There’s a question Buddhist teachers like to ask, to tease their students towards a particular insight: when did you last see yourself?
“A short while ago,” some of us reflexively reply. “I was washing my hands and I looked up and saw myself in the mirror.”
“What you saw then was a reflection of your body,’ our teacher may reply. “Not even your whole body. Just a part of it. I am talking about your self.”
Aha! Our actual self. The person I refer to as ‘me’, ‘myself’ or ‘I’. The being who is at the centre of my universe. That self.
“Such a self cannot be seen,’ we may reply after a while, feeling rather pleased with ourselves.
“Oh really?” our teacher may say. “So what you saw a short while ago reflected in the mirror has nothing to do with your self?’
“I didn’t say that!”
“You just said your self cannot be seen.”
I will spare you further dialogue. But it is a surprising conversational ambush. There we are, going through life, perfectly happy that we know what’s what and how things are, and we get caught out on such a basic question as: what is the relationship between the body and the self? Our body is not our self. But nor is it separate from our sense of self. Our bodies make our selves instantly recognisable. But we don’t feel we are just bodies.
We have exactly the same ambiguity when it comes to our minds. When my father was in his eighties he often used to tell me “my mind isn’t what it used to be.” He was quite clear that it was his mind that wasn’t performing. He, as the owner or possessor of the deteriorating mind was a most dissatisfied client. It wasn’t he, himself who wasn’t what he used to be. It was his blasted mind! (‘Blasted’ being his favourite expression of annoyance).
“I wish I had the body of an eighteen year old,” we may wistfully say. Or, “I wish I had the mind of Einstein.” What comments like these reveal is that we have a sense of an “I” who is neither our body nor our mind, but who is somehow operating behind the scenes, controlling, managing or possessing. In essence, separate from these different entities but, like a puppet-master, running the show.
But in the quickest of backflips, even though we might believe our self to be separate from our body, if some element of our body is criticised we take instant offense. If someone says “your haircut is pretty terrible” we immediately think: they’re saying I look stupid! How dare they say that about me!
Well, no. If you are not your body, you are most certainly not just some hair cut in a particular way, are you?
Who is this ‘me,’ ‘myself’ and ‘I’ who is at the centre of our universe? Why do we have such contradictory feelings about him or her? Why do we sometimes feel so bad about him or her – but at other times so celebratory?
As it happens, one of Buddha’s greatest teachings was on exactly this subject. And shaking ourselves free from the heavy burden of self can sometimes be the most liberating of discoveries – especially if you suffer from depression, as I did for many years.
If this is a subject you’d like to explore further, you’ll find a relevant starting point in an excerpt from my book: Enlightenment to Go which you can read by clicking here: https://davidmichie.com/the-santa-clause-like-me/
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