About four years ago, I wrote the following entry in the blog on my old website. It's very relevant to last week's entry about compassion, and I don't think that I can explain the self any better than I did before, so I decided to repeat the entry here. What I didn't write before was how mind-blowing it was to come to the realizations I describe. This was the most powerful meditation experience I have ever had outside of a silent retreat. Recognizing the self as I describe below led to two weeks of ecstatic experience and forever changed my understanding.
In the future, as I continue with the practice of compassion suggested by my teachers, I'll explain how the ideas of self and compassion are so intimately intertwined, and why understanding the self in this way is so important.
Yesterday, I went for a day hike at Great Falls National Park, and as often happens when I go hiking, I found my mind wandering as I walked, thinking about how my life has turned out and how I got here. My thoughts turned to planning how I'd like my life to go in the future, becoming rather philosophical in the process. I, of course, wanted my attention to be fully present where I was at the moment―in the woods, walking, seeing the plants and animals, hearing the birds and the water of the river. . . that is, after all, my meditation practice. And for good reason―paying attention in the present means being fully engaged with life. Why even go hiking if your mind and attention are elsewhere?
But my mind and attention were elsewhere. I had become "Hiking-Philosopher Hal." Since meditation practice is not about controlling one's mind and thoughts, but rather noticing what is here now and paying attention to that, instead of getting lost in the thinking and philosophizing, I looked at this idea of Hiking-Philosopher Hal.
I turned onto the Swamp Trail, and came upon the beautiful scene above [oops . . . I don't have the photo on this website--picture a forest scene with ferns covering the ground], so I naturally wanted to get some pictures of it. After I spent twenty minutes or so taking pictures, I realized that the whole time, my attention had been on composition, light, photographic technique, how and where I might show the images I was capturing. I was no longer Hiking-Philosopher Hal, but had become "Photographer Hal."
I looked at the other "Hals" that I become at various times in my life. At work, I am Patent Examiner Hal, scrutinizing patent applications and often feeling annoyed and dismayed at the garbage that people try to get patents for. As I write this, I am Pastor Hal, relating what I’ve found through my meditation practice and trying to convey spiritual teachings. And there are too many more to list: Chef Hal, Weightlifter Hal, Contra Dancer Hal. . . pick a situation, activity, location, or person to engage with and a different Hal arises.
When I leave work and go hiking, what happens to Patent Examiner Hal? When I stop walking and take pictures, what happens to Hiking-Philosopher Hal? When I come home and write in my web journal, what happens to Photographer Hal? And when I finish updating my website and go to work, what happens to Pastor Hal? Which of these Hals is the true self? Or is the self something that lies beneath all of them?
To ask which is the true self is to misunderstand the nature of self. To look for the true self that underlies these selves is also to misunderstand the nature of self. If we look at all the different selves that we become in different places, times, and situations, what we see is that a self exists only in relation to other--to other people, things, space, and time. As these change, the self changes. From moment to moment, one self dissipates and a different self arises. Hard as we may try to look for it, we can find no permanent, unchanging self, no essence that we can point to and say, "this is who I really am."
So this is the nature of self: the self is no more than a collection of thoughts, feelings, ideas, and relationships in the present moment. What is the "true self"? All of the selves are true. I may prefer to be Pastor Hal over Patent Examiner Hal, but neither is more real, valid, true, or spiritual than the other. I may spend more time being Photographer Hal than Pastor Hal, but neither is the permanent, unchanging essence of who I am.
This is all very difficult for us to accept. We believe that there is some part of us that is our true essence. We want something to be constant, or at least continuous, in the relationships we call "self." We hope for a self that transcends the ever changing, impermanent world. Most of all, we want there to be some part of us that is permanent, that does not dissipate as the selves change, that does not die when the body dies. But this is not what the self is.