That which we call the self is not as solid as we’d like to believe.
This article is about this thing we call “the self.” We tend to think about the self as this solid thing. I think this belief is mistaken. I don’t think I’m being original with this contention that it is a mistaken belief. Actually, I think most of my points here have been made before. I’m even going to call on Dogen Zenji to make my point. However, if even one person gets a clearer mind from what I’m talking about here, then writing this article was worthwhile.
This article is going to use similes. Keep in mind that similes are, in the final analysis, similes. They are not the thing itself.
The Types of Knowledge
Let us first examine the ways in which we can know the world. Intellectual knowledge is a nice tool, but it is also superficial knowledge. Suppose I want to learn how to play tennis. I can pick up books and learn how to play tennis with great exactitude. Still, even if I read all the books in the world about tennis, it won’t make me a good tennis player. In order to be a good player, I need to actually play tennis. This is where my career as a tennis player would end. I can read books and learn the rules of any sport, but I’m not good at being a player.
My tennis example pointed to a second type of knowledge: experiential knowledge. You need experience with tennis in order to play it well. One might go as far as saying that experiential knowledge is more determinative of how well you play than intellectual knowledge. In fact, we can go even further and declare that intellectual knowledge of tennis can prove to be a hindrance towards perfecting your game. It is easy to understand what someone tells us. However, it is also easy to misunderstand this advice, and waste time chasing after our misunderstanding.
There is a third type of knowledge. This type is a kind of experiential knowledge, but it is deeper than mere experiential knowledge. I call this knowledge “knowing in your bones.” (Again, I’m not being original with this.) Here’s an example of something that we know in our bones: gravity. You do not need to be taught the theory of gravity to know how gravity works on your body. Gravity is always there, making itself known to you. You also don’t need to practice gravity. You may practice walking without falling on your face, but that’s not practicing gravity itself. We know gravity in our bones, quite literally.
It is important to allow this last type of knowledge to flourish. You can listen to the sages, the philosophers, or the illuminated talk, and you can understand their words intellectually. However, this intellectual knowledge is superficial. For many things in life, you need to go deeper and get to realize what those sages, those philosophers, or those illuminated talked about in your bones.
How the self manifests in the world is one such thing. Unfortunately, I have to use words, and thus intellectual knowledge to convey something, which, ultimately, has to be known in one’s bones. Don’t mistake my words for the phenomenon they are meant to describe.
A Vibratory Phenomenon
Something became clear during meditation recently. Descartes’ dictum “I think, therefore I am” is bunk. Here is a better dictum “Everything else happens, therefore I happen.” I think even this latter dictum is not hitting the truth squarely on the head, but it is definitely better than Descartes’ dictum.
When people consider the self, most approach it, at least initially, as something that is somehow unitary, and separate from the rest of the world. I have my self over here. You have your self over there. They do not mix. Our bodies are separate from our selves. In many such approaches to the self, the self is thought to exist, independent of the body. It is also often thought to exist eternally, and unchanging.
Now, if we examine the self, what we find is that everything that we attribute to it is, first of all, unstable. Thoughts arise one after the other. An ever-changing world impacts our senses. And so on, and so forth. The self merely responds to its environment. So the self’s very existence is dependent on things that are external to it.
Let me put it differently: that which we call the self manifests itself in the world only due to external factors, or things that we do not call self. This is where vibrations come into play. Imagine the entire chain of cause and effect that happens in the world as so many vibrations that are emitted. These vibrations interact and impact each other. We humans look at one specific configuration of these vibrations and call this a self. This is okay, insofar as we do not forget that this self is nothing but vibrations, and these vibrations are what makes the self possible.
It may be useful to illustrate what I’m talking about in a more concrete manner. There are a lot of videos on YouTube of people playing with vibrations, but I invite you to look at the following one.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/WaYvYysQvBU?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0
As Collin plays with the frequencies, you see the non-Newtonian fluid (the white substance) that he has created start taking pretty complex shapes. The point here is that those shapes that we can point to, very much like that self that we can point to, exists only due to external causes. Those shapes are not inherently existing in the fluid prior to the vibrations revealing them.
I believe that this is what Dogen Zenji was pointing to when he said:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
These myriad things are what makes what we call a self possible. Without the myriad things, we would not be able to point to a self. “Everything happens, therefore I happen.” Dogen expresses it better than I do, however, for when you understand his saying in your bones, the duality between self and the world disappears. When this duality disappears, the anxiety that arises from seeing the world in a “me versus them” manner is also pacified.
Even if you realize this in your bones, however, your work is not over.