Friday, July 13, 2012

I Am Not It and It Is Not Me.

The statement that most resonated with me to explore is: “There can be no liberation until a human being recognizes what ego (the illusion of a self that is separate from life) is, and that “it” is not “me” and “I” am not “it.” In this statement is perhaps a clue to the question “In what way is ego an illusion?”

I always feel a tremble of resistance when I encounter the statement “the illusion of a self separate from life is not who I am.” What does that mean? How can this self not be me? The premise flies in the face of what feels true. What feels true is the form that eats and sleeps and experiences and dreams and acts and thinks. This identity, the sum total of a life lived and living, is as real and true as the pain it feels when “I” pinch myself. How can that be an illusion? And how exactly is that separate from life, if everything is the intelligence that animates all?

“Our life is shaped by the mind, we become what we think” is the opening line of the Dhammapada.

What this suggests to me is that identity, “I/me,” is a mental construct, that ego identity is a by-product of a mind process. The mind organizes the sensations, feelings, experiences, and thoughts affiliated to this form and categorizes/abstracts the whole as a “someone.” The “I,” in other words, is a convenient aggregation, a localized continuous narrative of what arises in consciousness. The “I” is really a process, not an entity. But from within the process, and because language is also a mind creation, we experience ourselves as the entity not the process. So we experience ourselves as a “who” and not a “what.” Looking through the lens of identity/ego reduces life experience to a single point of view, the only point of view. The process of creating that point of view also maintains that point of view. It is a self-referencing, recursive process. Trishna, clinging to that point of view as the only point of view, is described by the Buddha as the root cause of suffering.

It is as if we were born with a pair of ego lenses and were never told we could take them off to experience the world in another way. To me, that is the wonder of Awareness Practice. It provides the tools to develop a different point of view. Through practice, we become aware that we wear lenses, that we can see those lenses for what they are—a mental process—and that we can take them off and experience life through a perspective other than those lenses. Practice opens the door to the possibility that the self, the ego, the identity that defines “my” reality is one of many processes of consciousness. To step into awareness is to experience the substrate of consciousness that manifests this form. It is the ability to experience “ourselves” as awareness and not just as a limited output of an interpretative mental process. It is a way of being that allows us to experience all being, all consciousness, and to recognize that the experience can happen without a “self” having the experience. In other words, the mental construct of an identity, a narrative interpretation, is not the only way to experience consciousness.

The world created by that mental construct is an illusion in that there is an alternative reality from a different point of view. Yes, we experience ourselves as that illusory identity, but authentically we are the awareness that contains it. With the ego lens on we cannot identify with awareness, we can only identify with ego. The limit is built into the instrument, into the lens. We give up all of what we are for a limited perspective of who we are. Such is the illusion of a self separate from life.

Liberation is only possible when we can let go of clinging to the limited perspective of ego/identity. Only when we open to the concept of anatta, all things are without a self, can we begin to experience ourselves as all consciousness. The experience of all consciousness is what is described in the first bead of the Daily Recollection as Bodhi: the experience of the joy of intelligence knowing itself. With practice we begin to recognize the feeling of “identification” with the process of awareness rather than identification with the process of ego/identity. And that’s joy – a coming home to the recognition of the whole instead of the part, dispelling the illusion of a self separate from life.


Friday, July 6, 2012

“In what way is the ego an illusion?”

To begin, a few comments on language:

Talking about the ego is tricky, for our language assumes very specific answers for many of the questions we might want to discuss. For example, if I say “I think,” what is it that is taking an action, and what is the action? What does “I” point to? In just about all uses, it points directly at some ego or another. This can get us into trouble very quickly.

We might translate “I think that...” to something like “Ego is providing the information that....” This raises two questions:

1) To what is ego providing the information?
2) Are there sources of information besides ego available to us?

Approaching the first question cuts right to the heart of spiritual practice. If we are not our egos, what are we? There are many names for it, but they are only placeholders. To really know, we must seek out direct experience of it. For the sake of discussion, I’ll use “that which experiences” as my placeholder of choice

In my experience (Whose experience?!) “The record of observations of that which observes around these parts” ... to be clear is so tricky!), the answer to the second question is an emphatic “YES!” As we learn to turn our attention away from ego, we find that there is a tremendous wealth of information - joyful, life-affirming, effortless, and true - available to us in any given moment. What are we to call the source of all this wonderful information? Profoundly creative being that I am, I’ll refer to this as “the source of true information.”

I hasten to emphasize again that these are merely placeholders that point to experiences one must seek out to begin to answer these questions. I (!) hope that using a phrase instead of a word will help us to avoid the confusion between the pointer and that which is pointed to - the finger and the moon, if you will.

With our linguistic disclaimers out of the way, let’s turn to the question:

“In what way is the ego an illusion?”

My understanding is that the ego is something like a mirage; something is clearly there, but our vision of it is indistinct, and we can’t quite make out what is. This leads us to be misled about its nature and what it means for us.

The only mirage I’m personally familiar with is the one that appears on hot days on the highway. In the distance it appears as if the road is swallowed up by a great blue lake, and yet when you arrive at any given point you find only dry highway. Something is clearly going on, but we lack the knowledge to make sense of it. Thus, it seems like a vast lake is retreating away from us as we head down the road.

If we had a friend along for the ride who knew some physics, she might explain to us that the black asphalt of the road was heating the air above it, and that the hot air has a different refractive index than the air around it, causing light from a patch of sky to be bent up toward our eyes. With our friend’s help we can see that what we took for a vast pool of water is in fact a trick of light and a bit of hot air.

With ego, we are similarly confused on two counts: we’re mixed up about what it is, and have trouble getting a sense of the scale of it. We need someone like our learned physics friend above to help us see through the illusion. This is why we encounter bits of scriptures like the following:

“If you see someone wise, who can steer you away from the wrong path, follow that person as you would one who can reveal hidden treasures. Only good can come of it.” --Dhammapada 76

“Good friends! You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment! But because your minds are deluded, you can’t understand by yourselves. You need to find a truly good friend to show you the way to see your nature. Good friends, the buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise. It’s just that people are deluded or awake. When people are deluded, they’re ignorant. When they wake up, they become wise.” -- The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng

Fortunately, there are lots of good friends available to help us understand - most especially our cushions!

So what is ego? It is the kernel of conditioned mind, that which every suffering being has in common. It is the central core of the myriad attention monopolizing machines which keep suffering beings from discovering that they already have all they need to live in peace and joy. The primary way it accomplishes this feat is to continuously provide the information that ego and “that which observes” are one and the same. This is how ego becomes the “self” that is separate from everything else.

In order to maintain the illusion that it is all there is to know about a given suffering being, ego makes itself out to be vast and overwhelming. When we are in it, this seems very true. Everywhere we look we’re met with ego’s information about what is true of us and the world, but this too is an illusion. Ego is like the sheen on an oil drop floating on the ocean. If you’re inside the drop looking out, the sheen is everywhere. In every direction you turn, you’re dazzled by brilliant greens, reds and yellows. If, however, you move in any direction you find yourself swimming in the vast blue ocean. From this place, the drop is seen for what it is - a tiny point in an unending sea.

This leads us to a very different model of experience than the one that prevails in most places and times. “That which observes” exists in a vast space of possibility. It can turn its attention wherever it pleases. Overwhelmingly this space is occupied by “the source of true information.” One very small region of this vast space is inhabited by ego. When “that which observes” moves its attention into ego’s domain, it is bombarded by the information that this is the only thing that exists. If it believes the information, then it falls into the illusion of ego and remains trapped in that small space with ego.

In our lives, asking for help is one way of making the move out of the drop. Going to the cushion is another way. As soon as we make an effort to take care, the illusion begins to unravel and we can see that we exist in a much larger space than the tiny corner ego wants to keep us in. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Invitation to Aye and Bee

Invitation to Aye and Bee

I was inspired to begin writing a blog during a time when I was much less directly in touch with Sangha. It was before this year of not traveling, before a giant make-over for the Monastery, before assisting Ashwini in creating and implementing systems and procedures for internal and external communication, maintenance, finances, workshops and retreats, The Year of Deepening Practice, 300 for 1000, Sangha Market and so much more too numerous to list.  There’s little airplane travel currently, but we are traversing landscapes at a dizzying pace.

I would like to be writing about practice; there’s a book I’m eager to get started on. But writing about practice is not in the cards for me just now. Just now I am happily practicing being a steward of practice.

For years my favorite quote (okay, one of my top 100 favorite quotes, probably in the top 3) has been “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  For me, that translates into “just practice with whatever Life is putting in front of you, and do it with your whole heart and soul.” I endeavor.

Periodically I receive writings of a blog-like nature from a couple of practitioners whose ability to articulate our practice in different words appeals to me enormously. I read what they send to me, wish there were a way to make it available to more people, and, coming to no conclusion, file the pieces. A couple of times I’ve included one in my blog, but as a perfect example of “everything in its own time,” it never occurred to me to include them regularly.

The other day I realized I could open up what has been my blog as a conversation that includes what the two of them are looking at, while retaining the option of adding my two cents when that works with my schedule.  I asked and both agreed. One suggested we could poll readers to see if there are subjects you’d like explored. Moments ago I read the last postings on the most recent blog—from February! I rest my case—and saw that someone had posed this question, “In what way is the ego an illusion?” That could be fun to explore.

Two subjects I return to like a terrier with a favorite bone. 1) Communication (poor and lacking) is a not-an-accident cause of most suffering, and 2) There can be no liberation until a human being recognizes what ego (the illusion of a self that is separate from life) is and that “it” is not “me” and “I” am not “it.”

I shall now send this off to each of my guests and invite them to explore this first topic. If they are so inspired, they will speak to this topic; if they find something else currently inspiring, they will speak to that. You will then be able to suggest subjects and they may or may not speak to those! How’s that for “loose enough to fit beautifully with how life unfolds”?