Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflections: Self – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Someone not too long ago asked me the question “What is self?” It’s an important question, because ‘self’, either directly or indirectly, is behind our motivation for just about everything. So after mulling it over, here are a few pieces that may frame part of an answer.

1) ‘Self’ is a set of physical, mental, and emotional reflexes we acquire at birth and these reflexes evolve as we grow older.
2) ‘Self’ is what perceives, interprets, judges, and reacts to the external world.
3) Our sense of ‘self’ is the cause of our suffering, in the Buddhist sense of suffering. But ‘self’ is also what will experience 'enlightenment' (whatever that is) if we’re lucky enough.
4) We should try to be true, honest, and compassionate with our ‘selves’, because if we aren’t, it’s a big drain on our resources – physical, psychological, and emotional. Our ‘selves’ can become our own worst critic. It’s from a healthy or free self that we can most compassionately answer to our responsibilities and cope with the external circumstances and changes that arise in our lives. I should add that, right now, I really don’t know what a healthy or free self is, except that in my personal dictionary it may be equated with enlightenment, and that while I’ve always said I’ve never been in the practice for the end-gaining of enlightenment, I do, very much, want to be psychologically healthy and free.

Several years ago now, I moved beyond occasionally meditating primarily for stress relief and ‘energy clearing', began a personal daily meditation practice and joined a local Sangha. That transition was accompanied by a belief in the concept of ‘no self’, because allowing my inner critic and bag of reactive mental and emotional reflexes to continue unchecked was no longer an option. In contrast, now that some years have passed, an indirect effect of zazen (sitting meditation) has been an expanding sense of ‘self’ that more and more seems to include other people and the world. Is this one possible interpretation of ‘not self', as opposed to ‘no self’?

A concept likely involved in this transition, for me, was: “Don’t take things personally.” I began to see that most people were acting and responding from a bag of mental and emotional reflexes, much like, though obviously separate, from my own. I began to see through their actions and responses to where they might be coming from, and that became more important or, at least interesting, than responding reactively. There was ‘self’ in others, and I could feel their suffering and wanted to help. But how? In most cases, there’s very little that actually falls into the ‘help’ category that people want from me. I don’t know where this gets me, other than feeling helpless. What I do know, at this particular moment, is that I find myself drawn to helping people in dire indisputable need; hoping to be alert enough, and not so lost in my routine and my 'self'-centered thinking, to be helpful in daily encounters (yeah, the 'self'-centered thinking is still there to some extent); and, most of all, drawn back to the cushion for zazen. Right now? No, right now it's time for dinner.

Many thanks to my Twitter Sangha, those who prompted the question, and those who were around while I was mulling this over.

Fine tendrils of sun
eased through the gray fog, lighting
beauty this morning.


Kozan said...

Your perspective on "self" is illuminating.

What if the 'self' is not real?

Happi said...

Kozan -

Love the question. It's another koan! I've made my short answer into another post...