“The habit of always thinking of ourselves only keeps us unhappy.” – Sakyong Mipham
“If you are very sincere and really give up your small mind, then there is no fear and no emotional problem. Your mind is always calm, your eyes are always open, and you can hear the birds as they sing. You can see the flowers as they open. There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars. – Shunryu Suzuki
Buddhism uses the term “small mind” to describe a mind in which most thoughts are centered on our own desires and anxieties, our likes and dislikes, and it is important to realize even thoughts that are not directly about ourself are generally about our world-view and priorities which are then, in a sense, about ourself. In contrast, Buddhism uses the term “big-mind” to describe a mind that is centered in the moment-as-it-is, as the moment-in-awareness, thoughts of ourselves appropriately integrated into the totality of the quality and needs of the moment. A way of saying this is that we are not the center of the moment, rather, the moment is the center of us.
But for most people thoughts about their own subjective experience and themselves are the centerpiece of consciousness, and Buddhism teaches that this makes for a very small and neurotic experience of life. It’s me, me, me dealing with and interacting with, that, that, that out there, and “that” includes other people and all of life, which are really stories in our minds about what we believe is “out there.” It even includes the experience of ourselves as some very repetitive and shallow story of “me” as an object of judgment conditioned into us psychologically by our parents, society, culture and historical experiences. This story/judgment of “me” projects onto the story/judgment of “that” whatever our distorted and neurotic conditioning has caused us to believe about “me” and “that” and from this distorted interaction is generated anxiety, depression, anger and many very untruthful belief systems.
To understand what is being addressed here, we have to understand what this “me” is. We use this word to refer to who we understand this phenomenon of our personal self to be. The question is, does this actually represent the truest understanding of this phenomenon we call “me?” Asked to identify ourselves, we typically give a list of referential locators such as where we were born, our parents, where we live now, our occupation or principle activity in the world, our marital or relationship status, some cultural/ethnic/class information, education, religion, group affiliations, etc. Very importantly, if asked to go deeper, we would probably start telling the story of our life, the important events, accomplishments and injuries of our life-history. We might even give a thumb-nail psychological diagnosis of our struggles with relationships, anxiety, depression, anger, obsessions and fears. In a more immediate way, if asked to point to ourself – we would probably point to our body, and might point to our head, identifying with our face and the body part containing the brain that we associate with our mind. This is all well and good for practical, in-the-world purposes, but none of this information or these locaters actually indicates the deepest and most fundamental self. These locators all point to conditioned circumstances of our existence. They do not point to the real “me,” our deepest self, the essence of our being, the realm of “big-mind.”
It may sound like parsing semantics to say there can be all the difference in the world between the concepts “this” and “that,” but it is important that we see a great difference. The very perspective brought with the word “that” is as if we point to something separate from ourselves saying “that” out there, while, I am suggesting, we can create a perspective of “this” as from within the moment containing whatever we are pointing to and ourselves, the person/mind that is pointing. It is the difference between duality and non-duality, the world of ego and the realm of being. When we operate within “this” it is both specific and infinite – it is as if we made a great arcing swoop with our hands acknowledging all the universe including us and the focus of our attention, encompassing the observer and the observed, the local and the infinite.
“This” can also be identified as “here,” but most people have a very small notion of “here” as if it is measured in inches or feet, and to live inside this small personal “here” while pointing to the world and all it contains as “that” – out there – is a lonely and frightening place. To live inside the big-here of “this” is to be complete and infinite. The same is true of time. There is a little-now and a big-now – so the concept “here and now” can be either very confining or it can be very liberating. When teaching, I am known to ask: “Where is the boundary of here and now?” And, of course, there is none. I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they realize this truth. This realization can be a major shift in relating to self-in-the world.
To live centered on the small personal self of “my” body, “my” mind, “my” life circumstance is to live in this small world of “thats” and in the small “here-and-now,” all centered on this idea of “me” as an isolated object in a universe of objects, and we are, therefore, as Sakyong Mipham noted, very vulnerable to insecurity, and to be insecure is to be unhappy. This “self,” this “me” feels itself isolated in the vastness of life and spends its entire life seeking significance, and a life spent in this way generates great anxiety, for the seeking is endless, and all of what is called neurosis is the psychological symptoms and attempts to defend against this anxiety.
Buddhism’s genius solution to this conundrum is to wake us up to the reality of the interconnectedness of all that is – that nothing exists in isolation. The universe is a singularity comprised of infinite interconnected patterns of energy that is both matter and consciousness. As the orientalist Alan Watts phrased it, and I have quoted in other columns, “Who we are is the universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.” In other words, and this is the meaning of the very difficult Buddhist concepts for westerners of “emptiness” and “being nobody,” there is no “me.” There is only “this,” a localized perspective of the universe appearing in consciousness through the vehicle of a human being’s awareness. It is as if we are a lens, an aperture through which the universe focuses into an intersection of space and time to experience itself. We are this limited form – like a pair of glasses – that has a function and a duration of quality service AND we are that which looks, without location other than the universe, without beginning or end. As the famous Heart Sutra of Buddhism comforts us: “all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness; their true nature is the nature of no Birth no Death, no Being no Non-being, no Defilement no Purity, no Increasing no Decreasing. That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self entities.” (Thich Nhat Hanh translation)
This may seem awfully strange, although I would guess there is some very quiet bell ringing a “yes” inside you. As you look at these words with your eyes and they register with meaning in your mind, it is all happening in consciousness as a connected event with all other sensations and thoughts – so – I ask, are you the body with its sense organs? Are you the mind that gives the sensory impulses meaning? Or are you the consciousness, the awareness within which all “this” are arising? The real purpose of meditation is to quiet the restless, anxious mind so that the bell that rings “yes” can be heard. Stop focusing on this illusion of “me” and open to the moment “this” and you will see what Suzuki is talking about, how “There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars.” This is what Buddhism calls awakening.