What is This Thing We Call Self?
We Are Not What We Think (And The Idea of Selflessness)
We know from our experience that everything is always changing. We wake up in the morning feeling one way, but what we think and feel an hour later is very different. What we think about someone, or our job, or our life today isn’t what we thought a year ago. When we read something again after a year, we may have a completely different take than we did the first time. Even on a cellular level, everything in our body is constantly changing. It’s helpful to remember that who we are—our idea of ourselves—is constantly changing. It’s evolving, and that’s a good thing.
When we practice meditation, we pay attention to this constant change. During even a short session of meditation we’ll notice that our thoughts flutter from one thing to another. One moment to the next isn’t the same. We can feel calm, or we can feel very distracted. All sorts of things might happen.
Meanwhile, we’re just watching all of that. We begin to realize that who we think we are is not quite as solid as we’d assumed. Our practice is bringing this into our awareness. We are not what we think. Every one of us has a strong self-image. It could be very puffed up—that you’re an important person teaching meditation, for example—or it could be self-deprecating and negative. Or it may ping-pong back and forth between the two.
When we start to look at that, we realize that our self-image is just more thinking. We notice that it isn’t exactly real. It’s simply how we feel in a particular, fleeting moment. It’s constantly changing.
We are not what we think
Meditation practice helps us see that we are not fixed. We are not limited. We’re not our thoughts. We’re not what other people think about us. And in particular, we’re not what we think about ourselves. We are something different, something completely open.
When we can apply this in our everyday life, we see things in a different way. For example, someone insults us and says something we don’t like to hear. What’s happening in that moment? They’re basically challenging who we think we are, right? And we don’t like that. So we get mad, we react, we blame them. We think, “What’s the matter with them?” But there’s a message here. Whether they’re right or wrong, they’ve pulled the rug out from who we thought we were. Normally, like Pavlov’s dog, we’d just react and respond with anger or accusations. Now, thanks to our practice, instead of barking, we can apply more intelligence to the situation. We can recognize that we were lost in our habitual notions of self-identity, and someone came along and popped our bubble.
That’s the idea of selflessness: giving ourselves some distance from the notion of who we think we are. When we have experiences that challenge our self-image, instead of an automatic reaction, we’re able to hear those messages from the world or within ourselves, and relate to them in a different, affirmative way. This is freedom—it’s tremendously open. We discover that once we begin to draw upon the selfless realization that arises from our meditation, we have enormous resources that we didn’t know about. They’d been bound and constricted by our projections about who we thought we were, and now we can gradually loosen those knots and expand. “Selfless” doesn’t mean we cease to be; it means we recognize the ever-changing nature of who and what we are. It also means we can go about our lives without automatically reacting to the world and living like everything is all about us. What an enormous relief! This is how selflessness can lead to happiness.
It can be a little scary, don’t you think? What happens when you do this, when you don’t react? What happens when you relax who you think you are?
One thing that doesn’t happen is that you become subservient or are unable to take care of your own needs. You’re not allowing yourself to be trampled. The experience of selflessness that can arise from your meditation practice doesn’t prevent you from having self-compassion or boundaries! But instead of reacting habitually, you have options! You can look at the situation with wisdom and intelligence — and humor. You can relax and be who you are, in the moment. Isn’t this more genuine, joyful, and beneficial than the stagnant little version of yourself you were holding on to and presenting to the world? Dropping the limited version is what selflessness is about. It’s a very joyful way to live!