July 10, 2012

No Self, No Suffering?

You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself. ~Buddha

I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since I was a young teenager (almost 20 years now) and teaching yoga and mindfulness for the past decade. I started a Buddhist meditation practice in 2004 and have absorbed more and more of the Dharma teachings through reading and practicing over the past eight years.
I knew all about suffering, clinging, craving, aversion, Vipassana, et cetera. All the things a good Buddhist is supposed to comprehend. I’d had occasional glimpses of the selfless state, but they were few and far between. Eventually, I’d always revert back to my old ways: addictions, unhealthy habits (both internal and external), inconsistent meditation practice (a favorite excuse: “oh, I don’t need to sit today… I’ll just practice in my daily activities.”)

I was eager to pierce the illusion, drop delusions and live presently.

During my almost three years of living abroad in Guatemala, free from cultural expectations, social and family commitments, and a hectic public school teaching career that had usurped much of my time in the U.S., I’d been integrating mindfulness more and more into my daily life. I was “living my yoga,” but still far from liberated. We can practice and practice and even teach others to practice for years — decades, even — and never reach the promised land of enlightenment.


I needed a push.

Around about March of this year, I stumbled across the story of fellow Elephant Journal blogger, Lori Ann Lothian. Her personal chronicle of liberation after an overnight “awakening” peaked my interest in the possibility of illumination to the illusion of self sooner rather than later. I linked from her blog to a website called Liberation Unleashed and read the e-book, Gateless Gatecrashers: 21 Ordinary People, 21 Extraordinary Awakenings by Ilona Ciunate and Elena Nezhinsky.

At Liberation Unleashed, they:

guide the seeker to pass through what is often called the ‘Gateless Gate’ or in classical terms, Stream Entry to Enlightenment or Truth Realization [using] the Direct Pointing method, which consists of a dialogue between a guide and seeker. The guide poses very specific questions in order to focus the attention on the seeker’s experience of the present moment. This triggers the awakening insight often referred to as ‘seeing no-self’.

I was a bit skeptical but figured I had nothing to lose. (Astonishingly, there is no cost to subscribe.) Seekers may enter into a one-on-one dialogue with a guide, either via private discussion board or Facebook group. One of the co-authors of the ebook, Elena (EN), replied to me (MF).

I am sharing excerpts of our dialogue below, with the hope that it may be of benefit to other seekers. (And here you can read the dialogue in its entirety, if you are so compelled.)

Please know that this stuff is paradoxical — incredibly simple and simultaneously incredibly challenging. No-self is a tough thing to grasp. When asked point-blank by his disciples if there is a Self, the Buddha refused to answer. No-self doesn’t mean you do not exist. Your body is there, your mind is there, your thoughts and feelings are there, and they are all real and authentic. It’s the storyline that’s false, the “I, me, mine” we are so attached to from childhood on.

The wonderful thing is, awakening is available, to all of us!


EN: Welcome, Michelle Fajkus! Simple question for you here: what is “I” for you. What is that you call self? Describe.

MF: “I” is my ego, my identity in society. “I” am a teacher, a yogini, a friend, a daughter, etc. Self is that entity known as Michelle Fajkus who appears to be functioning in society and daily life… waking up, working, breathing, writing. But it’s an illusion covering the truth of interconnectedness.

EN: do you exist?

MF: “I” do not exist. “I” am no more real than my facebook profile… just a collection of colors and concepts that cluster together to create the illusion of Michelle. I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes.

EN: “I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes.” Realizing the truth is not a feeling in a gut or in a head, it’s life lived out of the understanding that Life is all there is, no separate I, just an illusion, and in whatever form it may be. So when you say “gut understanding comes and goes” — that is how life is unfolding itself. So nothing needs to be improved in the understanding. The only what needed is clear seeing of what is. So if you look right now, can you tell me what is missing?

MF: The only thing that is missing for me now is the acceptance of zero control. I am clinging to the desire for it to be true that my “character” can commit to a direction in “her” life…

EN: so how do you experience the “issue of control”? how does it feel in the body? what are sensations? Thoughts?

MF: It feels like clutching to something I’ve been told/learned — that I am an American and I am responsible for taking action and making good decisions that direct and “manifest” my life as desired. Tense neck and shoulders. Thoughts are of anger, irritation, impatience. A few times over the past few days there has been clarity and tears of gladness at the truth of the illusion of self.

EN: When that tense neck, shoulders and anger and impatience come up – look right there – into the physical tension and the strong emotion. Quietly ask the tension what it here to protect. Then listen. Breathe steady and be quiet. Let me know what came up for you.

MF: Apologies for the delay. My life has changed in a more dramatic way than ever, as I found out (on April 29) that I am pregnant. Or, I should say – pregnancy is happening. I feel that much of the time I am able to see through the illusion of self… though there are still moments when my ego lashes out.

EN: Michelle, it’s great news. this is so awesome to conceive a life inside a life! So let’s chat more and see if anywhere you get stuck. We do not want you to be stuck at the gate. Do you feel liberated? Tell in details. What comes up if I tell you “You do not exist”? Read it, feel it, look at this phrase, look and tell me.

MF: Awakening is plainly and simply seeing through the illusion of having a separate self. It is experiencing the flow of life from moment to moment without attaching to our judgments, stories, fantasies or any of our fleeting thoughts or emotions. Liberation is available to everyone, because it is just a matter of being what we already are. And yet… I do not feel liberated. I think I am stuck at the gate. I accept and am grateful for the truth of no-self, but I am still living 50% of the time from my limited ego view and I don’t know how to get unstuck. When you tell me I do not exist, there is pure relaxation, gratitude, joy and utter trust in the flow of Life. Resistance melts away.

EN: you are talking a lot about ego. At the same time you are saying flow of Life is all there is and seeing that is an awakening. Is there ego and egoic self outside of flow of Life?

MF: No.

EN: so when the ego arises, what happening to Life?

MF: It feels like life constricts… gets narrower… less spacious and not enjoyable.

EN: Life not enjoyable for whom? Is there anybody outside of Life?

MF: Oooh, good question. Life is not enjoyable for ME — the fiction of me — only when I believe that fiction to be fact. There is no one and nothing outside of Life! No self, no suffering.

EN: Are you liberated, Michelle? Go ahead and write more.

MF: It’s so subtle, but I think so. Liberation is here. Your last question… “life not enjoyable for whom?” helped push me through. As well as the experience of getting pregnant (which was unplanned) and now being pregnant… it makes “me” see in a deeper way than ever before that there is nothing to hold on to, that my “self” is a process and not a fixed entity, that I am not in control of anything, and that Life is just Life, always moving and changing and unfolding each moment as it comes. I still have strong emotions, and I have been crying often, but not identifying with the thoughts or emotions anymore. Much love and gratitude to you!

EN: I am glad to read that, Michelle. I appreciate you took the time with me here. Much love to you too, and best wishes! Motherhood is one hell of an experience! What an amazing journey to motherhood with clear seeing!


I leave you with a poem I wrote in the middle of one May night, not long after awakening:

Buddha Nature

Although it is always here,
it is often covered up by
All the things you think you’ve transcended.
But Buddha Nature
is acceptance and compassion for
It is
the air we breathe in and out and in and out
It is a wrinkled smiling face
It is eye contact
It is waking up
to this precious moment.

Is there anything but Buddha Nature?
Or, Life, that is.

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