6. Using the Self to Transcend the Self

This paper summarises the ideas and practices introduced in Talks One and Three, and extends them to enquiry and contemplative practice to do with the phenomenon of the self. Enlarged and supported by the other "Talks" these three offer a comprehensive guide to the practice of an "Everyday Buddhism" in the Zen tradition, as exemplified in the reading list which is also available.

Here are the main points covered in Talks One and Three, to which the reader should refer for more details. They are offered here rather as an aide-memoire.

The impermanence and insubstantiality of phenomena create existential insecurity, angst and a sense of lack in the individual,. The response is typically to kindle the "Three Fires" of anger, greed and ignorance. The fearful self seeks to evade everything which threatens its precarious security and to desire everything which can fortify it - ingrained emotional patterns, root beliefs, behaviours and life styles. This process takes place in a social milieu. Some find a stronger identity through a sense of belongingness to a larger entity - family, community, race, nation and so on. Others may be more concerned to stand out, to make their mark, and to be fortified by the esteem in which they are held. Beyond genetic inheritance (plus karmic rebirth?) and the powerful conditioning of childhood upbringing, we each build up our own distinctive personality - - some more fearful and heavily defended than others. To become fully aware of the shaping and character of one's personality, and particularly of one's "emotional furniture", is a major requirement of Buddhist practice.

In his parable of the Two Arrows the Buddha distinguished between the pain experienced by the self when its integrity and identity is somehow threatened (e.g. a bereavement, or a cancer diagnosis), and, on the other hand, the particular response, which can differ widely between individuals when struck by much the same affliction. In a sense these are all evasions, although in our "fix it" culture the affliction may be more or less resolved by some objective instrumentality (anti-depressants and psychotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, in the two examples). Typical "evasions" include denial, anger, blame, busyness, rationality, projection, and exclusive dependence on an objective fix. However, none of these evasions can, in the long run, fortify the threatened self sufficiently or for long enough. The helpless frustration, fear and anger which then arises is what the Buddha termed dukkha (rather misleadingly translated as "suffering"). Hubert Benoit graphically characterized this process as a lifelong and ultimately unwinnable lawsuit against reality.

However, the above Dharmic process of the shaping of a self would be no more than a caricature without clarification of the nature of desire, about which there appears to be some confusion. It is necessary to distinguish between attachment (that is, the need of the small self to attach itself to something which will confirm and strengthen it) and the "authentic" desire which arises from our undeluded Buddha Nature (or True Self, or Authentic Self). Thus, we may experience a desire to help others. On the one hand, such a desire may serve to inflate the self (e.g. a sense of superiority over the one who is helped, and giving self-prestige and a meaning to life). On the other hand, it may be a compassionate and selfless response to another's misfortune and need. Awareness of these very different and often mixed emotions requires the clarity engendered by meditation. For an extended discussion see Mark Epstein's Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught (Gotham Books, New York, 2006).

"Everyday Buddhism" uses the above experiences of the self as a means to transform our experience of the self, effecting a radical shift in consciousness. The practice of a physically rooted emotional awareness works to this end. "Emotional" here is used to include thinking as well as feeling, as with "mind" (or "heart-mind") as commonly translated from the Chinese. Awareness of the pains, griefs and discomfitures of the self is particularly valuable - "where the shoe pinches". Thus it is common in inner path spiritualities for the practitioner to be exhorted to greet misfortunes as guests , as potentially transformative experiences, whereby straw may be spun into gold. To respond to a misfortune as a positive challenge does of course involve a reversal of our ingrained reaction.

In emotional awareness practice there are various ways in which we can become intimate with the pain of a misfortune. We may, for example, use our imaginations where necessary to conjure up some particularly acute experience of the discomfiture. Meditatively we may ask ourselves repeatedly "How does it feel?" Most important of all is profoundly to sense emotional pain in the body.

Through emotional awareness, on and off the cushion and in retreat situations, the clinging to this and the rejection of that begins to slacken, and increasingly we settle instead into the experience of suchness, of the just-how-it-isness of time, place and persons. As its says in the Hsin Hsin Ming "When the mind makes no distinctions, all things are as they are." The major turn about is when it dawns upon us that both we and the world are basically okay just as they are; we awaken to our authentic or Buddha nature, and it is said that "the real practice" begins there, when we leave the realm of "belief" and enter that of "faith". We become more at ease with our selves and hence with others. No longer self-absorbed, we are freed into compassionate service.

And yet at the same time we are more deeply aware of the suffering in the world and off the world. Everything is okay, and yet grievously not so. These two contradictory truths, this paradox, can only be lived, and cannot be encompassed by logic chopping perturbations. Thus, as Shunryu Suzuki remarked to one of his students: "You're fine just as you are, but there's plenty of room for improvement". More pithily: nothing matters, everything matters.

The Self as a Process

The above prepares us for a further enquiry into the self.

Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Forest meditation teacher, said that "To say there is a self is untrue. To say there is no self is untrue. What, then. is true?" The existence (or otherwise ) of the self thus appears as an enigma, a paradox , for the logical mind. To claim that it does not exist has created problems which have long preoccupied philosophers. And yet no one, from the ancient sages to contemporary neuro-scientists, has in fact been able to establish its existence in any meaningful way. Wittgenstein classified it with such other mysterious substantive nouns such as "time", which are necessary to our discourse but which can never be specifically identified.

The Buddha was once asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta whether the self existed. But he remained silent. So Vacchagotta asked him whether the self did not exist. And again the Buddha remained silent. Subsequently he explained to Ananda that had he replied to either question with a simple negative or affirmative he would have misrepresented his position.
Note that his silence is not intended to point to some mysterious and incomprehensible absolute self.

It is rather that the Buddha saw the self as a process, and not as a constant entity subjected to a succession of experiences which might change only its secondary qualities. He saw the "problem" of the self as being our very preoccupation with whether the self does or does not exist as missing the point. Buddhist thought spells out the above process in various possible ways. Most notable is the causal connectedness expressed in the Five Aggregates:- sensation, feeling, perception/ volition, conception, and consciousness. Another such formula sets out the principle of causality in twelve links - the nidana chain of "dependent arising". The Buddha maintained that there is no constant and unchanging self having these experiences; there is only the experiencing, constantly changing from one moment to the next. It is the continuity of experience which gives rise to the illusion of a self. Moreover, this process is essentially a bodily experience. The more deeply the body is explored, the more it dissolves into energy, losing the reassuring idea of solidity which the fearful self has imposed on it.

This is our perception when we are freed of existential fear and feel more at one with the universe, becoming then a truly self-less person - our authentic or Buddha nature. Our sense of self then becomes no more than a convenient label, a pragmatic convenience. In contrast to this "Big Self" is the "Small Self", conceived as a solid, if precarious, entity. This is the self that conducts the lifelong and unwinnable lawsuit with the reality of insubstantiality and impermanence.

Exploring the Self

With the clarity engendered by meditation , each of us can dispassionately observe the phenomenon of our self, and we may even distinguish several such selves, such as a top dog self which endeavours to control a self-indulgent bottom dog self. This observer (sometimes archly called The One Who Knows) enables us to observe the driven "small self" without being owned by it. It has been variously called Big Mind, the Big Self, or No-Self. We can explore the self with a two pronged kind of awareness. sensing when identification with self is strong (i.e. delusion) and when it is weak (i.e. Big Mind), and what each feels like. In Jack Kornfield's words: "The creation of self is a process that can be observed moment to moment. It arises when we identify with some part of our experience and call it "me" or "mine". We can see what it feels like when the identification with self is strong, when it is weak, and even when it is absent". A Self remains, but it is a No Self (Big Mind) in that in that it is no longer significantly driven by the Three Fires.

It is a valuable exercise to recall typical situations when you have a strong sense of your delusive, assertive (and vulnerable) self. How does it feel in the body? How do others respond? What would it feel like in that situation without that strong self-identification? For example, when you are criticised, or disparaged. How do you feel -- anxious, angry, upset - and how would it feel if you didn't identify? Contrariwise, recall other situations when clinging to your selfhood is mild or even absent. How does it feel? How is it when your response is relaxed easy, and even playful?

But resist any temptation to try to define No-self, to solidify it or attach to it. This is the customary threat of spiritual materialism ("Talk Four").

On a highly disciplined and silent retreat the delusive self is restricted in its self-affirming freedoms: the schedule supplants choice of this or that; mindfulness supplants day dreaming, and so on. In place of the customary agitated this-versus-that state of mind, there is, much more than usual, simply the mind of bare awareness. Such a retreat therefore offers a unique opportunity. Awareness of the self can substantially take the place of our usual identification with it. Other potentially fruitful situations are when the self's laboriously created fortifications are seriously breeched, so that it is unable to manifest itself as previously, as with physical disablement, or loss of prestige when unemployed, or the formidable combination of these disablements associated with old age.

The foregoing kind of shift in awareness may be intensively experienced as Unity Consciousness --self-world unity, or "One Mind" experiences. This represents a radical reversal of small self's self-absorbed, acute-angled view of the world (and of itself), analogous to being turned right side up. As Dogen observed in his metaphor of the boat and the shore, we wake up to the realisation that it is the boat that is moving and not, as we had supposed, the shore.

This is a step in the direction of kensho, when "body and mind drop off". Here there is a unique sense of the absence of self - only experience remains. Examples from Chan Master John Crook: finding no-one looking at the face in the mirror; walking down a street and suddenly finding oneself (necessarily) "returning" when trying to cross in traffic; seeing a rare bird and discovering no one doing the seeing. (For more on "enlightenment" see my "Talk Two".)

Together with opening to suchness, a well practiced habit of observing (small) self without identifying with it can, in the context of emotional awareness and a meditation discipline, make for a life more easeful, less self -absorbed, more actively compassionate, and free of the underlying fear and anxiety which commonly haunts the human condition.