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What is the self?
A friend of mine went to a talk by a Buddhist monk. His question about self-improvement was: finally, doesn’t it come down to a hostility to the self? That is, self-improvement means judging ourselves as inadequate: that we need to be something other than we are. Doesn’t self-improvement rely on dis-satisfaction? Once we accept ourselves for who we are is self-improvement at an end?
Is ‘the self’ just what I want? My desires and their satisfaction. This idea of the self leads to the self in the sense of egotism – this narrow person going through the world caring only about themselves. There are more altruistic versions of this notion of the self: it feels good to do things for others; our pleasures aren’t just crass they can also be refined and include appreciating the beauty or the natural world and the extraordinary creativity of artists. But the refinement of the pleasure doesn’t alter the greed.
Is my ‘self’ just my thoughts? If so, then when I stop thinking there is no self. I am no longer planning or remembering. I’m just being me, here and now, doing what I’m doing. This may be just breathing. Or, “When eating only eating, when sleeping only sleeping.” When I am simply attentive to what is going on, then I have no ‘self’ in the sense of the self as thinking. This sense of no-self is more hospitable to others, we are not concerned to fit another into our plans and schedules, we can simply be with them – and it feels great. The next time you make love, do it from this space and enjoy the difference! It is easy to start with sex because the sensations can be strong and so help get our thoughts out of the way. It also occurs when we are fascinated by anything. Even when we are just playing we are in this space of no-self. These can be times of real refreshment – as the popularity of meditation attests.
And yet . . . I do meditation because it is satisfying, it is satisfying to me. My self benefits from this no-self. So, I think we need to re-think what we mean by self. There are layers here. As I peel back the layers I find what may be called “no thing” but it is far more than nothing. What I am doing when I am just me is different to someone else. Getting beyond the pettiness of our egos we don’t arrive at being all the same. We find our individuality – we often find in what way we express ourselves. If there is a universal self which we tap in to then it is expressed differently in each of us. For me this is the beauty of getting beyond our ego.
Once we get beyond our greed and attempts to control life with our thoughts, then here we are doing what we are doing. In this sense the self is our acting-here-and-now, our relationship to this situation (in all its many-dimensioned complexity).
What would improvement mean?
If we are not discontented why would we want to improve? If this is enough, why would we want more?
And yet . . . Even with meditation, we get better at it. It may be a remembering to not strive and just be, but we get better at that too.
The difference between a new born child and someone not captured by their ego is huge. And the adult has some benefits – they can be far more help to others than the new-born. In this sense the mature adult is an improvement on the new-born. It seems to me that life is (at least partly) about growth.
And the distinction between being and doing is somewhat false. We can express our being in our doing. We express ourselves through our words, even the particular walk that each of us have (and in many other ways too). These are not separate to our being.
Even those times of no-self when we are just breathing or just playing can be part of a larger story of improvement. We can meditate for the benefits it brings. We can play in order to find out how something works.
It seems to me that life is not a neutral force but a positive energy with a particluar ‘flavour’. It is a growing into being (and doing) more of who we are.
[For an extraordinary and brilliant investigation of the philosophy of this read Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his argument that quality is a dimension of being. In my view this is the best philosophy book ever written.]
So, simply being with life means some kind of ‘improvement’ – being alive means a process of growth. This, in my experience, is certainly a process of getting beyond our petty plans and our greedy ego. It means being able to be more hospitable to others, more clear in our perceptions, understanding more how we use our thoughts to protect our ego. It means a discovery of a deeper ‘self’ – in one sense a no-self, but a no-self that is different for all of us – a no-self that is truly individual.
What does this mean for us?
1. That when we are greedy our lives are less satisfying.
2. That times of ‘just being’ are important.
3. That when we find our vocation (what we do when we are being just us), this will mean a path of ‘improvement’, getting better at what we do. It is at this point that the experience of past practitioners becomes valuable.
I realise that this is a big topic on which people will have strong feelings. So comments are welcome (disagreement and different perspectives are especially desirable).