It’s hard to be a person. We all know that. Rarely, though, do we fully share such a disclosure with each other. We isolate ourselves, believing that the unease we feel is normal or that no one else feels it or that everyone else feels it and they just have better masks. This thinking keeps each of us feeling even more separate, isolated in silent discouragement or shame. We forget that honest self-disclosure keeps us in communion with each other.
We may occasionally look at our loved ones or strangers on the news and, knowing how difficult a life can be when lived within the paltry resources of a mistaken sense of who we are, feel the warm rush of compassion. Less often do we direct that warm rush of compassion toward ourselves.
Generally, especially as contemplative practitioners, we know that life has the predictable sufferings of aging, illness, and death. We know that life has its sorrows. But the realization of the first noble truth goes far beyond those general or even specific admissions of suffering. The realization of this truth—occurring not in the intellect but in the heart—recognizes the pervasiveness of limitation, confusion, and unease in the separate self-sense.
Once we’ve given voice to the truth, once that truth is utterly realized, the wisdom of the heart sees and knows and opens spontaneously into compassion. It commits to kindness and to compassionate engagement in a world of sorrow, a world of degeneration and corruption and war and violence. It commits to compassionate engagement in a world where greed runs rampant, raping the planet and exploiting the weak. It commits to compassionate engagement, balanced with equanimity, in a world of unexamined, even proudly held, hate.
We recognize that the poor show us what we’d look like without our pretension, the sick what we’d look like without the blessing of health. The powerless show us what we’d look like without our privilege. Although our own mind is the locus of awakening, we are not awakening for ourselves alone. There is no “ourselves alone.”
Suffering occurs in different orders of magnitude in a human life. We may not have yet thoroughly acknowledged the inherent, enduring unease of “being a self.” Chances are, though, we have acknowledged our suffering before—especially when it’s been intense or protracted. By a certain age, we’ve all known heartbreak, struggle, and profound disappointment.
Humanity knows suffering—the great, acknowledged “vale of tears.” Each of us is asked to bear it in this precious life. An insight from the Sufi tradition views our task as human beings as one of transforming suffering into joy. Human suffering is searing and poignant. It can open our hearts and our sense of connection with every other suffering being.
When we look closely, though, we can discern that the sorrows of our humanity are of a different order than the personal tensions and reactivities of our egoic sense of self.
Although it may take many of us a while to acknowledge the pervasive dissatisfaction of the separate self-sense, whatever dissatisfaction we did acknowledge in the past was probably what led us to set out on a spiritual path to begin with. The prolonged unease of living within an “I”-illusion can bring us to a point where we begin to reach out for a peace we’ve intuited, a peace grace has hinted at, whispered to us about, opened the window upon at times. We go out in search of the comfort of peace.
At the beginning of our spiritual path, we’re too enmeshed in ignorance to be seeking anything but a cure or a comfort. We look for comfort in a teaching, in a teacher, in a ritual. We search for something promising more than the egoic self had been able to provide up until that point. We take up a path that can, perhaps for a time, diminish the depression or hopelessness or stress. Our sense of self may feel relieved, assuaged, comforted.
For quite a while on a spiritual path, our goal is to land in a sense of self that feels “easier.” We can continue for a while to ignore the truth that suffering is self ’s constant companion. They arise together. One does not appear without the other.
Many spiritual practices don’t consider the foundational necessity of examining this pervasive “given” of self-reference. We really do have to question—over and over—our basic assumption of who we believe ourselves to be, our robotic default position.
Some practices, unskillfully taught or engaged without discernment and wise view, can even strengthen our conviction in the “I”-illusion: “I,” the pure and limber yogi, “I,” the one directing deeper concentration, “I,” the one practicing humility. “I” can find room anywhere if we allow it. In such “I”- filled practice, the very act of engaging in transformative methods—designed to lessen self-clinging and self-cherishing, reducing them to only small wisps of self—can actually strengthen the “I”-illusion.
We need to be willing to surrender whatever self-referential story we’re telling—especially in formal practice but certainly also throughout the day. Our surrender allows grace to work its way with us. Such willingness to surrender usually takes time, grace, continued inquiry, and deepening realization. Deepening realization opens us to grace— we offer our being more fully to be transformed by grace. We’ll talk about surrender at length later in our discussion.
Let’s continue exploring our far-reaching belief in a small, limited understanding of self, a belief that is astonishingly deep and pervasive. Grace has led me to examine this belief, slyly active and always ready to function in my own mind, many times. Once, for example, I woke up abruptly one morning with these words echoing in my mind: “The only thing separating you from grace are all of your beliefs.” In that moment, I realized—with an almost physical shock—that my most foundational, oft-repeated belief was the belief that I exist in the way I imagine myself to exist and that that belief pervaded every conception, emotion, perception, action, reaction, and relationship. Buddha compared the consequences of this belief to “tangled reeds.” That was my experience—a flash of a vision of how deep-rooted and entangling are self ’s tentacles—a snarled swirl of hurts and fears and hopes—and how obstructive.
It was a big moment, a moment of real transformative shift. It led me to the helpful habit of labeling all tightness, all minds of turmoil, all self-reference as “ignorance.” Using that blanket word to name unease has kept me from tumbling into my ordinary explanations or justifications of the unease. Just labeling the unease as “ignorance” has greatly enabled my practice of surrender. This informal practice drops us out of conceptual mind, the home of self and ignorance, directly into the heart.
If asked to examine the basic assumption of self, to inquire into the “I”-illusion, we inevitably run into the self’s resistance. When it comes to our own deeply grasped and deeply cherished egoic sense of self, no matter how awed and inadequate we may judge it to be, no matter how much we feel we long to merge in grace, we’re afraid of losing it. Within the universe of self, we’re blind to the truth that what does not truly, inherently exist cannot be lost. All we can lose is the suffering that the self we imagine ourselves to be experiences.
I remember once, years ago, driving home after my first encounter with the teachings on the emptiness—the illusoriness—of “self.” I balked and sputtered and even mumbled out loud, “Who the hell do they think is driving this car?!” It has taken years of contemplating the teachings to understand that egoic functions drive the car, but egoic functions are not essential identity. Identifying as ego, as illusion, is a dead-end street.
I am not unaware that there is no way to talk about the ultimately illusory nature of the egoic sense of self without using conventional first-person terms such as “I” and “me,” even as we’re working to disavow ourselves of their ultimate reality. In my phrasing, I have tried to balance conventional usage of all the words in our language that simply assume an inherently existent subjectivity—I, you, we, us, ourselves, for example—with the use of the word attention. In truth, it is not so much that we are trapped and limited in ego—but rather attention is trapped.
That distinction is enormous, and recognizing the distinction is liberating. It leads to a newfound freedom. Attention is our holy endowment. It is a quality of formless awareness, of grace, of the sacred. Clear seeing is a skillful use of that precious gift of attention—allowing us, eventually, to discern that the “self ” we assume is illusory.
I do exist—that’s undeniable—but not in the way that I believe. Our participation in grace’s display of multiplicity is life’s longing for itself, life’s love to meet itself. We can have, experience, know, respect, and appreciate our humanity without ego. We can act—with wisdom, love, compassion, and spontaneous, authentic appropriateness—from our humanity without ego.
Excerpted from Unbinding by Kathleen Dowling Singh