In his fabulous little book “Awareness” the Jesuit teacher Anthony de Mello differentiated the subjective self and the self as object by referring to them as “I” and “me” respectively. Not being able to make this differentiation causes us no end of troubles.
The issue of dualism and its resolution has been a problem for philosophers for millennia. It was exacerbated in Western society by Descartes. His famous statement, “Cognito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) suggested that the identity of the essential self (the “I”) was somehow embodied in its thoughts.
The good Dr Phil has often conjectured how different the Western world might have been if Descartes had said, “I am aware of my thinking therefore I must be more than my thoughts!” It is de Mello’s “me” that identifies with all the ways we traditionally define ourselves – our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings, our names, our occupations, our nationalities, our religious beliefs, our political leanings, and so on. The tragedy for most of us is that we can’t get beyond this concept of who we are. We become inordinately attached to these trappings of our physical existence. As a result, we become fearful – “what if I should die?”. We become envious – “you are wealthier than I.” We wallow in our disappointment – “I should have got the promotion”. We are trapped in our guilt – “If only I had been more aware of her problems she might not have taken her life.”
In de Mello’s terms such people are “asleep” – they lack awareness of the way the universe really is. He suggests a four step process to alleviate this condition which causes endless suffering. Below I am going to elaborate on the steps in the process he recommends.
His first step is to, “Identify the negative feelings in you.” “Well,” you say, “that should be easy enough.” But it is not! We often can’t discern our feelings because they have overtaken us. We rage when our anger has overwhelmed us. It takes some awareness to step back a little and think “I am shouting. I am tense. My heart is beating strongly. I must be angry!” You are too busy being your anger to step outside it and examine yourself. In our state of unawareness we believe we are our anger!
His second step is to “Understand that they (ie the negative feelings) are in you, not in the world, not in external reality.” Our negative feelings therefore are a personal construct. With respect to feelings, the world is a benign place. It doesn’t generate them or bring them to us. Our feelings are our (unconscious) choice about how we respond to the world. Many of these responses are learned because they gave us pay offs in the past. We got what we wanted (even though what we wanted was an ill-informed choice) and therefore our behaviour was reinforced. As a result when our environment elicits a particular stimulus we respond as we have always responded in the unconscious hope that we will be rewarded accordingly.
His third step is, “Do not see them (ie the negative feelings) as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go.’ Our thoughts come and go. Our feelings come and go. Even our bodies are changing with cells being replaced on a regular basis.
I have expressed a similar sentiment in a parable in my story, “Froth and Goblets”. This is a tale about how my little Buddhist hero, Augustus, teaches a princess, (Naomi), to deal with depression. Here is an extract. Augustus and Naomi are conversing after she has finished her daily meditation practice.
“But I am not happy and I have experienced so much happiness lately that I had an expectation that it would ever continue thus.”
“Then you are mistaken. Our emotions come and go and even the wisest sage will have his equanimity challenged. Is there any land where the sky is forever blue? Is there any tree that flowers continuously? Is there a river that runs placidly in all its reaches? Is there a sea with no tides? This is the nature of things, a reflection of the impermanence and the constant change that underpins the universe. That is why the Buddha taught that we should become attached to nothing, not even happiness. The techniques we have learnt together will help you deal with your unhappiness and reduce the frequency of its occurrence, but do not believe it is possible to live forever happily.”
“I thought my meditation practice would help me stay happy.”
“Your meditation practice helps in many ways, but there are two outcomes that are particularly helpful. Firstly it makes you more aware. When the mind is stilled you become aware of your emotional state. Secondly, being thus aware of your emotion, you can detach yourself from it. When I first met you, you were unaware emotionally because your emotions dominated and overwhelmed you. You did not notice your despair so much as identified with it. You could not notice objectively because in many ways you were your despair. Here, come outside awhile with me.”
Intrigued, Naomi followed the little Buddhist out into the garden.
“Look up and tell me what you see.”
“Why, I see a blue sky with some clouds scurrying across it.”
“Consider that lovely blue sky as a metaphor for your true self. See how sometimes the clouds partly obscure it. Those clouds are your thoughts and your emotions. But we know from our vantage point that the clouds are not the sky. From the awareness of meditation you will be able to see that neither your thoughts nor your emotions are your true self. Because we are detached from the clouds, when we look up we can say, ‘Look, there is a cloud beginning to impinge on the sky.’ When we come to learn detachment from our thoughts and our emotions, we can look inwards and say, ‘Look here comes some despair which is impinging on my true self.’ We know, just as with the clouds, we can patiently observe its passage, not identifying with it, and that soon enough it will be gone. It seems to me that you are beginning to learn this lesson otherwise you would still be in bed crying, acting out your despair and not dealing constructively with it.”
“Why is it Augustus, that we can not lock our happiness away so securely that it can not be sullied?”
“It is the way of the world, Naomi. And yet we are each different. Some of us are born with a greater propensity for sorrow than others. It sometimes comes from our parents and our ancestors. Was your mother disposed to sorrow and pessimism?”
The Princess looked down at the ground. “Yes,” she replied. “My mother was often full of despair. She seemed often to interpret things in a very pessimistic way.”
“It is like our metaphor of the clouds. Some countries have lots of days with cloudy skies. I have heard in some countries there are tropical rainforests where it rains almost every day. And there are countries, we know, that are dominated by deserts where months or years can pass without a cloud being seen. It is an outcome of the natural diversity that pervades the earth. Similarly, people vary. Some are born with positive and optimistic dispositions and others with more negative and pessimistic dispositions. But even those who are the most positive among us are not immune from despair. They encounter it less frequently and they have better ways of innately coping with it. People with your disposition encounter despair more frequently but the problem is magnified because you have poor strategies for coping with it. In our practice we will try to learn strategies to make your episodes of sadness less frequent but perhaps more importantly, we will learn how to manage those episodes more effectively.”
Finally, de Mello says we must “understand that when you change everything changes.”
I see this notion reflected in that insightful statement of Anais Nin, “We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are,” and is a wonderful description of our relationship with the world at large.
The fundamental change is understanding that you are not the manifestation of the objective state “me”, but you are the embodiment of the subjective state “I”. When you realise who you really are you won’t identify with your body, your emotions or your thoughts. You will understand that these aspects of your objective state are not the essential you. The essential you is that which is observing! If you change how you see yourself you will dramatically change how you see the world – your world-view. You can then with detachment watch your feelings come and go, knowing that they don’t define you. You can watch your thoughts enter your awareness and pass through like those clouds Naomi watched travelling across the blue sky. You can watch your body grow old and infirm and know that its deterioration does not effect the essential you that has been charged with watching its mortal journey in the physical world.
De Mello says, “People are so busy accusing everyone else, blaming everyone else, blaming life, blaming their neighbour. You’ll never change that way; you’ll continue in your nightmare, you’ll never wake up.”
His advice is to “put this program (the steps described above) into action a thousand times!” Then perhaps you can put the “me”, so mired with its attachments and misconceptions, aside and enjoy the serenity of knowing who you really are.