-day retreat with Ajahn Brahm. I went in expecting to relax the mind and body, but as with all past retreats, came back with unexpected insights.
The biggest takeaway for me beside improvement in my meditation practice is a deeper understanding of non-Self. This latest bout of insight began with another Dhamma talk and 1-day retreat a few weeks earlier, where the Ajahn mentioned that what we assume to be our persons comprises the 5 aggregates, none of which are stable and within our control. I could at least experientially appreciate that statement for all the aggregates except for 1 - volition. What I choose to do and think seems to be very much me.
So I meditated and observed more about the nature of my intention, or will. Through a combination of recollections of my past and current observation, I realise a lot of what I thought I had decided on was conditioned by my past, or by my environment. There was no truly original thought that sprung from a "me". For instance, 80% of what I decided to do in a day was a result of habits and conditioning. I "decided" to exercise first thing in the morning because that was what felt good yesterday. I "decided" to speak a certain way in a meeting because I have read about how to run effective meetings before, I "decided" to go for a "spontaneous" evening run because I'd heard someone do it in a podcast, said it felt good, and had buried the desire in my subconscious. From something as unconscious as scratching a mosquito bite to decisions as consequential as deciding to start a startup, if I trace backwards far enough, there is always a chain of causes. There is no "me" from which it all began.
This was a quietly ego-shattering realisation for me. If I'd come to this insight 10 years ago, I'd have been quite disturbed.
"If there isn't a me, what is the foundation for me to build a life upon? What had I been working towards all this while?", I would have thought.
But having more life experiences under my belt, I welcomed that insight. It came as a relief, an affirmation of niggling realisations over the years. Many of my biggest stress and mental suffering arose because of my ego's attempts to construct a self. This can be as blatant as the overweening ambition to build a world-changing company. But it can also appear in subtle ways.
I remember in my 1st 10-day Goenka vipassana retreat, even with absolutely nothing to do, my ego would find a way to construct a self. I would take pride in being the first to arrive for every sitting. I would also play little private games, such as guessing who each pair of shoes outside the meditation hall belongs to. Back then, I thought these were smart techniques to wisely deal with the boredom without breaking the noble silence. But looking back now, I realise this was a way for the ego to "become". It can't stand not existing, and thus it grasps at things to construct itself.
I later shared this anecdote with Oswald, who also said that during his retreat in Bali, he would indulge in simple pleasures such as making tea. In normal society, this is considered a very meditative and completely innocent practice. But if you look deeper, it is the ego striving to become, by having something to do.
All our lives, we are constantly doing, or looking for things to do. Doing things validate the self. And that was why it took me so long to do absolutely nothing during my meditation. For a great many years, I was striving even during my meditation! I wanted to become calmer, I wanted to enter the Jhana, I wanted to observe my breath.
And so now, on the second Ajahn Brahm retreat, that insight is slowly starting to sink in. Do nothing. My job is already done. Just observe.
When you remove the ego, all that is left is compassion and kindness. That is what drives our actions thereafter.