Identification with Self
“After more than a century of looking for it, brain researchers have long since concluded that there is no conceivable place for a self to be located in the physical brain, and that it simply does not exist.”
– TIME Magazine, 2002
Now we have to wrestle with one of the deepest and most demanding aspects of Buddhist psychology, the experience of non-self. Ajahn Chah said, “You have to consider and contemplate this slowly, you can’t just think about this or your head will explode.” It turns out that it is not just our roles and self-images that are tentative, without solidity. Our very sense of self is at its base untrue, only a concept. Buddhist psychology calls this selflessness or no-self. Ordinarily we identify with our habitual ways of acting, perceiving, thinking. Our body, our thoughts, feelings, personality, all seem to be us, ours. And yet, upon examination, all these are also tentative, subject to change. We might be sick one year and healthy the next. We might be anxious and depressed at one stage of our life and confident at another. Even though we are reclusive for years, we might change to become more social, but we continue to hold certain fixed views of ourself as a shy person. Without awareness, we take each identity to be who we are. And yet upon examination these identities are all subject to change. We are not fixed in this way or that.
An older man, a lifetime smoker, was hospitalized with emphysema after a series of small strokes. Sitting beside his bed, his daughter urged him, as she had often done, to give up smoking. He refused and asked her to buy him some more cigarettes. He told her, “I’m a smoker this life, and that’s how it is.” But several days later he had another small stroke, apparently in one of the memory areas of the brain. Then without a concern, he stopped smoking for good. But this was not because he decided to. He simply woke up one morning and forgot that he was a smoker.
We do not have to wait for a stroke to learn to let go of our identification with body and mind. We can train ourselves to release clinging to the body. Otherwise, as our body changes weight, gets sick or ages, we will suffer. We must care for our body, but if we grasp an image of it, it will be a problem for us.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Wise Heart”