BEYOND THE SELF POSITION
- From a talk given by Ajahn Sumedho In Summer 1993
I think something that interests us all is ourselves - because we are the subject of our lives. No matter what you think of yourself, there is a natural interest there because you have to live with yourself for a lifetime. The self view is therefore something that can give us a lot of misery, if we see ourselves in the wrong way. Even under the most fortunate circumstances, if we don't see ourselves in the right way we still end up creating suffering in our minds. So the Buddha was trying to point out that the way to solve the problem isn't through trying to make everything right and pleasant on the external dimension, but to develop the right understanding, the right attitude towards ourselves. This is the whole thrust of his teaching.
Living in Britain at this time, we expect comfort and all kinds of privileges, rights and material comforts. This makes life more pleasant in many ways, but also when our every need is provided for and life is too comfortable, something in us doesn't develop. Sometimes it is the struggle through hardship that develops and matures us as human beings. I remember when we lived in London, we used to take walks up on Hampstead Heath in the morning and watch these well-off people taking their pet poodles for walks on the Heath. We'd start thinking that it wouldn't be so bad to be born as a lap dog here in England: have some nice lady constantly pampering you, making you little jumpers for the winter, and finding tasty little dog biscuits to feed you. It looked like a life of affection and comfort could be rather pleasing! But the truth is that most of us would find that suffocating: we need to measure ourselves against something, we need to struggle and to learn how to get beyond the limitations that we think we have at this time. Where we get defeated is where we give up to the limitations that we have through resignation and apathy. Then of course we just get depressed and miserable.
But when we give up or surrender to restriction and to restraint through wisdom, then we find liberation! Life is the experience of restriction and restraint, being born in the human body and having to live under the laws of nature on planet earth. Mentally we can soar up into the sky, we can go up into the heavens, but physically we are bound to limitations that get increasingly restrictive as we grow older. This need not be seen as suffering because that is the way things are.
You can develop a different attitude and learn to accept the limitations - not out of a negative resignation but just because you realise that what you really are looking for is within you. You need not seek for it outside, you need not think that it is something far away or inaccessible to you. It comes through the willingness to calm down and stop resisting and to listen and awaken to your own conscious experience. But of course the big obstruction to that is that we have the sense of ourselves as being this or that or the other.
The sense of oneself is something that we become conscious of when we are children; when we are born there is no sense of a self as being anything. As we grow up then we learn what we are supposed to be, if we are good or bad, if we are loveable or not, if we are approved of or disapproved of. So we develop a sense of ourselves. We also often compare ourselves to others and have role models of what we should be when we grow up. I noticed from my own experience that the ego really started consolidating when I was sent off to school: I was thrown into those classrooms with all those strange children and then I started noticing who was the strongest, who was the toughest, who was the one the teacher liked the best. We saw ourselves in terms of our relationships to others. This develops through a lifetime unless we deliberately choose to change and start looking more deeply than just living our lives through the conditioning of the mind that we acquired when we were very young. Even when we get older, sometimes we still have very adolescent attitudes or childish emotional reactions to life that we have been unable to resolve except by suppressing or ignoring them. And these can be very embarrassing or shocking to us.
There is one way of talking about the self that makes it sound very doctrinal.
Buddhists can sometimes say that there is no self, as if it was a proclamation
that you have to believe in; as if there were some God on high saying "THERE'S
NO SELF!"; and in that presentation something in us resists. It doesn't
seem true to just go announcing that there isn't any self- because what is this
experience that we are feeling right now? Here there seems to be very much a
sense of oneself! You're feeling, you're breathing, you see and hear; you react
to things - people can praise you or criticise you and you feel happy or depressed
accordingly. So if this isn't me then what is it? And am I supposed to go round
as a Buddhist believing that I don't have a self? Or if I am going to believe
in something, maybe it is better to believe that I do have a self, because then
you can say things like: "my true self is perfect and pure." That
at least gives you some kind of inspirational encouragement to try to live your
life, rather than saying that there is no self, no soul, leaving a total annihilation
of any possibilities. These are just examples of the use of language; we can
say 'there is no self' as a proclamation, or "there is no self" as
a reflection. The reflective mode is to encourage us to contemplate the self.
The Buddha was pointing to the fact that when we really look at these changing
conditions that we tend to identify with, we can begin to see that these are
not self. What we believe in, what we hold to and cling to and assume, is not
what we really are: it's a position, it is a condition, it is something that
changes according to time and place. Each one of us is experiencing consciousness
through the human body that we have, and it is like this.
Consciousness is a natural function, there is no sense of self in regards to consciousness. The only reason that we might assume a self is because consciousness operates in terms of subject and object; to be conscious we have to be a separate entity, so therefore we are operating from this position of being this subjective being here. Then we can get obsessed with a very personal interpretation of everything: every reaction or experience, whether it is instinctive or whatever, can be interpreted in the sense of it being me and mine. We can interpret the natural energies of the body in a very personal way as if this is me, my problem, rather than seeing them as part of the package that we get from being born as a human being. Even a baby when it is first born has instinctive drives to survive, so when it is hungry it cries. Babies are usually born beautiful creatures so that we naturally want to love and take care of them. Do you think that the baby is doing this deliberately - "I'm trying to be cute so that Ajahn Sumedho will hold me, my mother will love me - or ts this just the way it is, just nature in operation? These are just natural things, but we tend to see them in very personal ways.
We hold views about each other that we carry with us for a lifetime: she is like this, he is like that; and these influence how we react and we respond to each other - just in the way someone looks: pleasing, happy, welcoming; mean and unpleasant; or somebody praises us or insults us. We can carry resentment about being insulted for a lifetime and never forgive that person. Maybe they did it when they were just having a bad time, even after thirty years, we can still make a problem about it if we want. So this self needs to be examined and looked at and contemplated, in religious terms. Every religion has its self-naughting teachings: in some ways religion is about relinquishing the selfish tendencies of the mind, so before we can, say, realise the Kingdom of God we have to let go of our selfish fascinations and obsessions. Or, if we are going to realise the true Dhamma, we need to let go of the self view. So this can be another command from above, like "You shouldn't be selfish! Get rid of any selfishness and try to become somebody who is pure!" We would all agree with that, nobody here would relish the idea of becoming more and more selfish, but sometimes we don't know how not to be selfish. We may have grand ideas that we should give up all our wealth, not hold on to anything; then we're getting closer to not being selfish - but the strange thing is that when you become a monk or a nun, sometimes, although you are thinking you are getting rid of selfishness, you find yourself getting more and more selfish. Your selfishness becomes very concentrated, because you can't spread yourself over such a wide area as in lay life. So you become much more aware of it. And if you condemn it, then it seems to be a hopeless situation, because you begin to interpret life from that sense of "I'm selfish and I've got to get rid of this selfishness." And one of the biggest problems in our way of thinking is to relinquish that basic premise that "I am this person and I have got to do something, in order to become an unselfish, enlightened person in the future."
We are conditioned to think this way in our culture: be a good boy and therefore you do this and you do that and in the future you will become somebody who will be worthy and acceptable in society. This makes sense on the worldly side of life, because we start out illiterate, so we have to learn, and from then on we have to study all the different subjects in a school in order to become someone who can get through the system. If we fail then we become someone who fails. And failure is despised. It is interesting in teaching meditation to people who have this fear of failure, they fear that they are going to fail in meditation. But there is no way you could fail in meditation. It is not about failure, otherwise even meditation becomes just another way for us to prove ourselves. "I can't do it now. If I practise hard, I will become a good meditator and I will become enlightened, hopefully..." And then the doubt comes: "But I don't think I could ever get enlightened. Who is enlightened?"
People like to check us all out to see if Ajahn Sumedho is enlightened or whether Ajahn Viradhammo is, or whether we have reached some kind of advanced level. Or are we just blokes who haven't quite made it? But there is a different way of looking and thinking which is the opposite of seeing ourselves in terms of being somebody who has to do something to become somebody who is better than he or she is right now. That is the worldly way of thinking. That's what people like to hear isn't it: "I had all kinds of problems and was a very miserable, unhappy man and then practising meditation I saw the light and now I'm happy and fulfilled." From the worldly conditioned attitude, "I am this person, I am this personality, I am Ajahn Sumedho... I am all kinds of things... I should be and I shouldn't be." But the aim of Buddhist meditation is about changing one's attitude by using the reflective or intuitive function of the mind.
When we go into the stillness of meditation, often times the sense of oneself will take us over, we'll be filled with all kinds of memories and ideas about ourselves. We sometimes wish that... "if I go and meditate then I'll go into stillness and I'll get out of this ugly scenario of myself." Sometimes the mind will suddenly just stop and we'll experience a kind of bliss, or a peace that we have either forgotten or never really noticed before. But the sense of oneself will still operate because of the force of habit. So we develop an attitude of listening to this self, not in terms of believing or disbelieving but in noticing what it really is that arises and ceases. Whether we think of ourselves as the greatest or the worst doesn't matter, the condition itself comes and goes. Through letting go or 'self-naughting', not trying to get rid of it but allowing it to go, then we begin to experience the true nature of mind which is bliss, silence.
So there are moments in our lives when the self does stop functioning and we get in touch with the pure state of conscious experience. That is what we call bliss. But when we have those blissful experiences, immediately the desire to have them again takes over, and no matter how hard we try to have it again, as long as we're attached to the view of wanting bliss again, we will never get it. It doesn't work that way. Wanting it means that we have already made it impossible, so the attitude then is one of letting go of desire. Not trying to suppress desire, because that is another kind of desire: the desire to get rid of desire is still the same problem. So if we're trying to suppress or annihilate desire, it doesn't work. Nor does just following desire. But in this state of attentive awareness, we begin to see what is actually taking place, then we can let go of the causes of our suffering. We see how it actually is, and we have that intuitive wisdom to let go. So in this life as a human being from birth to death every moment is an opportunity for understanding in the right way. Success or failure suddenly doesn't mean anything because even if we fail, we learn from that. This doesn't mean that we don't try or put ourselves forth but that our aim is no longer to succeed but to understand things.
It takes a long time to get underneath this self view because it is an all pervasive influence on our conscious experience. With meditation also, we bring attention to very ordinary things like the breath and the body, and so we learn how to bring our attention into the present moment, to sustain our attention