I spend a lot of time talk with individuals and groups about Buddhism. Not only does it provide me an opportunity to share the dhamma, but I find it helps me discover aspects to develop in my own practice.
For example, recently a friend of mine has been struggling with her personal suffering: career, love life, personal sense of happiness, etc. At one point she said to me, “I think I should write a book and call it ‘If I am not special, then who am I?’”
What a brilliant title! “If I Am Not Special, Then Who Am I?”
This got me to thinking of an appropriate response. Why do so many of us feel the need to be special? Why is it the ego (the identity of ‘self’) is part of our natural progression before developing the wisdom of the Dhamma?
WHA T IS THE POINT OF THIS SENSE OF “I” WE ALL CREATE?
The sense of identity is something that is created from the moment of conception in much the same way a pearl is created in the mouth of an oyster. There is the initial grain of sand that irritates and slowly, but surely, it is grown until we have something we feel is precious and “special.”
The initial starting “grain of sand” is our ignorance. The Buddha explains this in the “Law of Dependent Origination” but in a more mundane explanation, as we come into being and become aware there is a need to interact with the world. The first step of “I” comes from survival: where am I? What is it my senses are experiencing? How does the form I seem to be controlling related to the forms that appear independent from this body?
The first step of identity comes from a sense of cognition “this is the body and that is not the body.”
Creating a definition of what is form is “me” creates a very valuable reference point on the map of the universe. It is useful because it gives a relational perspective to everything around us. If you stood in the middle of the woods without a map everywhere you stand would look pretty much like any other place. However, with a map to reference, even those most subtle differences can indicate where you are in relation to the world. This is a mundane practical use of the definition of “me,” which the Buddha did not discount.
However, this useful reference point (this grain of practical sand) creates an irritation. Being limited in wisdom, subject to sensation AND limited in duration (aka life span); there is a need and craving to create further definition.
As children we are taught, “this is yours” and “this is mine.” The idea of possession comes into being as we learn how to cohabitate with others.
The concept of possession strengthens our sense of identity and our relationship with the world. It gives structure for survival socially and literally. This identity also creates a more comfortable reference point to navigate from as well, so we value these layers of lacquer on our “ego pearl.”
When we create a sense of possession, we also concrete our understanding of form. Objects must be unique and independent if they are to be owned. Seeing the world as independent objects, we logically see ourselves as independent as well.
“How can I own anything if I do not exist? How can I know of owning anything if I do not exist? I must logically exist.”
There is great comfort of believing in the concept of “self.” It has been a very useful tool, and the more energy given to the “self” or “ego” creates a greater sense of safety and assurance.
By contrast, the idea of “no ego” is unsettling. Worse, the value given to our identity becomes so fundamental to how we relate to the world, that the idea of it not existing creates deep neurosis and uncontrollable fear. The oyster’s response is to protect that “me” concept in more layers. The pearl gets bigger and stronger.
The “self” is now believed as a real and permanent thing. It is not only unchanging, but unending. The self must be a soul, because this precious “ego pearl” is too valuable to just disappear. It has become more important than the body, which is temporary and flawed. It is special. It is immortal.
The final layer of our “ego pearl” is the transformation of “I.”
At first, the “I” was a push pin on a map. It was a grain of sand placed as a reference marker. Through ignorance and rationality, that sand transformed into something that is perceived to be important, then essential, than indestructible: the “ego pearl” is valued so highly by us that it must have purpose.
The value of this identity is given the value of a soul: something so important that is immortal, beyond the boundaries of mundane existence, and existing for a purposes beyond the sake of existing.
“I am special. The world around me happens to help or hinder my destiny. My purpose may not be revealed but it is there.”
For some, this rationalization goes further to create more credence to its argument. “If I exist, if I have purpose, if I am special; then there must be a creator.” The layer of ego has gone beyond the pearl. The oyster now exists because the pearl, not the other way around. The argument is: universe was created because the ego needed it to become.
IF I AM NOT SPECIAL THEN WHO AM I?
The value of a pearl is dependent on how much someone craves to own it. This thirst (tahana) is the unwholesome craving the Buddha speaks of in the Four Noble Truths. To see it as valuable, we hold on to it tightly. It consumes our attention. When we travel, we protect it always worrying that it may be taken away. It gives us stress as we avoid anything that threatens it, and cling to it so tightly we find our hands and minds unable to engage fully.
On inspection, the pearl is just a bit of valueless sand and spit.
People who have a strong sense of self are people who have spent a lot of energy invested in their identity. The process of realizing the delusion (or illusion) of identity can be so disorienting that it can create psychological vertigo. The disequilibrium created even comprehending our “ego pearls” are valueless and the cause of our suffering creates fear so powerful that many minds dismiss even the possibility.
The unraveling of a lifetime of logical conditioning reveals how strong these fears, clinging and delusions are built up and reinforced within us. It is understandable, that starting to peel back layer and layer of conditioned thinking would bring about introspective questions for answers taken for granted.
“If I am not special, then who am I?” The question should be, “what is this ‘I’ identity that I cling to so tightly?”
“What is my purpose?” The question should be, “What is my perception of the world?
“What happens to me when I die” The question should be, “Why am I so afraid of death?”
“Is there a God?” The question should be, “Why is it so important to believe I know all the answers when I probably should be focusing on the answers to how I should live in it?”
NOT MINE, NOT SELF, NOT I
The practice of Buddhism must work in progression. It first must cognize that there is a sense of dissatisfactory nature of being. It must have faith that there is a solution to ending that suffering nature. Then it can start the work of introspection to understand the process of being.
It is through the introspective observation of the being (both body and mind) that we can see the creations that are necessary for survival and the creation of delusions that create suffering. There must be an understanding of the difference between the practicality of duality between our aggregate formation and the world; and the need to be mindful that this is a tool, and not a truth.
Buddhist practices then requires taking these steps of mindfulness and applies them to a new more skillful way of living. With understanding and application the clinging to the “ego pearl” becomes less until its value diminished and it is no longer needed.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” ~ Corinthians
As we develop our minds towards a more Buddha (awakened) mind, we develop a maturity to see past the mundane view of the world as a child and more as a spiritually enlightened adult. We no longer depend on the rules of our parents to understand the value of ethical living. We see the value of developing a mature and spiritual mind. We develop wisdom to fully engage with the world without suffering.
So when my friend asks me “who am I?”
I respond, “Be happy, because to ask this question is the first step on the path to wisdom and happiness.”