VIDEO: Becoming a "Self-Scientist"

In her interview with PsychAlive Senior Editor Lisa Firestone, Dr. Donna Rockwell talks about the impermanence and the freedom that arises when one becomes a “self-scientist.”

Everything’s impermanent.  That’s what the Buddha discovered when he was sitting under the Bodhi tree for that whole night and said I won’t get up until I realize enlightenment.  What he discovered through that whole night was that whatever arises is subject to cessation.  That whatever is here right now won’t be here tomorrow.  That life is impermanent.  And that was really his enlightenment and then he touched his hand to the earth and that symbolized his awakening.

And we can follow that lead by understanding that we can’t get attached to outcome.  That our suffering and our stress comes from this clinging and grasping desire that we think we know what’s best and we need to make that happen.  But that’s not really how things work and in fact, desire, grasping and clinging are the three very things that hold us back from becoming enlightened in this lifetime.

And I like to tell this story that in the summer in Michigan, we always loved to go to this great outdoor custard place because they have the best vanilla custard. And so, you know, you get this sort of clamoring for the ice cream or the custard and you go and you pull up and it’s a beautiful night and the lines are around the block and you go, Oh god, now I have to stand in this line and you stand there and you wait and you finally get up to the counter and you get this vanilla custard ice cream cone in your hand and it’s like, Ahh, you’re desiring it, you’re grasping it, you’re clinging to this notion of taste and then you take a bite and it’s just as wonderful as you thought it would be.  And then you take another bite and another bite but quite honestly, by the fourth bite, it doesn’t taste as good as the first bite.  And by the time you get to the bottom, you’re almost half inclined to throw it away because you’re actually full and it really doesn’t even taste all that great when you’re down to the eighth or ninth or tenth bite.

So that’s sort of how we live life is we spend our entire life grasping, clinging, desiring something and then we get to it and like new car smell, it only lasts so long. So, what’s true about Buddhist psychology and this notion of how to be in this world is to understand the pivotal and foundational notions of impermanence and that nothing lasts forever.  As the Buddha discovered, whatever arises is subject to cessation.

And when you’re working with couples, you can say, you know, remember how yesterday morning you hated him and you were filing for divorce but the next night you were just so in love and you had the greatest night ever?  I mean, this is life, you know.  It’s impermanent.  The hatred isn’t going to last forever.  It’ll probably be over by this evening.  Nor will that fantastic loving feeling –four days later you’re going to be angry about something.

So it’s really this idea of cultivating the capacity to just stay present with what is.  As the Buddha says, to watch the arising and falling away.  So if you sit in the moment and say, I’m so angry, you can just say I’m so angry.  You know, this is how I’m feeling right now  you can watch it, as an observer, as a wise observer of self, watch the anger spike and then watch it fall away, become like a real scientist, self-scientist.  And then you watch the love, that incredible moment, you watch it arise and then you watch it fall away.

Maybe you wake up the next morning after that great night, you’re not in such a great mood.  Why?  Who knows?  Who cares?  But so really, the challenge is to be present in the here and now without grasping, clinging or overly attaching to needing a particular outcome.  Then you’re free, you’re just ahhh, interesting.  I tell all my clients this and I’ve heard this back so many times, it’s probably the wisest thing I’ve heard from anyone.

But Rom Das is famous for saying that no matter what’s coming at him, he says, Ahhh, interesting.  And there’s the story that the Buddha, whatever was coming at him, whether it was a bullet or an arrow, that he could take these arrows out of the air and turn them into lotus blossoms.  And Rom Das tells a story that he went home for Thanksgiving and his brother-in-law and sister was there and they were saying all these terrible things to him and he was feeling profoundly attacked and he said he couldn’t take these arrows coming at him and turn them into lotus blossoms but he could at least catch them and put them down on his plate.  And so he came up with this slogan that whatever is coming at him, Ahhh, interesting.  And that’s sort of equanimity, that’s not not caring.  That’s just sort of being present to … interesting.  And then you can be present for the next moment.

About the Author

Donna Rockwell, Psy.D. Dr. Donna Rockwell, Psy.D., L.P. is a licensed clinical psychologist, adjunct faculty member, community outreach worker, columnist, and mindfulness meditation teacher. Dr. Rockwell specializes in both mindfulness and celebrity mental health. She works with clients in her private practice and teaches public meditation classes. You can watch Dr. Rockwell on YouTube or read more of her blogs at The New Existentialists.

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