Friday, February 15: This week I’ve been reading about the self and its ever-changing nature. In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, author Matthieu Ricard says about Buddhism: “the self has no autonomy or permanence, … it is like a mirage. Seen from afar, the mirage of a lake seems real, but we would have a hard time wringing any water out of it.”
This, he says, is how the Buddha taught it:
Like a shooting star, a mirage, a flame,
A magic trick, a dewdrop, a water bubble,
Like a dream, lightning, or a cloud —
Consider all things thus.
Ricard goes on to say that we believe the self is associated with consciousness, but “in terms of living experience, the past moment of consciousness is dead (only its impact remains), the future is not yet, and the present doesn’t last.” Thus, he says, “Buddhism concludes that the self is just a name we give to a continuum, just as we name a river the Ganges or the Mississippi.”
I think often about the elusive and ever-changing nature of the self and these thoughts came up in my meditations this week. We all like to think we have a unique self, different from anyone else’s self, a self that makes us feel important or special. We feel intensely that things that happen to US are heavy with weight. This sense of self as unique separates us from each other, makes me the “I” and you the “other.”
Admittedly, I like to think of myself as smart, capable, organized, fun and adventurous. I also know I am easily angered, impatient, often intolerant, and easily distracted. I’m afraid of commitment and intimacy. But are any of these things permanently true? Aren’t they sometimes false and sometimes true, always in flux? Isn’t it true that sometimes I forget things, sometimes I do stupid things, sometimes I am not capable or organized? Sometimes I am not at all adventurous and like nothing better than to be safe and comfortable in my house, removed from the rest of the world. In the company of some people, sure, I am fun, but in the company of others, I can be deadly boring and disinterested. As far as the negatives I list above, aren’t I sometimes calm, patient, tolerant and focused? Aren’t I sometimes able to be intimate with people, and aren’t I sometimes able to commit?
I consider my identity, questions that can only be answered by stories in my life. As I ponder this, I probe about in too many dark alleys & dusty corners. I think, for example, about my physical identity. For one thing, how can I really see myself? I can never see myself, not really. I can look in a mirror, but the instant I find myself in a mirror, I immediately put on my best face; I correct my slouch, I smile to bring my hangdog face to life. So am I really the person I see in the mirror, this 2-dimensional person with the fake smile and upright posture? Or am I the uncorrected version of myself who goes about my daily routines looking neither happy nor sad, neither here nor there? I can see myself in a camera, but once I know I’m in front of a camera, I immediately smile, or put on my best face, showcase my best angle. In front of the camera, I become a star; I can step out of my own under-dazzling skin. Heaven forbid the photo turns out badly, showing me at an unflattering angle or with an ugly expression. I always delete these pictures, which no human eye will ever see. Of course I am fooling only myself, as everyone else in my world sees me all the time in these unflattering poses.
I think about how difficult it is to truly be myself. Who am I anyway? Am I the person who, when I am in the company of my best friend Rosie or my crazy friend Lisa, becomes a suddenly hilarious person? These friends and I play off each other and I am brought to life as a comedian. To these people, my self is crazy and fun. Or am I the person who, in other people’s company, becomes quiet and boring? Am I the person who, in yet different people’s company, becomes defensive and irritable? How can I really even be myself when myself varies with each person I encounter? Sometimes I like myself a lot, enjoy my own company, but other times, I hate who I am. Which one am I? The one I love or the one I hate?
What is the upshot? About identity, I don’t know the answer. I only believe that my self is in flux, constantly evolving, ever-changing. Just as Buddhism teaches. My self is a composite of all the books I have ever read, all the interactions I have ever had, all the people I have ever loved and hated, all the places I have ever been, all the hobbies I have ever pursued, all the aches and pains and heartbreak I have ever felt, all the happiness and sadness and anger…. as well as that blob of gray matter that is in my rather large head. It is all my hopes and dreams and goals, which are always evolving. Plus. Many more things known and unknown, things remembered and forgotten, things experienced and only dreamed about.
Who am I? I don’t know. But, whatever my identity, I cannot become attached to any erroneous or self-important idea about it. It is always in flux and cannot be contained: it is a stream running down a stream bed, a snake slithering through grass, lava flowing from a volcano. I can only catch glimpses of it as it passes by. It’s not mine to keep, so I should simply let all notions of it go.