Me Me Me Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-08-04 14:00:00 No comments

It's been an unproductive day on multiple fronts, which ended with me shelving my current work and writing a few notes to people for the sake of further research on stuff I couldn't see from 30,000 feet up. In the long run it'll get worked out, but the short-term frustration that comes from hitting such a wall is always a bummer. When in such a state, I get philosophical.

Brad Warner has a nice post up about the way our happiness-seeking activities constitute a trick played on us by our brains. Many of the things we think will make us happy, don't. Or they only make us happy in a qualified sense: they only work because they're encouraged by a set of social circumstances, which is why bragging about your new car is generally wasted breath amongst people who can't drive. The point he makes is that we shouldn't give up on happiness, but that we should seek it differently — by looking at our desires as scrutinously as we can and understanding where they really come from and why.

You're also not going to be able to do this in the span of a weekend. I've been doing zazen on and off (more on than off, I'd say) for about six or seven years now, and even I still have bad days. The difference between then and now, I think, is that I let the bad days roll off my back better than I used to. Even when I'm confronted with something really miserable, it's easier to see the misery as a product of my interaction with the thing than the thing itself.

"But, but, but — " Yeah, I can hear it starting now. " — but the fact that it's me interacting with it is the only thing that matters!" I'm reminded of the Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is stuck in his doghouse with a giant icicle threatening to impale him from above, and he thinks, "I'm too young to die! I'm too ME to die!" The same goes for anything else that happens to us: we're too "us" for that to happen to us!

And again, this is the part where people get all antsy. They don't like being told the "me" that they are is not real. It sure feels real when someone else punches them in the face, or when they open an envelope from the IRS and are greeted with a note asking for another thousand bucks they forgot to pay last year. And that "me", they argue, is the only "me" that actually matters. Someone has to pay my mortgage and show up at my job, right?

Well, sure. The point isn't to waggle the fingers and pretend that there's some mystical way all of these things can be avoided. That's wish-fulfillment, and that's not what this should be about. Instead, it's about seeing that whole "me" thing in a clearer light. If the only part of "me" that matters is the part that ends with your body, your bank account, your desk, and your car (to pick some arbitrary examples), of course it's going to hurt like hell when any of those things are threatened. Those threats shouldn't be taken trivially. But they also can't be divorced from the much bigger context in which they exist — a context which is, in turn, bigger than you alone.

The point isn't to replace one set of awareness with another, but to expand one to include the other.  Do that long enough and after a while you see how "I" and "I want" are not the be-all and end-all of "you". And yeah, that sounds awfully silly when boiled down into so many words, but I suspect the silliness comes from the ways those kinds of concepts have been reduced to horrible clichés by people who are better at popularizing them than they are at practicing them.

I've meandered a bit, but I want to use this last point as my closing one. The real power of these concepts doesn't come from hearing them repeated as platitudes. Some platitudes deserve to be repeated — Leszek Kołakowski once noted that because they are platitudes, they run the risk of becoming ignored, and so deserve being revisited anyway. But the real power is underneath and inside them, from something you are enacting and not just talking about. Shy away from that and it becomes easier to take refuge in the easy ways the world, and our minds, give us to cope with such things, because they seem less silly and more real. Nobody laughs at a machine gun or a million dollars; the evidence for how those things rule us and our world is all around, and so we don't think of them as silly. But the evidence for how expanding your awareness of yourself as being more than just your body and your life is harder to come by — you have to come by it entirely on your own. Small wonder it gets giggled out of court far more often.

Tags: Brad Warner Buddhism philosophy psychology