Adapted from a talk given by Wayne Coger on Day 5 of the December 2005 retreat. From the Spring 2006 Newsletter.
A puff of wind and the snow that perches on the branch of a pine flies off. Where does it go? What does it become? There is snow on the branch, and there isn’t, and there is powder in the air and there isn’t. Is there any coming or going? Thought says “Of course. I can remember the way it was before, I can reason, from memory, from knowledge, the trajectory of this becoming that.” But in the moment of direct observation, in the depths of quiet listening, does this become that? Or is everything here as it is, without blemish, without lack?
What comes to mind to look at this morning is this matter of me — of becoming a me and of picturing and thinking of oneself as a separate individual entity. And immediately something else comes to mind, a memory, or many memories of people asking similar questions in meetings: “What is it about, all this emphasis at this place, in these meetings and talks, on the me? It’s confusing.” I think the underlying question is “Why?” Why question something that seems so integral, so natural, as being a me, a person, with my life, my interests, my likes and dislikes?
In a recent Atlantic Monthly magazine article a neuro-psychologist called this a “natural dualism” — this tendency to see oneself as separate from the body and from what we call our physical surroundings. He and his colleagues maintain that we begin in early childhood to differentiate between a material world that is constantly changing and an existence that is thought to be more stable and enduring. This more stable existence is identified as a self and we very easily, “naturally,” take to the belief that this self will endure and will outlast the changing world of bodies and things.
An example came to mind during the sitting this morning. I was visiting my mother before retreat and she mentioned an incident that had occurred when I was about nine or ten years old. I was riding my bike to school and slammed into the bike rack, opening a gash above my knee. It was not a terribly serious injury, but it was quite bloody and my mom and my teacher were called to the nurse’s office. What stayed in my mother’s mind and what she related to me recently was her surprise that my teacher didn’t know who I was — did not remember my name. The teacher later apologized, and said, “Well, he’s so quiet, he never says anything, and I have so many students.” But what came into awareness this morning was the development in those early years of an identity of being the quiet one, the one who stands to the back. For whatever reason this identity really took root and was reinforced. I remember later in life as I became more at ease in social and work settings, that there was still in the back of the mind a nagging doubt, “Is this really real or is this kind of a fraud, being so talkative? Because I’m a quiet person.”
What did feel real was this sense of a being — someone — who embodied this and many other characteristics, and who existed continuously through remembered and unremembered time. And these characteristics, these aspects, when seen as problematic were something to be either defended or overcome. Part of the resistance to questioning the solidity of this identity is that one would like, in a currently popular phrase, to “cherry-pick” — to keep the good parts and to change or discard the “bad,” the parts that don’t work so well. And in all honesty I wonder if that wasn’t part of the motivation in taking up this meditative work — to feel better, not necessarily to fundamentally and radically question this stuff that I believed to be true. This may not be a complete picture, but there was definitely some of that — the questioning was OK, but not to go too far with it. Maintenance of the feeling of separation is almost vital — we, I need to go on. We know that the body will deteriorate and drop away, but we can imagine that at least some trace of this me will survive.
Living this isolated existence, as someone or something apart, one longs for union, to be part of something larger. We want to be with those with whom we share common interests, a common racial or ethnic background or a common religion, history or politics. In this uniting there may be a sense that self-identification is being subsumed by the greater good, but isn’t this merely an expansion of the self? These “others” are part of my world. And there is also a clear sense that there are those who are not I, those who have the wrong religion or the wrong views or who are simply too different in appearance or behavior. And it feels important to define and defend what is me and what is mine, to keep these boundaries intact and to keep our selves secure. And yet is anything truly secure? Despite all our efforts, we still walk on very shaky ground.
Isn’t it also true that this me that thrives on reassurance is never totally reassured; that doubts creep in when someone offers praise or admiration — “Are they being sincere?” “Are they laying it on a little too thick?” “Do they want something?” This illusion of me that has been so carefully cultivated and guarded takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to maintain!
One wonders, in the light of this, if it is possible to lift the covers a bit, to begin to question what it is that feels itself to be apart — to look honestly at how self-identification and concern function in our day-to-day interactions. To see how easily conflict arises when I feel myself denigrated, ignored, or criticized. Seeing thoughts coming up, “I’m hurt” or “I’m angry” or “This is just the way I am” — and questioning innocently whether these thoughts are true — or whether the thoughts are merely thoughts, the inevitable product of unexamined conditioning.
Is the questioning and the noticing in and of itself an easing of the burden of self-importance? An opening, a quieting and a stilling of the activity of this agitated me-mind. In this quieting there is no need to seek union or approval — there is nothing to seek and nothing that needs to be defended — or reassured.
Is it possible that what is truly natural are the moments of rest, of not becoming — not creating or clinging to any pictures or ideas of who I am? Not needing to be special or better or worse, but instead looking, perhaps with some lightness, at how we are from moment to moment. In this watching, are we standing back, as the one who watches? Or is there simply the looking — the wonder-filled quiet and wholeness of being?