I noticed something interesting this week that led me into a different area of investigation of the experience of self. I’ve been on a bit of a healthy eating drive over the last couple of weeks, in part inspired by the reports that a nationwide campaign was going to be launched to encourage us all to lose a little bit of weight before the autumn.
One day last week I stepped on my scales and saw that I had lost a couple of pounds. I had a brief moment of ‘yeah! I lost weight! Well done me!’ when I became aware of what my mind was saying. “I” lost weight. Well done to “me”. While these are not unusual ways we always talk to ourselves, as someone following Buddhist practices, these responses don’t tally up with what I understand about the world. There shouldn’t be any “I” or “me”, but somehow there they were.
Ajahn Amaro frequently talks about how this happens using the Pali terms ahamkara and mamamkara, “I” making and “my” making, and this is a perfect example. I took a process – the one by which the body uses up its fat stores for energy – and I made an “I” (‘I lost weight’) and a “me” (‘well done me’) out of it. When I repositioned my thinking to recognise the natural processes that actually caused the weight loss, I saw that I was taking an awful lot of credit for work “I” hadn’t done. There must have been thousands of individual processes that went on inside the body that caused those couple of pounds of fat to be used up as fuel, and I wouldn’t know how to activate any of them if my body was switched onto manual mode. It was those processes that done all the work, not me.
When I reflected on what my contribution to the weight loss actually was, it amounted to just not giving in to my mind when it came up with some perfectly reasonable sounding (but ultimately false) excuse for me to eat a snack. That was all I had actually done; I didn’t lose any of the weight, I just helped to stop any more being put on. So there I was ready to take all the credit for it when “I” had only made a small contribution.
Our potential for self making is almost limitless and the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 140) is an excellent exposition of all the places that we might try to locate a sense of self, and a useful one to reflect on to understand just why these misplaced self-congratulatory moments are incorrect:
“How, bhikkhu, does one not neglect wisdom? There are these six elements: the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element, the space element, and the consciousness element.
“What, bhikkhu, is the earth element? The earth element may be either internal or external. What is the internal earth element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to, that is, head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is solid, solidified, and clung-to: this is called the internal earth element. Now both the internal earth element and the external earth element are simply earth element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the earth element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the earth element.
“What, bhikkhu, is the water element? The water element may be either internal or external. What is the internal water element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to, that is, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is water, watery, and clung-to: this is called the internal water element. Now both the internal water element and the external water element are simply water element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the water element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the water element.
“What, bhikkhu, is the fire element? The fire element may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire element? Whatever internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to, that is, that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten, drunk, consumed, and tasted gets completely digested, or whatever else internally, belonging to oneself, is fire, fiery, and clung-to: this is called the internal fire element. Now both the internal fire element and the external fire element are simply fire element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the fire element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the fire element.https://suttacentral.net/mn140/en/bodhi trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi
We generally take all of these body parts and processes for granted, we feel like they are just as they are and there isn’t much else to say about them, but the Buddha has plenty to say. He is pointing out two things in these verses, the first one is that we use all of these things to make selves from. I proved this point by making a self out of the process of my body burning fuel as fat, there really is nothing the mind can’t use as the material to make a self out of.
The second thing he is pointing out is the proliferation of our concepts about the world and the things in it. He might seem to be giving us a Buddhist chemistry lesson into what everything in the world is made of- earth, water, fire, and air – but he isn’t. He IS telling us what our sense of world is made of though – it is made of concepts.
The elements, the fundamental building blocks of the material world can themselves be thought of as just concepts: we have a concept of something being solid and from that we make the earth element; we have a concept of something being wet and flowing and that makes the water element; we have the concept of heat and that makes the fire element; we have the concept of air and movement and that makes the air element.
We think that head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, etc. are all different things, but the Buddha is saying no, they are all just the same thing, they are all just the concept of solidity. Everything familiar and ordinary around us is cloaked in layer upon layer of concepts.
So when we consider it from this angle we can understand why the stomach, it’s contents, or the process of burning fat cannot be the site of self – while they do exist as processes they do not exist as the fixed objects that we conceive them to be. We conceptualise the stomach to be a thing, and this is incorrect in the Buddhist world view. In the Buddhist understanding the stomach, like everything else, is a constantly changing set of conditions. Science can give us a way to understand this perspective because every part of our body is undergoing constant change through the death and birth of new cells.
The ancient Greek philosophers recognised that these processes of constant change were going on and for them it was puzzling. You may be familiar with the Ship of Thesus paradox, whereby the question was asked that if every component part of Thesus’s ship was replaced one part at a time was it still the same ship? This problem creates further questions too, such as if it is no longer the same ship, at what point did it become a different ship? After one part was replaced? After half the parts? After all the parts?
For Buddha we can assume that there would be no puzzle here – the ship is just a concept, there is no old or new ship, it was always just a changing process. Even from the moment it was completed it immediately started to change, the components started to age and wear, but in ways so subtle as to be scarcely perceptible that we can be forgiven for not noticing them.
So trying to say that self exists in something that itself doesn’t exist illustrates why none of these things are self, and that we shouldn’t – as Buddhist practitioners – allow our mind to keep trying to tell us that they are. By continuously looking for the places that the mind tries to locate self, and by seeing that those places are just concepts, we eventually run out of places to locate the sense of self, and it is at that point we can fully understand that the sense of self is just a concept too.
Realising it is just a concept we can stop clinging to it, and once it is gone then our suffering goes too – if there is no sense of self present then there is no one to suffer. This isn’t the same as disassociating from our experience though, a self still remains in that perspective but it denies that the experience that is happening is happening to it. In this non-self perspective the experience is simply happening, there is no need for a self to be there to accept it or reject it.
Of course just understanding this conceptually is not enough to release us from our habitual misperceptions, it requires a lot of direct experience of finding our wrong views and correcting them before we can start to witness the world without its concepts for ourselves. That is why we utilise mindfulness to observe every moment, because in every moment there is likely to be something that we can learn from.
But we probably don’t have time to do a full analysis of every concept at play in every moment as it happens; unless you are lucky enough to be on a three month retreat then the chances are that you still have the basic requirements of the world to deal with, such as work, shopping, cleaning, washing, etc. It is enough for us to have a few concepts that make themselves very easy to spot, and we can challenge whenever we notice them, such as a sense of self – which makes itself known in no end of different ways.
I spotted that “I” took the credit again with a condition I am treating on my foot. After several painful weeks of treatment finally some signs of healing started to show. But my mind immediately took the credit for it, another ‘well done me’ for succeeding when again all the work had been done by the body. This time when I analysed what my contribution was, it was merely to ignore my mind when it gave me a perfectly reasonable sounding excuse for why I should just stop using the treatment.
This also reminded of something Ajahn Amaro has said, about our tendency to use our practice to view the negative and unpleasant aspects of life as empty and not-self, but to still see the pleasant aspects as being real and requiring no further investigation. When I was treating my foot I was in a lot of pain; when the pain came up I would remind myself that it was just a perception and that I didn’t need to make anything out of it. But when there was a pleasant feeling coming from seeing that the treatment was starting to work I automatically took that feeling unquestioningly as real and delighted in it – ‘yay! It’s getting better! I did it!’
To keep things equal I could have said ‘there’s a pleasant feeling from seeing that my foot is healing, but it’s just a perception and I don’t need to make anything out of it’. In essence that is what I managed to do retrospectively by noticing that ‘I’ had taken all the credit for mostly the hard work of my body. Seeing the presence of one concept – the “I” who was taking the credit – was enough to disrupt all the concepts at play and steer me towards understanding it all as just conditions and processes.
Taking credit for things and taking the blame are two sides of the same coin. In both cases they indicate a misplaced sense of self. In the same ways that I undone my congratulatory sense of self, I find it useful to try to break things down to processes when I am dealing with a blaming sense of self too. During lockdown I have learned how to sew a bit, and in the beginning it was quite frustrating at times. When I first started I didn’t even know how to sew in a straight line, and I felt like “I” was bad at sewing. But as I learned some techniques and got more practise, I came to understand that the outcome of bad sewing wasn’t due to “me”, but instead due to conditions.
The skill for sewing didn’t lie in my desire to be good at it, but in the combination of knowledge, physical co-ordination, judgement, concentration, and experience. The continuous application of this skill was the factor that lead to it improving, and the lack of using this skill was the reason I was bad at it.
When I sit at the sewing machine and the end result isn’t perfect, I remind myself that rather than this being a personal failing it is just a reflection of the conditions that are present. This particular human body didn’t come with exquisite fine motor co-ordination, this is one of the conditions present and there’s not much I can change about that now. This particular human body doesn’t have a lot of experience at sewing is another. The material can go this way sometimes, and other ways sometimes. The machine can jam sometimes. The thread can run out in the middle of a seam sometimes. The door bell can ring sometimes and momentarily break my concentration. These are the condition that are or can be present and they shape the outcome, not my sense of self and its ideas about wanting to be good at sewing.
Likewise I’ve been taking some time during lockdown to improve my touch typing a bit and I can watch the tendency of the mind to say “I’m not good at typing”. When I look for the processes that are going on and the conditions present then I can understand why the typing isn’t terribly accurate. Again it is a skill I have little experience in, and although I type everyday I haven’t taken much time to try to master it. This is why there isn’t much skill there. So I look at my awful typing and I reflect on it as the outcome of the present conditions.
But of course if we don’t take it personally when things aren’t going so well, we need to remember to apply the same process to when things do go well. When I look at the standard of my masks now I can see them in terms of them being a reflection of how the conditions have changed. I know more about sewing now and have about 100 hours of experience that I didn’t have when I began. In that time my body has developed motor skills and muscle memory, and I have learned that if you use the edge of the sewing foot as a guide then it’s really easy to sew in a straight line. My mind might want to jump in and say ‘wow, look how good this mask is, I done a really good job’, but I can spot that concept quite easily and break it down.
I can see that my typing, while still quite awful, is improving, but rather than just allow a sense of self to take credit for it, I recognise it as the outcome of changed conditions. This is a useful reflection not only for my practice, but also in practical ways too. When I come to a new project I understand that it is the conditions that create the outcome so that is where I can focus my efforts on making changes. And I can also understand that because I am working with conditions that change takes time, so that brings a natural patience to the process that isn’t always there when we are operating on the level of self – ‘I’ve been on a diet for a week, why haven’t I lost any weight yet? How disappointing’. When you are working on the level of conditions you can appreciate that time is usually one of the crucial conditions required for change, and there is nothing you can do to make it go any faster.
Dōgen Zenji, the founder of the Sōtō School of Japanese Buddhism offers another useful perspective:
“From the time we establish the bodhi-mind and direct ourselves toward training in the way of Buddha, we sincerely practice difficult practices; and at that time, though we keep practicing, in a hundred efforts we never hit the target once. Nevertheless, sometimes following good counselors and sometimes following the sutras, we gradually become able to hit the target. One hit of the target is now by virtue of hundreds of misses in the past; it is one maturation of hundreds of misses.”Dōgen, Sesshin Seshsho; quoted from Being-Time by Shinshu Roberts p45-46
So I can be patient when even as I was halfway through writing this blog post about seeing through the sense of self that takes credit for everything that I caught my mind at it again, thoroughly congratulating itself for picking out a really ripe pineapple at the supermarket. It takes time and thousands of misses of the target to get it right every time.
Praise and blame are one of the pairs of the Worldly Winds; the middle way is finding the place where we are neither bothered by either extreme nor do we cling to or avoid either too. While we often put a lot of emphasis on learning to work with the blame, it can be fruitful to spend a bit of time working on the praise side too because ultimately both will take us closer to understanding why we suffer and how to eventually make it end.