Skip to main content

To self or not to self? Stepping off the 100 foot pole

The awakened person sits on the top of a hundred-foot pole;
She has entered the way but is not yet genuine.
She must take a step from the top of the pole,
And worlds in the ten directions will be her complete body

Rachel BoughtonStarting at quite a young age, one of the fundamental human tasks seems to be to figure out who we are. This includes features like what we like and don’t like, how we’re different from other people and things, what we want to be when we grow up. I remember how, when I first took up meditation in my teens, I began reading about finding no-self. The idea that I needed to dismantle my identity was something I didn’t really question, it seemed clear that it was important, but I determined that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I was a useful person who was still trying to find out what a self might be for me. I really didn’t want to chuck it all before I had an idea what it looked like. In retrospect, I think this was a good call, since discovering who I am continues to be quite a profound journey.

I engage with the question of who I am every day, all the time. Sometimes this feels deep and insightful, other times it's like being trapped in ancient TV re-runs. It's a cool thing when it happens that who I am will shift abruptly, for instance I might feel something to be inside me that is normally outside of me; a tree branch I’m looking at might be as much a part of me as my arm. Or I will know myself differently, with more appreciation, without having done anything different to deserve it. Or I'll discover something to be true that I had hidden from or overlooked, and the world will seem bigger. Other times, though, because I’m sitting still and paying attention to my thoughts, I’ll be telling myself stories about what I just did or said, or about what my role is, or if I did something wrong, assessing whether I’m approved of or admired, whether I approve of myself, who is my friend and who isn’t, or who loves me. And then I’ll just notice the way I’m always making myself up, over and over, creating this "me". 

It’s a remarkable process, going from the automatic relentless familiarity of those thoughts, to the noticing of it. And then there’s another remarkable moment in which I ask myself if I could do without it, and could I stop? Just for a minute, just to see what it’s like, do I dare? It’s a moment that feels surprisingly risky, as though I’m a waitress with all the dishes piled on my arms, and if I did this they might all be dropped and broken. It’s not a trivial question, what I need to hold and what I can let go of.

I had an experience recently where I began to ask myself what I really wanted. I was wondering about depth, about having a life of discovery and uncovering buried things, and I wondered if that was what I truly desired. I noticed that there’s a part of my mind that thinks it only wants to have a “good enough” life. I tell myself that I want to get this next project finished and out of the way, so that it’s good enough, sophisticated enough, respectable enough, safe enough, that I can relax and get on with my real life. But when I go after the “good enough” goals, the world seems difficult, I feel tired, overwhelmed, a bit nauseated and defeated. And I decided that’s because “good enough” is not really what I want. When I really want something, I work like a beast to accomplish it and that’s fun, but it’s really hard to work away at something I don’t actually want.

So, as far as holding things and putting other things down, I find that I can put down the stories I make up about myself, at least long enough to find out what my life is like. I can risk finding out what I really want. Depth and discovery are only that, finding out what this moment is really like.

The woman in the koan is me/you/us (koans are like that, they are always me, every part of them), and stepping off the pole, it’s not really falling at all. The world in the ten directions is me then. As someone noticed, that’s how I can tell I’ve stepped off, because the world has become my complete body. 

www.santarosazen.org

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Goose in a Bottle

Koan: A woman raised a goose in a bottle. When the goose had grown, she wanted to get it out, without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?

Once I bought a little tree at the store. It was the first tree I ever planted, at a new house when I had just started living something like an adult life. The tree was folded in half with the roots up next to the branches so it was short enough to fit, wrapped in plastic, in a basket with other little trees. The whole thing was about 2 feet long. I brought it home and dug a hole and planted it in the tiny front lawn in front of my house. Somebody told me I planted it too close to... something, maybe the fence or the window, but I didn't believe them. How can you anticipate that something will grow if you've never seen it? But it did, and it was too close, although it took a few years for me to see it.

When I was a kid we got a puppy, a bullmastiff puppy. He was really cute. Someone told me, …

Navigating a Disaster: How Do We Do this?

How to deal with difficult times is fundamental for a spiritual practice, and really, for any human life. There’s birth and death, to start with, and then there is all the conflict and uncertainty that happens in between. Right now the US, and the world, too, are dealing with a dramatic regime change and an upending of values that, while unevenly practiced, we’ve come to expect as foundational. Like many other people, I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening, prepare for it, and make a place for it in my life as woman, a Zen teacher, and a citizen. It’s important to be light on your feet in times like these, and that’s what Zen is about.
This is my particular story, yours could be different.
The World of Form, With a Vengeance
About 6 months ago I started to notice an apparent circus event, a bunch of men, and a woman or two, vying with each other to hold the spot of contender in what looked like it would be pretty clear cut presidential election. What followed you probably know.…

The End of the World as We Know It

Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.-from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
Koan: Someone asked the old teacher Dasui, “It’s clear that the fire at the end of time will completely destroy the universe. But tell me, is there something that won’t be destroyed?”
Dasui answered, “It will be destroyed.”

“It will go along with everything else?”