Self-image and the Steady State

August 28, 2017 § 2 Comments

Steady state systems must continually renew their states to remain relatively unchanged through time. The reason for this is simple. Everything changes. There is nothing you can find in this world that does not change into something else over time. So for any state to remain relatively stable it must continuously counteract the changes taking place within and around it. This implies that there must be an underlying blueprint that determines the state to which a system will return. With the steady state systems that we identify as our individual selves, the blueprint is the self-image.

A self-image defines the boundaries of the self. It is the ego proper that says, “I am this and no other.”  The ego can be quite persistent in rebuilding itself when its boundaries are transgressed. We’ve all had the experience of berating ourselves far too much over some faux pas or having some minor slight bother us throughout the day. These annoyances are the result of the ego trying to regain its self-image or steady state.

Self-images are maintained mostly by habit and repetitious thinking. In a previous post the idea of ‘loop thinking’ was introduced. By this was meant that the mind tends to think the same thoughts and reproduce the same feeling over and over again. As we go through the day we may catch ourselves thinking the same thoughts but do we realize that our viewpoints and attitudes are also just repeating thoughts? Do we realize that by thinking the same thoughts everyday that we feel the same feelings everyday? Or that the self’s sense of continuity is just a by-product of continuously thinking that you are ‘this, this, this but not that?’

A variation of loop thinking is storytelling. Storytelling involves the self’s relationship to others and the world and can be told in word or in deed. When done in word they are often told internally to paint our selves as heroes, victims or villains. When done in deed they manifest through our roles as parents, teachers, Christians, Americans, etc. Storytelling is loop thinking with an official end point but with the provision that the story can be retold again and again.

To maintain a steady state, the self must impose its self-image upon the true nature of an individual and a corresponding supplementary image on the present moment. Put in other words, a person will see the world in a way that supports his or her steady state. For example, if optimism is a fundamental part of your makeup then you’ll view the world as a hopeful place. Anything that contradicts that view will be considered an anomaly or just outright dismissed. It simply isn’t possible for the self to maintain a steady state without simultaneously maintaining a worldview that supports that state.

Before studying the self we don’t usually see that we are thinking the same thoughts or feeling the same feelings over and over again. We don’t see that we are clinging to a concept of what we and the world are as a way of continuing our own story. Nor do we see this as essentially a mechanical process operating to maintain a steady state system. We see it as our own self and any disruption to it as a threat to the self.

If, after studying the self for a while, we start to suspect that it is not truly who we are then we can start to let go. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” And to forget means to let go. And that’s our practice. When repetitious thoughts echo that we’re not worthy, unreliable or incompetent, we let those thoughts go. When a story arises framing us as a victim, villain or hero, we let it go. All attempts to define us as something and keep us believing that we are that something, are let go and forgotten.

We sit, no longer a good person or a bad person. Not worthy or unworthy. Not a parent, not a teacher, not even a Buddhist. We are nothing. No one at all. Empty. “Sitting,” as Dogen said, “is itself the true form of the self.”

Yet in letting go, nothing is negated. Things still arise and fall but the self no longer seeks to change them into its own image. Instead, everything is just as it is.

To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, the self is a bubble on a wave in an ocean that does not really exist. It is a steady state system connected to other systems in a vast ocean of systems. It does not truly exist, yet the ocean still heaves and thrills.

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The Superimposed Self

August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

This post continues from the last on the idea that the self or ego is a steady state system. Note that a steady state is neither fixed nor locked in place. The self is not always sad or always happy. On the contrary, its thoughts and moods continuously rise and fall. What doesn’t change, what remains steady, is the system’s tendency to return again and again to a specific state of thought and feeling that is identified as the self. For instance, an optimistic person is one who continuously identifies over time with positive and cheerful thoughts.

Ayya Khema, in her book, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” wrote, “We’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn…”

Being “reborn at every minute” is another way of saying that the self continually returns to its steady state. This happens in a variety of ways. The optimistic self selectively attends only to positive thoughts while ignoring or denying negative ones. Most of us maintain our steady state by only associating with people who hold similar views to our own. We may exercise or diet to maintain the image that we feel most defines our self and dress in a particular style to suit that self. We will also tend to avoid situations that require we act in ways that run contrary to our self-image.

On a level that few of us are aware of, the self will continuously impress or superimpose upon our true nature, images and feelings that define or limit it. Similarly, the self will superimpose upon the present moment its beliefs about the world. It does this to maintain a sense of continuity because your true nature, like that of the present moment, is constant change. So as each new moment is reborn, the self counters with its own rebirth by saying, “This is what I am and this is the way the world is.”

At its core, this superimposition is a lie that seeks to define your true nature and the present moment as something that remains relatively unchanged. Regarding this, you may have heard that a characteristic of the spiritual seeker is that he or she has a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. I suspect that this feeling arises from an unconscious recognition of this lie trying to break through to conscious awareness.

The life of the spiritual seeker may be defined as a continuous waking from lies to the truth. Put another way, the spiritual seeker is one who continuously works to unseat the false authority of the ego and what it says about the true nature of the present moment.

The self’s superimpositions can be quite subtle and it’s up to each seeker to realize their own particular hidden assumptions about themselves and the world. One way to do this is to be mindful of what it is you are telling yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re unworthy? Are you walking about thinking others are out to get you or that the world is dangerous? Whatever you are continuously telling yourself is what you have to wake up from so you can see the world and your true nature as it really is.

One thing that I’d like to mention before closing this post is that it is not necessary to change your steady state self to realize your true nature. It is, of course, natural to want an end to suffering and we all have things that we’d like to change. We can continue to work on ourselves but in mindfulness meditation all you truly need do is realize the difference between your true nature and the present moment, and what is being superimposed upon them. Then continually work on not letting your superimpositions distract you from being who and what you truly are.

Where Am I?

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