March 18, 2011

Life beyond Ego.

Stepping Out of the Center.

The ego attempts to freeze life or hold it hostage by locking it up in conceptual cages. These cages are assembled with expectations, which are inspired by fear or insecurity. These expectations come together to create a concept— a label which not defines other, but assigns it a role to play in our environment.

Interestingly enough,  placing “other” in these conceptual cages enables the ego to acquire some sense of identity. When ego labeled other as “girlfriend,” it became “boyfriend.” It is through the process of conceptualization that ego acquires an id card…

If it were not for these labels, ego would have no idea as to whether it were coming or going. Since our very identity is dependent upon the constant maintenance of these cages, there is a great deal of time and energy invested in conceptual thought.

When a fan is stopped or spinning at a slow rate, it is clear that there are four individual blades. The faster the fan spins, the more solid the blades appears to be. Eventually, the four blades are going so fast, that they seem to be a solid disk. The same can be said of thought. When the mind is at ease we can see thought for what it is. However, the more energy we invest in thought, the more and more solid it appears to be. This is because, the very energy which is being invested in thought, is thought. So, over a period of time the stream of thought becomes flooded… There doesn’t appear to be any gaps or moments of silence. It seems as though mind is a steady stream of thought. This is mental clutter. Once the stream becomes solid, we mistake the map for the territory… We begin to relate with thought as though it were reality.

To say that we have mistaken thought for reality is to say, that what we think about events takes precedence over basic experience. Life as it is takes the back seat to our commentary on life. What’s worse is the fact that this commentary is riddled with flaws. The concepts we use to outline the various aspects of impermanence are little more than an attempt to ascribe permanent traits to impermanent events.

It is a bit curious how life is nothing more than a continuing stream of change, but the concepts which we attribute to it seem to go along unchanged for a considerable period of time.

Photo courtesy of Christian Brogi

We began to believe that the concepts we imputed on life were inherent features that existed in the objects themselves. We thought that the labels used to describe life were somehow self-existing qualities to be found within the objects of imputation. It is not that concepts do not exist; they do exist, but only as a figment of our imagination. They are nothing more than a map, a mere mental fabrication…

In order to set this matter straight, we must question the solidity and ultimately the authority of these concepts. We must take these labels and pick them apart— piece by piece— until we discover the spaciousness that they attempt to outline. Seeing through the apparent solidity of these labels is made all the more easy with the foundation of Calm-Abiding. As a result of our calm-abiding practice, thought has began to slow down, which will give us the opportunity to see these concepts for what they are— a collection of thoughts orbiting around an empty center. Over time it will become increasingly clear that these concepts do not hold water, founded as they are, upon a misunderstanding.

Now lets turn our attention toward one of these labels. We will take for example the concept of friend. Although, the concept of friend seems to imply some sort enduring quality, no such characteristic is present. We can all think back and remember someone we use to consider our best friend… A person very close to us. However, for one reason or another, we have not talked to this person for quite some time. It is essential that we recognize the fluid nature of these relationships. They are not fixed experiences because, they are dependent upon things which are not stationary. These sorts of relationships require that there be some kind of common ground. The circumstances which give rise to this common ground are fleeting, and so it would follow that the relationship which, is based on this common ground, is also fleeting. If work forced one of our friends to relocate to some far off place, it would be difficult to maintain that closeness over a considerable period of time. It also happens that we find ourselves caught up in some romantic fling, and as a result we lose interest in some of our old friendships. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in the middle of a fight between two friends, which forces us to take sides, leaving one of the friendships null-&-void. There are many examples which illustrate this point, far too many to name off here. The main point to understand is that these apparently solid concepts are merely words assigned to impermanent experiences.

Although the label never seems to change, the experience never ceases to.

When we mistake the label for the experience, it is inevitable that we will become the victim of disappointment…

It is only a matter of time before we notice that the experience has escaped from its conceptual cage!

Another important point, certainly worth addressing, is the relative nature of concepts. This point is beautifully articulated in a well-known story from the Zen tradition. Along time ago a young man, having talked it over with his family, left home to enter the monastery. On his way, he came to the banks of an extremely wide river. Staring hopelessly at the obstacle which laid before him, he thought for hours on just how he was going to cross this massive body of water. Just as he was about to give up on his journey, he saw a great master on the other side of the river. The young man yelled out to the teacher, “Master, could you please tell me how to get to the other side of this river?” The teacher thought for a moment, looking up and down the river, only to yell back, “My dear boy, you are on the other side.”

Friend and enemy are concepts, so their meaning is dependent upon which side of the river we are standing on. The funny thing is, in the relative world we currently inhabit there are well over six billion sides of this single river! We all have friends whom we absolutely adore. However, there are others who think our closest friends are nothing short of obnoxious. Similarly, there are those who turn our stomachs upon sight, but these same people are dearly loved by others. Within the self-centered frame of mind, we are all standing on different sides of the river. Everyone is viewing the world from their own perspective, and from this angle our perspective seems to be the center of the universe. Ego goes around attributing intrinsic qualities to people, places, and things; mistaking these selfish attributions for innate qualities.

We see friends as if they were agreeable personalities from their own side, and enemies as if they were inherently bad people. If this were true, then everyone would agree that certain people are friendly personalities, and we would all roll our eyes in disgust when the specified enemy types entered the room. This is clearly not the case. There is no more of a consensus on what constitutes a pleasant or unpleasant personality than there is on who is the better baseball team or political party.

The agreeable and disagreeable qualities which ego attributes to events, in reality, are nothing more than value judgments that measure how well someone or something measures up to our expectations by avoiding our fears and insecurities. They are verdicts meant to express the worth of someone or something. They are calculated by comparing the objects performance to our needs and desires at the time. Friend is nothing more than a title we bestow upon someone who consistently meets our expectations. While, enemy is a derogatory term we slap on someone who did not manage to live up to our demands or constantly pushes our buttons.

What’s more, is that these concepts define one another; they are opposite sides of the same coin. That coin is the common denominator— the ego. In the same way that you can have no knowledge of left without right, you cannot come to know friend without first recognizing enemy. It is the very idea of friend that defines enemy, and vice versa. An enemy is simply everything that a friend is not, and a friend is everything that an enemy failed to be. But in all cases, the ego is the measuring stick used to define good and bad.

Good, bad, attractive, ugly, friend, nor enemy are inherent qualities to be found in someone or something. They are self-centered ideas which conveniently change to suit our changing demands… When you were 6 years old members of the opposite sex had cuddies… Now we bend over backwards to get their cuddies!

All of this is also true with the concept of self. It seems as though there is some solid and separate thing which owns all of these experiences, an experiencer if you will. Well this self, just like friend and enemy, is a relative term which is dependent upon other. The very idea of self is only sustainable because of the belief in other. If there were not “some-thing” other than, there could be no “me.” Furthermore, it is by defining other that the word self derives meaning. It is by saying, “He is my employee,” that “I” becomes a boss. In saying, “He is my son,” self is defined as a father. When someone says, “My faith is Islam,” the “I” is identified as a Muslim. The list could go on-&-on. We go through every facet of our lives identifying with such labels, in the hope of producing some sort of identification. It is like the self needs a different id badge that permits it to move freely throughout the entire complex of life.

This chairman of the board gets by relatively unchecked, because “the criminal is in charge of the crime scene!”

The credentials produced by self are never even questioned. It is just granted full reign over the whole facility. We just assume that that the “I” exists. Well who is it that assumes? Who is it that is challenging this assumption? Is it thought? If so, who is it that is thinking? Is it the brain? Are we our brain? What about feelings, bodily sensations, and bodily functions? Are we our body? What part of the body are we? Are we the same person we were 10-years ago? If so, where is this person now? Where does this person abide? How do we know who this person is? Who is it that knows who this person is?

After sometime we will realize that we are chasing our tail with this line of questioning. As the old saying goes, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” It is a bit of a mystifying situation; it is like trying to bite your own teeth or clap with one hand. We always end up with the same answer. In fact, it is the same answer we got when we investigated the concepts which we attributed to “other,” nothingness.

Beyond the final analysis there is no real boundary which adequately distinguishes self from other. As Shantideva says, “My friends and enemies shall cease to be. I myself shall cease to be. Likewise, everything shall eventually come to pass.” In the end, we discover that we have tried to attribute enduring characteristics to transient experiences. We have tried like all hell to assign a solid personality to pure space, no-thingness.

Who has tried to assign permanent traits to impermanent phenomena? Interesting question… Click here.

This nothingness is not a dead nothingness; instead it is a type of openness or intelligent space which transcends individuality. This spacious quality is our true identity; it is what is looking.

We cannot discover the spacious quality that underlies our concepts by simply reading some words off a page. We have to step into our lab, and begin to experiment with them for ourselves. One such experiment is called the meditation on equanimity. This meditation is not a thought experiment. We are not trying to sit down and figure out the mysteries of the universe, nor are we trying to indoctrinate ourselves with some new state of the art philosophy. We are excavating or “looking deeply,” as Thich Naht Hahn says. We are looking beyond the conceptual mind.

Eventually cracks will start to appear in thought. Light will begin to shine through these cracks. The presence of light indicates the discovery of space. At this point, allow awareness to mingle with space, allow it to settle in space. The two are not different; it is like pouring water into water. Remember the point of this practice is not to sit around thinking about stuff, but to see beyond the conceptual mind… To discover mindfulness or the fullness of mind, and allow this intelligence to express itself!

So let’s stop theorizing and start practicing…

The only prerequisite is the practice of calm-abiding… Never practiced calm-abiding meditation? Click here for instructions.


The Practice of Equanimity

Take a seat on your cushion. Align the body and place the mind. Continue with the practice of calm-abiding for about ten minutes or until the mind is reasonably calm. At that point gently introduce the image of a friend. Allow this image to become vivid and any feelings which might be associated with the image to arise.

After the image is well established consider the current status of your friendship with this person. Think about how close you are to this person, and how much your relationship with them means to you.

Now take a moment to consider the history of this relationship. Was there a time when the two of you were not friends with one another, possibly even enemies? How was it that your friendship came to be? Was it a singular event, or a process that unfolded over a period of time? Has the friendship had its ups-&-downs?

Notice how your past has created the relationship you have with them today…

Now looking down the road ask yourself, is it likely that this relationship will continue to have its ups-&-downs… Will the relationship continue to undergo change? Is it possible that some series of events could unfold that would alter this relationship in such a way that the two of you are no longer close friends? Is it possible that someone could do something that would leave the relationship in ruins? What sort of thing would have to happen for this ‘friend’ to become an object of frustration? Could one of you move away and put an insurmountable degree of space in the relationship?

Just take a moment to consider the possibility of change in this relationship.

Finally, look deeply into this concept of friend, and ask yourself if this person is a friend from their own side? Are they inherently friendly?  Does everyone see this person as an agreeable personality? Are there those who see this person as rude or undesirable? Are there still others who are not moved one way or the other for this person? As the apparent solidity of this concept begins to dissolve allow your mind to settle. Not settle on some-thing, but simply settle. In your own time, come back to the practice of calm-abiding. Rest here for about 5 minutes.

After the mind has settled, gently introduce the image of an enemy. Allow this image to become vivid and any feelings which might be associated with the image to arise.

After the image is well established consider the current status of your relationship with this person… All the tension and resentment. Ask yourself if you have always had a negative opinion of this person. Were they at one time insignificant to you, someone you had no opinion of what so ever? Have you ever had positive feelings about this person, were they close or important to you at one point? Is the tension in the relationship the result of a single event or a series of events?

Notice how your past has created the relationship you have with them today…

Realizing that the relationship has changed over time, begin to consider the future… Is it possible that circumstances could once again change? In the future could this person become less of a function in your life? Perhaps one of you move away, putting some space in an otherwise tense relationship? Could you imagine becoming friends with this person?

Finally, look deeply into this concept of enemy and ask yourself if this person is an enemy from their own side. Are they inherently an enemy?  Does everyone see this person as a disagreeable personality? Are there those who see this person as fun and loving? Are still others who are not moved one way or the other for this person? As the apparent solidity of this concept begins to dissolve allow your mind to settle. Not settle on some-thing, but simply settle. In your own time, come back to the practice of calm-abiding. Rest here for about 5 minutes.

After the mind has settled, gently introduce the image of a stranger…  Someone you have hardly anything to do with. Allow this image to become vivid. Once the image is vivid contemplate your current relationship with this person, or lack thereof.

Why are they insignificant? Is it because they never cross paths with your fears or expectations? Is it possible that these circumstances could change? In the future is it possible that this person could become a dear friend of yours? Can you imagine things changing in such a way that you begin to resent this person? What sort of things would have to happen for this person to become a friend or enemy?

Finally, ask yourself whether everyone sees this person as insignificant. Are there others who know this person, but cannot stand their company? And others who actually love this person or consider them a good friend?

As the apparent solidity of this concept begins to dissolve allow your mind to settle. Not settle on some-thing, but simply settle. In your own time, come back to the practice of calm-abiding. Rest here for about 5 minutes.


It is also helpful to bring the concept of self (the common denominator in all of the before mentioned labels) under our microscope.

This is the meditation on selflessness.

Take a seat on your cushion. Align the body and place the mind. Continue with the practice of calm-abiding for about ten minutes or until the mind is reasonably calm. At this point turn your attention inward, back onto the concept of self.

What is it that this concept is referring to? Does the “me” that it is referring to have a shape or structure? what does it look like? How big is it? What does it feel like? Who feels it? Who sees this form or pattern?

What is the foundation or basis of this “I”?  Is there some centralized point of observation? Is there something that owns all of these experiences? Is this “self” supported by something?

Does it rest inside or outside of the body? Is it the body? If so, which part?  Is it dependent upon some-thing?

Does it have some credential, some-thing which can vouch for its existence?  Is there anything which can identify this self? Such as: an activity, job, or relationship?

Is it thought? If it is thought, where does this self go in between thoughts? Where do the thoughts come from? Is it to be found in thoughts about the past? Is it to be found in thoughts about the future? Or is it the one who is thinking? If so, who is it that is thinking?

Is it the feelings? If so, where do the feelings come from? Who feels the feelings or is affected by them?

What is this self’s mode of operation? Is there any real continuity or consistency to this self which is independent of the environment? How does this self function? How does this “I” make itself known?

Who is it that is searching?

Where are all of these questions coming from?

Sit with his last question for a moment…

Now allow the mind to settle. Do not try to force the mind to settle… Simply allow it to settle in it‘s own time. Now rest there in that space for ten minutes.

Next week we will pick up with the practice of Loving-Kindness. Then we will move on to Giving and Taking (compassion) and Natural Joy.

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