A few years ago I laughed my way through an Onion piece, "Search for Self Called Off After 38 Years." Then I wrote a blog post about the notion, saying that some friends and I had just been talking along the same lines.
I told them that when I peruse my extensive personal library, searching for some spiritual inspiration, usually the only books I can stand to read have Buddhist, Zen, or Taoist themes. All the rest seem too damn dogmatic now.
Buddhists and Taoists don’t waste much energy searching for a true self because they don’t believe that it exists. At least, they’re not sure whether it does. If it pops up and says “Hi!” one day, they’ll welcome the company. But they don’t agonize over finding a self that is different from the self that would be doing any finding.
This relates to the question we've been talking about here of whether there are universal mystical principles. I argued, "No," because there's a big divide between teachings that posit a soul or self and those like Taoism and Buddhism that don't.
If we have a real self that has been covered up by gobs of illusory ego-crap, then our goal should be to restore that divine cosmic gem to its original shining glory.
However, what if our problem is believing there's a problem with our self? This kicks our spiritual pursuit up into another philosophical or epistemological level, as Barry Magid talks about in his marvelous book, "Ending the Pursuit of Happiness."
Magid is a Zen teacher, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst. I'm only a few chapters into his book, but already have found a whole lot to wrap my churchless non-self around. Here he relates the idea of "self" to that of "time."
I owe this example to the early twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who cited Augustine's puzzlement about time as highlighting a very basic problem in philosophy, a problem that also emerges when we imagine that there is something somehow hidden from us about the "true nature" of anything.
...Adding to Wittgenstein's list of misleading substantives [like "the secret of consciousness" or "the essence of truth"], it seems to me that the Buddha was telling us that the most important and misleading of all is the word "self."
...Which is the "true" self? That question, the basis for so many Zen koans, immediately leads us astray. Instead of fully experiencing ourselves in the very act of asking the question, we imagine there's another more real, truer, more essential self hiding somewhere out of sight that we have to go search for.
Maybe there is.
But if there isn't, then our "spiritual" practice (Magid, like me, doesn't find this word very useful) should consist of dissolving the framework where the question -- Which is our true self? -- has been posed.
From my reading of Magid's book so far, this also is the key to solving the happiness conundrum. We believe that something, someday, somehow, is going to get us to the end of life's vexing problems.
Religions call this nebulous but oh-so-enticing condition by various names: salvation, heaven, enlightenment, satori, nirvana, god-realization, and such. Non-religious people see it more as self-awareness, inner understanding, or a psychological breakthrough.
In both cases, these are what Magid terms "curative fantasies."
A curative fantasy is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us and our lives and what we imagine is going to make it all better.
This is common, he says, even in Buddhism.
If we practice Buddhism, we are tempted to blame our desires or our self-centeredness for our suffering -- that's what Buddha said we are doing wrong, isn't it?
We imagine: "If only I could get rid of those bad parts of my self, everything would be OK." Or maybe I have to get rid of my "self" entirely! Then "I" get entangled in the paradox of wanting to get rid of "me."
"I"? "Me"? "My "self"? How many of us are in there, and which side am I on? How did I end up in so many pieces?
I don't know whether the Zen response to these questions is correct. But it sure generates a resounding Oh yeah! in me.
In a way, we allow our life to become much more superficial. We are no longer so preoccupied with our important thoughts and deep feelings that we don't see what is right in front of us. Practice allows us to actually pay attention to all these nice trivial things that are happening around us.
We don't have to make our preoccupations go away either, they become just one of many things happening -- no longer the only things that count. They are just things hanging around in the corners of our minds; they don't stand in the center of our universe any more.
After all our futile efforts to transform our ordinary minds into idealized, spiritual minds, we discover the fundamental paradox of practice is that leaving everything alone is itself what is ultimately transformative. We're not here to fix or improve ourselves -- I like to say practice actually puts an end to self-improvement.
But it's very hard to stay with that sense of not needing to do anything, not to turn the zendo into a spiritual gymnasium where we get ourselves mentally in shape. It's hard to really do nothing at all. Over and over, we watch our mind trying to avoid or fix, fix or avoid; to either not look at it or change it.
Leaving that mind just as it is is the hardest thing to do.