Self and Self-Naughting
You need not seek for it outside, you need not think that it is something far
away or inaccessible to you. It comes through the willingness to calm down
and stop resisting and to listen and awaken to your own conscious experience.
Where we get defeated is where we give up to the limitations that we have through resignation and apathy.
Living in Britain at this time, we expect comfort and all kinds of
privileges, rights and material comforts. This makes life more pleasant in
many ways, but also when our every need is provided for and life is too
comfortable, something in us doesn't develop. Sometimes it is the struggle
through hardship that develops and matures us as human beings. I remember
when we lived in London, we used to take walks up on Hampstead Heath in the
morning and watch these well-off people taking their pet poodles for walks on
the Heath. We'd start thinking that it wouldn't be so bad to be born as a lap
dog here in England: have some nice lady constantly pampering you, making you
little jumpers for the winter, and finding tasty little dog biscuits to feed
you. It looked like a life of affection and comfort could be rather pleasing!
But the truth is that most of us would find that suffocating: we need to
measure ourselves against something, we need to struggle and to learn how to
get beyond the limitations that we think we have at this time. Where we get
defeated is where we give up to the limitations that we have through
resignation and apathy. Then of course we just get depressed and miserable.
There is one way of talking about the self that makes it sound very
doctrinal. Buddhists can sometimes say that there is no self, as if it was a
proclamation that you have to believe in; as if there were some God on high
saying "THERE'S NO SELF!"; and in that presentation something in us resists.
It doesn't seem true to just go announcing that there isn't any self -
because what is this experience that we are feeling right now? Here there
seems to be very much a sense of oneself! You're feeling, you're breathing,
you see and hear; you react to things - people can praise you or criticise
you and you feel happy or depressed accordingly. So if this isn't me then
what is it? And am I supposed to go round as a Buddhist believing that I
don't have a self? Or if I am going to believe in something, maybe it is
better to believe that I do have a self, because then you can say things
like: "my true self is perfect and pure." That at least gives you some kind
of inspirational encouragement to try to live your life, rather than saying
that there is no self, no soul, leaving a total annihilation of any
possibilities. These are just examples of the use of language; we can say
"there is no self" as a proclamation, or "there is no self" as a reflection.
The reflective mode is to encourage us to contemplate the self. The Buddha
was pointing to the fact that when we really look at these changing
conditions that we tend to identify with, we can begin to see that these are
not self. What we believe in, what we hold to and cling to and assume, is not
what we really are: it's a position, it is a condition, it is something that
changes according to time and place. Each one of us is experiencing
consciousness through the human body that we have, and it is like this.
Consciousness is a natural function, there is no sense of self in regards to consciousness. The only reason that we might assume a self is because consciousness operates in terms of subject and object; to be conscious we have to be a separate entity, so therefore we are operating from this position of being this subjective being here. Then we can get obsessed with a very personal interpretation of everything: every reaction or experience, whether it is instinctive or whatever, can be interpreted in the sense of it being me and mine. We can interpret the natural energies of the body in a very personal way as if this is me, my problem, rather than seeing them as part of the package that we get from being born as a human being. Even a baby when it is first born has instinctive drives to survive, so when it is hungry it cries. Babies are usually born beautiful creatures so that we naturally want to love and take care of them. Do you think that the baby is doing this deliberately - "I'm trying to be cute so that Ajahn Sumedho will hold me, my mother will love me" - or is this just the way it is, just nature in operation? These are just natural things, but we tend to see them in very personal ways.
We hold views about each other that we carry with us for a lifetime: she is like this, he is like that; and these influence how we react and we respond to each other - just in the way someone looks: pleasing, happy, welcoming; mean and unpleasant; or somebody praises us or insults us. We can carry resentment about being insulted for a lifetime and never forgive that person. Maybe they did it when they were just having a bad time, even after thirty years, we can still make a problem about it if we want. So this self needs to be examined and looked at and contemplated, in religious terms.
Every religion has its self-naughting teachings: in some ways religion is
about relinquishing the selfish tendencies of the mind, so before we can,
say, realise the Kingdom of God we have to let go of our selfish fascinations
and obsessions. Or, if we are going to realise the true Dhamma, we need to
let go of the self view. So this can be another command from above, like "You
shouldn't be selfish! Get rid of any selfishness and try to become somebody
who is pure!" We would all agree with that, nobody here would relish the idea
of becoming more and more selfish, but sometimes we don't know how not to be
selfish. We may have grand ideas that we should give up all our wealth, not
hold on to anything; then we're getting closer to not being selfish - but the
strange thing is that when you become a monk or a nun, sometimes, although
you are thinking you are getting rid of selfishness, you find yourself
getting more and more selfish. Your selfishness becomes very concentrated,
because you can't spread yourself over such a wide area as in lay life. So
you become much more aware of it. And if you condemn it, then it seems to be
a hopeless situation, because you begin to interpret life from that sense of
"I'm selfish and I've got to get rid of this selfishness." And one of the
biggest problems in our way of thinking is to relinquish that basic premise
that "I am this person and I have got to do something, in order to become an
unselfish, enlightened person in the future."