How often have you been doing something and totally lost track of time? This usually happens to me when I’m doing something I really enjoy or when I’m working on a difficult problem. I totally space out and am unaware of the passage of time and do not perceive the world around me in the normal way. Why does this happen to us? It’s because we are caught up in the moment and ignoring all other demands for our attention. This is one of the states that Zen encourages us to exist in no matter what we’re doing. We often talk of losing ourselves in the moment and that is exactly what happens: we lose our sense of self in these moments of hyper-engagement. I remember one beautiful mid-afternoon day when I got a call from my wife while I was at work. She asked me if I was going to be coming home soon. I told her I didn’t think so as it wasn’t time for me to leave for another few hours. That’s when she told me it was after 6:00 P.M. I looked around and everyone else’s desk was empty. I was alone in my office and didn’t even realize how late it had become. I saved my work and left for the day.
I could tell a lot of other stories about times that I have lost myself and make more analogies about how this is some sort of mystical Zen-like state where everything is bliss but that’s not where I’m going with this.
The idea of a self that you can lose is one that Buddhism challenges. When you face this challenge, you often hear about the five aggregates or attachments or a bunch of Sanskrit words that I’m able to recognize now but not necessarily define well enough to write about. That’s a bit closer to where I’m going with this, but, still not quite there.
For me, my self is often the voice that is inside my head as manifested by my thoughts. I spend a lot of time in contact with that self and most of the time it’s a pretty good thing we have going. My self has a great ability to analyze things and understand abstract concepts in a fairly comfortable way. My self keeps me company when I’m alone or in the car or reading a book or sitting in meditation. It’s a companion that is always there, in the back of my mind and it is more familiar than the most comfortable pair of clothes ever could be. There’s only one problem I really have with my self: it is a hyper-critical and judgemental creature who will point out mistakes, perceived mistakes, chances for mistakes or mistakes that I didn’t make but could have if things had gone differently. My self is so caught up on attaining perfection in everything that it can drive me a little crazy at times. OK, maybe not just a little crazy, but a lot crazy.
When I was struggling with some of my worst depression, my self was probably at its strongest critical level ever. I really did hate myself. A lot of it had to do with the illness of depression and I’m aware of that now so I have been able to forgive myself of my past feelings. However, there was also a component to my self-loathing that was directed at my weight and physical appearance. The pain that goes along with being as obese as I was can be quite overwhelming at times. The other day as I was getting ready for work I remembered just how bad one of those times was.
I don’t remember how long ago this was but one time when I was home by myself, I was feeling really down. The critical voice in my head was as loud as I think I’d ever experienced it. I’m not sure how, but I found myself in the kitchen; probably with the intention to eat something, but that’s not what I did. I’d had enough of the critical voice and I didn’t want to have to put up with it any more. I was convinced I was a failure, I had no hope, I hated everything about myself. So, I opened up a drawer and grabbed a bottle of pills. At that point, my self took over and started to figure out the number of milligrams per pill times the number of pills and factor in my weight and calculate if this would be enough. The fact that I’m here today with a different outlook on life and a healthier lifestyle kind of gives away the end of the story so I’ll spare you the drama and the details about my inner turmoil and thoughts. In the end, the bottle went back in the drawer and I never did that again. I didn’t even really think about this event too much until the other morning when I spilled some pills and saw them all sitting in my hand as I picked them up. That’s when I went back to this very dark time and thought about just how sick I really was. I was so tired of the critical voice in my head that I have so often called my “self” that I was willing to die to get away from it. That’s a pretty messed up sense of self.
As I have practiced Zen, I have come to learn about the Buddhist perspective of the self. It’s quite different from what we in the west usually consider to be the self. When we speak about losing ourself in the west, we really do mean getting wrapped up in our ego. Buddhism has the opposite view: we lose our connection to that which we normally identify as our “self”. In the past, I wanted to lose my self so I thought the only way I could do that was through death. Now, I know that the thing I considered to be my “self” is not my ultimate reality. Instead, I am something altogether different. I don’t know enough yet to really put it into words the way I would like to but I have come to realize that I can lose my self and be even freer than I have ever been before. I don’t need to die to become detached from my self. Rather, through meditation and working on developing right view and right understanding, I can learn how to really allow my self to be something that is me but not-me at the same time. I can lose my self in a non-violent way that will allow the true me to emerge. I can practice self-destruction but I never have to worry about mistaking that for death ever again.
This has been the hardest post I have written on this blog so far. As I read it over again, I’m questioning whether I was able to effectively communicate my thoughts. The fact is, I have learned that I am not my thoughts. I am not my obesity. I am not my failures, be they actual or perceptual. I am so much more than those things could ever be. The path to discover what this really means is open before me and I’m anxious to begin the journey but scared at the same time. For now, I’ll just put one foot in front of the other and go where the path leads. It’s nice to know that I have a path to follow and that it will lead me to a better place than where I have been. I’ll leave my self behind and somewhere on the path, meet my true self. I’m sure it will be like greeting a long-lost friend.
Read Full Post »