Self-Aware, not Self-Conscious

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” ― Dogen (13th century founder of Soto Zen)

A principal purpose of Zen training, or the Buddha-Way, is to break free of the incessant self-consciousness that causes people to suffer neurotically with anxiety, depression, obsessions, and anger, with continual confusion and uneasiness about life.  It is to discover our healthiest self, what Buddhism calls our True Self, by getting over our preoccupation with our neurotic self, the sense of self caused by a misapplication and inappropriate identification with the uniquely highly developed human faculty of ego.  Zen understands that what Buddhism calls Dharma, what the ancient Chinese called Tao, what we might call the Life-force of all Creation, flows through everything – and that, of course, “everything” includes human beings and their egos – but when focusing our sense of self in the ego, we have little realization of this understanding.  Dharma is intelligence itself for it is the collective consciousness of all Creation.  Dharma might be called instinct, yet it is far deeper than mere biological drives as the West uses the term.  It is knowing how to BE – to be a natural, psychologically and spiritually healthy human, like the heart knows how to beat and the lungs know how to breathe.  Ego doesn’t know simply how to be.  And when humans live through their ego, they don’t know how to be.

Alan Watts, a great interpreter of Asian philosophy for the West, noted that to live in Zen is to live as a human being as unselfconsciously as a tree is a tree.  The tree knows how to be a tree.  Likewise, a squirrel knows how to be a squirrel.  Only human beings get confused about how to be human without making a complete mess of it.  Zen points out that we alone in all Creation are so clever that we can create in our complex minds IDEAS ABOUT what it is to be a human being which have very little to do with the natural harmony and flow of Nature, with Dharma, but have everything to do with OURSELVES, this separate, struggling “me,” creating an artificial idea of life in our minds.  We humans have the capacity to be conscious of ourselves as separate organisms who THINK about what this separateness means and be frightened by it, leading us to be constantly thinking all kinds of strategies for dealing with this anxiety – strategies that often only make the situation worse.  Zen reminds us that of course we know how to be a human being – how could we not?

Zen is a Japanese word that means to sit, but not just to sit in our usual idea of sitting, as this little idea of me, fidgeting about, trying to be comfortable.  No, this “sitting” means to sit naturally in the Universe as consciousness – not MY consciousness, for that would be ego-consciousness – no, to just sit as consciousness, to be in awareness sitting, experiencing.  Zen reminds us that the Universe is happening through us just as it does through a tree or a squirrel, and that we are an expression of the Universe happening as a human being, that we have the instinct within us, the knowing, of how to be a natural human being without unnatural struggle.  There is, however, a big catch to our realizing this state of our natural existence.  Because of our highly developed human cerebral cortex, the seat of thinking, emotion and creativity, the seat of ego, rather than living life directly as does all else in Creation, we tend toward centering our experience around thinking about ourselves and reacting to the circumstances of life in a highly personal and often neurotic manner.  We are “in here” and the circumstances of life are “out there.”  We live in thinking about past circumstances and attempting to anticipate the future, and this takes us out of living vibrantly, clearly, and effectively within the present moment where life actually unfolds.  This is a real problem.

Giving the preponderance of our mental energy to ego, functionally we are living in an artificial reality created by the limitations of the human mind, and a human ego cannot begin to hold together the infinite complexity within unity that is the Universe, is the Dharma, is the Tao, is our life.  Buddhism calls this problem “Dukkha,” the Sanskrit word that can be translated as “suffering” or “dissatisfaction.”  No tree or squirrel or dog is ever dissatisfied with its life as a tree or a squirrel or a dog, even if its existence is quite harsh and difficult, or ends prematurely.  It is a tree.  It is a squirrel.  It is a dog. It lives the best it can, no fuss, no argument, no dissatisfaction.  It lives in its own nature, in Dharma.  Of course, so do human beings – we just don’t know it and confuse it all up.  So, the challenge for a human being is how to live in Nature, in Life, in Dharma, without confusing it all up, creating all kinds of dukkha, when the mind wants to live in its own world, and this mind-world is pretty confused, often dissatisfied, and perhaps, even suffering. 

This is where Zen comes in.  Realizing this dilemma, Zen, as a philosophy of life and practice for achieving harmony with Dharma, with life, tells us we must train ourselves to let go of relying on the ego-mind and the artificial worlds it creates for our idea of who we are and what life is about, that we must come at life directly.  Zen famously challenges us: “Show your original face,” the face, the mind, the true self, the capital-S Self, that is not confused, and Zen assures us it is there – just as it is in a tree or a squirrel or a dog, for we are children of the Universe and Nature just as is any tree or squirrel or dog.  Zen teaches us that in order to stop running the program of our mind-spun artificial, neurotic world, we must sit in the real world and let our natural awareness experience what it is to be a human being on this planet in the time that we are alive, just as it is.  Zen points us to realizing that our awareness has been caught up in what can be called self-consciousness, or ego-consciousness, all the energy and power of mind and awareness focused into this story of “me” all dukkha’ed up.  We are self-conscious without being Self-aware.  Zen tells us to turn this around, to learn to live in Self-awareness, allowing our natural knowing of what Life is and how to be a human being in the midst of Life, to be our guide, to learn to trust ourselves. This can be called living by Zen

“Zen is the living, Zen is life, and the living is Zen… The dog is a dog all the time, and is not aware of his being a dog, of his harboring the Divine in himself; therefore he cannot transcend himself… he lives Zen… but does not live by Zen.  It is man alone that can live by Zen as well as live Zen.  To live Zen is not enough; we must live by it, which means we must have the consciousness of living it, although this consciousness is beyond what we generally understand by it.  The latter is relative and psychological while the consciousness of living Zen is something qualitatively different from it; it marks the limit of development which the human mind can achieve; it almost approaches divine consciousness.” – D.T. Suzuki (20th century Zen philosopher and teacher.  From: Living in Zen)

Zen is a mystical philosophy of life.  It tells us, as any true spiritual tradition does in its beginnings, that the divine happens through us, as us, and all around us, in a unity that cannot be rationally named or understood.  It is an infinite mystery that, while inaccessible to the rational mind, is, by the truth of being who we are, knowable.  We can be aware of being this presence that is awareness, and that within awareness is that which witnesses and knows what is true and not true.  How can this be? Awareness is Life witnessing and knowing itself.  Zen points us toward realizing that our problem has been that our awareness has been caught in our small sense of self (or ego) consciousness. We have been living as if who we are is a timeline story of a person struggling through the world, thinking about ourselves and our struggle, believing all kinds of nonsense.  Zen tells us to wake up, to stop living inside these mental programs and return to life-as-it-is. 

Zen tells us that when we stop thinking about being alive, when we stop being self-conscious, when we look and we listen and we feel, when we use our natural senses and awareness, and, yes, intelligence, it all becomes clear.  We are the here-and-now of this moment however this moment is unfolding.  What needs doing needs doing, what needs thinking about can be thought about, but ONLY what NEEDS to be thought about.  Our core beingness, our true Self can shine forth with all the wisdom of the Universe flowing though us, a silent intelligence revealing how to be a human being just as a dog is being a dog or a tree a tree.  And yes, being a human is more complicated – just as being a squirrel is more complicated than being a tree – but the squirrel has what it needs to be a squirrel and we humans have what we need to be human, no matter that it is complicated.   It doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it. The Universe happening through us means we have everything we need to meet the challenges of any moment and we can trust this.  When we get out of our incessant self-consciousness, full of insecurity, regret, confusion, and anxiety, and we become Self-aware, our core of intelligent human beingness can shine through.  Then, as Dogen said, our bodies and minds, as projections of separateness, drop away – and there we are, aware that we are one with “the myriad things” and in this sense of connectedness we are actualized as human beings with all the amazing gifts the Universe has bestowed upon us to meet the moment just as it is.  And “no trace of enlightenment,” meaning the struggle to understand, remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly, for we feel the Universe happening through and all around us and we understand completely that we exist within a great unfolding, and we can trust this – “endlessly.”  This is the great “I Am That” which, not only Zen, but all Eastern non-dual wisdom traditions point us to, as we realize “That” is everything in its individuality and totality held together in a divine intelligent embrace.  This is how we live by Zen in Zen, just so, and a modern Western human can live by this knowing as surely did 13th century Dogen in ancient Japan.  We do not have to be bedeviled by self-consciousness.  Not when we learn to live Self-aware.

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

This entry was posted in Rapid River Columns by Bill Walz. Bookmark the permalink.