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To Self Or Not To Self -- The Meditative Question

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It is actually possible to enjoy life even when things aren't going your way. But, this appreciation depends on whether or not you have a healthy sense of not self. A healthy not self depends upon a realization that suffering is entirely impersonal and beyond control, not your fault and not anyone else's fault either. Since we don't generally believe that to be the case each of us begins meditating as a personal project to end "my" suffering. The thing the flummoxes us is that there is no meditative fix for what ails "me." Meditation, paradoxically, reveals how much the "me" suffers and the very many things over which it suffers. The enterprise can be very much like whack-a-mole, one thing right after another and the only thing for "me" to do about it is to just quietly sit and helplessly watch.

One of my favorite stories is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. A young woman suffering inconsolable grief over the loss of her infant is told the Buddha can help her. She goes to see him and he asks for payment. He tells her he can only help her when she brings him a mustard seed from a house that has not known suffering. She embarks upon a fruitless search for a deliverance that isn't there and this becomes her meditation. She goes from house to house and hears the same story over and over again. She finally returns to the Buddha not needing his help because she has helped herself by seeing that her grief is not hers alone but a universal experience. Her quest for an escape from grief became an immersion therapy.

It is helpful to understand the Buddha's observation that life has three characteristics: suffering. impermanence, and not self. Until we sit down and pay attention to what goes on inside, we don't actually know how much we suffer. We are unconscious of a baseline, gnawing level of dissatisfaction that has driven us for the entirety of our lives. Every one of us rejects and then uses this fundamental sense of dissatisfaction to build a self. The self has an imperative mission to get what "I" want or to sooth "me" when I don't get it.

Allowing the self to just sit and watch itself suffer is unthinkable. We develop all kinds of techniques that maintain the hope that meditation will somehow and somewhat magically end suffering. Eventually we give it up as technique falls away and we see what is. Desire comes into consciousness, hangs around for a while and fades away. Desires aren't needs at all. They are completely impersonal energies, that we have personalized. When we recognize that they are empty, they can be fully experienced and even, strange as it may seem, enjoyed for what they are, the roller coaster ride of life.