Dr. Stephen Fulder
It seems absurd to doubt my existence. I experience myself every waking moment, as a center of operations, a boundary, a biography, a huge collection of memories, an identity different from others, and a sense of coherence or control, without which I wouldn’t be able to survive for a moment – how could I cross a busy street without getting run over if I wasn't an entity that looked after itself? It seems to be a continuous sense that is running the show during all waking hours and even in sleep. It seems to be a constant over our entire life. It seems uninterrupted, and an unquestioned fact.
Yet there are issues that throw the whole thing into some doubt and uncertainty:
The first is that this thing is the origin of most of the pain and suffering in my life. It is the me that gets depressed and bored, the me that day and night needs its desires fed and its dislikes avoided. It is the me that is terrified of dying, getting lost, being put down by others, being helpless and irrelevant, all of which are kinds of ego death. It is the me that is running, busy, unbalanced, angry, disappointed, lonely, failing, and feeling ill. All conflict is based on the self that starts off as a mechanism to protect the body, and ends up mostly in protecting itself. Every potential threat to my views, ideas and boundaries, every possible challenge not only to the personal me, but to my family, my national, my skin colour, my religion, my political system, my resources, is enough for the collective me to spiral into spasms of violence. Clearly every human suffering is experienced and often caused by this individual and collective me, so all in all it seems quite counterproductive to have one.
The second issue is that when we look directly at the me it is not something consistent at all. It changes all the time. We feel some kind of consistent thread on which the beads of our daily experiences are threaded, but can we really be the same as the little picture on the wall of when we were three years old? Am I the same me as I was even yesterday? Am I the same me if I forget who I am because of Alzheimer's? What kind of me am I when I fall asleep? Or get drunk? or fall in love? Indeed where is this major entity that is controlling and often ruining our lives? Can we point to it? Can we see it? Hold it? Can we even identify the identity? Both Buddhist and Western psychological and philosophical reflections on the self come to the conclusion that it is not a thing but a process. The sense of identity is a dynamic response in the brain that is constantly being recreated; but it is unconscious, automatic or transparent to our awareness, we don’t see this process happening, so we assume or believe in an apparently solid and consistent me.
How did it get that way? Where does it come from? How did it grow to be such a giant control freak inside us? When I watch my grandchildren, small children, I see how they start out without a sense of self. The child and the world are one. Even though they can cry when the milk isn't there, they don’t take it personally! There isn't a me in the mind. And as the child grows, he or she becomes a self and the world becomes other, 'Out There'. The process is one of withdrawal and separation, of 'othering'. You cannot tell the child, Stop! Beware! Don't withdraw into a self! It's impossible. And most unwise. A healthy self is a necessity, like a healthy body, we need to be comfortable with being somebody, which is a necessary response in order to survive as a living being, but we can witness how the person arrives and the world becomes an other that wasn't there before.
So the world is then conceived, named and described. There is 'you' and 'me' and 'them' who are unfortunately mostly regarded as a threat to me. A wall of protection is built. And from there comes fear, which arises because I want to be somebody, and I don't want to disappear, back into the world again. We're afraid of death because we are so used to being a separate existing being. But what's death? It's just returning to where we came from.
Becoming someone creates a here and a there, an inside and an outside, and indeed all the boundaries that are relative to a sense of self. It is deeply ingrained in the mind. For example, we are all absolutely sure that our body finishes with its skin. But we forget that it is something learned not an absolute truth. The body is actually experienced as part of the world because all bodily sensations including boundaries are experienced no-where else other than in the mind, just like everything else coming through the senses. I learned that my body stops here, and this I own and this I don't own. Boundaries and borders are in the mind, not in reality.
I was teaching in a Krishnamurti school in Varanasi India for a year in 1991. The school was next to the Varuna river. There was bridge from the school to an Indian village on the other side. I asked what was the name of the village and they said Ispa. So I asked "what does that mean?" And they said: "the other side". It was obvious to them to call the Krishnamurti center which was important and wealthy, 'this side', (Uspa) and the village 'the other side'.
We hang on to our self as if our life depends on it, because we indeed believe that our life depends on it. We are actually a conglomerate or aggregate of bodily materials, thoughts, sensations, feelings, perceptions, memories, moods and so on, all constantly changing. But the self regards itself as the leader, the controller and the one to receive the praise or the blame for all the efforts of all the rest of the living being. It's like the carrot tied to the back of the donkey, which always seems to lead the way.
This powerful 'selfing' tendency of all of us and indeed of all living beings, is called in Sanskrit bhava, 'becoming'. It is driven, supported and maintained by grasping and attachment. This is most obvious when we grasp on to who we would like to become – we want to be more successful, more rich, more happy, or we may want to be in a loving relationship, to be a parent, to be more contended at work, to own a car or a house, etc. It is less obvious but still the same process if we would not like to become something (vibhava), for example if we are depressed or want to run away from something difficult, or want to switch off in front of the TV or other diversions, or we are stuck in boredom and loneliness. Indeed any kind of holding on or grasping to any desire will confirm the sense of me, even if, or especially if, we get what we want. The clearest example of this is the desire to be liked and respected, to have a role and to belong to a group, a party or a nation. I remember as a child I knew nothing about football as we did not have a television. I felt excluded as all the other kids around seemed to belong to a team except me. So I randomly chose a team (Wolverhampton Wanderers actually, about which I knew nothing except I liked the name) and then began to shout for them as if I knew what they were, and suddenly felt somebody again. When we grasp something we give it existence. Our wanting to be makes us be. It makes us the main actor in our own play. And suffering inevitably arises because this grasping and becoming is a construction in our mind. Reality, life out there, is changing, unstable and in the end, taking it all to pieces. Life is like a whirlpool. We whirl round and round in this whirlpool but there is not one thing in it we can rely on. For example, it doesn't keep us alive forever. It doesn't last. It doesn't give us what we want, or it gives us what we don't want, so we always want something else.
If we closely examine how this happens in experience, it starts with the direct sense experience of seeing, tasting, etc. Messages are picked up which cause an immediate felt response, a turning towards or away from, a first seed of desire or aversion. For example, a new car that we like, a person that we admire, an advert that promises something, a smell or taste or unpleasant feeling that we want to avoid, a thought of inadequacy or judgment. From this is built a rapid chain that follows well worn tracks in the mind and heart and digs them deeper. It affirms narratives and stories that make up our stream of consciousness and generates need, wanting, grasping, holding on, wanting more, and so we re-arrive and strengthen our identity. It all happens very quickly and the arrival of a sense of ownership, that it is happening to me, seems hard wired. There seems something inevitable about the way these tracks (in the Pali language 'sankhara') are laid down: the mind has a kind of thirst for defining the world and making an identity, which arises from karma, the net of causation.
A Theravada Buddhist poem goes: 'Sow a thought, reap a word, sow a word, reap an action, sow an action, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a personality, sow a personality, reap a fate'.
A poignant example of becoming is our compulsions to improve ourselves. It seems natural that we want to fulfill our potential, to achieve something, that we have problems we need to solve, things in both body and mind that we need to fix or mend. The basis of western science and culture, arises from the Judeo-Christian, especially Protestant, world view that the way to honour God in daily life is to do your duty properly, and to improve. We end up being 'caretakers' of nature, attempting to control it, fix it and sanitize it instead of being intimate with it. Look how the planet's being destroyed through the addiction to economic growth. We derive security from developing and improving, and feel that if we did not, all motivation would cease. How would I get up in the morning if I felt life was all OK just as it is and nothing need to be changed? Actually, we can turn the question round. How can I get up in the morning if I feel I am being constantly driven by a background sense that there is something wrong, which often can only be drowned in the pub or by anti-depressant medication. Instead, we can respond joyfully to what is needed from a place of harmony and empathy and less need.
I was asked recently why I travel to Tel Aviv to teach dharma if I felt the world was fine as it was. I responded that if I had to teach as a way of fixing the world I would be exhausted in one year, and I would have to stop. I teach it from love, I teach it from relationship, I teach it from being. Dharma comes from the look in the eyes of the audience and myself as we share the truth, not from any need that the world needs me to change it. When I teach, language is emerging and there is a space of listening together in the present moment. As long as there is no pressure to 'become', to take on and fit the role, then I don't feel that I have to be perfect, or perform well, or expect rewards.
To bring another example, the Buddha said: "I teach a middle way between delight for existence and delight for non-existence". In other words, our experiences when we boil them down are either wanting to be or wanting not to be. If you have a painful and unpleasant experience, for example, you want it to stop. "I don't want life like this, I want to stop what is happening, I'll feel good if only this unpleasantness would go away". Rumi once said: "what do we do with a life that doesn't go away?" There are many states of mind, such as depression, guilt, shame, etc. which are very obviously a wish for shutting down and withdrawal, a wish for non-being. On the other side, there is the desire for being: "I want to do, to achieve and be successful, I want more, I need to develop, accumulate". Both the desire for being and non-being are forms of attachment and grasping that lead to becoming.
But surely, you may ask, how can I learn dharma and grow spiritually without 'becoming' a dharma student, to go beyond what I am now. It is true, there is becoming and effort needed to practice especially at the beginning of the journey, but slowly we can use becoming to undo becoming. A lot of energy is needed to launch a rocket against resistance of gravity, but as it gets higher, there is less pulling back and less effort. This is why the dharma teachings are called a raft which you let go of when you reach the other shore. The teaching has to be applied until it can be abandoned as no longer needed. It gets subtle and paradoxical when we practice anatta, seeing through and dropping this heavy me and mine. But here too we can be wise and aware of a subtle drive for non-existence, which is no different from running after existence. When becoming ceases, you don't run after anything. When the self arises it arises, when it isn't – it disappears. Everything is perfect. No problem. Then you don't need to construct self, and you don't need to construct not-self.
So, how do we cease this endless becoming? Firstly we have to see how much dukkha arises from our struggle to deal with this shifting, unreliable world by means of needs, desires, aversions, conflicts, craving, and attachments. Then we have a possibility of letting it all go, of untying ourselves from it. The Buddha talked about it as a tangle. How do you untangle the tangle? It is mainly about freeing ourselves to fully experience the present moment just as it unfolds, which is spontaneous, quiet and doesn't carry the need to fix or change or add anything. This is one of the most powerful and beautiful aspects of the dharma. But if, in the name of freedom, we try and become more spiritual, it can be helpful initially, but it can just replace one solid identity with another, and also there may be no end to it: "I'm not spiritual enough", "I first have to deal with these fears, these problems, these issues, and then….," "I need a better technique, a more effective teacher, a quicker path" etc. Instead of that, realize the essential freedom that exists in the moment. This moment cannot be other than free. It's only the grasping that makes it appear to be bound. So if we drop the grasping and the present moment is revealed, as it is, arising and passing, then we cut through the whole thing. We unbind the chain.
Thanissaro Bikkhu, in an essay entitled 'The Paradox of Becoming', writes: "Right view, contains the tools to help dismantle both the sense of self, and the concepts of existence and non-existence. It undercuts any question of whether a self exists. It's the only form of view, that can be used ultimately to undercut all types of clinging and of becoming that might form around it. How does this happen? In its purest form, right view forces the mind to view the aggregates, meaning the content of experience, simply as events arising and passing away. As they have come to be. As the mind stays in this mode of perception, it abandons the most basic assumptions that underlie becoming and non-becoming - the idea of 'my self', as well as the ideas of existence and non-existence of the world. The mind is free to focus exclusively on events simply as they have come to be. Avoiding issues of becoming and non-becoming altogether. It arrives at this point not with the force of logic or of will-power, but through the simple fact that these assumptions don't even occur to the mind when it stays in this mode. You can't fashion, you can't construct any views, around the existence or non-existence of a self, in any world at all. There is no place for clinging to land".
In other words, practice accustoms the mind to being open and receptive to things as they are, as they unfold, and there is no longer any need to fight against self-making' (Ahamkara in the Pali). It just doesn't hold any interest any more. Selfing can arise and pass, but it is no longer an issue.
As the Buddha said to the monk Kaccayana (Samyutta nikaya 12.15): "In general, this world is supported by and depends on a polarity of notions of existence or non-existence. However when one sees the arising of things as they appear, as they really are, with a right understanding then notions of non-existence, not-being, don't occur to you. And when one sees the passing of things as they really are with right understanding, then notions of existence do not occur to you."
Take the well known mindfulness exercise of eating a raisin. When the raisin enters the mouth and there arises a moment of tasting, feeling its texture, and knowing all our responses, there is no hint of 'raisinlessness'. The raisin world is simply arising as it is. It doesn't occur to you that you should shut it down and try and stop this experience. When the experience of the raisin disappears, in this moment, with right understanding, the raisin and its taste no longer exist and there is no need to resurrect them. Their existence doesn't occur to you. In the spontaneous present moment, it doesn't occur to you to make a story out of being and non-being. Just like the total lack of interest in cigarettes after the addiction to them has completely finished. It doesn't interest you anymore to create a stronger 'me' out of experiences that come and go.
"By and large, Kaccayana," continues the Buddha, "this world is in slavery to attachments, to clinging, and to bias. But one who has this view doesn't get involved with, or cling to these attachments, or fixations of awareness, or biases, or obsessions, and nor is he determined to be a self. He has no uncertainty or doubt that what arises is only dukkha arising, and what passes away is only dukkha passing away. And in this knowledge, he's independent of others. He's not depending on anything."
All this can be quite scary. We are quite attached to being ourselves, which is familiar safe territory and afraid of disappearing. One time during a retreat in India I had the feeling that I was on the edge of an abyss – wanting but unable to leap into a rather scary but compelling place of non-being. Something very deep constantly stopped me. I shared this with Ajay who was teaching a retreat nearby and he recommended that if I visited the edge again and again, and even just abided there, the fear would go. I never jumped. Because I realized there was no abyss. The fear of the unknown and some projections about non-self itself created the abyss and the longing to jump. But truth is not an abyss and there is no need to jump into it – you can just let the truth reveal itself to you. It is more like dropping than jumping, similar to the image that Joseph Goldstein once shared: that of jumping out of plane without a parachute. It is so frightening at first. But then you realize there is no ground below. So you can relax and let go and fly free.
Being with the passing moment rather than the strain of controlling life and maintaining our fictional selves, is very joyful, it is the bliss of being in the ocean instead of being helplessly whirled around in the whirlpool. The full lived experience in the moment does not need anything more. Life is dance. And you can have a very active life, and be right in the middle of things – no need to be passive or spaced out – but it is just easier if you do not consider yourself to be the lead actor in your own life.
This change is quite hard to describe in language which employs distinctions and concepts based on an agreed world and a self. As the Buddha said: "when the fire goes out, no one can tell you where it has gone, in which direction it has gone, what it looks like when its gone." We live in the world of concepts including concepts about dharma. So when the fire goes out, it can be a subtle experience, it may not be definable, it may not be understandable, or it may be experienced as not knowing, or paradoxes and spaces that the world of concepts doesn't like very much, because concepts themselves are part of that world of becoming. Sometimes it is best to remain silent there.
Buddhist teaching does not give truth or solidity to the world, but regards it as a conditioned reality, a mutual agreement. The only things we can really know are what is arising through the senses and via the mind. And this is in constant flow and change. But the mind itself is just a center of knowing, it doesn't go anywhere or have its own agendas or boundaries. It is still. Coming and going is received by a still mind, including the coming and going of a sense of me, and of time, place and movement. As the great Thai teacher, Ajahn Chah said, the mind is like a still flowing stream.
"Owning nothing. Grasping nothing. This is the island in the stormy seas, in which decay is decayed and death is dead" (The Buddha)
This article is edited from a talk given by Stephen Fulder at Sangha House, March 2013. Muli Glazer's contribution in transcribing the talk is gratefully acknowledged.