“You only lose what you cling to.”
~ Gautama Buddha
Evidence is everywhere in the physical world that change is constant.
Creatures are born, live and die. Seasons change on a predicable schedule. Restaurants close, flip phones are replaced by smart phones and the ozone layer grows thinner.
Still, I was stopped cold when I learned that we, that I, am a completely different thing than I was at 7, or twenty, or thirty-four.
My cells have all been replaced millions of times. My skin, blood and bones are all different. I am essentially someone else entirely—from my thinning hair to my arthritic right thumb. Change has been happening all along and it will keep happening until this heart stops beating.
There are many things about being a Buddhist that come easily and fit well with what I already believe making a crystalline kind of sense. I find great value in meditation, compassion, and living in the present moment rather than dwelling in the past or fretting about an unknown and unknowable future.
I’m good at that stuff.
I have a much harder time with the notion that everything changes, and that to become attached to anything inevitably leads to suffering. I wish that my son had stayed small, that my mother had not died, and that broken relationships would be magically mended.
I wish that summer was not coming back with her wide hips swaying, even though she holds up a skirt full of strawberries, peonies and squash blossoms. I see sweat, wet curls at the nape of my neck, and stifling nights in this old house that now smells of baking attic beams.
Why is it so hard for me to accept that there is not, inside this roulette game of cellular change, something that is an essential and unchanging essence of me? I know well the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self.” What I perceive as myself is really just my eternally busy brain creating catalogues of preferences and experiences that add up to Ann Nichols.
I have changed jobs, outgrown friendships, and passed in and out of hobbies, musical styles and diets more times than I can count. These passages and alterations mirror the changes to my infrastructure and support the notion of constant evolution.
There are also things that have remained as constant as the Northern Star (like loving Joni Mitchell), that are sometimes obscured or forgotten, but nevertheless remain and reappear. If I think about it, many of these things were learned early enough that they seem like bits of mental motherboard.
I would say that “I” like reading, intelligence, curry, travel, animals, old movies, the ocean and the smell of fresh cut grass and brewing coffee. I could also argue easily that all of those are things that were treated as positive experiences from my earliest days, and that I could just as easily have been taught that foreign food is unappealing, that old movies are dull and that coffee smells bad.
There are also things about “me” that evolved based on circumstances and could have been entirely different. “I” am insecure about my looks and relationships because I was teased as a kid, and because I had some disastrous relationships. If I had grown up in a different country, or even a different school district, I might have had an entirely different experience with peers and emerged unscathed. If I had been unscathed, I might have made different choices about relationships.
But, isn’t there something inherently “me,” not learned or circumstantial, that made me susceptible to teasing in the first place? How, otherwise, can it be that I believed and internalized every insult while other kids rejected similar attacks as ridiculous?
By the same token, why am I competitive, jealous, funny, creative, directionally impaired, hypersensitive, anxious and bossy?
Why does jazz make me feel vaguely antsy and out of place while I loved the Mumford Brothers from the first chord? Why am I a perpetual spiritual seeker when everything in my upbringing militated against any kind of faith life?
No one in their right mind would encourage a child to be jealous, anxious, or unable to pass Algebra II. Although my parents encouraged me to be creative, I was “spanked” for it early and often in school, and could just as easily have grown up thinking safely inside the box.
So where do those aspects of “me” come from if there is truly no essential and immutable self?
I can, of course, work to correct the personal characteristics that are dysfunctional, and I do. I want to be funny, I want to be creative and I want to be sensitive enough that I see nuance, undercurrent and suggestion. I could not write if I ceased to feel things so deeply. I would have no drive to explore and explain the mysteries of the human experience.
The idea that these things could change, short of a head injury or other neurological issue, is terrifying to me. As a Buddhist, I am bidden to view even these deepest and most visceral parts of “self” as passing things. They are changeable like the seasons; reflections of a Western belief system that celebrates ego and identity.
As a human, I want to cling tightly to what seem to me like gifts from the universe.
To find peace, I have to let it all go. I have to believe that I am a different thing every second, with every breath, and that there is no Ann Nichols who is definable by her resume, her iTunes library or her sandwich order. The things I have held close as the best things about me are just the universe playing through.
Some folks call it grace—I can be grateful when it shows up, but it’s not really susceptible to ownership.
I’m not really supposed to be thinking about it and there really is no “I” anyway, so this is going to take some work.
The promise of openness, flexibility, and empty openhanded freedom is both intoxicating and terrifying.
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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise
photo credit: pinterest