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!

Our bodies barely exist

“It’s a good day to have a good day”, said the sign on the side of the carpet van I just saw in Charlotte, NC. I couldn’t agree more. But it’s not always easy because our delusions keep interfering with us, destroying our inner peace and happiness. As ignorance underpins all good day to have a good day.jpegour delusions, the best way to have a good day today — and every day — is to break free from ignorance and stop going round and round in circles. How? By realizing the true nature of things. So, with the wish for you all to have a really lovely day, I’m going to continue these articles on the emptiness, or true nature, of our body. And please bear with the new terms if you are not yet used to them, it’s worth it.

That experience of not finding our body, as explained in this last article, is the experience of emptiness. We are experiencing the non-existence of the body we normally perceive, the non-existence of the inherently existent or objectively existing body. We are not looking at nothingness, but at the mere absence of inherent existence of the body. This is a deeply meaningful absence and the most profound object of knowledge.

So, what is my body?

Our body does not exist in the way that it appears, which is findable and real and outside the mind. This does not mean that our body does not exist at all, but that it “barely exists”, as Geshe Kelsang has said – it exists as mere appearance or projection of mind. We normally don’t think of our body as mere appearance — we believe it is really there, just as we believe that objects in a dream are really there (until we wake up). And that wrong belief or wrong conception is ignorance.

And we don’t just do this with our body – we are doing it with everything. It is absurd. And it is causing all our suffering.

We think there is a reality out there, existing from its own side, appearing at us, solid. And so we grasp with ignorance – when things appear attractive we have to have them, for example, and when they appear unattractive we want rid of them. In dependence upon these three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and anger, and their subsidiary delusions, we create karma that causes us to keep circling in dream-like samsara. We are failing to recognize that we are creating our whole reality with our thoughts.

“Look, everyone!”

It’s like believing there’s something real out there when watching a movie, as if there really are people there, as if something really is happening, as if there is something coming from the side of the screen. Whereas in reality everything little-boy-at-moviecomes from the mind — is dependent upon conceptual imputation or label or projection. 

A small boy standing in the gangway at a movie was looking at the screen and then back at the projector and then back at the screen again, with a growing expression of surprise on his face. Then, pointing at the screen, he yelled happily, and loud enough for all of us to hear, “Look, mommy! The movie isn’t coming from out there!” Then, practically jumping up and down with glee, he pointed at the projector: “It’s coming from over here!!!” We all laughed. He may have ruined the magical illusion of the movie for some, but to me he seemed like a little Buddha emanation granting the relief of realizing that things do not exist from the side of the object but are projected by our mind.

A lot of Western scientists believe that consciousness is a by-product of matter, even if they haven’t quite figured out how. But it is in fact the complete opposite – our body and the entire physical world are created by our mind, like a dream.

Pile of stones

pile-of-stones

Although it is beyond wonderful that Buddha explained all this, we don’t have to take his word for it. We can see the truth for ourselves, using our own wisdom.

In Step One, identifying the negated object, we get to the point when we think, “If this body is not real, what is real?! This is the body I’ve cherished my entire life. Whenever it feels uncomfortable or sick or fat or rejected by someone, I feel sad. Are you telling me I have been wasting all this energy, all these moods!, on a mere figment, a mental elaboration?

In the remaining three steps we try to find something that matches exactly this vividly appearing real body. But when we look for our body, we find nothing that corresponds to the vividly appearing body that we normally perceive. We look everywhere that it could possibly be, so, if we don’t find it, we have to conclude that it doesn’t exist. It is like mistaking a pile of stones at dusk for a man, as Shantideva says:

Therefore, there is no body, but out of ignorance
The thought of “body” arises through perceiving hands and so forth;
Just like developing the thought of a man
Through perceiving a pile of stones. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Within the parts of the body we think there is a real body — but if we go looking for it we cannot find it anywhere. It is an hallucination, like being startled upon seeing a man out there in a pile of stones, only to relax by realizing we made him up.

Maybe if I just look a little deeper?! …

But maybe, we think, if I just looked a little deeper I would find something out there. For example, maybe we think that the parts of the body are real, so there is some sense after all in imputing a body onto them and holding onto it. There is something out there on which to pin my body. My arms and legs, for example, must be real, or my hands. Of course stones are not a suitable basis for thinking “body”, but the parts of my body surely are!!!?

emptiness-quote(By the way, we need to bring our contemplation on the non-existence of the real body to a conclusion and meditate on that emptiness before we delve further into looking for its parts. These are different contemplations — emptiness of the body, emptiness of the hand, etc.)

To be continued in the next exciting article, when we’re going to look for the very building blocks of the universe … !

Once again, if you are enjoying this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and take your time reading the chapter on Ultimate Truth, where it is explained clearly and perfectly.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Reasoning our way into reality

We have been making one crucial error since beginningless time. An error that is responsible for every bit of our suffering. And Geshe Kelsang sums it up with astounding concision in his latest book:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra

We are not our body – we say “my body”, it is our possession. We are not our mind – we say “my mind”, it is our possession. We are neither a body nor a mind, we are a person.

Yet whenever we perceive our body or our mind we think we are totally in there. We conflate or identify ourselves as them. So when the non-me-body gets sick, we get unhappy, “I’m sick!” and when the non-me-thoughts get unhappy, we get unhappy, “I’m unhappy!”

We have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? A lot of it is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts. When we observe our thoughts at the beginning of the clarity of mind meditation, for example, there is space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. I can let them all go. Why? Because they are not me and I am not them.

I think we could also say “when” in the quote above, ie, “when there is no I, or self”. This is because there has never been an I or self to be found anywhere, ever – in the body, in the mind, in the collection of the body and mind, or anywhere else.one-day-son

There is also no body to be found. Or mind. Or other people. Or Trump world for that matter. Try pointing to it — you can only point at a version, your subjective version. 

There are no inherently existent or real things. When we look, we can’t find anything anywhere ever. We are left looking at space-like emptiness. This is because nothing exists from its own side.

Carrying on from There is nothing out there out there.

The emptiness of our body

To understand and believe this, we need to go looking for things ourselves. This doesn’t have to be too difficult if we know how.

And the way we can do this is through what is called “the four essential points” or steps, of the traditional meditation on emptiness, by which we can come to understand the true nature of our self, our body, and everything else. These are:

  1. Identifying the negated object
  2. Ascertaining the pervasion
  3. Ascertaining the absence of oneness
  4. Ascertaining the absence of difference

It is easiest to do this contemplation first with our body, perhaps because, as a physical object, it generally feels chunkier than our self or our mind and so is easier to examine.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

seek-wisdomWe start by ‘identifying the negated object”, setting up the target carefully so that we can then shoot it down with the arrow of wisdom. No target, no point shooting any arrows. In the case of the body, we need to bring to mind the body that we normally perceive.

Our body takes up an inordinate amount of our attention at the moment. We don’t like it when it is stiff, or puts on weight, or is sick. We like it when others say nice things about it, even if they’re not strictly accurate. We are a little bit obsessed with our own body, to be honest, and sometimes someone else’s as well, especially if there is any hope or fantasy of it commingling with ours. Attachment to bodies is one of the three main attachments of samsara (the other two being places and enjoyments).

(I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of our body, of course. Please keep eating and showering 😉 But we can stop being quite so preoccupied with our body, abandon attachment to it, enjoying enormously the space, ease, and confidence that opens up when we do.)

What exactly is it that we are so attached to? What comes to mind when you think “My body”? You can use an exaggerated version first – for example, someone tells you, “Whoah, you’ve put on weight!” The fat-seeming body suddenly feels very real and solid, existing from its own side. Get a sense of that.

bodyThen what comes to mind when you think, “My body that is just sitting here”?

This is a real body, my real body. It seems to be really sitting here, a solid, singular, monolithic entity, independent of everything, including its parts, including thought. And I cherish and protect it above all else. I don’t want it to have the slightest pain or ugliness or insult. This particular body is very important, more so than anyone else’s. If a neighbor’s body is sick, “Oh, they’ll get over it.” But my body?!

You can also check out this first article, Body image: a Buddhist perspective for more on how to identify our body.

Okay, that’ll have to do for now. This meditation carries on here.

Meanwhile, your comments are welcome, and you might also want to check out Introduction to Buddhism where these four points are explained very clearly.

Also, contemplating the dreamlike nature of reality (as described more here for example) helps tremendously in loosening us up and preparing us to think about emptiness logically, to reason our way into reality using analytical wisdom.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Do you really want freedom?

Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.

friend or enemyThe self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.

First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.

Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.

Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?

Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.

beautiful heartWe can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.

We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton.  So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!

In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.

Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.

delusional unicornThen we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.

We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.

Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we graspignorance is not bliss at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.

Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.