Saturday, January 23, 2010

Self-Hood and No-Self - or who's in there anyway?

(Picture taken by my mini-computer.)

It's raining, raining - turning all that snow into sullen gray mush. (It will all freeze solid tonight, though.) It's actually quite dangerous walking around out there, as some of the sidewalks are water on top of ice.

I've been thinking about "self-hood" and the idea of "no-self" in Buddhist thought. The aim of mindfulness training is to extinguish the illusion that we are someone in particular, rather than an endless series of conditioned actions and reactions. Coming to this awareness is coolness instead of heat, openness instead of constriction. But it doesn't feel all that appealing to me, or rather, flies in the face of the effort to find voice and establish a sense of personhood that many, especially women, have been engaged in. (And which is the sub-text of many blogs - why else the frequent memes of "25 secrets" and such?)

Perhaps we need to have a solid sense of self before we can let go of it?

Another stopping place in my mind for this Buddhist understanding is the insight from parenting that the person-hood of my children was there from the beginning - they never felt like unfolding buds of potential humanity, but as fully present selves at whatever stage they were. And it always seemed to me that they had a strong engine of internally-generated action, rather than being molded from the outside.

How can we love each other as random collections of conditioned action and reaction?

On this point, I rather prefer the Judeo/Christian/Islamic understanding of the creation of individuals as unique and lovable. There are other Western doctrines I'm not as fond of, certainly. (And I readily confess that this "no-self" concept is much more complex than I'm presenting it.)

At least Siddhārtha Gautama kept it clear that none of his doctrines were themselves actuality - just pointers to experiencing and understanding from the inside. That I can completely agree with.


ellen abbott said...

Well, while I agree with much Eastern thought, I tend to disagree that we should, must rise above our physical nature and our individual selves. We have incarnated for a reason and to try and rise above the purpose of our journey here strikes me as counterproductive.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Good post.

Your reference in this post, "the person-hood of my children was there from the beginning," oddly made me think of Sarte's saw, "existence precedes essence." Funny how the mind works.

Hystery said...

Mary Ellen,
I like this very much. I also think lots about this very thing including the bits about women. I do think that women must come at this issue differently in both the Eastern and Western philosophical/religious traditions especially given our practical and metaphorical connections to physicality and relationship. Thanks for further inspiration.

Ruth said...

Good thoughts, you've got me going (parallel to my current post too).

My Christian upbringing was with a mom whose mantra was death to self. That combined with my own personality/essence resulted in me having a pretty warped view of Self. I've worked hard at doing what you suggest here, strengthening my sense of self. I agree that it is key before the self can be annihilated in all Life. The Tao suggests that it is the two combined that produces something new. Emptiness and its opposite.

Well who can explain such things? But like the finger pointing at the moon, we know them inside somewhat, but our language about them is weak and incomplete.

We luckily read a good "Christian" book when our kids were little, about discovering who they are and raising them to be that person, whether it reflected our own personalities or not. Letting their "bent" shape them, rather than our own. I think that helped our kids make a successful living in the arts - which is their bent.

Pop and Ice said...

Wow. It's late Sunday night and I'm not sure I can credibly comment on what I've read so I'm going to say "Is it raining everywhere?" Nearly every blog I've been at today is talking about the drip-drip and fog and cold. (Yeah, it's raining here, too.)

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for such thoughtful responses! On the point about women and the common worldwide religious discipline of obliterating the self, I had the insight long ago that this didn't sit right with me, and then found a very extensive development of the idea in _At The Root of This Longing_ by Carol Lee Flinders (she came somewhat late to feminism, after having raised her family in a collective spiritual community based on Ghandian spiritual understanding - founded in California by Easwaran).

Kim said...

I think a helpful way to understand the Buddhist view of overcoming "self" is to replace it with the word "ego." Instead of feeling seperate and special (or less-than), we realize that the essence is all-one. The personality still exists in this life experience, but there's not attachment to it. I may be an artist, but if I lose my sight, I'm still whole--and, for me, this is the magic of Buddhism: I can still be utterly happy. A thought about children (if you believe in reincarnation): they bring conditioning from past lives to the present one. I really love Buddhism. Much of it still escapes my understanding, but the little I've come to grasp, not only intellectually, but through experience and through observing people who have practiced for a long time, including the Dalai Lama, the more I'm in awe of its power as a spiritual path.

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks, Kim - at one level, I do relax into an understanding, but at another level, I'm still testing it - against other views of "why are we here." I wholeheartedly embrace the practice of mindfulness, in any case - just don't do a very good job of keeping with it.

Reya Mellicker said...

Ellen always speaks for me. We are in physical form, so why not be OK with that? Though most Buddhists I know would say that "rising above" is not really the point, it just seems that way.

As usual, "truth" is full of paradox. But really who DO we love, who ARE we faithful to? I suspect there's as much projection as genuine affection in many relationships. My guess is that people who are in relationship are, in general, loving, while we loners (I'm in that group) are maybe less able to extend the generosity of love.

So. It has more to do with who loves than who is loved. I wonder if that made any sense.

Anonymous said...

I find mindfullness really helpful - what I like about the explanations I've had about mindfullness and meditation (at least in the Shambala Buddist school) is that it's not about denying our humanity - i.e. denying our thoughts as they come up. Rather it's just about stilling the mind and greeting those thoughts as friends and then letting them go on their way so you can return to mindfullness, at least for a short while.

Mary Ellen said...

I guess the important thing is not to philosophize but to practice mindfulness meditation. (Part of this post was sparked by reading an excellent book by Joseph Goldstein, _One Dharma_ - he really emphasizes the "no-self" aspect of Buddhist understanding.)

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, the "Perhaps we need to have a solid sense of self before we can let go of it" is a good line, I've never heard it expressed like that before :-)

Nancy said...

I have to agree. I've had a hard time with this issue as well. For one thing, children are who they are when they're born. Every mother can see that, when she gazes into eyes that seem to know so much. Spirituality means to me, that I can take from different religions those parts that make me whole. Maybe that's why I have never been much of a joiner. I don't like rules. I prefer to feel what resonates, and take it from there.

Great post, Ellen.