Wednesday, November 29, 2017
random thoughts on identity, no-self and suffering
I was recently speaking to a Dharma friend about all of the varieties of discrimination being highlighted in the world right now. The tendency for human beings to feel a connection to a rigid self-definition, based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, and to feel oppressed by other people who define themselves based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, is relentless. And all of these categories do feel important and meaningful. Black lives really do matter. And the awakening these days to the pervasiveness of gender discrimination is something that I have found very useful in helping me to make sense of many of the previously puzzling encounters with men throughout my life. Memory keeps delivering more and more experiences of small and large aggressions against me, like so many long-delayed pieces of mail, which had previously been felt as immediately painful and then quickly dropped below the level of consciousness.
And then, of course, there is the Buddhist teaching of no-self, which is so central to my practice. My friend was wondering how to reconcile these two views -- of ourselves as belonging to a specific human being category, and at the same time being nobody. I have been writing on this topic for months now, and thinking about it for most of my life. I haven't come up with anything that seems to neatly solve the puzzle.
I suspect that something that might be helpful here is to look at the self/no-self koan from another teaching viewpoint, that of suffering. My understanding is that suffering is caused by a refusal or inability to accept reality. We want things to be different, and so we suffer because things are not different. Maybe they'll be different in a minute, or a week, or a century, but in this moment, fighting reality is always a losing proposition. We can use our acceptance of reality to effect real change in the world, through the insight that arises when we stop fighting and running away from what is happening. There is a lot of wasted energy in the refusal to be with things as they are, and that energy can be better used to bring wisdom and compassion to any situation.
And here is where recognizing that there is no self, really, and at the same time that we identify and are treated as a specific type of person within a certain category, is simply that -- a recognition. It's in the dislike of these two types of view that our discomfort arises, sometimes as a minor irritation, sometimes as great grief and pain. People are oppressed by other people, and treated by others as other. We all do this, and we all are recipients of this. The acceptance of this reality doesn't mean that we will be free of the consequences of it. But if we can bear the discomfort, we can be free in the middle of the world as it actually is. I am free to feel whatever I feel in response to someone's offensive remark. And I am free to receive feedback about my own blindness.
And so the journey to being awakened human beings goes on. We shout out "ouch" and then we bow.