To study the Buddha Way is to study the self

December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

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“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self,” wrote Eihei Dogen in his 1233 work, Genjokoan. And to study the self, he continued, “…is to forget the self.”

When the mind is troubled, it is hard to forget the self. Whether sitting in meditation or going about one’s daily routine thoughts continuously crop up. They follow closely on the heels of one another so numerous that they seem interminable. Yet, if you persist in your practice patterns begin to emerge.

You start to see that when no effort is applied otherwise, the same thoughts repeat over and over. Those thoughts coalesce on certain themes that condition how you see the world and yourself. Looking deeper you see those thoughts are personified. Just as some random visual patterns take on the appearance of faces, so do these thoughts seem to belong to someone other than you!

The evolution of humanity involves interacting with others, so it should come as no surprise that, as humans, we routinely imagine we are interacting with others. We do not “talk to ourselves” so much as talk to an imagined other. When we rehearse a speech we imagine we are giving it to others. When we are making a decision we often do so in an inner conversation with interested others and authority figures that exist, for the most part, only in our minds. And, when in conflict, we have unending disputes with inner others that, like Shishi lion dogs placed as the gate of a Buddhist temple, stand as guardians to prevent us from moving forward.  For example…

A common theme in life is the conflict between doing what others say and being self-assertive. A non-assertive person may see him or her self as weak, passive and frightened. Against this self-image there appears a nebulous figure (often projected onto others) that seems to tell us what to do. Both images arise out of a desire to be assertive in the face of opposition, yet both work to prevent self-assertion. These dual guardians are two sides of the same coin that both make up the self and block it from resolving the conflict.

A key to the resolution of any inner conflict is the realization that the dual guardians of self are void of self-existence. That is, they have no existence outside of thought and are therefore unreal, dream illusions. This realization begins with mental alertness.

With an alert mind, as soon as your self-image arises or the other arises to negate self, hold it in the awareness and assert its unreality and falseness. This may take some practice, as it is not uncommon for the dual guardians to arise subtly or flash across the mind so quickly that one doesn’t get a chance to identify them. But with continued practice the process can be slowed and the affirmation made.

Through continued practice you will come to know these two aspects of self to be “just thought” without self-existence. But this takes time. Our deepest conflicts come from our most cherished ideas and deepest fears. Accepting they are founded upon illusion, and that the self is therefore an illusion, does not come easy. Yet if we can see this, if only for a moment, that moment opens us to the underlying Reality that is apart from all thought; and which alone is able to arrest and free us from the birth of all thought. And when thought is arrested, the self is forgotten. But even before that moment, the conflicted self you imagined yourself to be has already been forgotten.

The ahamkar’s “not-me”.

December 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Ahamkar is the principle that governs the formation of the ego, or the self-image that one identifies as “me”.  Simply put, when a feeling-toned thought arises in the mind, the awareness seems to leap toward it.  Ahamkar adds an “I” to complete this identification and suddenly “I am happy” or “I am sad” happens.

What’s often not mentioned when discussing ahamkar is that when the “me” is created, a “not-me” is also created that stands in opposition to it.  The not-me appears in the unconscious as a sort of vague or nebulous “other” that acts to negate the conscious self-image.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) used the term enantiodromia to describe unconscious opposites.  It is the process of counterbalancing a one-sided tendency that dominates conscious life by creating the opposite of that tendency in the unconscious.  Over time the opposite builds in strength with it, at first, inhibiting conscious performance and then subsequently breaking through the conscious control.

August Meditations is not a psychology site but introduces enantiodromia because it is typically experienced with symptoms associated with acute neurosis and often foreshadows a rebirth of the personality, such things that may develop while following a spiritual path.

Applying enantiodromia to ahamkar, when the self is created in the conscious mind, what is not self is relegated to the unconscious. As the self comes to dominate conscious life it’s unconscious opposite grows in strength and starts to negate the activities of the conscious self in order to restore psychological balance to the individual.

It is natural for the dominant conscious mind to resist the intruding unconscious material. Interestingly, the main mechanism for this is to deny the unconscious that, itself, is seeking to negate the conscious self. The resolution of the resulting conflict begins when the conscious self accepts an open and receptive attitude to that which it rejects.

If the conscious self remains closed to the unconscious the conflict between the two escalates. Acts of denial continue as the individual develops a general attitude of keeping his or her thoughts and actions hidden. This, however, does not stop the unconscious opposite from seeking to negate the conscious me through self-doubt, a lack of assertiveness, second-guessing and other self-sabotaging activities.

As the unconscious not-me begins to grow in strength, it appears as inner urges that may, at times, be projected onto the outside world.  These may appear as some sort of force or “other” existing on the periphery of consciousness that act to undermine the wishes of the conscious “me”.   For instance, you might think it a good idea to call a friend but a counter thought arises that your friend, who has now assumed the guise of the unconscious other, might not like being bothered, so you don’t call.

When taken to the level of neurosis, the negation of self may become chronic depression, with thoughts of being seen unworthy in the eyes of others. It may arise as on-going feelings of guilt, seen as the need to punish oneself before some vague other comes to do it first. With chronic anxiety, the unseen other is lying in wait, just waiting to appear with anger and threats of violence.  And, when taken to extremes, the negation of self may lead to suicide or attempts at suicide.  In all these instances the attempt to restore psychological equilibrium has been thwarted by a denial that left the unconscious “not-me” viewed as some vague other that continually threatens the conscious self.

What inhibits the not-me from becoming conscious is self-clinging.  That is, the tendency to hold onto an image of self that is seen as a permanent, unchanging “me”.

Self-clinging can also be described as failing to be open and receptive to that which is not self.  Meditation is a practice that develops this openness and receptivity.

Through meditation we develop an acceptance and openness to whatever arises, to every emotion, to all people and all situations, whatever they may be. We do not deny what we feel, though we don’t necessarily act on our feelings. We do not say, “that is not for me,” but when we do see that attitude we do not deny it, either. We just observe whatever arises whether it be me, or not-me.

When the not-me is met as the unseen other, we do not run from it or try to suppress it. Whatever form it takes we simply observe it. We observe to see its true nature as a thought that has no reality in the outer world. Existing only as thought we see there is no one there to harm or judge us. Seeing this, we see that there is nothing to fear and nothing to hide.  As we do this, once wrathful deities become peaceful deities.

Buddhist practice is one of becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable.  As the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said, “The ‘secret’ of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment – even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness.”

Curiously, when we practice staying with what is not-me and forget the self, “the self,” as Zen Master Dogen wrote, “is verified by all things.”


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