Impermanence is easy to understand, even if it’s on the conceptual level. And we’re all familiar with suffering—one form or another—at different times. But the notion of no self—selflessness—is really counterintuitive. It takes time to really absorb the meaning of it.
I found one way of pointing to it in a way that’s much more accessible. If we think of it in terms of lack of self-centeredness, I think that’s easier for people to understand. When we’re not self-centered, it’s the deepest meaning of that phrase. It’s a lack of self at the center, but we can approach it in a more ordinary understanding of that phrase.
To whatever degree we’re moving in the direction of the lack of self-centeredness, when we’re on that trajectory, a natural occurrence is greater metta (lovingkindness) because we’re not so self-obsessed. Quite naturally, when we’re not so tightly in the grip of this “I, me” mind, then in our relationship with other people, it’s quite natural and peaceful and spontaneous to wish them well. Because we’re not trying to protect anything in ourselves. We’re not trying to aggrandize ourselves. We’re not trying to defend ourselves. So when all of that falls away, there’s a natural flow of lovingkindness.
There is also a much greater feeling of compassion when we come across suffering in the world. A very great Tibetan meditation master of the last century, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, said something really beautiful about this: When you realize the empty nature (empty here means empty of self) of phenomena, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns uncontrived and effortless. So it’s almost like compassion is the activity of emptiness of self. For the mind that’s free of that self-absorption, the expression of that mind is compassion, dawning, as I said, uncontrived and effortless. It also brings about the quality of mudita, which is that empathetic joy—just taking delight in that happiness of another, not because of what we’re getting, but because they are happy.
This is, in one way, the beauty of our dharma practice: that even though there are specific meditations to develop each of these states, just out of the practice of awareness—of mindfulness—these states will grow and manifest spontaneously and effortlessly, because we are freeing ourselves to some extent from this self-centeredness.
And it then brings about the last of those qualities, which is equanimity. It’s much easier to stay in balance and responsive to situations. It doesn’t mean indifference. It means responsive rather than being reactive. And that’s two very different things. So that also comes about as the ego self begins to loosen its grip on our mind.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to Joseph Goldstein’s full interview, “Tired of Pretending to Be Me,” on Tricycle Talks here.