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What Is My Real Self?

The Buddha said: I teach one thing, and one thing only: Suffering (dukkha) and the end of suffering.

According to the Buddha desire and delusion are the roots of human suffering.

Desire means wanting, craving, clinging. Mental states I've spent a good portion of my adult life immersed in. I've wanted to be thinner. Have better skin. Be better at a vast assortment of activities, from dancing to writing to meditating (yup!). I've wanted to have a boyfriend. And then when I got one, I wanted him to be different, then I wanted to be able to love him, then I wanted a new boyfriend. I've wanted to not be addicted to sugar. I've wanted the weather to be different. I've wanted to sleep when I couldn't. Wanted to stay awake when I couldn't. Wanted to have fun when I didn't. And I have wanted stuff. Oh, have I wanted stuff! I wanted that skirt and I wanted that dress. Those boots. The coat. The pair of fashionable jeans. And when I got them I immediately wanted something else.

And for the longest time I don't even think I was aware of the inherent suffering in wanting. It was just the water I swam in. Now I can feel that in the WANTING there's tension. Because wanting something other than what is; what you have, is a form of rejecting the present moment, which is all that we have. Seeing the craving, the wanting, the clinging can de-fang it. We stop to identify with it. We recognise it as not who we are, but as something that moves through us. And this is how our suffering begins to diminish. Through cultivating our mindfulness.

The second root cause of suffering is delusion. First, we mistake our views to be the truth. We believe our views to be the way things are. Beauty is beauty. Success is success. This is wrong and this is right. But is it though?

We think that we are capable of being objective. We don't see that we are biased. And because of this delusion we let our biases influence how we act in the world. For example, money isn't real the way a tree in the forest is real (and even a tree in the forest is just a tree in the forest because we have created the category 'trees'). Money is a concept that we have agreed on. And then, depending on where you have grown up, you may have different beliefs about this concept. Some of you might believe that getting as much as possible is a good thing and something we should aim for. While others might feel that having enough is enough. And then, of course, there will probably be a lot of disagreement on what 'enough' means.

Success is also a concept, that might mean different things to different people. And even your own beliefs about success may have changed over time?

Beauty. Is something inherently beautiful or ugly? When I was a kid I always really liked dandelions. I remember one time picking a bouquet of them and bringing them home. My mom told me, why are you bringing weeds home?

She saw them as ugly weeds, I saw them as beautiful flowers. Was one of us right and the other wrong?

Hair naturally grows on my legs. Even though my mom never shaved her legs or armpits, by the time I was in my late teens I knew that women were expected to shave that hair. And I obliged. A few years later I was questioning this belief. I had started to read feminist thinkers, and begun to feel that shaving ones' body hair was giving in to patriarchy and capitalism. But I could never really get into how my legs looked with their natural furry protection. With that hair I felt my legs 'ugly' and when I got rid of it my legs were 'nice.' Although I felt (and still feel) that I've been brain-washed into seeing my legs this way, I still to this day shave my legs (only less often now because I've grown lazy). There's a cognitive disconnect there for sure.

If a vegetable is cooked in a particular broth, it will begin to absorb the flavours. In the same way we absorb many of our views and belief from the cultures in which we grow up, from the families we grow up in. And later, from the friends we spend time with. This is not our fault, this is how the human brain works. It needs to create concepts, categories and beliefs to function in the world. But becoming aware of our own views and biases will help diminish our own, and others' suffering.

We are also deluded because we mistake that which is impermanent for being permanent. And we take that which isn't self to be self. And this is why we suffer. It is all connected.

Ok, you might ask, but what about this bit about the self? Don't I exist? I am sitting here, reading this. I have tight shoulders, and I'm worried about X. I have thoughts about this and that in my head. All this feels pretty real to me.

That may be so, but do you have any control over this? Can you decide to not have tight shoulders now? Can you control what thoughts you will have now? Did you decide to worry?

Thoughts come and go. Moods come and go. The body changes.

When we go looking for this illusive self, it may not be all that easy to find. Because there's constant osmosis between 'us' and the world. And getting in touch with that no-self, or that ONENESS will lead to a lot of psychological freedom, a.k.a less suffering.

Photo: Tomáš Vydržal via UNSPLASH

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