When the Tool Becomes the Master

Last night in class my professor brought up some interesting ideas about the way new technology (i.e. new tools) changes our minds – the ways we think and act. Without getting deep into the context of the lecture (which was more of a discussion, really), he said that sometimes what is meant to be a tool for us to master for our own sake often becomes the master itself. The very tools we master can begin mastering us when we would be better off ruling them. He said this is true of both physical tools AND conceptual tools.

And that got me thinking…

I think there are conceptual tools that were designed as an aid to meditation practice. One such tool, which is perhaps one of the most common tools used in Buddhist meditation, is no-self or not-self. When used as one tool among many, it’s a wonderful thing. It helps us to let go limited self-concepts that do not fit our current situation and move on.

But not-self can quickly become the Master. It can be a nagging voice that drops into our practice when we are doing something that would usually be considered harmless, such as reflecting on a time when we felt hurt or scared, or even happy or proud. It can creep in and say, “What’s wrong with you? There’s no self, remember? This is an illusion. You know that already.” And in that sense it can be a tool unconsciously used to shoot down confidence, avoid certain experiences that should probably be attended to, or cause one to feel guilty or shameful around a “self-centered” emotion.

And that’s just one case of the way a concept can quickly go from being a useful tool to a tool-that-uses-you.

I’m not prepared to give some kind of ready-made solution to this conundrum, as though it can be overcome by yet another conceptual tool. But there is tremendous value in simply being aware of the possibility of our tools becoming our masters. Maybe then we won’t blindly accept the spiritual-sounding voice that tends to pull us away from the freshness of experience in any given moment. It may also inspire us to try using tools more consciously, perhaps in response to the more tools that arise and express themselves more automatically, and often inappropriately.



Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

5 responses to “When the Tool Becomes the Master

  1. Monkey Mind

    Great way of putting it, Jackson.

    I’d like to add that thinking itself is another case of the tool becoming the master.

    Not to poo-poo on thinking (because it’s a very valuable power tool), but to challenge the thought that we have to believe all of our thoughts all the time (because when we do that, thinking has become our master).


    • Jackson

      Thanks, Florian. That’s a great point. Cognitive therapists often use the term autistic belief to describe that kind of relationship to thought. Autistic belief says, “I don’t believe anything that isn’t true, so my thoughts MUST be true.” This is a very sticky situation to get into, and it is not uncommon.

      At the same time, once one has recognized that not all of their thoughts are worthy of belief, the idea that, “I don’t necessarily have to buy into this,” can become another effective tool. But this tool can also become one’s master in the form of, “You can’t trust any thought, ever,” or even, “You didn’t really believe that thought just then, did you? You know better than that.” This becomes particularly sticky when one’s meditation practice leads to bona fide insights that are accompanied by thoughts that may adequately describe them. But, because the descriptions are thoughts, one remembers quickly that they can’t trust their thoughts at all. So, not only can this cause someone to dismiss a genuine insight, but also to that same guilty or shameful feeling that comes from having temporarily broken the tool that became the rule (and thus, the master).

      I guess the point of this post can be summed up as a suggestion to be aware of the possibility of tools becoming masters, and also to perhaps remember to notice the condition of mind that arises after the master tries to override or deny a thought or other experience during meditation. Sometimes notice the effect associated with the cause is enough to begin the process of loosening up around this phenomenon.

      • I like to put it this way:

        In order to truly advance in one’s practice, it’s not enough to just continuing doing a the technique as initially prescribed. It’s necessary to practice good discernment, too, paying attention to cause and effect at multiple levels and layers.

        It helps if one can get interested in experience however it presents in a given moment, so the process is rewarding in itself. If it doesn’t seem like the practice is rewarding as it is, it’s doubtful that progress will keep moving in the right direction.

      • Jackson

        Thanks for commenting, Sam.

        That’s a good point. I think George Leonard points to the same idea in Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. He says that anyone who develops mastery of a skill does so by not just loving the peaks, but also the plateaus. There seems to be an emergent quality to advances in skill. For a while you’re just doing the same old thing over and over again, without much progress, and then suddenly you’re playing at a level beyond what you thought possible. I think this principle applies to meditation as much as it does to playing tennis, driving a car, or even being a good partner in relationships. If you can develop an appreciation for the task, the results should eventually follow.

  2. stan

    You make a good point but I don’t think of “no self” as a tool. Mindfullness of breathing is a tool. “No self” is a phenomenon to be observed. You choose to let “no self” nag you.

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