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.



  1. As you observed, the ego is a process and not an entity. A way that some traditions of Buddhism, such as the Tibetan tradition, approach the question of Illusion is by getting clear about what it would mean if the ego, or anything else were Real. A Real thing would be always present, partless because a thing with parts can be deconstructed, would not be in relationship to anything else because it would be independently real and so nothing would be able to affect it. I think its easy to see, on reflection, that the ego is composed of thoughts, feeling, sensation etc. and so is not partless. Look to see whether you can find anything irreducible about the ego? If you look closely, you will see that the ego is not always present because there are gaps between your thoughts. And an easy way to know the ego is an Illusion is because it is always in relationship to other things. Therefore, the ego is not Real; it is an Illusion!

  2. Cheri, I've read (and loved) your book Sweet Zen. You cover these concepts in that book, yet in this post I think perhaps in greater detail. To say back what I think you said, you said that we tend to assume that what we think of as "real life" is in fact only one way of viewing the present moment, that there is another way of viewing the present moment, and that we are capable of viewing the present moment without the "lens" or filters or blinders imposed by our present assumptions. Does that sound like what you said, or do you have a correction on that description?

    For "people like me," I think the fundamental issue is how we can see things in any way other than how we now see them, complete with all the suffering and problems that that point of view entails. I do grant that how I see things evolves over time, sometimes dramatically. Usually it changes because I see something (new evidence) that I did not see before, and that of course comes from paying attention.

    With that in mind, I have a rather simplistic, or even silly, question for you. I have been meditating for some time, being aware of my breath. This particular practice is 20 minutes every day, and honestly, I do not feel I gain much from it; half the time my mind is wandering and the other half of the time I fall asleep. I want to increase the value of this time, so I have developed a simple game that you can play with a golf counter -- one of those things that you click to increment the score by one.

    If I can be continuously aware of my breathing, where I am, not off into fantasy or asleep, for one minute, that's 10 points. Otherwise, every time I realize I was wandering and move back to paying attention to my breathing, that's one point. A perfect score is 200 points -- continuous awareness without flying off into fantasy or going asleep, for the whole period. I keep track of what I did last time, and each time my goal is to do better.

    I wonder what you think of this. One critique is that it's just an egocentric game, centered around getting a high score. One argument for it is that it leverages egocentricity itself to promote a greater ability to be aware, to be present -- the same virtue that seems to be what allows my viewpoint to evolve. What are your thoughts and comments on the entire idea? Have you heard of anything like this? Am I missing the point, and if so, can you help me see how?

  3. With each breath...the joy of Intelligence knowing itself.