She hands me an old A5 notebook. Other than the yellowing of its pages, it’s surprisingly un-weathered by time. She is smirking at me as if there is something hidden somewhere inside it. I page through it, taking a while to recognise myself in the handwriting. A page is dated Wednesday, 15th May 1997; notes from a lecture at Wits University on Buddhism. This was probably my first real introduction to Buddhist thought. I can recall the feeling of “this is making sense to me”; of thoughts I had already had finding a home in what the lecturer, Rob Nairn, was saying. Not too many pages later and I find myself sitting with Rob, a year later, at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo. I am writing about my trepidation, readying myself for 8 days of “noble silence”. I feel exposed at being reminded of my own anguished grappling’s with myself back then. A bit embarrassed at how familiar this all still feels; more than 20 years later. “I have a tendency to sacrifice myself not only to people, but to mind states, to situations, to stagnation!” – a statement written on an otherwise blank page. It alarms me a bit at how this struggle continues.
I dove head first into Buddhism back then. Looking back from where I am now, some of the concepts (at least the interpretation of them) had been difficult, if not harmful for me at the time. I was in recovery from several oppressive forces in my life, including being newly out of an antiquated boarding school environment. My confidence, my sexuality, my entire sense of self was in urgent need of development. In this context, “selflessness” was a dangerous idea indeed. I risked becoming a flaky, boundariless, giving, mess.
My inability to hold onto myself soon had me swallowed whole by an all consuming relationship in no time. A Jonah-like event in my life that lasted years when it should have only lasted a few months. It was through that relationship that I was able to begin to explore my sexual self, but it somewhat derailed me from the rest of the journey I was on. I can recall Rob Narin saying, as he picked up a glass of water beside him and, in an obvious gesture of gently releasing it from his grasp to put it back down – “You need to have a self before you are able to relinquish it”. So, I guess, I went off for a while and tried to “have a self”. Here I sit again, on a cushion, grappling with that self.
This idea of “no-self” is potentially dangerous to our Western minds. I am not sure if we interpret it all that well. It very easily rides on the back of self-loathing. I found some clarity to this in how Mark Epstein talks about his final conversation with his dying father over the phone.
Epstein talks about a place of lucidity from which our experiences, including death, can be observed. It’s a place that feels almost transparent but that is “deep inside” us, lying outside of conscious thought or language. I was delighted to discover this idea more recently – that even though we need to practice not taking our thoughts and emotions too seriously; there is maybe a pivotal point, something we should anchor into; there is something about ourselves worth taking seriously- a thin thread that links our moments of consciousness together. The absence of that is arguably psychosis. Our sense of self is the thread that helps us connect one moment to the next. Our trouble seems to be that we take that sense of self too seriously. As Epstein states elsewhere, it is not that we think we are real that is the problem but that we think we are “really real”.
So what is the “self” that we need to try and cast aside? I think it is the sum of the habitual patterns of feeling, thinking and behaviour that we so easily mistake for “this is who I am”. These patterns are often deeply engrained. Grooves so deep we have no choice but to mistake them for who we are.
When I think back to the first time my father tried to commit suicide, I visit it with the same detachment as trying to recollect a scene from a movie. It is difficult for me to reconnect with the feelings that the scene evoked in me. Whenever I have tried to put language to the feelings “abandonment” comes to mind. But, this is just a re-imagening rather than an actual remembering. An application of logic to vague memory.
However, through attempts to be more mindful, I have become particularly aware of how the feeling of “disappointment” can so easily hijack my mind. Rob Nairn talks about thoughts and feelings as if they are water lying in the shallow tray of our minds – when they start to tip towards one side, they gain their own momentum and can tip the entire tray over. The feeling of disappointment can really tip me over. When I sit with it along enough, it feels like a thread that takes me all the way back to the moment I discovered my father unconscious in his car. “Disappointment” seems more likely the feeling that I felt back then. “Disappointment” has become a deep groove my mind so easily falls into.
When feelings of disappointment arise I very quickly reach a tipping point. Out of the feeling of disappointment, a deeply entrenched pattern of thoughts arise. It feels almost impossible not to percieve my reality through the lens of this disappointment. As I buy into that reality, behaviours such as withdrawal or anger play out as if on autopilot. I can very easily decide that I am “disappointment” or that my life is “dissapointing” or that people will inevitably “disappoint” me. Reality becomes reduced to a very narrow story.
This I believe is the “wrong view” of which Buddha spoke. When we are hijacked by habitual and outdated thoughts and emotions, our ability to perceive what is really going on, in this moment, is clouded. When an event in my life is experienced as “disappointing”, a familiar yet unreliable trail of disappointing thoughts and feelings cloud my experience of what is actually going on. The practice of mindfulness is a practice in letting go of these reactions, of not getting too caught up in them, in seeing them for what they are – mental popcorn.
Mindfulness, therefore, is not so much a practice of introspection but a practice of going into yourself in order to go beyond yourself. As we gradually come to terms with the habitual patterns of thought and feeling that simmer just outside of everyday conscious awareness, we make room for an opening up to the totality of experience – for a seeing of things as they are.