The best advice you could possibly get is from a teacher or someone who is more knowledgeable than me. I am a novice Buddhist, I am hardly worthy of teaching others about the Dharma, but I strive to do my best and I will point a few things that I came to understand:
- the ego is a powerful force, you need to progressively weaken its influence; there are 2 opposite ways in which it tries to establish its dominance: through negativity, such as fear, regret and self-loathing or through things such as selfishness and arrogance. Both cases are extremely damaging to progress, it is necessary to weaken them in the course of practice; one such way is by avoiding people, objects and thoughts which create unwholesome states of mind and being accustomed to people, objects and thoughts which lead to wholesome states of mind. Avoiding unnecessary arguments, instead communicating with people that you can relate to, seeing how their own suffering is not much different from your own and being part of this community can help a lot; mutual-help can go a long way towards self-acceptance and thus silencing the disrupting influences of the ego that you eventually want to transcend; a life of practice is difficult if you can't live with yourself; furthermore, regarding both monastic and lay Buddhists, there is such notion as Kalyāṇa-mittatā
. A few quotes:
In the Pali Canon's Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), there is a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda in which Ananda enthusiastically declares, 'This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.' The Buddha replies:
'Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.'
'With regard to external factors, I don't envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training, who has not attained the heart's goal but remains intent on the unsurpassed safety from bondage. A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful.'
Upatissa says that a "good friend" should have the following seven qualities:
"Loveableness, esteemableness, venerableness, the ability to counsel well, patience (in listening), the ability to deliver deep discourses and the not applying oneself to useless ends."
- the weaker the afflictions (such as anxiety and restlessness) are during the day, the easier it will be for you to meditate, gain insight, weaken the afflictions and so on
- the ability to change is closely intertwined with 2 ideas: honestly recognizing that you have a problem and developing a powerful intent of changing the way you think
- my own changes through the course of practice happened with the progression of the above, followed by sustained peak experiences on contemplating the three marks of existence. That is, contemplating dependent-arising and refuting the idea of self (by refuting properties that we use to define a self and through which we wrongly identify form as a self; for instance that a self is independently born, while in reality everything is dependently-arisen, that it is a static entity, while in reality everything is constantly changing, that there is an inherent uniqueness in a self, through which you can identify it, while in reality, form is merely the result of past phenomena, how the idea of eternalism makes no sense as forms are constantly changing, thus there isn't something that you can hold on to and wish for it to remain etc.), seeing how craving to be a being with a past and a future is the source of much misery and confusion etc. When contemplating one-pointedly as such and insight arises, instead of being happy with it and calling it a day, sustain this insight for as much as you can (e.g. for a few hours) in order to turn your mind from previous ways of thinking, with the honest goal of never going back to those deeply disturbed states of mind again (not by craving or clinging to this undisturbed state of mind, but by making use of right effort). If you are bothered by discursive or disturbing thoughts which have great negative influence on your mindfulness, finding the state of complete tranquility through contemplating the above or something else and maintaining it similarly is just as useful. This sort of practices had profound and permanent influences on my thought process. I should mention that I took the three marks of existence at the beginning of my practice, not from insight, but from ignorance of what I was supposed to meditate (I didn't have much knowledge about Theravada and Mahayana for instance). It was most useful for me do have done so, but we each start from our own delusions. Someone already having extensive analytical knowledge of the Dharma and putting strong faith into it, might find something else to practice first. This is why having a teacher that can give personal advice is so important.
- with continuous practice, one thing becomes apparent: the constant interpretation through which we try to understand things through our own categories and assumptions not only doesn't deliver the expected insight, but it is a great hindrance towards actual insight, as it makes us cling to our own categories and assumptions. We can wander for a long time in this way and little insight will arise, but by actually practicing what should be practiced, things which we constantly tried to understand, become obvious and insight appears upon our previously faulty practice. We try to find our ways through the darkness of ignorance and even when finding the correct way (the Dharma), we are tempted to interpret things instead of contemplating one-pointedly on that which should be contemplated, analyzing its characteristics and dissecting it to uncover its fundamental structure. We need to do this whenever true doubts arise as well, although I believe this is something to be eliminated early in the practice.
- you can state one thing in many ways, there are endless ways of combining ideas and arriving at equivalent or related ones; or otherwise, a contradiction in one thought can bring countless contradictions when using it to arrive at other conclusions; that's one more reason why you should focus on a practice that is suitable towards advancement, rather than just trying to see how everything is interlinked before fully understanding what you're trying to link together; as you reach a higher and higher level of thought, things will start making more and more sense, culminating with enlightenment, perfect and complete understanding of phenomena
- I know when concentration has reached its necessary level for insight (as well as samadhi) when I can clearly see everything I am contemplating as if I am looking at it with my eyes wide-open
- trying to find a home in this world is the sure way towards suffering; everything around us is crumbling and breaks down, instead of clinging to any home, one should instead establish itself onto a proper path
- trying to find a better way towards enlightenment (contrasting it with whatever we've read or heard; thinking how something could have been better stated or how it would have been ideal for you) is another way we start interpreting things, instead of understanding them (I'm guilty of having done that too); instead, do whatever is best suited for your progress at the moment; clinging to thoughts greatly hinders you; as you progress, your opinions about these things will change a lot; strive towards actual practice and progress, you will gain far more insight into the best methods and practices to go with as you move along; you will then realize whether something you chose to do on your own is useful towards progress simply by honestly answering yourself to the question of whether whatever you're doing is useful; once you reach enlightenment, it will be trivial to guide anyone according to their needs and see their path unfold towards liberation before it even happens or create your own commentaries if you wish, but for now, it is impossible for you to even have a detailed understanding of how you will walk the path yourself
- in the end, everything I did was merely to prepare myself to follow actual advice joyously, patiently, calmly and without doubt; I am for instance practicing lam rim chen mo and due to its magnificent explanations of what needs to be done, progress arising from practicing this excellent teaching far exceeds what I could have ever accomplished without following an actual guide
You are obviously intelligent and you have yet to fully acknowledge the great strength and resilience that you are capable of; by using the best way you can produce for overcoming negativity, you will find a solid and unshakeable ground for progressing towards enlightenment. I'm not inherently contradicting your post, nor solely expanding upon it, but merely pointing out a few things, such as do what is useful towards progression, without interpreting it in the large picture of things, not trying to see how things are interlinked before fully understanding what you're trying to link together. Once good practice leads you to understand these things, many more things will naturally start to make sense. And above all, apply yourself with trust to an actual guide or teacher.