You have heard it said … “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
At first glance it would seem that what Jesus is saying in this famous passage is that a man is responsible for the thought of lust that passes through his head at the sight of a beautiful woman. Presumably this man is responsible for all his other thoughts as well and with this responsibility comes shame and guilt if the thoughts are wrong. That is certainly the way I understood the passage growing up. This is a very shame-based way of viewing the mind and places a heavy and unnecessary burden on impressionable minds.
This is true because the mind is constantly churning forth thoughts. Anyone who has meditated quickly figures this out. This is especially true for someone who is new to meditation. Sitting still with closed eyes, trying to concentrate on a mantra or trying to clear the mind is a very difficult task. Seemingly random thoughts will sneak in here and there and you will follow them until you remember that you were supposed to be meditating. This will happen over and over again. Performing this exercise will reveal how difficult and how much effort it takes not to identify with these thoughts.
Meditation will also reveal the several layers or parts to the mind. There are at least three. The first is the part that churns forth ideas without morals. This is sometimes called the id or the ego or monkey-mind. Sometimes this is associated with the limbic system or the primitive, reptile brain that seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. This part of the mind lives in the moment and does not think ahead. The second, is the part of the mind that chastises the self for the lust, envy, anger that the first part thinks about. This part is sometimes called the super-ego or conscience. This is probably associated with the prefrontal cortex or modern brain that can think ahead and moralizes and judges. Finally, there is the part of the mind that observes the other two parts. This is sometimes called the true-self, the atman or perhaps the soul. Most of the time the observer is asleep or identifies itself with one of the other two parts. Meditation, is a way to keep the observer awake but that is a topic for another blog post.
In the shame-based universe, a person is responsible for their thoughts. But how can a person bear the responsibility for something he has no control over? Would it not make more sense to say that a man is not responsible for the initial thought but is responsible for how he reacts to that thought. After all, it is possible to reject a thought or not act on a thought. When this happens, this is the observer part of the mind not identifying with the thought churning part of the mind. Adopting this way of looking at one’s thoughts takes practice in order to believe the truth of it but it does alleviate a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame.