Time and memory being the mysterious creatures they are, for the most part it feels like I have always had my current naturalistic point of view, but when I think about it, I realize it’s been a long, circuitous, and sometimes painful evolution, beginning, oddly enough, with meditation.
My first brief exposure to meditation was through the hippie drug culture, without any profound results. Several years later my AA sponsor told me to do it because it was good for me, not expecting to get anything out of it. I was a sporadic meditator, but I did get something out of it.
I was driving one day with the radio on, as always, when I realized that DJ’s and song writers were controlling my thoughts: every time the music changed, my thoughts would ricochet off the lyrics. I decided to turn the music off for a while to see where my thoughts would go without it, and found that they still bounced all over the place, depending on what came into sensory range, and that at any rate, they were beyond my control.
This realization was a little disconcerting, but otherwise life went on as normal until I read Jean Klein’s book, Who Am I, for the second time. His thinking convinced me that the idea that I was in control of my life and thoughts was an illusion, which was profoundly disconcerting.
It seemed that my prior conception of myself was based on absurdities, that all my relationships were built on this false conception, and that if I wanted to find a more reality-based version of myself, I would have to withdraw from the relationships that reinforced the old falsehoods. I had been a stalwart of AA for nine years, but I stopped going to meetings and moved out of the apartment I was sharing with my sweetheart into a tiny studio.
New, acceptable ideas of myself were not forthcoming, however, despite my isolation from old influences. I read, I pondered, but there was no way to get a grip on how to think about myself without free will, without "self" control. If I’m not the person in charge, what am I? I was trapped in a quandary with no hint of an exit.
I remember sitting in my little room, staring up at a corner of the ceiling, thinking that I had finally gone over the edge. The men in white coats would come and find me sitting there, and as they carried me out the neighbors would say, "He seemed like such a nice, stable fellow."
Fortunately, my work did not require much intellectual engagement, so I worked constantly, just to get out of my head. I gradually came to accept not having an answer, realizing that my brain would somehow continue to function effectively without there being anyone in charge, as indeed, it always had.
I have been nibbling away at the problem of how to think of myself ever since--that was 1993--by monitoring the thoughts that appear and taking note of those based on the old habits of thinking of myself as the controller. I’ve also continued to read, think, and write about the issues, reinforcing a reality-based point of view. Gradually, free will-based thoughts have diminished, just by paying attention and mentally stamping them "ERROR!" When the now rare feeling of anger arises, for example, it is soon followed by a thought like, "So, we’re going to get angry with the wind blowing, are we?" Feeling proud or superior brings on something like, "While you were making yourself from scratch, why didn’t you add more hair and whiter teeth?"
These little devices have freed me from sources of much anguish, and brought me a measure of happiness I had never imagined. I have to stop and think what a miserable creature I used to be--being "in charge" is a terrible burden. The whole process evolved as the result of natural forces, like a stream led downhill by gravity and geology, and I feel fortunate that I can feel fortunate about experiencing it.
– Norm Bearrentine