Buddha said that the root of all our negative minds — all our so-called “delusions” or unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — is self-grasping ignorance. We are grasping very tightly at an exaggerated sense of self — an I or me that is independent, real. Due to this we naturally develop a grossly overrated, over the top, overweening sense of our own importance, a delusion called “self-cherishing”. Due to this, we naturally develop all the other delusions such as anger and attachment. Due to this, we naturally do negative actions. Due to this, we suffer!
I find this to be an immensely encouraging summary of our human condition. We are not evil at heart, just ignorant, and ignorance can be overcome. We can tackle it in ourselves and forgive it in others. I think that Jesus understood that we are not evil, just ignorant, when he cried out on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So, let’s rewind to the starting point. We grasp at a real or inherently existent me or I all the time, but sometimes it is more obvious to see how — when we are afraid or embarrassed, for example. Geshe Kelsang gives the example of being about to fall off a cliff. We are not thinking “Aarrghhh, my body is about to fall!” or “Aarrghhh, my mind is about to fall!” – just “Aarrghhh, I am about to fall”. We have a visceral non-analytical grasping at a me or self that appears solid, real and graspable, and we are terrified for it. (If we had the time and mental space to analyze, we’d see that this I we’re grasping is independent, different from our body and mind, and existent from its own side. But self-grasping doesn’t analyze, it just grasps, and strongly at times like this…!)
Here’s another example. Imagine for a moment that you are attending a large meditation class, and at the beginning the organizer says: “Please remember to switch off your cell phones.” But you forget, and just as it becomes all quiet and peaceful, your cell phone goes off. Loudly. And it’s one of those really funky theme tunes that you chose late one night and never got round to switching back. And then what happens is a sense of “UH OH!”
Check what’s going on now. You have a powerful sense of me or I, don’t you? “My cell phone’s ringing! Everyone is looking at me! I look like such an idiot!” Within that embarrassment is a strong sense of me or I as unrelated to, or distinct from, everybody else in the room. You feel rather estranged from them at this point, don’t you? They’re over there looking at me, I’m over here. I’m really me, this is the real me here, and they’re really other. And there’s a gap between us, there’s some alienation there, some estrangement, I am all alone in here. “Help me out!” Maybe you give the friend you came with a little embarrassed smile, mentally beseeching, “Maybe you can help me out here, I’m feeling out on a limb, share the burden …”
Does a scenario like this one ring any bells?! We are experiencing a sense of isolation, grasping at a self that is independent and unrelated to others, and feeling that it is the real, the only — the one and only — ME.
Stand up the real me
Who is the real me? We always think it’s us, don’t we? “I’m the real me, everybody else is other. Everyone other than me may think they’re me, but I’m me.” That attitude is actually almost as familiar to us as breathing, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically nonsense.
We’re not the only me. In fact, I don’t know where you are right now but my guess is that there’s probably a lot of me’s around you, each one of them with a perfect right to call themselves “me” for they’re just as much me as you are. We have a strong sense of self-importance, that our happiness matters and so on, and where is that coming from? If we check very carefully, we can see that it’s because we believe that our me is more real and therefore more important than others’ me! Strip away all the rationalizations and we end up with: “It is of the most crucial importance that I am happy and not sad because I am me.”
But that mind is an ignorant mind. This may or may not come as a surprise, but you are actually not more real and important than me! Or anybody else. Not even close. In fact, what grounds do we actually have for thinking that we are more real and important than others? Do we have any grounds?
If we really were more real and important than others, don’t you think there’d be at least a few other people who agree with us about that? Maybe I should put up a Facebook poll to ask that very question: who is the most important person reading this page?! Whose happiness and suffering matters most? I think it would be a fairly divided poll. I don’t think we’re going to get a whole lot of consensus on that question.
Continued in this article … meanwhile, your turn. Have you ever had a scary or embarrassing experience where you notice at the time or in retrospect that you are/were grasping at ME really tightly?! What did that feel like?