On the sense of self

We forget ourselves. We are fascinated by things, and by our experience of things, and we have come to believe that things––forms that can be perceived in one way or another––are all that exist. We practice, on the other hand, to break the spell of ‘things,’ to remember ourselves, to become aware of our own existence.

The fundamental teaching of Gurdjieff was, “Man does not remember himself.” All Gurdjieff’s teaching was directed to enabling us to break out from the mechanical, automatic reflexive reactions that give us the impression of being the ‘doer’. In fact, all that we do is a kind of knee jerk; something happens and something else responds. But no self is involved.

Gurdjieff used a metaphor, saying that we are like the old horse drawn cabs. He continued the metaphor saying that the horse is half starved, and ill treated. The carriage that should be oiled by the rough passage as it goes over the various bumps and holes and hollows in the road, is now so pampered that natural maintenance is no longer possible. The cab driver, he said, is invariably half drunk, and when he is not half drunk, is half asleep. The worst part is that any stranger can hire the cab, which means that all kinds of strangers are climbing in and out all day giving contradictory instructions and going in different directions.

In the metaphor, the horse is the emotions, the carriage the body, the cabby is the mind and the passenger is the Self. Gurdjieff used the metaphor to show the sad state of modern people. The owner moving in and out, being changed constantly, is the ‘I’ that is constantly changing, being taken over by this, being taken over by that. This instability is what Gurdjieff has in mind when he says, “Man does not remember himself.” Dogen said something similar: “The practice of Zen is to know the self. To know the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousands things.”

Now-a-days, one might protest and say that people give too much attention to the self. They’re only too well aware of their own existence. One only has to think of so-called ‘selfies’ to realize to what extent people are self-absorbed. The words “I” and “my” are now overworked: iPhone, iPad, iBanking, iPublishing. But this is the self that Dogen says we should forget.

If we really “know the self” we see its instability, and its lack of ‘being.’ The ‘self’ is like the reflection in a mirror: it is there, but it is not there. On the other hand, the ‘Self’ that Gurdjieff speaks of is the tenth person.

Ten people have to cross a river, swollen because of a recent storm. After crossing, one of the group said that they should count to be sure all had crossed. When he counted he could only find nine. Another member of the group counts and only counts nine. The one who counts is never counted. In English the expression, “the one who counts” refers to the mot important one. Even so, the one who counts is never counted and so is forgotten.

We all know people who are full of themselves, who think of no-one but themselves. They see themselves as important, as interesting, or as superior. They regard others simply as extras required to dance in attendance, to admire and to pay respect. Surely, one might think, these people remember themselves only too well. But no, all this importance is just a dance of shadows having no foundation or meaning. These people are not full of themselves, but of illusions, indeed delusions, about themselves. They just want to attract the attention or admiration of other people, and so be reassured that they exist.

The problem is that we are fascinated by the reflection of ourselves. We know this reflection through ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions,’ ‘sensations,’ ‘ideas,’ ‘thoughts,’ and it is what we call our inner self or our inner mind. The cult of today is to have an ‘interesting’ self, an interesting personality. We go to great lengths to experience this reflection of the self. Indeed, most people confuse ego satisfaction––or reflection of self–– with happiness.

Ego satisfaction, which is a clear reflection of the self, and happiness are fundamentally different. It is not unusual for people to have intense ego satisfaction and yet at the same time be intensely unhappy. Workaholics are an example. It is also possible, but unusual, for someone to be quite happy without any sense of ego satisfaction. We all know this sense of happiness without ego satisfaction when we are deeply asleep. After we wake up from a dreamless sleep we have a feeling of deep well-being, deep peace. But in deep sleep there is no ego satisfaction.

Many people, paradoxically, hold on to their suffering because they are afraid that if they let go they will no longer have any ego satisfaction. Suffering is certain, it is always at hand and so is a very good foundation for the ego. Such people are unable to discern the difference between true happiness and the sensation of themselves, even if that sensation is the sensation of suffering.

Holding on to our suffering is just one of the many ways that we maintain the sense of self. One sees other ways, for example, in the way we stroke the chin, or twiddle the thumbs, cross the arms or legs, all with the intention of feeling the sense of self.

When in the face of others, we are uncomfortable, or feel awkward, or embarrassed, we say that we feel “at a loss.” The loss is a temporary loss of a secure sense of self. We have a number of stratagems by which we can recover the sense of self. But they too occur at a physical, mechanical level, and are quite innocuous. They are not cause for concern or the need to change.

But beyond these innocuous ways are other different, painful ways by which people provoke the sense of self. They hurt themselves, not necessarily literally but metaphorically, in order to regain the feeling of the sense of self, in order to get the feeling that they are, they are there, they are real.

Our practice is to go beyond the reflection that gives rise to the conflicting, contradictory aspect which ruins our lives.

Initially, we just need an insight, a flash, a moment in which there is no reflection of self. These moments occur occasionally. But when they occur, we close up immediately; no-reflection, we feel, is a loss of the sense of self, and because we lose the sense of self, we react, we clench to restore that sense of self, the very sense which we are practicing to transcend. We have an automatic resistance to these moments of openness and freedom.

To be present, alert, wakeful is to be in such a way that when such a moment occurs you are able to allow it to be, you do not flinch away from it. It is a moment beyond content, beyond knowing ‘something;’ it is upstream of reflection; it is to be without any awareness of the fact that you know: you just know. This is what Dogen calls ‘forgetting the self.’

This moment of pure knowing could be called ‘not knowing.’ When emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma “What are you?” Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know.” To speak of a knowing that is not knowing is either paradoxical or nonsensical. But not knowing is a global knowing, a knowing without limits or content. Its feeling counterpart is pure peace. Peace which is beyond any understanding, beyond any grasping.

Yet to one who is used to knowing himself through suffering and conflict, not knowing is a threat; it is like an abyss, a hollow menace. It can strike one with intense dread. But if one is present, it is possible at this moment to bring about a complete change, a turn-about. The lusting after reflections loses its grip. Dogen said that the process of coming to awakening was inexhaustible. But, even so, it is possible in an instant to break the grip of this fever of a reflective self.

Breaking the grip of the reflective self, loosening the clutch of the sense of self, is the essence of practice. One is then no longer aware of things, people or situations, but is upstream of all necessity to focus the attention on one thing rather than another.

Those who are working on Mu or Who, or even those who are following the breath, may find it strange to be told to go upstream of focusing the mind. “ Isn’t it really what the practice is all about: to focus intently on Mu, on Who, on the breath?” Yes, there is a time when one needs to focus the attention, to concentrate. We do so in order to withdraw the mind from all of its petty focuses, all of the petty concerns that we are hooked on. If we can focus the attention simply on Mu or Who or on the breath, we break the threads that tie us down like the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver; millions of small threads.

But we must go beyond focusing the attention. Practice is not simply a practice of concentration. It is rather a practice of contemplation. “Contemplation” means to be “one with;” it is being completely open. This is why it is important to maintain the questioning. Questioning allows the mind to become open and unfocused to the point that awareness, just pure awareness without content, without reflection without desire, can spring to the fore, burst to the light, explode.

These are all ways of talking about a turn-about, a release of the tyranny of the reflective mind. Focusing is closing the mind, fixing in place. When Gurdjieff says: “Remember yourself,” the only way to do so is simply to be. It’s like the famous quotation from the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God”. And yet this is far too much. All that one really needs to say is “Be still and know.” Again this is also far too much. All that one needs is “Be still” and all the rest is contained in that. No, just “Be”.

But in order to do this, in order to be able to enter into the stillness which is one’s own true nature, one has constantly to break up the addiction, fascination and compulsion to be things, to be something. This is why our practice always goes in two directions. One is the direction towards arousing the mind without resting it on anything. But in order to enter the stillness, we have to melt down the identities that we have created over a lifetime.

Awareness is a solvent. Simply by allowing a thought or an idea, a compulsion or an anxiety to rest in the field of pure, disinterested awareness is enough to dissolve that particular problem. You must experience this for yourself because it is an essential element of the work. Moreover, if you ask someone who is very anxious, to pin point exactly what is worrying him, that in itself––just allowing the person to really become totally aware of what is giving concern––is enough to bring about a release. It’s quite likely that much of the value that comes from psychotherapy comes from this dissolving aspect of the mind. But this dissolution will only occur if the person can open the mind without any kind of judgement whatsoever.

The most important aspect of our practice is to allow whatever lies within the field of awareness to remain there. But, you must be present, alert to this field. Naturally, there must be no judgement, no partiality, no wish to change. If you are able to do this then many strange thoughts and ideas, possibly quite cruel or violent, may pass through the mind. You will see that all kinds of thoughts surge up. These ideas can be quite antisocial, possibly unacceptable to anyone else if you told them about them. But that’s all right. Allow them to be, whatever they are.

I’m not saying that we’re all filled with horrible thoughts; I’m trying to encourage allowing whatever there is to float into awareness, no matter how terrifying it might be, and to have the faith that awareness will dissolve it. The all forgiving aspect of God, the all merciful aspect of God is really, in terms of what we’re saying, the solvent power of awareness. But it does take faith and willingness to just allow the mind to hang loose and to allow whatever there is to come and go as it will.

It is not necessary to go on a fishing expedition to try to get the mind to produce its garbage. One just stays steadily with Mu or Who, or allowing the breath to come and go, steadily working with that practice. Tensions will arise, resistance will occur, and agitation distract. As these feelings of discomfort invade, just continue without trying to change anything, without trying to add anything, or take anything away. It is like a sheet of paper that has become crumbled and every facet of this crumbled ball of paper is now reflecting against every other facet. This sets up a cacophony, a dissonance, a noise of random thoughts, fears and desires.

But, left alone, the paper smooths itself out, the wrinkles go, and, as this happens, an increasing clarity takes over. It is the nature of the mind to reassert its unity and wholeness. This reassertion of unity is the cause of our suffering. We suffer because we are whole: the mark of our suffering is the mark of the truth of our wholeness. Wholeness ultimately will assert or resolve itself. It does not matter whether you work or you don’t work. It does not matter whether you practice Zen or you don’t practice Zen. You are whole and complete, and ultimately you will return to that state. But because wholeness is returning to that state, you are working on yourself. Because of the smoothing out you are practicing Zen. The resistance to the practice comes from ‘I,’ ‘I’ want to be happy, ‘I’ want to get rid of all this suffering, ‘I’ want to come to awakening. ‘I’ is the resistance to wholeness. And it is from that very resistance that a deeper kind of pain comes about.

A difference exists between opening yourself to the natural hunger that one has to come home to unity, and ‘wanting to come to awakening.’ Wanting to come to awakening is simply a continuation of focusing the mind in order to be, or to grasp, something. It’s just another stratagem in order to ensure that the reflective consciousness has a focus. A focus gives the illusion of reality, an intensity, and this in turn gives a sense of meaning to what is otherwise a meaningless pursuit of shadows.

Yielding to the natural hunger that we have to come home, yielding to this natural need that we have to know ourselves for what we are, lacks drama. Very often it is a feeling that nothing is happening, or even that one has lost one’s way and is going through darkness. This is because we are released from the focus, from the orientation point, that gives a sense of significance that lies in the reflective self. It is the sense of self that provides what we feel is the meaning of our life. Everything that you know, everything that you know, all the values that you have, all the meaning that you have, all of this is the reflection of yourself. If you let it all go, the true self will still shine. But it will shine in a way which is free, open and unlimited.


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1 Response to On the sense of self

  1. Ken Tapscott says:

    Thanks very much, Roshi. This is particularly useful and encouraging to me. These posts of yours have been, and are, helpful to me in my practice. I appreciate the time and effort it must take for you to set these things down.

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