Everything that we call “ourselves” is simply a changing pattern of interrelationships — patterns that are inextricably part of a great flux of conditions.
But we all cling, however unconsciously, to the idea that we have a “self,” something that is “us in our essential nature,” something fixed and enduring, separate in its essentials from the rest of the universe.
This picture we have of ourselves is both false and limiting. Its principle limitation lies in its restriction of the possibility of change for the better. If we have a “self,” an essential nature that is fixed and enduring, then there is a limit to the extent to which we can grow as individuals. One hears examples of this idea all the time: “I am who I am. I cannot change and you must accept me for what I am.”
The Buddha’s revolutionary insight, however, destroys this idea. The principle of conditionality, or interrelatedness, makes it plain that we have no abiding essence.
The Sea of Conditions of which we are a part is vast. It contains nothing less than the past and present of the entire universe. All “matter” is contained in it — all cells, chemicals, particles and waves. It contains all of human history: all information, all ideas. All these ideas, cells, chemicals, and bits of information are themselves constantly changing and re-arranging as they flow together in an infinitely vast array of different patterns.
Looking over the surface of the ocean, we can see some of these patterns, including a large number of whirlpools — vortices of different sizes and different shapes. Each vortex is unique, each has its own characteristics. Some are larger or deeper than others, some are vigorous, some are languid. They come into being, subsist for a time, and then disappear as the sea flows and changes, in constant motion.
Each vortex represents an individual human life. We come into being and take shape from the conditions available to us. The cells, chemicals, biological matter and all the other conditions of our lives give shape to our being. Different fragments of the ideas of Marx, Christ, Thoreau, the Beatles, Rousseau, Walt Whitman, Raymond Chandler, Freud, Picasso, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Keats, Einstein, the advertising industry, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Henry Ford, Chaucer, Ian Fleming, and the Buddha drift in this Sea of Conditions. They flow into our vortex, give it shape, flow down and flow out. The history of our parents and our culture, flows in, flows down and flows out. All our inherited ideas of good and bad; all the cells which replicate and die in our bodies; all the viruses which affect our health; all the colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes and ideas we ever experience, flow in, flow down and flow out. All our memories, sensations, emotions, desires and actions flow in to the vortex, shape it and flow out.
In reality we are not ultimately separate from the rest of the Sea of Conditions, from all the vast immensity of life itself. But we don’t see it like that. In order to get by from day to day, in order to get on with the apparently urgent business of survival, we narrow the scope of our vision to more manageable proportions. Grabbing onto some conditions as they drift by, pushing away others, we each create an apparently workable ego-identity for ourselves and then spend the rest of our lives in a desperate attempt to preserve that identity.
We have a deep desire for identity — to be fixed, to be separate, to be real. In consequence we cling to one part of the vortex only. We identify ourselves exclusively with one small aspect of our experience and try to block out all the rest. We try to keep our self consciousness pinned-down at a low part of the vortex, where it cycles around a narrow point. We don’t see the clear sky above or the surface of the vast sea all around. We pin ourselves down at a point where we think we can cope with what surrounds us and we call that point “me.” That, we think, is what we really are; that is what we have to protect; that is what must survive.
However, the truth of interrelatedness points to the entirely contingent and provisional nature of our “ordinary” view of ourselves. Like everything else, we are constantly changing. There is nothing we can identify as finally, ultimately, “what we really are” in our essential nature. Our essential nature is “no nature.” In reality we are not fixed, unchanging, separate selves but rather we are a part of the ever-changing flow of life — the flux of the Sea of Conditions. The only way to become “truly real” is by letting go of our fixed, ego delineated view of ourselves. Only by giving up our attachment to the illusion that there is a real, final and definitive boundary between ourselves and everything else can we ever become truly real.
According to Buddhism, we keep our consciousness pinned down at the bottom of the vortex by way of three fundamentally conditioning impulses — craving, aversion and delusion, reflexes of our relentless desire for continued existence.
Craving is the mechanism by which we try to augment and secure our ego-identity by including in it things from “outside” of it. By grasping onto things we like, things which give us pleasure, things with which we wish to be associated, or be seen to be associated with, we constantly strive to build up a firm ego-identity.
Aversion is the mechanism by which we try to secure our ego-identity by rejecting any form of connection between it and the object we despise. Whether we feel aversion for our boss, our neighbor, spinach, city life, or people of another race, religion or sexual preference, the fundamental mechanism is the same — we are fixing ourselves and seeking to preserve our experience within the boundaries of the known and familiar. We define ourselves as much by what we reject as we do by what we accept.
Delusion is the endlessly beguiling notion that our ego-identities can in fact be preserved. It is the underlying unconscious belief which we all share that we can keep the universal tides of impermanence at bay with the futile bulwarks which are erected by the forces of craving and aversion. Everything always changes. We always change. Nothing we can do can ever keep change at bay and yet, deluded, we scamper about forever seeking to re-create a fixed and stable sense of ourselves.
Buddhism, however, asserts that this is not the only way we can be. We can begin to undo the bonds of craving, aversion and delusion. In doing so, to extend our analogy, we’ll begin to rise up within the vortex and we’ll see more of what surrounds us. By becoming more open to new modes of experience, new ways of being, we can begin to drop our narrow, delusive self-preoccupation, and consequent self limitation. Instead we can develop new, more expansive modes of consciousness with greater awareness of the rest of reality and more empathy with the rest of life. Rising up the vortex we can begin to identify more with life itself, less with our own narrow segment of it.
The Buddhist term “Insight” refers to a process of complete re-orientation — a complete re-arrangement of all our faculties of thinking, perceiving and feeling such that we are irrevocably changed: so that our whole being accords more fully with the way things really are. Such an insight amounts to nothing less than complete liberation from all suffering, all delusion. For when one sees that one has no fixed, separate self to protect and enhance; when one is beyond the grip of the forces of appropriation and rejection; when one identifies not with one’s own life exclusively, but with all of life; then one dwells in a state of supreme equanimity and complete, spontaneous creativity, freely able to respond to circumstances as they arise with complete appropriateness. Seeing things as they really are, one acts always accordingly. This, in Buddhist terms, is the fullness of Wisdom and Compassion. And it is a goal to be approached in practice, not merely in theory…
Michael Chaskalson (also known as Kulananda) is a leading teacher of mindfulness-based approaches to work and healthcare, training senior executives, executive coaches, clinical psychologists and others in this radical approach to creativity and personal effectiveness. With Dominic Houlder he is the author of Mindfulness and Money and has written several books on Buddhist themes. See www.mbsr.co.uk for more information.