The Buddha taught there is no self. This is a confusing concept. If there is no self, who’s that inside my head?
Insight meditation teachers say we identify with our thoughts, we think that is me in there. But really thoughts are just like sensations and feelings: they arise and then fall away. Our minds are filled with thought, a waterfall effect. But with meditation we can learn to observe our thinking. There’s planning. That’s a worry. Now it’s gone. Here is sadness, what does it feel like? You begin to see how your mind works. The patterns of thought that arise. Your job is to let go, don’t jump on board.
Thinking creates a sense of separateness. Life, in fact, is interconnected, my teacher says.
Three-point-eight billion years ago life began, once, on the planet. All of life as we know it is an adaptation from that original cell. The adaptations are like a numerator, while among all life there is a common denominator. Coming back to that common denominator, you see it is not important, those apparent differences.
I find this idea of a common denominator striking because it seems that he is describing how life is interconnected. He talks about the arrogance of the human species, so often acting superior to other life forms. It lines up well with the topic of humility, which we are studying in my Mussar class. In Mussar, we are looking for ways to cultivate a deep sense of humility. We think about how our life began at conception, just a moment when sperm and egg come together. We try to think deeply on this. At one time I was no more than microscopic cells.
Arrogance of believing yourself to be important or believing your species is better than others, both of these interfere with our understanding of life’s interconnectedness. In this way, both traditions advocate stepping outside the self. In Mussar, cultivating humility takes the focus away from the puffed-up ego. In Buddhism, it is questioning the reality of the self at all. Both say that something vast and expansive exists. “All around us is something amazing,” my Buddhism teacher said recently. “Every millimeter of the universe holds the knowledge of creation. We need to let go of the idea of me as separate.”
I spent this past Saturday at an all-day meditation retreat, which mostly consisted of sitting and walking meditation. At one point in the morning, I looked out the window and saw a light yellow rose in a garden. It stood out from the other roses, kind of glowing. I noticed its stem, rooted in the ground. It was raining. The rose was still. I thought about how that rose wasn’t going to move from that spot all day. How it would be there, just like that even after we all left and the sky grew dark. The rest of the day as I worked to maintain mindfulness, eventually feeling bored and restless by the end of the afternoon, I kept sneaking looks out at that rose. Still there. At one point I noticed that it had dropped a petal on the ground. I wished I’d seen it.
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