Self or No-self

"What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale…. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: No 'I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door."
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
When we talk of personality we can talk of the real self and the false self. We can talk of id, ego, and superego. We can talk of introversion and extraversion, Myers-Briggs types and Enneagrams. We can draw charts of personality components and have our handwriting analyzed. And still we wonder, "What is this self that I think I am?"

In becoming a person, we learn to distinguish between our self and the rest of the world. We learn that we can operate in the world independently from mommy. We start to build up this idea that we are an individual. We experiment in the rules of cause and effect, and find out about pain and pleasure. We manipulate objects and discover our talents. We learn lessons of pride and humility. Our libido moves us. Our superego restrains us, and if all goes well we form a well-balanced ego to get us around in the world.

We are taught that self esteem is necessary for a healthy personality, and at some point we decide:  "I must find my self." So we go searching. We may travel to find our self in  India or Japan, Peru, or California. We may search in books and on the Internet. We ponder the nature of our soul. We may read the Upanishads and discover that the  individual self (atman) is identical to the Self (Atman) that is the "divine essence and source from which all created things emanate, by which they are preserved, and to which they return."*

We are puzzled.

We look further, and are more puzzled by Buddha’s teaching of anatman, which proposes that "there is no Self or basic reality, which may be grasped, either by direct experience or by concepts."** So in our confusion there is nothing to do but sit quietly and breathe in and breathe out. And maybe we see that the air in our lungs and the air outside our lungs is the same air. We notice that the water we drink and the water that fills our bodies was and will be the water in the oceans. We notice that food that we eat was once a plant or animal, and that the molecules in our body will someday be food for plants and animals, that will become parts of the bodies of somebody else someday. We notice that nothing about us is permanent. Nothing about us is independent of everything else. We see that every movement, every thought, is connected to all the movements and all the thoughts of every other individual. We come to know that the fire of consciousness that burns in our soul is the same fire that burns in all creation.

Meditate on this:

Ponder the nature of the self, the individual self that you know through your body senses, mind, and vital energy.

Ponder the nature of Self, (Atman or Brahman) that is the supreme Soul, the unchanging spirit in the universe.

Ponder the relationship of the self to Self. How can it be that they are essentially identical?

Consider the idea that your conceptualizations of self and Self are illusions. They are mental projections that may point at reality, but are not the reality.

Consider that nothing is unchanging. Nothing is permanent.

Breathe. Just breathe.


*The Upanishads, edited by Swami Nikhilananda, Harper & Row, 1964.
**The Way of Zen, Alan Watts, Vintage Books, 1957.
What The Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, Random House, 1959.
The Spiritual Universe, Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D., Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett