In this passage, I wish to express a fundamental paradox of spiritual thought -- though perhaps the notion of a spiritual paradox is redundant, as the longer one reflects upon spirituality, the less he can discern where paradox and spirituality are distinct from one another.
The nature of this paradox also involves a second staple of spiritualistic pursuit, which is that vexingly unfamiliar familiar -- the self.
Taking the two themes together, you might expect here some insight into “the paradox of the self” -- perhaps this phrase even captures spirituality in its total essence, though for now, I will leave that conclusion to those who know better.
The origin of our questionings, the trail of breadcrumbs that leads us down the path of earnest investigation, is a no more than a curious observation.
Namely, that we so often hear from people who, as a result of great passion, focus, diligence, or excitement, express the sensation of losing themselves to their passions.
In the abstract of course, the notion of “losing yourself” is horrifying; such a condition forms the basis for a profusion of mental illness. And yet if you posed to one of these people, at what time in their life experience they feel most alive, and most true to and secure in themselves, it is not at all unusual for that same person to perceive his period of prolonged “selflessness” as in fact being the moment when he felt most in control and aware of his self.
How curious too, that in social company we might become “self-conscious,” and though on the face of it, these words might indicate being in touch with and true to our inner ideas, such a reflexive disposition in fact quite often seems an obstacle to it.
One concludes that our self is always coming and going, and certainly not at our own behest. Moreover it seems our true self mercifully arriving is more accurately termed a departure, of the anxiety and critical consciousness that obstructs it. When we are being critical, we are in control -- we scrutinize, we plan, we think -- yet our line of reasoning heretofore implies that to be in control and aware is to separate yourself from yourself. The state of thoughtless focus we call our true self accompanies loss of control, a willingness to follow impulse and intuition. A deeper connection at the price of lost personal, rather “selfish” autonomy.
In short, there are ample contradictions in terms.
To lose yourself, all too often is to find it. That which makes you, you, seems to be that which destroys and dissociates you from yourself.
If I could be so bold, I would claim with good certainty to know clearly the linchpin of this misunderstanding. And -- if, before I reveal this insight, you’ll indulge my only partly facetious wordplay -- perhaps by now it might not be surprising, that this linchpin is found, on the face of it, in the most surprising of places. Though we might do well to drop the entire concept of surprise, as we begin to find that, depending on how we look at it, things can be surprising in their unsurprisingness, or unsurprising in their surprisingness. This same logic might demand as well our jetsaming the term "paradox" to describe this linchpin, as it is paradoxical in its non-paradoxicality and vice versa.
But with no further of my ado done, the messy cause of this mess is this: the self itself.
In reality, surely, there is no self to be found, but only a vast diversity of experiences, some of which, for whatever our reasons, we might label as more truly ourself than others.
Of course in labeling, we prime ourselves for contradiction, as rules are made, quite literally to be broken -- for if a rule was so self-evident and pure as to be beyond contradiction, we could not recognize its opposite in order to create it as a rule in the first place.
In other words, to recognize something as so is to declare its possibility to not be.
And so the implication for our discussion: in declaring the existence of a self, we create the potential for its nonexistence.
The sense of a self, and confusion about the self, are the same statement, and are cried out simultaneously.
“Is” and “is not” are expressions of same the essence.
All is one.
If I might break the fourth wall of my prose,
let me tell you, that quite honestly...
... it is possible I’ve lost touch with concrete meanings and clear explanations by this point.
(Though whether losing meaning and clarity might constitute a true understanding is very much a relevant point at hand.)
Though perhaps my instincts, which many sages claim hold some greater power to spear at truth, knew best in guiding me to write as I have done.
In any case, let us take in a few breaths of clarity, and finish with a return from the more abstract domain of art to a more concrete philosophy.
From this writing, I would advise you to take what you can, and make sense of what you will.
Of the ambiguity I investigate -- the mystery and the existence of the self -- I cannot yet provide clear interpretations, and you should in general regard this post as an exploratory first dive into the matter, more so than a definitive solution.
One thing, however, may be clear:
if we abdicate our sense of what a “self” is altogether, if we stop playing the game, and stop searching for it in the first place, if we reject the notion that it exists, that it is relevant, that it is even an object to be found -- in short, if we reject our knowledge and decide to know nothing of the self’s true nature -- every associated problem seems to disappear.
This insight may well support our earlier postulates: regarding the confusions of the self, it appears inescapable that the self itself is at the root of the problem.
That in all this self business the drama creates the excitement, the solution the problem, the challenge the fun, and the action the inaction, is certainly metaphorical of a game.
Whether we consider it a play might as of now be our prerogative, though, because of the binding power of thoughtfully ordered reason, we may in the future be absolutely compelled to regard it as such.
As always, more work to be done on this topic in the future.
You exist only because nature allowed it.
There is no soul, nor divine image from which you were made. There is no greater reason for your presence, but that you are an expedient for your own survival, and by extension that of the human race.
But to this perhaps disheartening message I will return at the end.
Natural selection, remember, is no selection at all. You’d do much better to think of it as a lack of any selection whatsoever. That is, a level playing field. For when no packet of matter -- what may be called an organism -- is overtly selected in favor of or against, simply those that survive, thrive, and reproduce will exist, by virtue of their ability to bring more self-similar matter into existence. Those that do not will perish, and they will prove to be adept at not existing.
Quite literally, those objects of matter that are best at bringing more of themselves into existence,
will exist, and continue on.
So reader: drop all these questions of “who am I?” Or “what is my purpose?”
For science has solved the debate. What you are, is a packet of matter designed to exist. Honed by millions of years of trial and error and constantly adapting to new environments, you represent the intelligence of life itself. Quite literally, that pattern of matter that can and will survive, exist, and go on. Everything you are is fashioned towards this end; it cannot be any other way, for any part of you designed to help you “not exist” could lead only to your demise.
Now the question can be asked: how much of you is yours?
In your body is incredible intelligence. Absolutely and positively unfathomable to you. Every cell constantly operating, dividing, replicating, healing, organizing into structures like bone, organs, and muscle, all firing in precisely the ways needed to keep you alive.
Their enormous complexity notwithstanding, these elements all make perfect sense for achieving survival.
The only real mystery here is you.
Why, exactly, are you needed? Surely the body could go on surviving on its own, like a robot? Observe the plants, fungi, and insects. Are “they” in there?
I am speaking, of course, of self-awareness, for all these sensations of the “I,” all these delineations between the world and between you in particular are what define “you.”
Why is that whole mess needed? The fact is the vast majority of your survival, the processes of the body and many of the mind, takes place completely outside of you and your awareness. No control is necessary, nobody needed to observe and react.
Imagine a simulation with artificial intelligence. Imagine robots replicating, programmed to survive:
“When variable ‘energy level’ drops below x, acquire class ‘food.’”
It seems it could work, no? Even without a “driver” or “subject” or “you” there? This, I might say, is the true question of existence.
This is the true mystery of ourselves.
Not our purpose or identity, but why we are needed for our purpose at all.
I do not seek resolution here towards that question, but only to make two points. It is clear that you, as a self-sensing, self-conscious being, must serve some purpose towards achieving your own existence.
What that purpose is, or what advantages it holds over your non-being remain less than clear.
For now though, find comfort, if you can, in your necessary importance to your own survival. You may have depression, you may feel worthless, you may be happy, you might feel hopeful.
Up or down, it is all working to your benefit.
Ride that wave, brother.
In this life, things tend to come and go.
Money is won and lost to the tune of the frenetic marketplace. Fame and laud turn into villainization for nothing more than speaking an unfortunate phrase or making an inopportune decision. We live life on the edge, every day inches or seconds from death, loss, and poverty.
You’d do well to consider this precarious perspective every now and again.
Harrowing as it may be, it reminds us that fear is a part of our existence here.
This is a good thing to know.
Fact is, fear is probably our most useful tool. Most of the time it’s not love or hope or kindness that keeps the world going ‘round -- these are just things that help us get through the day a little more comfortably. But if you want to understand a truly compelling force, one which has driven us and every one of our ancestors going back past the monkeys and the dinosaurs, all the way back to the beginning of life to survive, to create, to destroy, and to live…
...have a look at this gift of fear.
It is a shame we hide under more appealing states of mind as warmth and benevolency, because we miss the man behind the curtain, and we do not understand the reality that has been given to us.
For worry not of misfortune, but understand its reality and you will gain control over it. Remember always that all the excitement of life comes right along with death’s knock at the door -- for life and death are merely two sides of the coin -- which is to say two perspectives -- of change (a perspective, of course, having its essence in the way something is merely viewed, but not in its objective reality).
Who benefits from the change is but a matter of perspective.
Just as I tell you to be aware of fear, so should you be aware that fear only comes from losing something you love. Therefore place your awareness on the whole coin, the whole change, and do not lose your mind to the bad nor the good.
Let meditation upon fragility give you the strength to accept its reality; let your lost sense of security and comfort bring you a fervor to go for life’s marrow, to “live deliberately” as Henry David Thoreau once wrote with such clarity and purpose.
In this meditation, I think you will begin a very important change, which begins as a discovery -- that your experience has a true center, something permanent and life-giving, and that center is you. Things -- objects -- come and go. Let things be things, and let them go along their way, and you will be one step closer to understanding the true nature of what you have left when all things are taken from you.
This is the key.
What is left (for what is left, is what is right).
When all the chips are down, when all the good times gone, the flowing wells dried up, the memory fading and success abating -- who is still there? Make peace with that man, and you will never want; shun him and you prepare yourself for terror.
You have objects of your attention, objects of your affection, objects of your interest… how much of your life have you wasted upon objects, chasing the rabbit’s tail? These are mere games you play, for anything you acquire which can be gained or lost at the drop of a hat surely is hardly even worth pursuing. Let those things come and go as they will, but find that when they all drop away, what is left is you.
You is where you must focus.
You is what you must study.
You is where you must place your love.
You is the most precious and eternal gift you have.
So then: who are you?
Let all these words I’ve said, like breadcrumbs, lead you to the treasure that lies at the end of this journey. There, all good things will come.
One who knows zen knows there is no zen — and yet we write it, read it, think at it.
A paradox, yet one who knows zen knows there is no paradox.
I want you to picture a mirror. See if you can grasp its essence. Does it have a color? A texture? A material?
The idea of a mirror's true visible nature slips through our mind as water through grasping fingers.
Yet here, in this confusion, we can begin to understand zen; it presents a mirror which we can use to look inside ourselves.
Zen is that which reflects the object. The mirror is not the reflection, and yet there is no mirror without the reflection. Paradoxical.
To study the nature of reflection is to understand zen.
Let me guide you to a start.
Form in your mind an example: an apple, and its reflection.
The reflection is not real, is not substantial — and by this I mean to say it is dependent — for it is indeed real in that it can be sensed, but the sensations of the reflection are dependent on a more substantial form of the actual apple. If the apple moves so moves the reflection. If the apple rots so the reflection. If the apple is eaten, so goes the reflection.
The object and reflection: always the same, and yet unequal.
Those things that bring change are done to the apple and never the reflection; the reflection merely mimics accordingly.
This is the nature of zen, which is the mirror.
Ponder the nature of a reflection and see that it is duplication — no new information is given — existing realities are simply doubled. There is no life there, there is no novelty, and no inspiration, no creativity and nothing new added. Mere mimicry.
This is how zen works.
It gives you nothing new. You have never learned a lick from practicing zen, you have only seen what was already there. You have gained nothing new; only discovered that nothing new ever existed for you.
Return to the mirror: yet that mirror is not the object it reflects, but presents an alternate perspective of it. A mirror may copy and repeat, and yet a reflection is not a thing. It is a thing seen differently, seen backwards, seen from the other side, seen in a different location.
If there was not something new about a reflection, it would not exist. If a reflection was equivalent to the object it reflected in every way, it would be that very object. But a reflection is different in its perspective.
Here, there is something new and something real, and in this newness is where zen, analogously, is something and not nothing -- where it does exist. For we cannot truly say “there is no zen,” because we forget that there is yet something we call “zen” that does exist.
This existence, this something, is the reflection, which is the change in perspective.
Now to finish here, let me just hint at the significance of this reflective essence.
Imagine the quandary of a “sensor” trying to sense itself. If one senses, by definition it senses things that are not the sensor. And yet that tool exists, the mirror, which objectifies the sensor, which creates new perspective so as to transform the sensor into a copy outside of itself that it may be inspected indirectly as it were any other object.
Zen presents no paradox.
There is you and your reflection.
Zen both does and does not exist, depending on what you’re meaning to look for.
Understand first that you look into a mirror and your reflection will become clear to you.
You’ve felt bitterness, and pain, and grief in your life.
You’ve experienced rejection and defeat and stress and agony.
Oh, horrid sensations!
.... you seek relief.
Ah, I can read you like a book. Isn’t it so simple? Tell ya the truth, it’s an old one, but a classic. Quite literally, it happens, the oldest one in the book.
You see, beginning in the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve learn of good and of evil, and fall from grace, and then engage in the eternal battle of amending for their sins and climbing out of pain, and on and on...
What is the Bible but a retelling of their struggle -- our struggle -- as human beings to find relief from the shame and pain of being human? To achieve union with God, to be free of harm, at peace, at nirvana. Oh sure, call it by many names if you wish. I won’t give you that just the Bible tells it so, oh no.
Tale as old as time, my friend. We all know it well ...
(well...whether we do, or not).
But I can tell you there is one truth, and one human struggle.
And that struggle is against the self.
Try and see how absurdly true it is, for who else could you struggle with? A struggle, by definition, involves you. You say someone else has attacked you, but why not lay down arms and forgive? Why not make peace? Why, when he attacks, must you return the favor? In you is the desire and will to fight.
Now sure, in some situations we do things to survive, but I am not speaking of those situations here. For those are not struggles but mandatory actions. Eating, sleeping, working… work yes, but struggles per se, no.
I refer to those times you have wrapped yourself up into a struggle without even knowing. Thrown a rope around your own foot and hoodwinked yourself into the fight. For some of this, this kind of situation represents more of our life than for others. Politics, sports, quests to be a scholar, attempt to beautify yourself, fights, name calling… why do you care so much?
Throw it all away.
Do it, if you can.
And you can, because you are the one who has picked it up in the first place. Whether you allow yourself to is quite another matter.
But I digress…
...return your attention here: all of this to say the struggle is in you and against you.
You are the protagonist; you are the enemy.
Let’s back to the start.
You will see how simple this here bit of reasoning is: You are in a battle. You want out.
Let me tell you -- and feel free to alert me to any other alternatives -- but I am under the impression that to end a battle, either one side is defeated, or a truce is called. This is your situation, and these are your options. Defeat the enemy, or call truce.
Now, you’ve been fighting your pain and unrest how long? Ten years? Twenty years? Perhaps you have depression, perhaps intemperance. Do you see an end in sight?
People love to fight. It’s what we evolved to do, in many ways. You are no different. And in the absence of external enemies what have you gone and done but began to spar with yourself.
And oh, what a battle that is! Because the fight is to change yourself, but the battleground is the mind. And through the mind no change of the body comes. See! You will fight forever, and you’ll love the drama of every last minute!
Let’s look more closely at what I mean by this.
You wish to be happier, or more confident, or to find fulfillment. But you are unhappy, unconfident, and unfulfilled. This is reality. Can wishing change reality? Can wishing a dog will learn a trick help it? Or hoping? Or thinking? Do not be absurd. You must train the dog; get up, off the couch, grab the treats and the whip, and learn it something.
Ok, enough with the poor dog, now you:
The mind is where you fight your battle.
You desire happiness...
"Oh! oh! Look at poor old unhappy me! But I, me, I desire happiness! And still it does not come... how could life be so unfair?"
Your desire is wholly unconnected to your reality. Keep desiring, and continue to be unhappy. But then, ah, how clever you become! You see the truth of your situation, and so what do you do but buy books to be happy, or join spiritual groups and try meditating or yoga or holding hands and singing kumbaya.
Because you have been told this will make you happy. Ideas, ideas, ideas. The logic is there, the common sense is not. You merely have the idea in your mind that this will make you happy. Then there is your actual state of being.
Now, in your later, more erudite years, you form theories and rationalization and complications adding idea on top of idea of how to be happy.
You’re still at square one... kid.
This is your battle; and it’s meaningless.
(Unless, of course, you just love to fight -- but in the sense of actually achieving your ends you waste your time in full).
And I hope you will begin to see, this battle is an endless one. Because you are not fighting the enemy. Indeed, no enemy even exists. Can “you” truly fight “yourself”? Can a rock land on itself? You fight ideas; you fight fear. These are apart from you as they can be entertained and battled with. And with these you can wrestle forever, endlessly constructing permutations and boogie men.
At the beginning, I noted you struggle with yourself, but let's start to be more accurate with our language. You actually do not -- cannot -- fight yourself. You fight your constructions. Unfortunately, it is you who are the problem... not your precious house of cards.
I leave you here now, in this imbroglio of utter confusion, ideas, and bungled up theories and spiritualities.
Part Two will come, and I will hand to you the sword of pure truth, reason, and logic that will cut you free from it all.