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Piet/Steven Dialogue

More about “the Self” and Alternatives #1

{This is the first of several segments drawn from a dialogue recorded in Berkeley on May 11, 2005. Piet and I continued our discussion of the previous day, where we explored "the self" as it's seen in contemplative traditions. This time we considered more of what this traditional topic means and what the alternatives to a "self" might be like.}

Piet: so I found our discussion yesterday extremely interesting on many levels … about the connection between “self” and habitual patterns. And I realize that now better … I sort of understood of course, what these traditional texts were saying, but now I see it in a new light. It’s amazing how things you've been chewing on for so many years, you can suddenly see in a new light as though for the first time. It’s part of the spiral business of constantly coming back to the same point and suddenly seeing something new in there.

Steven: it is very spiralic … this is true of the whole teaching, especially something like this. To teach this stuff requires saying something, and whatever one says is going to be in understood in a certain, probably limited way. That is, for many people it’s going to be understood immediately in some way or other … understanding just means that people have some reaction or some place to put ideas, but then they'll come around to it again later and the understanding will have changed, etc. This just keeps happening, and the ways in which understanding can change over time may be very drastic, or just subtle and incremental. But people should be aware that just because they “understand” a statement somehow, doesn’t mean they have fully exhausted its import, or have even begun to do so in some cases. This “pointer” orientation that’s so central to contemplative teaching works in a different way than communications that are more explicit.

Piet: but this is also something that’s true in science, perhaps more than you might think. Many people say that once they teach a science course about a topic they apparently knew well, they learned quite a lot from it. I have seen that myself so many times …

Steven: it’s a very common experience. I had the same experience when I looked at my understanding of philosophy and logic issues in grad school, compared to afterwards, when I was presenting or drawing on these same subjects as part of what I was teaching in Asian studies. Over a period of years, my understanding of even very formally-defined and abstruse logical problems etc. grew quite a bit, just from teaching contemplation. It’s funny how that happens.

Piet: so going back to what I saw yesterday, in a book you wrote, you talk about a self image … the belief in the self.

Steven: yeah, this is a general issue in Buddhism as well as other traditions. I’m just suggesting phrases that I hope may help to resolve some common difficulties. Because, this “no-self” or “not-self” issue is a controversial and confusing part of Buddhist teaching. It’s a very ancient part of Buddhism, and yet both scholars and people inside the tradition are still debating what it really means. So starting back in the 1970’s, I tried to pick a phrase, “self image,” as a way of saying that there is something there, there's something to deal with, but it’s not a self in all the respects that we take for granted. It is more like an image in a sense, or a bundle of habits of inattention, leading us to stick with habits and buy into suggestions, hints and prompts that are problematical in some ways. You can see tendencies to act as though there is a self, and you can even see what evidence there is that is carelessly taken to be evidence for the presence of a self, but the self we assume to exist is not the best take on ourselves we can make if we want to appreciate what we really are.

Piet: but to restate it now, my point yesterday was that I didn’t see the image! It seemed like I was one further step removed.

Steven: yes well that’s very normal. But again this is this “hitting” notion … we've talked about being “hit” by our teachers. That’s what they're trying to do—they'll deliberately make you angry or frightened or whatever, because they're trying to provoke this image, to amplify it and flush it out in the open where it’s so pronounced and evident that a mind trained in meditation can catch it. The combination of turning up the volume on it plus the sitting practice, the training practice, help you to see it directly.

Once you seen it, you can start noticing it even as a background phenomenon in apparently neutral cases, where it doesn’t seem to be present at all but in fact it is. And as you go much further in the practice, you can see its limiting influence on even very subtle kinds of cognitions that are part of constructing ordinary reality. And you can either relax that or see it so directly that it is itself part of a relaxed presence, and then something can come through that’s part of a higher mind function, a higher way of knowing. But you have to start with more ordinary kinds of seeing … it’s all about different levels and ways of seeing, not about abstract theory or philosophical positions, although even those can aid seeing if they’re used correctly.

Piet: at some point we should come back to the pros and cons of calling it a “self” and/or a “self image.” Names are important, I think, when you grapple with these things, at least to suggest directions to look in. First I would like to chew on it a little more, because I think that would help me … by chewing on whether a name is the right one or not, in a scientific problem that is often a very good way to make progress in getting deeper understanding.

Steven: I would be very happy to do it, because this is a central issue in the traditions, and also a hot topic. It’s not like it’s so straightforward there's nothing further to discuss. It’s still a living question and there's plenty of room for improvement in our understanding “about” it, what it implies, although not so much in the “seeing” side, since that is beyond doctrines.

Piet: in my particular case, I want to be extremely careful since it is so easy to mislead oneself or to not see things which other people think are obvious about you. I thought about it yesterday a little bit more, and I was wondering … could it be … I mean, each person is different, and people can be almost blind in one aspect, and very perceptive than others. I know that for other people so it must be true for me too. So could it be that … I know that like everybody I have very serious problems with this pattern business, which I’m learning to see … I often feel that one of the beautiful things about getting older is that you see more about the patterns of things. For a number of different reasons, you're slowing down, you get more experience, whatever else may be going on in your body, etc. So I see that, and I see clearly that there is a lot I would like to see much deeper about the patterns.

But could it be that the self part … see I’m a little bit puzzled that these patterns are being associated with the self image … could it be that I have somewhat less of a self hang-up than other people do? I’m asking that because I’m just curious and because on many occasions, like my illness of a few years ago and my illness when I was 25, I didn’t seem to be particularly afraid of dying, which surprised or upset the people around me. And I think I was close enough to the reality that it was not just an abstract thing to me, I really did feel that way. And in general, if something doesn’t work, I seem to find it relatively easy to give up and try something else.

Steven: yes, it’s logically possible that it may be less strong for you, but most often it’s more a matter of different people having different styles rather than actually lacking or being free of this … the way the “self” delusion manifests for/as you may just be more cavalier and easy going, less tied to some things, and overtly more centered around other issues, so it seems that there is no “self” attachment. It's difficult to tell the difference between these two cases. What I was pointing out is a very basic taint affecting our whole way of being and way of knowing. It’s not to be judged by outer matters like attachment to possessions, or vanity, or fearor lack of fearof dying.

Piet: I am just trying to think how … being stuck in patterns is absolutely a big problem, and I want to say a few more words about that. But to label them with the word “self,” and this whole Buddhist discussion about self and no self etc., I had problems with this and I can now see a little bit more clearly what the problems are. Okay, let me switch to the other point I wanted to mention, this patterns business. That at least is very clear. It is so clear that I’m even afraid it may be too clear, that I have too glib a story. I remember you talking about the traditional enlightenment stories, which are good up to the point that somebody “gets enlightenment,” and then they point in a wrong direction.

Steven: they can be misleading, yes, and may promote greed etc. Basically they amount to saying that “somebody” got enlightened, which isn't very accurate. They also frame it as an event.

Piet: yes, so here is my “enlightenment story,” which I could imagine … (Laughter) and I’m curious how and where I point in the wrong way there. I can easily see … and I know it’s wrong talking in time etc. but anyway, I can easily see myself, like last night again, learning to switch from reaching to being perceptive, switching from reaching to seeing, seeing more and more of patterns, getting this exponential spiritual growth and understanding.

And I can easily extrapolate that and see how my physical movements will become much more natural, as I already felt yesterday when we even talked about it, and mental motions the same, since they are synchronized anyway, closely correlated. So I can see everything dropping away and life becoming really wonderful in terms of no longer being chained to anything and no longer wanting anything and just living in a natural carefree way. And that’s an image, I can see myself rattling the cage I’m in until the point I realize that the bars of the cage are empty, and then there is no cage and no bars...

Steven: they are codependently given with these other patterns, we're heedlessly putting them in place and then pulling at them as though they’re “just there.”

Piet: yes, so my picture of seeing and becoming free seems very clear and convincing, it fits with all my previous experience, but there must be something wrong with it, because it’s put in time, for one thing, and also it seems too easy...

Steven: “in time”?

Piet: yes like the story that if I keep rattling the bars, that at some point I inside the bars will disappear in a puff of insight.

Steven: yeah well, it’s not completely wrong. You do the best you can just to frame what’s going on, and you refine it as you go. So what is wrong about this would not suggest that you have to go back to the ordinary view! You keep going forward to a better view.

Piet: yeah, to see what it really is.

Steven: right. And note that we’re coming full circle here … the “seems too easy” idea you just mentioned is where you started yesterday with your picture of three vertices … you described a “complexity vertex” then, suggesting that there was a difficulty even though the “it’s easy” vertex suggested otherwise. I’m saying that this concern betrays some thing or “self” notion still operating there, a holding pattern of wanting to succeed or get something that’s proving frustratingly elusive (for that self).

Stepping back a moment … it’s not like we are saying that if you let go of this self image that you are left with nothing. The point is not erasure, the point is to open up into something that is more real, more true in some sense. So you're going from an attachment, a heedless assumption of a “thing” we call “me” and to which we are attached, and that wants improvements, success, etc., to something more open—what I would call a more authentic way of being.

So you're going from a “thing” picture to a dynamic “way of being” picture. From objects, including selves, to persons in some authentic sense that are based more on aliveness and kind of open action that includes others as part of one's own being. If you are a thing, then you freeze and push everyone away. If you open to something more dynamic, this “way of being” emphasis, and specifically to a more authentic way of being, then you join the world and others are included in your being and you are included in their being. This is a better way of being a person, which includes others in one's own celebratory approach to life. And then that too is still seen as having limitations, subtle holdovers of “thing”-oriented presuppositions, and so you refine those and get another view, etc., until you are beyond views, truly open.

Piet: but how am I a “thing”? I mean, I still don’t get this “self” aspect, that I’m supposed to be a thing … if I lie in bed and I’m lazy, and I know it is better to get up because the alarm clock went off at six o'clock, but I also feel like turning around and falling asleep again, then there are patterns involved. There's a pattern of laziness, there are other patterns. And I can imagine that if I really would drop everything, that I either would happily go back to sleep or happily get up. There would not be a friction or struggle or wondering what to do. But where in that is there a self image? Where in that is there a “thing"? There is friction, yes, there is a pattern, yes, but how should I learn to see myself as a thing in order to unlearn it?

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/11/05, posted 7/4/06

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