The Mastery of Self: A Toltec Guide to Personal Freedom (2016)

Chapter Six

Breaking the Cycle of
the Automatic

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WHEN EUROPEANS FIRST encountered the Native American tribes of the North American plains, they were baffled by a small number of tribe members who acted opposite of the rest of the tribe. These tribe members would ride into battle backward, say “goodbye” when someone said “hello,” and constantly do or say things that were the reverse of the normal customs. Unable to see through the fog, these Europeans found these warriors amusing and labeled them “clown soldiers.”

But what these Europeans failed to realize is that these warriors weren't undertaking these actions to entertain anyone. Instead, they served a very special, even shamanic, role in the tribe. Modern scholars appropriately refer to them as “contrary warriors” rather than clowns, and as I look back on the role of these warriors, it is clear to me that they understood that without awareness, repetitive actions would limit the mind's ability to perceive all available options. Because these warriors made it a practice to respond to situations in an opposite manner, they constantly challenged the conventional thinking of the tribe, provoking them to examine their agreements and look at all options and possibilities. This is what I want for you.

If you watch yourself and others in the Dream of the Planet, you'll find that you, and most others, make multiple decisions every day without giving consideration to all the available options, and this practice seems normal to most everyone. For example, the route that you take to work every day, or the hand you hold your toothbrush in are automatic decisions. They are routine, the outcome is presumed to be known, and if you are like most people, you make these decisions without giving them much thought. Consequently, it is easy to go through your day without considering the possibilities, or even being aware that there are other possibilities—until there's a detour because of construction, or you sprain your wrist and have to brush your teeth with the other hand.

While making decisions automatically may seem acceptable with little things, if you aren't careful you can slowly begin to live your life on autopilot, and this will begin to spill over into other more significant areas as well. In other words, when you have developed the habit of making automatic decisions with all the little choices, it can become more difficult to stop and reflect on the larger choices when they are presented to you—especially when your domestication and attachments are trying to control you. In the Toltec tradition, we call this living in the cycle of the automatic.

To be sure, there is a place for automatic decisions, like those that help the body in times of physical duress. For instance, let's say you are hiking on a mountain cliff and your foot slips. Your body and mind instinctively come together to help you grab the ledge prior to plunging to your death. We can all agree that this is a very helpful automatic decision; it's a natural physical response. But compare that scenario to these: let's say an attractive person walks into the room and your first thought is, “They would never be interested in someone like me, I won't even try,” or when you see a job opening and say to yourself, “I won't apply for that position because they wouldn't hire someone like me.” In these situations, you can see where your domestication and attachments have limited your actions in a way that is inconsistent with what you really want.

Not approaching someone you would like to meet or not applying for a position you aspire to have is not the same as when our body acts instinctually, as the former are learned behaviors, rooted in past domestication of “not being good enough.” If left unchecked, attachment to this idea will control you to the point that any choice you think you have is an illusion. A Master of Self cultivates the practice of awareness, and in so doing is conscious of the choices he or she makes so that they are reflective of his or her Authentic Self.

Only when we have cultivated the practice of awareness can we know if we are making choices based on what we really want, or if we are making choices based on our domestication and attachments. If we are lost in the fog, the idea that we even have a choice is a self-projected illusion. Without identifying and breaking the chains of our past, we don't have the free will to take any new actions. Awareness is the key to understanding where your domestication and attachments have made the idea that you have a choice an illusion.

Although I have used the word awareness many times in this book already, let's take a moment to examine its meaning more closely. Awareness is the process of focusing your attention on your body, your mind, and your surroundings in the present moment. Awareness is a unique practice, because in addition to paying attention to what is happening in the external world, you also watch what is happening inside your mind as well, noticing which thoughts arise and tracing their origins. The practice of awareness is a cornerstone of the Mastery of Self, as it is the primary way you learn about yourself: your likes, your dislikes, you domestication, and your attachments. Awareness is a conscious communion with yourself and the environment that surrounds you.

Another important benefit of being aware of your thoughts and watching them arise and subside is that it allows you to realize a truth we discussed in a previous chapter: You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are simply narrators. Who you are is the aware energy that makes these thoughts possible. There is a beautiful passage in the Kena Upanishad, an ancient Indian text, that points to the nature of awareness and the Authentic Self quite beautifully:

Not that which the eye can see, but that whereby the eye can see . . .

Not that which the ear can hear, but that whereby the ear can hear . . .

Not that which can be spoken with words, but that whereby words can be spoken . . .

Not that which the mind can think, but that whereby the mind can think . . .

By learning about yourself through the practice of awareness, you are able to make choices according to your true preferences rather than any past domestications and attachments, and this gives you the freedom to exercise your will in the best way to evolve your Personal Dream and the Dream of the Planet.

Without awareness, your domestication and attachments will corner you into taking actions that conform to the belief systems they have built. This is not free will, as you have given up your personal freedom in order to maintain ideas that were planted in you long ago. When trapped in the cycle of the automatic, you are by definition acting without awareness. You have traded in who you really are for who you think you should be. By living your life on autopilot in this way, without awareness of the possibilities that exist anew in every moment, you end up in the same situations over and over again, making the same choices, and then wonder why nothing ever changes.

Other Manifestations of the
Cycle of the Automatic

Think about the people you encounter on a regular basis. Do you really see them, each and every time, as they are in the present moment? Or do you automatically assume you know the person, and as a result only see the image of them in your mind? Without awareness, your mind makes certain assumptions based on your past experience with the person. Consequently, you aren't seeing who they are today, but rather projecting an identity on them that's outdated and based on your shared past. In this way, someone close to you may be changing or trying to change, but you can't see it because you are attached to the previous image of them in your mind.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't take into consideration your past experience with someone when making decisions in the present; but when you are aware, you can see that we are all changing, all the time. The person who is standing in front of you now is not the same as the person you saw yesterday. The difference can be subtle or great, but it is certainly there.

Another common misunderstanding occurs when you replace one automatic response with its opposite, and confuse that with a conscious choice. I see this often in people trying to break the beliefs of their childhood. When you disagree strongly with an idea that was forced on you as a child, you may rebel completely and do the opposite. Even though your intentions may be noble, doing the opposite simply for the sake of being totally different isn't free will, as both of these actions are part of the cycle of the automatic. You aren't taking the time to make peace with your past, look at all the available options, and determine if there is another option you prefer. You are simply rejecting someone else's idea of how to live your life and going to the furthest extreme against it. You are still giving power to your domestication, but this time in reverse, letting the opposite choice create an identity for you.

Choosing the opposite for the sake of the opposite is often dictated by fear, and any choice that is dictated by fear is not a free choice, no matter how well intentioned it may be. Once you have reviewed all available options, you may still choose to take the opposite course, but the difference is that now it's a conscious choice, made with awareness, rather than a reactionary backlash, and your actions are governed by self-love rather than fear.

Instead of being tied to an automatic decision or its opposite, awareness allows you to be conscious of all the possibilities that are available. You are aware not only of any domestication that is trying to control your choices, but also your reaction to that domestication. With the awareness of both, you are free to choose what makes you happy in the present.

The simple act of pausing before making a decision or taking an action, thinking about what you really want in a situation versus what may be an automatic choice, is the first step in breaking the cycle of the automatic. If you simply take a moment to be in the present and ask yourself, What do I really want right now? the answer, in some cases, may surprise you.

As you get better at practicing awareness, you learn more about your true preferences, and you build self-confidence in your own will. Conversely, as you become more aware of your current domestications and attachments, you will see where they have led you to make automatic decisions and judgments in your daily life. This is the first step to reclaiming your will and your freedom of choice, as the more you practice awareness the less automatic your choices and judgments will be.

Practice Makes the Master

Consciously making different choices can be scary. You're leaving your tried-and-true safe zone and entering into the unknown. Being a Master of Self does not mean that you may not be afraid when you make a new choice—you absolutely may be—especially when your choice pushes the limits you had previously set for yourself and thereby moves you into a new place. But it's only in the realm of the unknown that true transformation can happen, and making a choice you know you need to make to evolve despite any fear that arises is very different from allowing fear to dictate your choice. This is a self-evident truth that often escapes people.

As you begin to practice these tools, it's very likely that on occasion you will fall back into your old habits and make automatic decisions or choose something that isn't in alignment with your Authentic Self. Remember to be gentle with yourself in these moments, as when you begin to create a new Personal Dream there is a natural back-and-forth dance between automatic responses and awareness, between conditional love and unconditional love, between domestication and freedom. As you learn to spot and release your domestications and attachments, this awareness will more readily guide your decisions. Awareness is the tool to focus your intent and break the cycle of the automatic, and regular practice of this is what will make you a master.

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Contrary Warrior Practice

For the next few days, experiment with doing small things in a different way than you normally do. For instance, if you normally brush your teeth with your left hand, try it with your right. Put the opposite shoe on first, drive a different route to work, sit in a different spot on the subway, etc.

While this may seem simple, diligently performing this exercise will help you in three ways. First, by becoming conscious of all the little choices you have throughout the day and by taking a path that is contrary to your usual choice, you will train your mind to observe what is happening in the present moment, rather than wander about as it usually does when it deems a choice is “unimportant.” Second, by making different choices with the little things (some of which you may end up preferring over your normal choice), you prepare yourself to answer the question, What do I really want now? when the larger choices arise. Third, by making different choices with the little things in your life and discovering the variety of possibilities, you step into the unknown, or the only place where true transformation can occur.

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Developing Your Awareness Skills

There are many things happening in and around you all the time, but you aren't aware of a lot of them because, like many people, you are lost in the stories your narrators are spinning rather than being present in the moment. This is nothing to beat yourself up about; it's simply the predominate condition that currently exists in the Dream of the Planet.

In this exercise, you'll begin to develop your awareness skills by observation. You will need a timer or stopwatch for this exercise, as you will want to do this exercise for two to three minutes at first, gradually working your way up to fifteen to twenty minutes.

Read the steps outlined in the paragraphs below one or two times, start the timer, and then perform the steps in the exercise from memory, based on what you read. Don't worry if you can't remember all the steps, you will get better each time you do the exercise.

1. To begin, sit comfortably in a quiet room. Turn off the TV, radio, or any other device designed to hook your attention. Start your timer, and close your eyes.

2. Next, consciously bring your attention to the present moment. You do this first of all by acknowledging to yourself that for the next couple of minutes you don't need to think about the future or the past. The mind is often resistant to this idea initially, as it loves to spend its time in the past and future.

3. As you sit quietly in the present moment, bring your awareness to your ears and what is happening outside of you. Notice what sounds you hear, such as the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, birds chirping in the distance, and the sound of your own breath. These are the sounds that the mind usually misses, as the narrators of the mind deem them “unimportant.” If you listen deeply, you can also hear the silence that exists right behind these sounds.

4. Sitting quietly in the present moment, listening to what is going on around you, now turn your attention to within. Feel your body in all areas, moving outside of your head where attention normally resides, and scanning your body all the way down to your toes. You are so much more than just your mind. Notice any areas of tightness, heaviness, or discomfort. Bring your attention to your breath. As humans, we take over twenty thousand breaths a day, but on many days we don't notice even one of them. Next, as you breathe in, direct your breath to any areas of tightness, heaviness, or discomfort in your body, and imagine that as you breathe out the breath washes away those negative feelings. Sit in this present awareness, eyes closed, surrendering the past and future, listening to your outer world and feeling your body in its entirety.

5. Throughout this process, notice what thoughts arise while you sit. Don't try to fight or control any thoughts, but when you notice you have gotten caught up in a thought chain, simply bring your attention back to the present moment, listen to the external world, and feel the entirety of your body and breath. When the timer beeps, open your eyes and carry this experience of present moment awareness into the world.

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After the exercise is over, make a mental list of the thoughts that arose. What was the predominate category? The thoughts that were most common are indicators of the things that are important to you as a person, and likely include areas in which you wear masks as you engage the world. We will explore the concept of masks, and the proper way to use them, in the next chapter.