on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the paradox of the self

When I was younger (actually, not too long ago) I was often trapped in my own pain and suffering. I would wonder very often why did terrible things constantly seem to happen to me, there were a lot of “why me”s. I was deeply depressed because I couldn’t see a way out.

One thing about reading Buddhist philosophy is the concept of no-self, or not-self, or emptiness (depending on who and what you read). There are various interpretations on what the original Buddha actually meant, and a lot take it to mean that in order to achieve enlightenment or happiness we shouldn’t be self-centered or narcissistic – we should put the needs of others above ourselves.

Some Buddhist teachers have been on the record saying that they don’t like western psychotherapy, because it focuses too much on the self. I think there is a paradox of the self. Narcissism in general (without accounting for genetic reasons) is typically not an outcome of too much self-love or self-centeredness, it is what happens when the self feels deprived. We often develop obsessions over things we cannot have. If we feel we have enough attention, why would we keep wanting more of it? Human beings are not the bottomless pits of greed we think we are.

Zen, which is a branch of Buddhism, is a little closer to what I personally think of as reality (I am not a scholar so don’t quote me). There is a well-known quote by Dogen, one of the founding fathers of Soto Zen (if this quote doesn’t make sense to you, welcome to Zen):

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

There seems to be a narrative (Buddhist or not) that we should aim to be good by being selfless. In Buddha’s time (or any previous time in history) there was no concept of boundaries, or how having no boundaries can result in toxic relationships and systems. The reason why everyone should have boundaries is difficult to understand, especially in a Confucian society. But which human being is capable of always being hungry, sick and deprived and yet without any trace of resentment give away their food to anyone who asks? If we’re always tired because we’re always giving away our energy, how can we deliver our best? I think we ask too much of human beings, and the result is dysfunction because everyone is tired and hungry, except the ones profitting off the rest (which is another story but I do not want to digress).

In order to thrive we need to figure out our boundaries in order to protect our energy, work on our selves so we don’t end up hurting other people or ourselves unconsciously. On paper it would seem that I disagree with Buddha.

But if we go beyond mainstream or religious Buddhism, what Buddha was trying to teach is not to forego the self, but rather that the self is an illusion. This view has its equivalent in psychology. What we think as our character, our selves, is simply a composite of stories and conditioning. It is not so much that we’re a metaphysical illusion and we all live in a simulation – well you can believe that if you want but it doesn’t really confer benefits in practical day to day living I think – but rather the idea of our selves is not as concrete as we think.

The idea that our self is an illusion can be quite depressing at first, but hopefully we can move out of that and realise its freedom. That we don’t have to be who we were, or who people think we are.

Therein lies the paradox: we have to focus on our selves in order to lose our selves, it is in losing our selves where we can find how we may thrive and therefore make the ecosystem we’re part of a greater whole.

Going deeper into the implications of no-self: it is not just about the self being an illusion, but also that we’re not as standalone as we think, that we’re all interdependent and a part of a larger reality. This is not woo-woo at all, I mean we’re all particles and you can’t say one particle is more solid than the other; we’re all part of an ecosystem that is dependent on everything working in harmony for our survival.

What I’ve found comforting in this whole no-self thing: that while it may seem that my life has been put on hold, that I am deprived on all the comforts and experiences I had, that I have encountered so much malaise and am bracing for potential grief – the reality is, we as a whole is suffering. No one, like the Buddha once proclaimed, is spared from the suffering of living, ageing, illness and death. It is just a matter of how and when. It is not just my life that is on hold because of this virus, everyone’s lives are on hold (to varying degrees and I acknowledge my privilege), and everyone is trying to cope. Random shit happens. People develop chronic illnesses, people suddenly die. To live is to endure heartbreak and disappointment.

Just a while ago I have found this extremely unhelpful in my own suffering, knowing that everyone is not spared from suffering does not reduce my own suffering. But I think I went through the five stages of grief: I am now at the acceptance stage. I don’t think acceptance reduces suffering, but what it does is that it may free up our energy for something else. Once I accept the inevitability, that terrible things are going to happen anyway, I want to focus on doing my best to love and live. It is not like less living is going to make the suffering go away, it is not like we can avoid grief by consciously or subconsciously punishing ourselves. I still suffer, maybe as much, but I want to develop the room for other dimensions of living.

I can understand why Buddha wanted people to detach from the idea of the self: because when we’re too attached to our story as the sole protagonist, we live in a world where we experience nothing but our own suffering. That severely limits our experiences of life and the world. It just reinforces a story that is not rooted in reality, and that same story perpetuates our suffering, especially if we’re led to believe we’re alone in our suffering, that we deserve our misfortune. All of us are outcomes of a complex systemic loop.

I look back at our history: we were always killing each other, dying of illnesses, waging wars. Our life expectancy was 40 not too long ago. I think we have been deluded by the somewhat peace of the recent decades. But shit always happens. I just wish that we can figure out how to hurt each other less and let nature do its thing. But nope, we have to heap more suffering on each other on top of the inherent grief that comes with living. All that randomness, fragility, impermanence.

Cherish the present, because it is all we have. It sounds so cliche, but I have found it to be poignantly true in recent times for obvious reasons. I try to look at my partner more with undivided attention, I wash dishes and feel the thrill of clean water, I thank my lungs for supporting me when I run. I struggle at times with my chronic illness, but it has made me learn so painfully not to take my days of health for granted.

I am not a Buddhist, and I am not sure why I wrote this. But these thoughts have been hovering on my mind for a while. I am not sure if anyone else would find it helpful, or if I am able to convey why I have found this to be ironically enriching my life these days. Maybe these are glimpses of being able to free myself from the trappings of my own mind.

I like Joseph Campbell’s approach to living and learning because he never subscribed to one particular school of belief. He tried to integrate everything he learnt. I think the Buddha would have taught differently if he had access to neuroscience (and understood how trauma impacts us). He was astute and ahead of his time in terms of human psychology, but I think it was still a product of his times.

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