Jan 18, 2009

retreat part 3: you're nobody!

Buddhists are always talking about the concept of anatta, non-self.

Here's what I used to think of that concept:

Ugh, how horribly boring. Buddhists must think that we are all identical dolls, unpainted and unshaped, made from the same tired old mold. We're all blending in with one another, bland and uninspiring. What a depressing way to look at the world.

Here's what I think they mean now:

I am an instance of life. By which I mean, "life" is not a thing that exists outside of the beings that are alive. This is quite obvious when you think about it. But it's an interesting perspective to take. It means that I am not slogging through a chilly snowdrift of life, nor am I drowning in a bog of life, or mucking through a pit of life, constantly battling against it. Life is just living. And everything that is alive. Whatever our experience, very simply, that is life. We don't get to design a concept of Who We Are in some abstract pre-life greenroom, and then step out in to life in the character of who we want to be. It's already happening, it's already here. I think what the Buddhists mean by non-self is that we are all flickering, constantly changing, unique, beautiful apparitions of life. To hold on to an static idea of Who We Are can only be painful, because it can only change.

At first, I was really frustrated with that view. Am I not supposed to know who I am? Am I not supposed to understand myself? Am I not supposed to recognize faults and take steps to correct them? Sure seems like a lazy philosophy to me!

Perhaps it is obvious to everyone but me that discussion of Buddhist ideas often takes place on two different planes. (It took me almost the whole week to realize this!) On one level, they talk about non-self, but on another level, in order to navigate our lives as human beings, the self sure is a useful concept. I think it's all about taking ourselves with a grain of salt. We can observe ourselves, our tendencies, our strengths, our faults... all with the open-mindedness to notice when and if our tendencies change.

I think am beginning to understand why this is so important. A while ago I had a very difficult experience. A friend of mine informed me that I had not been a good listener in a conversation. I was absolutely devastated - even more so because I could see that she was correct. There is nothing I try harder to cultivate than good listening skills. I am very attached to my identity as a good listener. To have that identity shaken was very, very upsetting - I even had thoughts like "I have failed at the one thing I care most about". If I hadn't been as attached, maybe I would have been able to take my friend's comment with more grace and dignity, apologize more sincerely (instead of being so embarrassed that it was difficult to speak), and bring more awareness to the situation instead of avoiding conversation for days.

Einstein seems to have figured this out, among a "few" other things:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."

**Discussion not included: how we are basically made of rearranged, and constantly rearranging molecules that have been hanging around on Earth for 4 billion years. It's cool to think that part of you was once probably in the tooth of a T. Rex, and that you're basically built of smashed stars and that you're breathing in molecules that were in the lung of the person next to you 2 minutes ago, and therefore we're all connected etcetera, and the geek in me loves it, but it didn't seem relevant.

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