Taking things less personally

9 mins read.

Today finds me contemplating snow again. I am dog/cat/fish sitting in the mountains this week and, despite the 67-degree heat yesterday, woke this morning to a thick blanket of snow. Good thing I brought my snow shoes along with my tee-shirt.

Who are we?

Like snowflakes, every living being is unique. We are each a summation of a very very long history of previous karma, so however similar we may seem physically or even mentally, we are also unique.

Like snowflakes, too, we are all alike in that each of us has the same wish for happiness and freedom, sometimes via the satisfaction of immediate needs, sometimes via the existential question, “What does all this mean?! This has to mean something!”

I stood in line for my Moderna vaccination yesterday – the Denver Health nurses were, as always, kind and welcoming, but everyone seemed a little nervous about their own shot, wanting it to be over, even though we were each just one of millions in line worldwide. Will this give me flu? Will this help me or might it harm me? When is this awful pandemic even going to end? Will my life ever be normal again?

But when we got smiling and chatting a bit in the waiting room, we started to relax because we realized we’re all in this together. Switching our attention off “What about me?” and onto others —  even a little bit — lightens the mind. For my part, I was waving my vaccinated arm around and trying to convince a couple of other people to do the same. This is because I feel I have known my whole life that this is how to stop your arm getting stiff. I think my Mom probably told me this and I still believe it. My new friends did not seem quite so sure, but I still recommend it to you, dear reader 🙂

Like snowflakes, too, our body quickly perishes and we are 100 percent dependent on the other snowflakes – no one can make it on their own for even a second. How many people, for example, were involved in getting that potentially life-saving shot into my arm? (Thank you). Let alone have been responsible for all the other minutes of my life? 

Ego identities

But perhaps unlike snowflakes, each of us has infinite depth – countless lives and boundless potential.

The snow is thick now, despite it being almost April. After a very boisterous snow romp with the big dogs, the puppy is mercifully napping, aka letting me (and the cats) get on with things without being jumped on. Looking at the unique yet still indistinguishable snowflakes around me, I think about what it means to have a sense of self. It seems to me that we generally have a very small, limited, and personal view of self, confined to just one fleeting ego identity, just one life. It’s as if we think we are just one of these snowflakes, believing that this is all there is.

For one thing, if we don’t understand the continuum of mind, we don’t realize that who we really are is a traveler bound for future lives.

For another, with self-grasping and self-cherishing we think that the self or me we normally see is the only real and important me. Inhabiting this self is like inhabiting just one snowflake, in which case the feeling of self-importance is clearly an illusion of grandeur.

Enlightened beings have let go of this fake self by directly seeing that it cannot be found and doesn’t exist. Upon that basis they have been able to complete the exchange of self with others, imputing their sense of me on all the beings in the universe. Their sense of self is now vast – instead of identifying themselves as just one snowflake, they think “me” about all of them. As a result they have effortless love and compassion for everyone.

The self that we normally see is relatively small, poky, limited, and fragile. However, we are misidentifying ourselves because this self we are relating to doesn’t actually exist – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.

 If we correctly identify our self as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, we are free to impute ourself on anything, to identify our self as anything or anyone. If we decide to broaden our sense of self to include all the snowflakes, to identify “Me” with all of them, and “My happiness” with all of their happiness, then what happens? What does that feel like?!

When we realize emptiness or selflessness, we take the inherently existent self out, at which point nothing is personal, everything is infinite. Person, being, self, and I are synonyms according to Buddhism, which means that Buddhas are people too. But they have a radically different sense of self than do samsaric beings. Not only is a Buddha a person imputed on all living beings, but they are also a person imputed upon the Truth Body of bliss and emptiness, which pervades all phenomena. Therefore, although an enlightened being is a being or a person or a self, this sense of self is NOTHING like the sense of self possessed by me or anyone else with self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Levels of mind

Watching water dripping from the snow on the roof, as the sun melts it away, I am thinking that this liquid in turn will soon evaporate back into the water vapor from which it came. This reminds me of the revolving levels of our consciousness, from our crunchy static snow-like gross minds to the dripping liquid-like subtle mind that has more movement (as in a dream), to the vaporous very subtle mind that can disperse everywhere.

(BTW, bit of terminology — when manifest in sleep, death, and deep meditation, the very subtle mind is known as the “clear light” mind.)

Everything is changing all the time, moment by moment — but sometimes things seem more solid and permanent. When we identify with our gross waking body and mind, believing that’s basically who we are, we are like a relatively static snowflake. When we dream, and things flit and move around more, we are like dripping or flowing water. When we stop grasping at our gross and subtle mind and body even temporarily during the death process, our vaporous very subtle mind travels to a whole new life. (If we stop this grasping once and for all through meditating on bliss and emptiness, our clear light mind can be everywhere all at once, a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.)

Then just as water vapor coalesces back into liquid and then snow, so our very subtle mind coalesces into the subtle and gross minds of a new rebirth and we start to grasp again. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

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,

Are we unique or the same?

Life after life our consciousness is cycling like this, yet in each life we keep believing that we are just that one snowflake and hence exaggerate its importance.

On this surface level our lives are often not that different – for example, we all have the same types of positive and negative minds, such as love and anxiety, varying just in degree or in their objects. My Air BnB hosts in Frisco (where I first started this article) were a sweet couple called Jim and Cyndi, who love Ireland (hence “The Snug” complete with fairyland) and are devoted to each other and their family. We all want security and relationships and adventures, and we all love our dog (Finnogan, who chewed my shoe) and think he’s the best dog ever. Which he is, of course, as are all other dogs.

We hold ourselves and our family and our life experiences to be unique, which on one level they are, yet are we not also all caught up in the monotonous repetitive patterns of samsaric living that involve some happiness, of course, but also the cliché of the seven sufferings? I overheardJim on the phone to his doctor, “I have pain in my lower abdomen”. Later he looked distracted and Cyndi looked drawn, trying to be polite but clearly worried. The Snug was a shrine to their love for their grandchildren and their Irish adventures, but how long can that particular identity last? They will soon be staring into the abyss; yet how can we find meaning there if we don’t understand what we are looking at? If all our lives we have invested only in the fleeting, unstable, and, according to Buddha, mistaken appearances of our gross waking minds?

I like to think about the infinite clear light mind that underlies everything – all minds and their objects arise from this root mind. Every being has it, which means that every snowflake-life and identity is just a temporary manifestation, and every being is in fact infinitely deep and infinitely connected.

Our very subtle mind is not even human.

At the level of clear light, how can you tell us apart? Tell me from you? You can only ever talk about “me and you” from a specific relative standpoint(the standpoint of snowflakes). Our true nature is empty like space, and we can only tell us apart via convention or point of view; just as we can only tell the space in empty bottles apart via the bottles.

What happens when we die

Talking about the abyss, people sometimes take up extreme sports or even criminal activity just to feel alive and transcend their fear and unease of the unknown. Even though they may face down death in these ways, it doesn’t in fact stop the terror when the time actually does come to die because the understanding is still not there.

However, Buddha explained what happens to our consciousness when we die; this doesn’t have to stay unknown, this is verifiable inner science. Many accounts from people with near-death experiences (NDEs) bear this out, as do stories of reincarnation, and many people’s direct experiences in meditation. Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a little bit so far, but it looks like it’s going to give people food for thought.

Watching that show I was thinking, yes, it helps to have faith, this gives us some refuge in light of the unknown. But I think it helps more to have faith combined with a considerably greater understanding of consciousness. Death, rebirth, and liberation are not ineffable. What happens during them is verifiable from centuries of personal exploration and experience. If you want to know what happens to us subjectively during the death process, for example, you need reach no further than a copy of Clear Light of Bliss.

I wish everyone who feels existential dread or even just ordinary curiosity would investigate Buddha’s teachings because he was an extraordinarily deep thinker who went out of his way to address all of this. And what he discovered has been practiced with the same results for millennia.

Over to you. Would love to hear your comments.