Just who do you think you are?!

I saw someone at the airport recently carrying just a wallet and a skateboard. That’s it. Now, that is traveling light, I thought. And this dude was smiling at everyone.

traveling light

I was thinking it’d be even more wonderful not to be weighed down by our self-grasping and projections, our emotional baggage that we’ve been lugging around from life to life, including this one. Just to skate lightly through this life, loving everyone we meet, with an open, accommodating heart, knowing we are all just passing through.

Putting 2 and 2 together and making 5

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says quite directly: 

We may have the sincere wish to avoid suffering permanently, but we never think to abandon our delusions.

Do you ever wake up wanting to suffer? Thought not. This means that you do want to avoid suffering permanently; and presumably you’d also prefer to always wake up peaceful and relaxed if you could. But we keep getting the real causes of suffering and happiness all wrong.

Why do you think we are never deeply happy for very long, even though that’s all we want? Buddha’s diagnosis is that it is because of our delusions, and especially the self-grasping ignorance that “always abides at our heart destroying our inner peace.” There is always some tension and discomfort in our minds, or, if not, the threat of it. There is always some underlying dissatisfaction, feeling cut off, or needing something else — even in the midst of supposedly enjoying ourselves. And a world of pain when we are not.

ignorance is bliss

And all this suffering is because “The foolish mind of self-grasping believes or grasps at I, mine, and all other phenomena as truly existent.” This wrong awareness creates our other delusions, negative karma, and their suffering karmic results in life after life.

And it is also the basis for all our everyday annoyances — I think that “grasping” is a good descriptor for it, because we squeeze and we push, rarely able to relax into a non-dual experience of deep peace and wholeness.

The thing we grasp at most tightly is our own self or me. It’s exhausting, actually. We are all wandering around day and night clinging to this painful limited version of ourselves, one that no one else can even see; and it is incredibly important to see exactly how we are doing it and then stop doing it.

Four essential points

So I have been wanting for a long time to talk about the four essential points, or steps, for meditating on the emptiness of the self, like I did for meditating on the emptiness of the body. In brief, if the self, me, or I that we normally perceive exists, it must be findable in its parts or separate from its parts. We should be able to point to it without pointing at anything that is not it – that’s only fair.

But luckily we cannot find a real me anywhere if we look for it with analytical wisdom. I am not the body, not the mind, and not the collection of the body and mind – yet take the body and mind away and I disappear. It’s like trying to pin down a mirage. I’ll expand on those four steps now, hoping you have a few undistracted minutes to read this.

A Tale of Two Selves

But before we start, may I suggest we take a moment to connect to the peace at our heart, recognizing it as our limitless potential for change, our Buddha nature. Our principal peace of mind arises from our connection to enlightened beings (however we envisage them), especially through our Spiritual Guide. We are already communing with them the moment we experience just a little bit of peace at our heart, so we can receive their blessings and connect with their truth not by grasping or “working it”, but just by relaxing and abiding in it, letting go. Then this peace feels limitless. We have a deeper knowing. And we identify with this, thinking “This is me.”

There is more on how to do this explained here

lotus reflectionWe now have the space to take a step back and watch our painful limited self in action = Step One, below. It is a bit like A Tale of Two Selves – and their different paths and results. Here on the one hand is my Buddha nature – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to enlightenment. Here on the other hand is my hurt and limited self – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to more neurosis.

Our choice.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

When we meditate on the emptiness of the self, it is very helpful to start with the painful, limited self that we are currently holding onto – this is our target into which we fire the arrows of wisdom.

So, bring to mind the limited, painful self you are grasping at today.

If we are having any kind of delusion, this will not be too hard to do. For center stage of all our delusions is a big sense of Me or ego – and the stronger the delusion, the stronger that sense of me.

Let’s say we are really worried about something or someone. We even want to help them so bad, but we can’t, and it makes us feel inadequate, helpless, or infuriated.

What is going on here? Three things. We have a perception of that person as being in a bad way and it seems fixed. And we have a perception of ourself as someone helpless and hopeless, and this too seems fixed. And we are also grasping at the perception itself as real or fixed. These are called the “three spheres of emptiness” because none of these exists in the way that they appear, ie, real. We can learn to dissolve them all away.

Let’s focus on this perception of Me and ask ourselves: does this me feel limited? Does it seem fixed? Does it feel real, as if it is actually there? Does it seem to exist from its own side, nothing to do with anything, including the body and mind? Does it seem to be just arising independently, just arising on its own? Just a big distended me sitting here, existing in and of itself? 

self-cherishing 1As Geshe Kelsang suggests in Joyful Path of Good Fortune

We begin our meditation by considering, “How am I grasping at self? What is the I that appears to my mind?”

This real me is in fact the non-existent object of the wrong awareness of self-grasping. But this is certainly not how it appears — it seems to exist solidly and have nothing to do with our thoughts. It appears to be real. If this me is not real, what is?!?

Hard ego capsule

This me seems so solid and real, it’s a wonder no one else can see it. But they can’t, so where is it? If it was really there, outside our private thoughts, someone should be able to see it, surely?! 

So in this first step we bring to mind this inherently existent me or I as strongly as we can, such that we wonder, “If this me doesn’t exist, what on earth does?!” We want maximum impact on our mind when we go onto realize that this me doesn’t exist.

This is the worried self we want to serve and protect – but it is difficult because this depends on the other person cooperating and not worrying us anymore. This is on them – they are worrying me. The stronger the worry, the stronger the sense of the worried me and the stronger the sense of the problematic person causing my worry.

We can also use examples of embarrassment or fear. If we are standing next to the train tracks losing our balance, for example, we are not thinking, “My body is about to fall!” or “My mind is about to fall!”, but “I am about to fall!”; and that I appears to be something different from, and independent of, our body and mind.

about to fallEven if we are just sitting here reading this blog, we can consider what Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We do not feel that “I am reading this book” means the same as “My body is reading this book” or “My mind is reading this book.” The I appears to exist from its own side. This independent I, if it exists, is the inherently existent I, the I we cherish.

Although we cannot find that me (as we shall see), for as long as we continue to believe it and cherish it not a day will go by when we don’t experience problems and suffering. And this will continue in our future lives as well, as we hallucinate one painful and/or circumscribed self after another. We need to wake up from the nightmare of this ignorance and wake everyone else up too.

So in this first step we have to get this I in our sights. Allowing it to manifest obviously by remembering situations where we have a strong delusion functioning and we are self-centered — “What is that me that is so upset?!” — and then simply stepping back to observe it.

The worried sense of self. The hurt sense of self – imagine someone says something hurtful and the hurt self pops up. Or the neglected sense of self. The irritated sense of self. The needy sense of self. Something real and vivid. There it is! Recognize how you immediately believe it. So fast — it is instant. I am now in pain. And we want to serve and protect that self – it feels inherently in pain and therefore needs protection.

emptiness mirrorsWe all have a playlist of our personal greatest hits. So you apply your meditation not to an abstract notion of who you are, but to YOU. This way our meditations will change us.

This fixed me comes up all the time depending on our delusions.  We can see how our horizons shrink very small whenever we are caught and wrapped up in this painful, bounded, fixed self. When we have delusions, pretty much all our valuable energy goes into protecting this real me or I, leaving very little left over for other people.  We inhabit a very small universe. We are fragile — it is so easy for us to feel slighted and even more upset. Someone looks at us funny …  even someone walking past us can seem deeply personal!

I think our self or I can feel sometimes like a hard ego capsule, sometimes an insoluble one. But when we meditate on emptiness or selflessness we find it is not as solid as it appears and we can dissolve it away.

Freedom is just some wisdom away

The thoughts of a real me are just thoughts. If we go looking for this real me, we won’t find it.  Once we identify how we are grasping at the me or I that we normally perceive, there are many ways to understand how this is grasping at a false me or I – for example, everyone is me, so I cannot be the real me. And, as we will see, we cannot find this me anywhere.

Good to bear in mind that we are capable of wisdom, of understanding everything, of having infinite love and compassion for everyone. With self-grasping and self-cherishing, we stick our head in a thick obstructing cloud — oblivious to our potential and oblivious to other people. If our head is stuck in a cloud, it doesn’t much matter that there is infinite sky around it because we can’t see it. We are just thinking about me. 

However, if we dissolve away that me that doesn’t exist, we no longer have to change the world to suit it. We just get rid of it.  We can feel happy. Full. Contented. Not needing anything; we are free. If we see how we are not that limited needy person, we no longer need to try to manipulate and control others around us. The urge to do that has gone because we now feel fine. for whom emptiness is possible

And we are now also free to think “I am a being bound for liberation!” Or “I am a Bodhisattva!” I am not fixed so I can be anyone. That is who I am. That is what I want to be. We are in the driver’s seat now. 

Therefore, now that we have a fix on this negated object — the real me, the one we normally perceive — we can now use Steps Two to Four to dissolve it away. More coming up on this soon.

Meantime, comments welcome!

The courage to love

hate is easy“I’m ok, I suppose”, said the woman sitting opposite on the train into her phone a second ago, “but just reading about Manchester, it’s really sad. I can’t take much more of this.”

Sometimes we are a little reluctant to keep our eyes open to the suffering of others — we can only do so much of it before we switch channels. You know that thing when some horrible disaster appears on the news and you think, “Oh, no, no, no! Wait a minute, let’s check my Instagram feed, that’s going to be more entertaining at this point.”

At Denver airport en route to London last night, the news of the bombing of young concert goers in Manchester Arena was just breaking. I saw it in the newsagents buying my water, where a pundit (or knucklehead, depending on your perspective) on Fox News was also mysteriously commentating: “It is lucky that we have Mr Trump as our President!” I paused to take heed, then like everyone else I shook my head and thought, “What is the world coming to?” And sooner or later we switch off, don’t we? (Or self-medicate. The young and seemingly underage guy next to me on the plane drank gin and tonics chased by wine, and then passed out. I don’t know his reasons, but I’m sure he was not the only one drinking himself into a stupor last night.)

ManchesterBut there is nothing to fear and everything to gain from extending our love and compassion even and maybe especially in the face of danger — wishing other beings to be happy and free from suffering more and more until no one is left out. We may have no alternative if we wish to be safe. As a friend just posted on Facebook:

So tragic and frightening. So unnecessary and senseless. What can be done – feels so hopeless. Yet a quiet voice calls from the heart, “Now is the time to love – fully, deeply, and fearlessly.” May all beings abide in peace, free from suffering and fear.

At heart all of us have a good nature, as Buddha explained, all of us are in fact pure and very kind; but through trepidation we can hold ourselves back from feeling it: “If I think about everybody’s suffering, I am just going to be overwhelmed and discouraged and depressed, and I already have enough suffering of my own, thank you very much, so I just need to focus on that, and maybe my family, and if I have any time or space in my mind left over then perhaps I can focus on a few other people.” The young woman selling me my Sim card at Heathrow just now said that everyone in England is in a state of melancholy today, and that her father in Northern Ireland wants her to come home right precious human lifeaway, London is too dangerous, working in an airport is too dangerous. But she and I agreed that it is not true that we have to batten down the hatches. We have to live.

And what does it mean to really be alive, I thought? We all have the potential to love everybody, wishing every single being to be happy all the time, and to wish for all living beings, including animals, to be free from all their suffering and its causes. This needn’t overwhelm us, and indeed compassion and love are the “great protector”, Buddha said, protecting us from the discouragement and fear. These minds are incredibly beautiful, even blissful, states of mind that will help us as well as everybody else, eventually leading us to enlightenment, the main meaning of this precious human life.

So what’s holding us back?

love quoteOnce we have heard that we have this potential, what is holding us back? Why might we develop reluctance or fear or apathy about going there? According to Buddhism, it is due to two ego minds. One of those is just basic ignorance, confusion, holding onto a real, solid, absolute sense of self or me. Our world revolves to a large extent, maybe entirely, around Me, Me.

And which me? This me sitting here. The real me, which would be me. Not your me. I don’t even see your me.

And, weirdly enough, you don’t see me when you look at me. You see you or her. Which has got to make us wonder — if no one else at all ever sees this me that is the known center of the universe, where on earth is it?

We are all called me, but when we look around we just see other. We all have our own sense of me, and we feel that this me is the real one. Do we not? If I was to say “Hey, all you reading this, stand up the real me! ” — we would all have to stand up. Because that’s how we see it. Do any of you here reading this think you are not really me? We all naturally think we are really me, do we not? The other me’s are a little bit pretending because I can’t even see them — to me they appear as other and I buy into that appearance wholesale.

“But what’s wrong with that?!”, we may be thinking, “What’s wrong with thinking I am me?” The problem is not with thinking we are me but thinking we are the real me, which means that everyone else is necessarily not me. For example, if left is absolutely left, then right must be right, right?!, not left. And that is generally at the moment how we dichotomize self and others, without even having to try. We don’t see a room full of Me’s, we see a whole room full of Others. We see a whole room full of Them, You’s, He’s, She’s, and, on a good day, maybe We’s.

Dualism

Generally, our strong grasping at self, which is called self-grasping ignorance in Buddhism, immediately throws us into a “them and us” situation. Or a “them and me” or a “me and you” or a “self and other”. It immediately throws us into a dualism – there is me over here and everybody else over there. self-cherishing me better than you

And because we feel that this me is the real me, what happens next? The other ego mind is the self-cherishing that believes that this me is the most important me in the universe. We naturally put it first because we naturally believe that real self is more important than real other. This means that we play along with the assumption that “My happiness and suffering matter far more than yours, than anyone’s.”

Which is pretty wild, if you think about it. For on which planet is it actually true that I am more important than all of you?

I may not fess up to this at a polite dinner party, “Hey guys, did you know I am more important than all of you?” But if we are honest about what we are thinking, are we not generally thinking, ” I am more important than them, my happiness matters more, my feelings matter more, my interests matter more, I am generally more interesting, etc.” ?

self-cherishing 2Or, on the flip side of that, “I am the worst, most boring person on the planet.” Either way, as long as it is about us, we love thinking about ourselves. Actually we hate it, but we love/hate thinking about ourselves. Point is, we can’t help thinking about ourselves at the moment because we keep gravitating towards this me. Why? Because of the habit of ignorance. Our thoughts have been circling around this sense of me, from a Buddhist point of view, since beginningless time. And this is a major, major problem. This is our own biggest problem, and the biggest problem facing humankind. Luckily, it is a problem that can be solved.

As it says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Since throughout my beginningless lives until now, the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind,
I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.

Danger Level: Critical

It is of course easier to keep perspective when the tragedy hasn’t yet reached your own doorstep …  I don’t really know how I would feel if I had a little girl wearing kitten ears who had just been killed or maimed, whether in Manchester or in Syria — I don’t know if my grief would overwhelm my love, I would hope not but who knows. I was also Manchester 2wondering whom I would want to blame and hate — the deranged suicide bomber? the people who brainwashed him? the whole terrorist network? the enabling governments? those who voted for them? Where do you start and where do you end the blame game? Is everyone who has delusions at fault?

It still makes the most sense to blame the enemy of the delusions themselves. The danger level in the UK has been raised to critical, indicating more attacks on their way — but the real danger is the one still lurking in our own mental continuum. I also think this Facebook comment makes an important point:

If this kind of atrocity leads to hate and fear growing in your mind then their mission is accomplished, they win. Do not put everyone in the same group based on the actions of an individual, this is the very epitome of prejudice. Treat every person as an individual, judge them on their own actions. There is far more that unites us than divides us.

Right this moment, seemingly at leisure in the heat-drenched Norfolk countryside, I do have a choice to make when looking in the mirror of these tragic appearances – to give in to danger or to work to overcome it at its core. If I let the self-grasping Them and Us mentality stick around in my mental continuum, there is no guarantee of my safety:

In the cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra

sowing seeds of loveThis was an extreme deranged manifestation of “me vs them” displayed by the suicide bomber, who in all likelihood is going straight to a hell realm hallucinated by his own self-appeasing hatred and negative actions. However, none of us is safe in samsara from committing negativity while we remain with delusion and an endless history of negative karma in our minds. So, do we give in to these bad habits or keep trying to fly in the face of fear? Loving and praying for each other more, not less, starting perhaps with those in today’s firing line and working together wisely, creatively, and consistently to create purer minds and purer worlds?

Comments are welcome — what do you think about all this?

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