“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.” “When we start to feel anxious or depressed, instead of asking, “What do I need to get to be happy?” The question becomes, “What am I doing to disturb the inner peace that I already have?” – D.T. Suzuki
One important and useful way to look at neurosis is to see it as the result of poor contact with the present moment. Many of us tend to live with minimal awareness of the particulars and subtleties of the moment, we see and experience what is happening filtered through the stories we have in our minds about who we are and what is going on around us – stories about what we think we need in order to be happy and, conversely, what is going to “make us” unhappy. We are seeing and hearing in a quite superficial and distorted manner, looking to make our way through the world as we interpret it. We fail to realize reality is IN the moment, not in these stories in our mind, projections that act like a kind of film or filter or shell, shading and distorting our experience and with it, how we express ourselves. The more extreme the distortions and the more our identity is locked into these stories determines the severity of our neurosis.
This story of me-in-the-world is the mind of ego, and to explain ego-mind is to say it is experiencing ourselves from within the mental construct of separateness. It is “me” taking in and projecting through my neurotic ego-shell with only secondary focus into the actual moments being lived, and thus my experience of the nature of reality is quite distorted. Conversely, we can say that sanity is being in clear connection with and response to what is happening here and now. The more clearly, deeply, and subtly we can do this, the clearer, deeper, and subtler is our sanity.
We, in an intuitive manner, all know this. We have all had experiences where we interact with someone or with some situation in a manner that doesn’t work out very well, and we realize we have not really seen or heard or experienced what is happening with good clarity. Rather, we realize that we have only superficially noticed the situation and projected upon it what we THOUGHT it was about. Typically, undesired results or reactions can then occur causing us to realize we have greatly missed the point of the situation or person, and so we refocus. We refocus to better know what is actually happening or being said, to see and hear more clearly what or who this is. We bring awareness completely into the moment to see and to listen and to experience with deeper clarity, and this often will create higher quality results and, if you will, moments of real sanity.
Ego’s tenacity, however, will typically re-activate our neurotic story quite quickly. It’s as if we fail to learn the lesson that better results come from paying better attention to the actualities of the moment rather than being caught in our neurotic story, much of it about the past or future. It is as if we have no choice but to stay in the superficial awareness of our neurotic personality. But we do have a choice; and this is the central teaching of Zen Buddhism. There is an important lesson to be learned here, and it is that sanity is based in accurate present moment awareness, and that this is always available to us through intentional focusing of awareness. In other words, it is a skill. Yet, surprisingly, we are not taught this in our education or upbringing, nor does traditional psychotherapy recognize this clear access to contact with reality-as-it-is as the surest route out of the labyrinth of neurosis. Our problem is in identification with our ego-story, and this includes our whole society. We are an ego-based culture, celebrating egocentric consciousness, and so, neurosis is rampant. We celebrate ego. Even our psychologies are built around the assumption that we are our ego.
Zen, however, recognizes that identification with ego is the principal source of our problems with life. It tells us that we all have a unique ego-story – or many stories – the result of influencing experiences with the egos of those who shaped us into who we THINK we are, along with our ideas about what the world is. This can be understood as each person’s neurotic style – people telling themselves their story built around mental states such as anxiety, depression, anger, suspicion, or greediness, born out of their desires and fears, their sense of personal diminishment or aggrandizement. All this causes our contact with the present moment as-it-is, in its truth, to be rather poor. And so, Zen believes it is useful to approach the issue of neurosis as arising from poor skill development for situational awareness and insight into the present moment. Zen Buddhism approached, not as a religion, but as a mental health practice, comes straight at the problem of the neurotic by saying that the principal source of our confusion and difficulty comes from our own egocentricity, our self-absorption, our living within our neurotic story.
Whereas traditional psychotherapy aims to help us see and manage our ego-stories (and thus our neurosis) through looking at the distortions in these stories and ironing them out, Zen challenges us to drop, or outgrow, our stories completely. Zen challenges us to realize on a very profound level we are NOT these stories; we are not our egos; we are something much healthier. Zen tells us we are the capacity to be aware of the thoughts and emotions ego generates, we are the clear consciousness prior to the ego-mind, and we can grow, or expand, our sense of self thusly into a profound sanity that originates in identifying ourselves with life itself, with consciousness that is larger than our personalities.
Just as we have hands to engage the world physically, we have an ego-mind to engage the world psychologically, yet we do not mistake ourselves for our hands. Zen points this out, showing us how we very much tend to confuse the ego-mind and the personality it generates for who we are, and that this error is at the root of human mental and social dysfunction. Simply knowing this intellectually through philosophical study, however, does little to free us from this misperception, and so Zen is built around leading us to the direct experience of our own mind, to seeing its distortions, and to realizing the deeper inherent capacity for peace and insight that is awareness, consciousness that precedes ego. Zen does this through the practice called Zazen, or Zen meditation, taught in a stylized sitting posture. Importantly, however, sitting meditation is only a starting point that shows us the way to clarity in everything we do, to create a life that IS Zazen, emphasizing that meditation is like a raft that takes us to another shore, the shore of direct experience with what-is, engaging with a far deeper level of mind than ego. Having arrived at the other shore, we must leave the raft behind. Our objective is to experience life unfiltered and undistorted by our ego-mind, by our neurosis, in everything we do.
Having discovered through Zazen our true and essential nature brought into our everyday lives, we now have realized what can only be described as sanity, the clarity of our sense of self-in-the-moment unfolding just as it is in the exquisite eternity that is the moment. Here, and then gone. Always appearing and disappearing, flowing into the next eternal (meaning beyond time) moment, completely free of past and future. It is simply “this, now.” Paradox opens and duality dissolves. All there is is this. And this. And this. Flowing endlessly. And while in the flow, we realize our true human potential and well-being.
Then…. within the meditation and after it, ego reasserts itself. We so quickly find ourselves back in our story of “me,” interpreting our experience neurotically, and our sense of expansive sane presence is lost. Only now, we have some perspective and direct experience with what deeper levels of sanity feel like. We have seen that our problem is this “ego-shell” that Zen Master Suzuki warns us is the hardest thing to outgrow. We realize WE are the one blocking our happiness and inner peace. And we have also learned that inner peace is inherent within us, yet it keeps being lost by the reassertion of the ego-self. Here we are, and Zen tells us we do not need to understand our stories or their source. We need to shed them. We need to know that stories play an important role in how we bring a personality into the world to interact in the world, but they do not have to be the stories we inherited from the neurotic people who raised us or the neurotic world that has been defining us. We can see that we are free to be the stories we choose, stories of a person who is skillfully present, stories of a person who, in a paradoxical way, is a person with no story at all. We have realized ourselves in and as presence, our personality and roles in the world being just vehicles for presence. This, Zen describes as being “nobody” and we know how to reclaim this true source, returning to this breath, this experience, this moment.
Modern interpreter of Zen consciousness, Eckhart Tolle, tells us that who we are is “the space of the moment arising in awareness.” Look about you. Listen keenly. Feel yourself as an intelligent being exploring the moment as it arises and passes – always arising anew and passing. Be the one who experiences life and self from within the flowing unfolding that is always the present moment arising in awareness, always unique and new, and know: this is sanity.
Zazen is a time-tested practice for training in this clear present-moment awareness, but you do not have to be Buddhist, nor do you have to sit in a traditional meditation mode – though you will find it to be a very natural manner for exploring inner peace, your mind, and what disturbs it. Dedicate yourself to developing the skill of staying present with keen and subtle awareness whenever and wherever you are, to experiencing real sanity in the unfolding mystery/reality that is the present moment. It will grow on you. But, like any skill, you must practice until it takes over as your nature. And it will, for it IS your nature. Having tasted real sanity, it is now time to develop this skill with the earnestness, as one Zen exhortation says, “like one whose hair is on fire, looking for a pail of water.” And what better time to practice than now.