The static self is a long gone myth. No longer is it tenable for the average person to believe that they are truly and deeply Joe Somebody, inherently so, and so for the rest of their days. Human beings have often suspected this “I, myself” to be somewhat of a hallucination, a persistent one, but a hallucination nonetheless. Modern neuroscience cannot find this fabled “me”, Buddhism contends that it has never existed and by the very nature of the cosmos itself, cannot exist. Zen barely speaks of it, and knocks over a vase, leaving the conversation.
That there is no fundamental, inherent and static self, however, does not mean that we cannot improve our lives. There is a certain tendency towards a kind of abstract fatalism, nihilistic behavior and thinking, when one comes to see that there is no “iI” and there is no “me”, and what is there instead is change and passing form. We reason that if no-one is to be the recipient of our good or bad deeds, if there’s no-one here to accrue benefits or to escape punishment, then why bother? Why do anything at all, after all, no-one’s doing it and it isn’t happening to anyone, so what reason could we possibly have to even so much as get out of bed, let alone meditate, eat well and try to alleviate suffering?
It seems the answer is more simple than one might suppose. We need not believe in an eternal self or a soul, or even a solid ego in order for our actions to become desirable. They need no further justification, no accounting for their benefits or lack thereof by some standard outside themselves. Simply put, every action and every thought can be done for its own sake. Wholly complete in and of itself, each act and meandering of mind is somehow integrally perfect, indescribably so, even if its quality is that of being eaten alive by wild dogs or trapped in a prison for decades. There is no ulterior motive at this level of comprehension, and it would seem that none need be invented and tacked on after the fact.
We do not enjoy compulsion. Human beings do not respond well to being forced into things, we rebel against this kind of treatment and retreat into further bad habits and counterproductive strategies of coping. And indeed, most of our justifications for our actions and our thought are forms of self-compulsion, ways in which we manage ourselves by giving dictates, commands, ultimatums and so on. We wonder why we feel awful when we’re doing this, after all, we’re only doing it to ourselves, right?
Well apparently not, if we agree on the above point that the self is but an illusion. So who’s doing what to whom then, and why does it feel bad? It seems that a split takes place in the psyche when we are trying to compel ourselves to act. On the one hand, there is the commanding self, occupying the supposed moral high ground and giving orders, and on the other, there is the wayward self, the messy old me who won’t do this that or the other thing, according to the commanding self, unless it is commanded to.
This is a false dichotomy. As we saw above, there is no fundamental self, so to split nothing and call it two is clearly a delusional form of thinking. It makes the conflict out of emptiness by implying that there is a fight between two mutually exclusive loci of action or thought and presupposes that domination is the best route to solve this imaginary problem. The reason the domination doesn’t and can not work is that the very problem itself does not exist. It is a ghost, a figment of the imagination, a suggestion in the mind created by language. How are “you” going to get outside yourself in order to push yourself around? How are there suddenly two of you where before there was only the thought of one? How did you get so convinced there was a self in the first place?
I think if we analyze this splitting closely enough we can recognize that it is illusory in its nature, and in this recognition lies the freedom from a falsehood imposed upon our consciousness. The resulting relaxation of chronic muscular tension, which we create through our futile efforts to pit one imaginary self against another, gives one access to a great deal of energy which was previously being wasted. This sensation of lightness, of being uplifted, is what we seek through the game of playing ourselves against ourselves, and if we can get it without any effort, indeed if the only way to get it is to relax all trying, then why engage in the struggle? It is, after all, pointless and ineffectual.
But, the issue with this kind of talk is that it’s like explaining a joke, the effect of the wisdom is diluted by the explanation. Nonetheless, I say it that it may sit in the background of your mind and, next time you feel caught between a rock and a hard place in your own head, work its subtle sense into the forefront of your attention.