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The Self

Joko used to talk about practice as building a bigger container. We might also say practice is about building a bigger self. That's not our usual way of talking about it, is it? In our usual Buddhist terms, instead of getting a bigger self, we're supposed to be striving somehow to have no self, aren't we? Whatever that's supposed to mean. And it's a source of a lot of confusion - about what's the nature of the self we both have and do and don't want to eliminate and how we understand it in both in the language of Western psychology and Eastern spirituality.

As soon as we say, the self we turn it into a noun. And when we have a noun, we want to have a thing that it represents; and we go looking for it, and we try to find all its attributes, or we want to try to find out where it's located. We can do the same thing with a word like mind... the mind right?

Plato, at the beginning of Western philosophy, had Socrates in his Dialogues claim that in order to understand the various meanings of good we had to be able to come to terms with what the - capital G, Good really was... that you couldn't understand all the meanings of good man or a good dinner or a good law if you didn't get to the bottom, to the essence, of what good means. You think you know how to use the word good in all those different ways, but what is the Good?

And Socrates, as a character in Plato's Dialogues, demonstrated that people had all sorts of conflicting ideas of the good; and that none of them were able to define this absolute essence of The Good. He concluded they didn't understand what they were talking about.

Now a word like, the self is subject to exactly the same dilemma. It's a word that we use in all sorts of different contexts. We can talk about myself we can talk about self-consciousness, we can talk about the self as a stream of consciousness; we can talk about the self as the observer of that stream as it goes by; we can talk about my the self as something that continues over time; the self that signs a lease on an apartment; where it entails obligations that extend for years; there's also the self that we think emerges and disappears moment after moment. Right? Which one is the real self? Where exactly is the confusion?

The problem arises, like in the case of Socrates, when you think there's supposed to be one thing that the self means through all those different usages of the word- in all those different contexts.

But one way to look at what's happening, is not that there is a the self, whose nature is obscure and elusive, and you haven't quite figured out what it is yet; but rather to say that we use this word the self in a whole variety of situations. Once we're clear about how we use that word, and that we don't try to pin it down to any one thing; the problem simply goes away.

Buddha, coming from another direction, declared the self is empty; that there is no self. And it's a very analogous statement; it's not that there's nobody talking at the moment --rather that the self is no one thing; it's multiple things or processes or ways of talking about experience. It's something that's always changing and is constantly being re-defined by and in all sorts of different contexts. So Buddhism enters into the argument, in a sense, from the opposite direction of Plato.

Plato said we've got to find the fixed essence of good before we know what good is; Buddha comes along and says, there is no essence of the self. But then in a funny way, people respond to those statements, which seem to be just the opposite, in very similar ways. Buddhists start searching for no self, in the same way Plato sent people off searching for the good. As if no self was itself a distinct subjective state that you want to find and get into.

So if we talk about building a bigger container as equal to building a bigger self, what does that mean in this context? Joko said that part of this practice of sitting, and sitting still- is that we allow ourselves to simply stay with one kind of experience after another, regardless of content.

We can say that what happens is that we experience, or we are, one the self state after another. One moment we may be calm; one moment we may be restless; one moment we may have an itch; one moment we may feel very spiritual; another moment we may feel like an idiot, just sitting and facing the wall, on a weekend morning. We may go through all these different the self states- versions of self-experience. Part of what we do is allow ourselves to just feel it, just experience it, whatever it is regardless of the content, moment after moment. That's why we say it's very important to sit still- not to scratch, not to wriggle, not to adjust your posture, once you settle down. See whatever it is that's happening; we just want to feel that. We don't have to fix it and we don't have to improve it. We can let it itch, we can let that knee hurt, we can let the mind wander, we can come back to the breath. Whatever it is, there's a capacity to just stay with it for as long as it lasts until it changes into something else.

Our container for all that experience, in one sense, is simply the body. The body just stays put. Whatever happens, you don't get up and go away. Right? You stay there... literally. You sit still with it.

Now, in psychological terms, we would call that capacity affect regulation, the capacity to build up the strength to endure, or stay with, a whole variety of experience. From a psychological point of view there are lots of things that we don't know how to stay still with; and we are always running away from. And sometimes it's literally running away, and not being able to physically face something, whether it's an awkward social situation, or something literally frightening, something physically painful. But often, we avoid it by turning away from it mentally, dissociating from it, repressing it, denying it- there are a lot of different words for the process of basically being unable or unwilling to keep feeling what we're feeling, and be who we are. Sometimes the marker of that is anxiety, sometimes anger, sometimes shame. And it's always an experience of, Not me - I don't want that experience right now. I'm not here to feel that.

So a bigger container is always a matter of that increased capacity to say, That's me, to whatever arises moment after moment. No matter how much we don't particularly like what we're seeing in the mirror that moment. And we can say it's one of the capacities of the self as a psychological function, or a structure, to have that capacity to stay with, rather than to deny, or dissociate, or look away.

One of the nice things about the metaphor of a container, is that it's not so easy to say exactly where it's located- where its boundaries are. We're building this capacity to stay with experience, but where is that capacity located? Is it inside, or is it in some way also outside? The self also is in a funny way very hard to locate. Because self, like container, refers to something that's going on and in one sense can seem very private, but in another sense it's completely relational. Because who I am is inseparable from what I'm doing and the context in which I find myself, and how I'm connecting to that world and to those other people.

If somebody asks, Who are you? you rarely say, Well, I'm a person whose knee is hurting, or whose nose is sniffling, or who's having this thought or that thought. You'll usually say something like, Well, I'm a teacher; I live over there; I'm married to so and so; I do this, I do that. Right? You answer who you are in terms of all these external relations. Very curious, right? We think of the self as private and inner, but when asked, who are we? we answer with all this outer stuff, not inner stuff.

Now we're beginning an experiment with a new kind of literal container. We're sitting in this new space, this new Zendo. Part of building a bigger container, inside, is maintaining a bigger container, outside. Our capacity to sit depends very literally on a place to sit, and people to sit with, and a structure, and a Sangha. All these external things- who we are as meditators, as Buddhists, as students; all this depends on things external to ourselves as well as internal to ourselves. And that capacity is going to be dependent on how well we take care of those externals. Each one of us is trying to develop our own capacity in a way that feels inner. But we also, in a very important way, function as part of the container for everybody else in the room. Our capacity to do what we're doing here depends on each other. Anybody who's lived on their own, where there's no place to practice and no teacher and no Sangha, knows how hard it is to maintain a completely solitary practice. And even if you try to practice on your own, you've got an ideal to practice that you learned somewhere; that you've inherited from something, whether it's books, or somebody you once met. Very few people go out an invent meditation on their own.

So this capacity that we're trying to develop, which we can think of as something very private and inner and spiritual, is actually very public and very relational- very much defined and dependent on how we all function together. And it's our responsibility to practice well, for and with each other; and to be very honest and, I think, ultimately grateful that we have each other to make this possible.

The container is not just something that we build up inside. The self is not something that is just inside. The self is not something we're going to discover is non-existent and then we're going to be unburdened. The self is something we discover is distributed everywhere; circle after concentric circle of relations, it's all our self. It increases our responsibility, it increases our sense of what we have to take care of, be responsible for, be grateful for. Let's do our best to hold and maintain it.