The core insight of the Buddhist tradition—the relentless emptiness of phenomena—has profound implications for all of us who are trying to understand the nature of life. It points to the disturbing fact that all nouns are arbitrary constructions. A person, place or thing is just an idea invented to freeze the fluid flow of the world into objects that can be labeled and manipulated by adroit but shallow modes of mind. Beyond and behind these snapshots we take for ourselves is a vast and unnamable process.
Of all the words we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself.” It consists of a collage of still images—name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships—that are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It’s not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled-together and transient as everything else.
The practice of meditation invites us to investigate the flux of arising and passing events. When we get the hang of it, we can begin to see how each artifact of the mind is raised and lowered to view, like so many flashcards. But we can also glimpse, once in a while, the sleight-of-hand shuffling the cards and pulling them off the deck. Behind the objects lies a process. Self is a process. Self is a verb.
How do we go about selfing ourselves? This is something the Buddha looked at very closely, and he left us a trail to follow that reveals the process. The name of this trail is dependent origination, and it starts (in some formulations) with a moment of consciousness, the cognizing of a sense object with a sense organ. Most other thinkers (both then and now) consider the matter to begin and end here, that consciousness is self. Where there is an object, there must be a subject, right? Subject and object define one another.
But at least in the earliest teachings of the Buddhist tradition, all that is granted is that consciousness defines an object. To be aware is to be aware of something. Yet as everyone knows—everyone who has lost themselves for a few precious moments in music or dance or sport, or even sex—one can be fully aware of objects without the corresponding creation of the subject. Selfing is optional.
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