Not I, Not Me, Not Mine


"All through the day
I, me, mine. I, me, mine. I, me, mine.
All through the night
I, me, mine. I, me, mine. I, me, mine.
Now they're frightened of leaving it,
Everyone's weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time.
All through the day
I, me, mine."

George Harrison


"For the conventional purposes one has to use these words: I, me, mine. But the difficulty is that when you develop tremendous amount of attachment you become miserable."

N. Goenka, Vipassana Teacher


Mystics of all flavors stress the importance of going beyond the ego. The sense of ourselves as a separate self, they say, is illusionary. This can be hard to understand. Most of us find much of our identity in our bodies. Our physical separateness is obvious. My body is here. Yours is there. We can get very close, but we stay two bodies no matter what. The evidence of our individuality seems too obvious to dispute. But we are more than our bodies. Something animates us. We have life and we have consciousness. When we carefully and closely examine consciousness we eventually become aware that our sense of separateness is no more than a convenient concept useful in keeping track of our stuff.

In the East, mystics seek enlightenment -- nirvana, which may be described as the realization of our true nature; the transcendence of the illusion of separateness. The word nirvana actually has its root in the idea of blowing out a candle. To attain nirvana is to blow out the illusion of the ego.

A Zen story uses the analogy of a wave to describe the illusion of separateness. Let's say a wave in the ocean is aware of itself. It feels miserable because it is just a little wave. It compares itself unfavorably with the bigger, more powerful waves. As long as it sees itself as small and separate it will be unhappy. When it realizes that its waveness is just a temporary form, and that it is inseparable from the great and vast ocean it will have attained understanding that will evaporate its misery.

Similarly, our task in seeking enlightenment is to understand, beyond intellect, that we are not just this body or this collection of sense impressions and thoughts. We are part of the greater reality that connects each one of us with all beings.

In the West, mystics are more likely to describe their search as a quest for union with God. A true mystic understands that God is beyond conceptualizing. Lawrence Richardson describes it well at his Christian Mysticism website when he says:

"God is far beyond the concept of personality, more like the sky, an omnipresent consciousness that rests not only behind but also as the broad face of creation.

"Souls are a part of this infinite consciousness; very much like the little whirlpools of air that I have so many times seen in the desert are a part of the sky. Called dust devils, the little whirlpools might seem different from the sky surrounding and within them but this is only because of the debris each has picked up on its journey across the land. This is illusionary: For it is only the movement and flowing of the whole of the sky that is carrying the dust. The whirlpools have no separate existence from the whole and can only maintain the appearance of an individualized structure as long as the wind is blowing. Remove the wind and the whirlpools are utterly annihilated."

This idea of the whirlwinds appearing separate because of the dust they carry fits nicely with the Buddhist concept of aggregates. The individual, according to the Buddha is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies that may be divided into five groups or aggregates. These are the Aggregate of Matter, the Aggregate of Sensations, the Aggregated of Perceptions, the Aggregate of Mental Formations, and the Aggregate of Consciousness.* These aggregates, in their impermanence, are the source and essence of all suffering. When we identify with our physical being, our sensations, our perceptions, our mental formations or our consciousness, we are like the whirlwind identifying with its dust. Where the dust devil to be free of the dust and debris that gives it form it would still be wind, but it would not be perceived as an individuality. Were we to free ourselves from our attachment to the aggregates that give us form, we would lose the illusion of individuality, but we would know the bliss of nirvana.

Spiritual fulfillment comes when we can blow out the flame of ego, when we drop the dust of our attachments, when we realize our unity with the Ultimate Reality -- that which is beyond names.


Spend time in meditation contemplating the whirlwind. How is your sense of self connected with the dust of your physical being and mental activity?

Spend time in meditation comparing your sense of self to the individuality of a wave. Seek to understand how your individuality is like that of a wave and how your being relates to the ultimate field of being.

Meditate on the wind and the spirit. How is the wind that creates the waves and the whirlwinds like the spirit that animates us?

*Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press. 1959.


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© 2002 Tom Barrett