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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 49 and a conceptual “self ” shaped by the force of habit. We attribute various qualities to it and posit it as the core of our being, au- tonomous and enduring. At every moment between birth and death, the body undergoes ceaseless transformations and the mind becomes the theater of countless emotional and conceptual experiences. And yet we obsti- nately assign qualities of permanence, uniqueness, and autonomy to the self. Furthermore, as we begin to feel that this self is highly vulnerable and must be protected and satisfied, aversion and at- traction soon come into play—aversion for anything that threatens the self, attraction to all that pleases it, comforts it, boosts its con- fidence, or puts it at ease. These two basic feelings, attraction and repulsion, are the fonts of a whole sea of conflicting emotions. The ego, writes Buddhist philosopher Han de Wit, “is also an affective reaction to our field of experience, a mental with- drawal based on fear.” Out of fear of the world and of others, out of dread of suffering, out of anxiety about living and dying, we imagine that by hiding inside a bubble—the ego—we will be protected. We create the illusion of being separate from the world, hoping thereby to avert suffering. In fact, what happens is just the opposite, since ego-grasping and self-importance are the best magnets to attract suffering. Genuine fearlessness arises with the confidence that we will be able to gather the inner resources necessary to deal with any situ- ation that comes our way. This is altogether different from with- drawing into self-absorption, a fearful reaction that perpetuates deep feelings of insecurity. Each of us is indeed a unique person, and it is fine to recog- nize and appreciate who we are. But in reinforcing the separate identity of the self, we fall out of sync with reality. The truth is, we are fundamentally interdependent with other people and our environment. Our experience is simply the content of the mental flow, the continuum of consciousness, and there is no justifica- tion for seeing the self as an entirely distinct entity within that flow. Imagine a spreading wave that affects its environment and is affected by it but is not the medium of transmission for any particular entity. We are so accustomed to affixing the “I” label to that mental flow, however, that we come to identify with it and to fear its disappearance. There follows a powerful attachment to the self and thus to the notion of “mine”—my body, my name, my mind, my possessions, my friends, and so on—which leads either to the desire to possess or to the feeling of repulsion for the “other.” This is how the concepts of the self and of the other crystallize in our minds. The erroneous sense of duality becomes inevitable, forming the basis of all mental affliction, be it alienat- ing desire, hatred, jealousy, pride, or selfishness. From that point on, we see the world through the distorting mirror of our illu- sions. We find ourselves in disharmony with the true nature of things, which inevitably leads to frustration and suffering. We can see this crystallization of “I” and “mine” in many situ- ations of daily life. You are napping peacefully in a boat in the middle of a lake. Another craft bumps into yours and wakes you with a start. Thinking that a clumsy or prankish boater has crashed into you, you leap up furious, ready to curse him out, only to find that the boat in question is empty. You laugh at your own mistake and return peaceably to your nap. The only dif- ference between the two reactions is that in the first case, you’d thought yourself the target of someone’s malice, while in the sec- ond you realized that your “I” was not a target. Here is another example to illustrate our attachment to the idea of “mine.” You are looking at a beautiful porcelain vase in a shop window when a clumsy salesman knocks it over. “What a shame! Such a lovely vase!” you sigh, and continue calmly on your way. On the other hand, if you had just bought that vase and had placed it proudly on the mantle, only to see it fall and smash to smithereens, you would cry out in horror, “My vase is broken!” and be deeply affected by the accident. The sole differ- ence is the label “my” that you had stuck to the vase. This erroneous sense of a real and independent self is of course based on egocentricity, which persuades us that our own fate is of greater value than that of others. If your boss scolds a col- league you hate, berates another you have no feelings about, or reprimands you bitterly, you will feel pleased or delighted in the first case, indifferent in the second, and deeply hurt in the third. But in reality, what could possibly make the well-being of any one of these three people more valuable than that of the others? The egocentricity that places the self at the center of the world has an entirely relative point of view. Our mistake is in fixing our own point of view and hoping, or worse yet, insisting, that “our” world prevail over that of others. The Deceptive Ego In our day-to-day lives, we experience the self through its vul- nerability. A simple smile gives it instant pleasure and a scowl achieves the contrary. The self is always “there,” ready to be wounded or gratified. Rather than seeing it as multiple and elu- sive, we make it a unitary, central, and permanent bastion. But let’s consider what it is we suppose contributes to our identity. Our body? An assemblage of bones and flesh. Our conscious- ness? A continuous stream of instants. Our history? The memory of what is no more. Our name? We attach all sorts of concepts to it—our heritage, our reputation, and our social status—but ultimately it’s nothing more than a grouping of letters. When we In its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.