Forget Yourself

“There is no other task than to know your original face.” – Yen T’ou (9th Century)

“If you want to be miserable, think about yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others. This is how we bring enlightened mind down to earth.”
– Sakyong Mipham (21st Century)

It is said that Zen is nothing more than forgetting yourself in the act of uniting with “something.” This dissolution of the separation of subject “me” with whatever object of perception I am focused on, into a non-dualistic awareness of “just this,” is Buddhist Satori. Ultimately, the purpose of Buddhist practice is for that “something” to be Life itself, and in that uniting, to come to know your “original face,’ the true and authentic person you are, an integrated expression of Life, not separate from it, struggling, as if it were, somehow, out there.

To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.” – Dogen (13th Cent.)

In this, there is a returning to your essential Beingness, at one with Life, able to walk and function in the social world of humanity, while also greatly freed of inhibiting and distorted ideas about self and the world. Spontaneity and wisdom, connectedness and compassion, are realized as natural elements of who you are. Neurotic tendencies begin to resolve themselves, as they are all results of social conditioning. Social conditioning begins to be seen as devices for maneuvering in the social world, mostly useful, but often, greatly distorted, and so, neurotic, and they are realized as not who you are. Society begins to be experienced as more of a game, with rules and boundaries, not your essential self nor an expression of the truth and potential for Life, and this is immensely liberating.

When you can realize, at a level deeper than thought, that Nature manifests through you as surely as it does through any bird or tree, then Satori begins to be the natural terrain of your life. From this insight, this infinite well of Beingness, you can begin to free yourself from the neurotic conditioning that has gone into what is no more than an idea you carry around about who you are. This is also what Buddhists refer to as “emptiness.” So, you must forget yourself. Discover Life, empty of this idea of a “myself” at the center of every experience.

This, of course, is a radical departure from the dominant modern cultural norm that instills in us that in most every situation, our primary interest is how that situation either enhances or detracts from “me.” Importantly, Zen does recognize that, of course, you have a life to safeguard and even enhance situationally in the relative world of society, but what becomes important is the reversing of what is primary. Rather than our life situation and our own status being primary, we realize that our life cannot be well lived unless Life itself and those fellow beings we share this life with become what is primary.

Life – that which has been the rather unregarded backdrop to our life situation, is realized as the very substance that will give meaning to our life situation. Paradoxically, our skill in this relative dimension of life situation will also dramatically increase as the very neurotic tendencies that inhibit our skillfulness in social interactions fall away. Furthermore, the karma of interacting with others in full presence, compassion and kindness will begin to reflect back to us. Life fully lived in its immediacy and intimacy is also a good definition for happiness and joy, the very quality to life that this “self “ is pursuing so desperately

When your primary thought is of yourself, you cut yourself off from all the Universe. When you allow experience to be the center of you, rather than holding yourself as the center of every experience, you discover a far more meaningful and happy life. When you allow the realization of your kinship with all beings, that to think of and honor others and the experiences of Life as the only way to honor your ultimate self, you discover the true source of happiness. When you allow the moment to fill you, whether it is in an experience of Nature, or with a fellow being, or in an activity, the subject-object split that makes our experience small and unskillful falls away into simply the moment. We discover that the moment, just as it is, is always fulfilling, even the scary and challenging ones.

This is nothing new to us. We have all had, in the finest moments of our lives, the experience of non-duality, of our original face shining through. It happens in moments of loving interaction with another person, self-transcendent experiences in Nature, in engrossed activity in the arts or in sports. Sometimes, it just happens out of nowhere that your experience suddenly opens, expands and the proverbial “feeling of being at one with” whatever you are doing and whatever is happening occurs. Sometimes it happens in moments of crisis and fear when there is no time to think about “myself” – and there is only what needs doing. What Zen offers us is the understanding, the wisdom, to realize that the essence of these experiences does not come from outside us, but from within us. They are the foundation of who we are when experience is unblocked by self-centered thinking, and Zen teaches us that we can cultivate this consciousness. We can make this non-dualistic consciousness our primary reference point rather than an accident of circumstance.

We live in a society that has been said to celebrate the cult of personality, and this “who I am” is of the utmost importance in our culture. Buddhism helps us to realize that there is a great problem in actually finding this “me.” The “who I am” that we call “me” and “my personality” is really only an idea of a person made up of millions of conditioned interactions through a lifetime. It has no stability. It has no foundation. It has no location. It is, more or less, a mask. In fact, “mask” is exactly what the word personality means – derived from the Greek word “persona”: the mask used by actors in the ancient Greek plays.

So, what happens when we live life “empty” of masks? Far from being zombie-like, as we might fear, rather, just like any animal in Nature, we discover that every person has a unique expression that is their authentic nature, vibrantly who they are. Watch a group of squirrels for a while, or a group of puppies, or kittens, or for that matter, watch a group of recently born human babies, and you will see that each individual is unique. This natural uniqueness shines forth, free of any self-conscious idea of who they are supposed to be. Free of any masks – delightful.

We never stop to consider that the experience of ourselves, trained into us by modern society, is nothing more than an idea of who we are, a storyline. Yet, we live inside this story and call it reality; we call it who we are, we call it our life, we call it life. It is, however, life with a small “l.” Zen teaches us that we can live a big “L” Life, but only if we learn to forget ourselves in the act of uniting with whatever or whomever is right in front of us in this moment. We must realize that who we are is not located in the body or mental processes, but rather in the awareness with which we experience this body and these mental processes and the world. We are, in this sense, the moment itself.

Zen asks us to meditate on locating this self, and the only reasonable answer we can come up with will be like the one that comes to us from Eckhart Tolle: “Who we are is the space in which the moment arises.” There is nobody there that we can point to or grasp onto. And that is how we discover our true Self, and true happiness. By forgetting ourselves. This is Buddhism.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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