Releasing the self.

September 8, 2014 § 3 Comments

Man raging against the dark

Each of us carries an inner image of what we think we should be. In most respects we consider this image to be the real us, even if it does need a little work. So when the world tells us a different story we often react with a lot of tension and distress.

We can alleviate this distress by accepting the new reality or rejecting it. Which avenue we choose usually depends on how much it conflicts with our core beliefs or, to put it another way, how tightly attached we are to our image.

A slight adjustment to the self-image can usually be done with little trouble. Yet every alteration is a reminder that the self is not as real, or permanent, as we like to believe. When this idea finally takes hold in the unconscious mind, a crisis of identity arises. Questions that one does not always accept into consciousness arise, like, “If I am not who I thought I was, then who am I?” “If my beliefs are false, then on what ground do I stand?” “If I am not real, then what remains but emptiness?”

The moment a person questions the foundations of their being there begins an existential crisis. Yet this moment often comes unawares, and is often precipitated by a trauma, leaving the man or woman so confused over the true source of their overwhelming distress that they attempt to alleviate it through avoidance and denial. But this strategy only prolongs the crisis and often prevents it from ever being resolved.  Unresolved, the individual sinks ever deeper into despair, depression and anxiety with addiction a real possibility.

Denial that manifests as a fruitless clinging to the self lies at the core of any existential crisis. Many such crises can be temporarily resolved by accepting a more realistic view of the self. Buddhism, however, takes the stand that replacing one self-image with another never truly ends the crisis and that it can only be resolved with the realization of no self.

To realize no self is to realize emptiness.

To the mind in crisis, emptiness is perceived psychologically as a vast, frightening space in which there is no ground to stand and no security found. It lies behind the broken images of self and all negative judgments of self-worth. It is the one thing the mind seeks to avoid yet the one thing that will set it free. Not knowing this the mind engages in self-protection strategies based on isolation, mistrust and withdrawal; with the result that the world becomes smaller and smaller as the mind denies more and more.

Buddhist practice is designed to steady the mind so that it can come face to face with emptiness. Through meditation and mindfulness the mind is trained to stay in the present moment, such that when emptiness appears in its psychologically frightening aspect, the mind will not deny or be overwhelmed by it.

Yet what happens when one accepts emptiness? Consider these words by Jim Bedard in “Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen.

“I began to fall. But unlike the heavy sinking sensation I had experienced over the past few months, it was a buoyant feeling of release and letting go. My body felt weightless and unburdened. An unraveling began in my chest as if a large knot were becoming undone, and I merged into the One Mind of all beings. Tears of joy ran down my face and soaked my gown. This is impossible, I thought. How is it during the most difficult time of my life I can be so full of joy and gratitude? Whether I lived or died seemed to matter little. In my true Self there was neither birth nor death. All things in the universe are none other than my own Mind. Indeed, the universe unfolds as it should.

Finding release in one’s True Nature is a journey of Self-discovery that begins with the willingness to open up to new possibilities. The path evolves by disciplining the mind to accept subtler and subtler definitions of self until the final release into Emptiness. It is a path few are on, and fewer still complete. Yet the path is always there, waiting.

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