Relaxing the Self
Hello, and welcome back!
Lately, I've been reflecting on the sense of self. What does it do for us, in positive and negative lights? It's fascinating how the self - something so imaginary - dictates nearly all that we do and how we perceive the world around us.
In The Life of Pi, Yann Martel describes the hierarchical order of the animal kingdom: "The animal in front of you must know where it stands, whether above you or below you. Social rank is central to how it leads its life. Rank determines whom it can associate with and how; where and when it can eat; where it can rest; where it can drink; and so on. Until it knows its rank for certain, the animal lives a life of unbearable anarchy. It remains nervous, jumpy, dangerous. (1.13.3)"
So how do we construct hierarchies and structure in our lives? Via the sense of self. The self is the basic unit upon which this structure rests. Without recognizing yourself as an individual, you can't put things in order - and there must be order in order to survive. But pay attention to that word - survive. Surviving is different from living well. Surviving is not dying, the bare minimum. While survival is a positive thing, it's also important to acknowledge the side effects of the self. An excessively rigid sense of self puts us in a defensive, "me vs. the world" mindset, less capable of engaging fully and productively with life and its inherent ups and downs.
In my last post, I discussed the impermanence of our experiences. Our very sense of self is just that - an experience. In Buddha's Brain, Hanson details that while there are anatomic areas in the brain associated with the self, the apparent self you know is comprised of constantly changing neural networks that light up, then disperse. Your sense of self is simply a fleeting sequence of neural events, none of which are permanent. Adding another layer of impermanence, these self-related circuits are conditionally activated based on the environment around us, which is also constantly changing. Although the neural traffic (ie. sense of self) is real, the actual existence of a stable, permanent "self" is totally fabricated. The stable "self" that you think exists, is made by weaving together overlapping events, much like how still frames combine to make a movie.
Here's something that may encourage you to relax your sense of self. Think of a time when you were experienced something beautiful in nature. For me, this calls to mind feelings of awe I've experienced while hearing the thunderous crack of a calving glacier, or a quiet morning among the beautiful red rocks of Sedona. Notice that the sense of self is generally absent when you're in the moment - present. absorbed, and enjoying something completely.
So this week, take a moment to relax your the self. I hope you'll feel lighter and more engaged with the world.