Dismantling the self and how it pertains to our anxious tendencies.
Buddhism denies the most taken for granted assumption in the West. That is, that there is a subject and a predicate, that there is a knower and a known. This assumption has fostered the grandest transformation of condition humanity has ever seen, namely the industrial and scientific revolutions that continue to this day.
But, this assumption, while a force of scientific inquiry, leads inevitably to anxiety. Most of what is covered here is taken from the late and great Alan Watts, and I recommend checking his writing or lectures out for a more in-depth analysis.
A brief explanation of the assumption in question goes like this: there is a knower who knows — a subject that takes an action on an object.
Buddhism rejects this kind of thinking, not going as far as saying there is no causality, but in affirming that there is no separability between the knower and known within the human condition. Descartes and Kant were obviously in on this hundreds of years ago, but they still had a firm belief that you are the causer that causes subsequent things to occur.
This narrative, however, changes the way we interact with the world. And so placing you in this role, you imply upon yourself the anxiety of having to know, having to cause, having to strive to create the desired outcome through your will.
But this does not seem to be the experience when you meditate.
When you sit down and focus on exactly what it is like to be a human, by focusing on the breath, visual field, sound, or sensation, this relationship with the world of being a causer of events disappears.
You still cause the air to enter your lungs, but the perception of causing, or having to cause anything, or to know anything, completely falls out of consciousness.
This untapped pool of unquantifiable depth is an endless sense of stillness in a tumultuous life. Imagine how comforted you would feel right now if your feelings of responsibility, desire, and want totally fell from you. Consciousness does not need to remember anything. There is nothing that has to be done — or anything, for that matter, to do.
Why do we insist on feeling separate from the world, feeling as if we are a causer among objects, rather than an object among objects?
You seldom actually feel as if you are a causer of things, unless you explicitly try to think like that. For instance, when you are in the store looking for beans, you are not conscious of you needing beans, you are conscious of needing beans.
Why is this so? Because you never existed as an “I” in any experiential way other than of deliberately, and falsely, labelling yourself as an “I” in thought. A more holistic way of labelling who you are is in the totality of your experience, to include your senses of objects, because that with which you use to know the world is you as well. “I” is merely a linguistically useful word that allows us to get on with our day, but it does not represent the experiential world within us.
Humans Are Part of a Larger Whole
Western Religion especially has placed emphasis on denying that we are just a part of our environment. It has vehemently pushed that we are special, and that we possess an elan vital that animates our not-so-special material body. But, oh, does this place such expectations on the mortal body!
The best thing you can do with your will is use it to recognize how small and insignificant it really is, and to notice that nothing is truly in your control.
Religions before traditional western ones almost all believed in some form of animism, which is the belief that all objects, animals included, possess some kind of consciousness. I am not levelling this fact as a reason to believe in animism, rather I am proposing that without the Western framework of the subject and predicate, it is readily apparent that mankind is a part of a whole.
It seems that we have drifted away from this observation by our penchant to feel special and unique in a world of matter, a kind of fetish all its own.
This perspective that Buddhism has proposed is not a departure from the biological perspective on where humans fit in with nature. To biology, humans are clearly a part of nature, and we can see this distinctly by tracing back our ancestry, or by identifying the ways in which life can cease to animate our limbs — just like any other creature.
To feel distinct from the whole of nature is to put us at odds with it. We should resist nature bending us to its will, however, in many cases, we have no other option but to be bent, and if we see ourselves separate from the world, we take this as a loss.
Rather, that which one cannot change, the slow degradation and failure of one’s body, should be taken as a matter of fact, and a thing that is not good or bad, but morally colourless.
When advances like polio vaccines break onto the scene, however, we should add polio to the list of things nature can no longer make us suffer. “Going with the flow” does not mean bending to every outside influence. It means standing firm where one can, but bending rather than breaking.
This is not “being at one with nature,” as in the American hippie sense of literally living among nature, but as a state of mind.
In this way you will see that there was never a subject of consciousness, just objects appearing and gliding off into nothing.
‘I live by letting things happen.’ — Dogen