SUNY Oneonta in 1993 offered me a solid opportunity to learn about Buddhism with a practicing Buddhist professor. Ron LaFrance lined up speakers from a wide range of different Buddhist sects, including Robert Thurman, and each week we learned first hand about the richness of Buddhist cultures. While I have long since misplaced my notes from that class, one form of meditation leapt out at me, and I have never forgotten it. The meditation on “No Self” was such a contradiction to my Western thinking mind that it has taken me many -many- years to come to terms with it.

Photo by Min An on

I have been a Gurdjieff student, and from the beginning, the teaching was “Remember yourself.” Everywhere language reinforces the sense of separation this concept engenders, with such simple words as “I,” “me,” “you,” “he,” and “she.” Holding on to my self concept was a fight for me in the home I grew up in, because the constant effort at programming me to be “a good Christian” was totally at odds with my essential nature. Somehow they civilized me, but the struggle to be myself left me with inner conflicts of an oppositional nature. They did not like the questions I posed at home on the Nature of God and religion. Looking back, I am grateful for this opposition, because it has given me something to engage my mind down the years of my life.

The first time I sat in meditation with the idea “No Self.” I panicked. I simply could not face the fear of total annihilation posed by the concept. But I kept working with it. I wanted to see where it led. One day it happened for a moment that a kind of heaviness lifted off my thoughts and feelings. A peace and a quiet settled in that is not too different from the feelings I have when I go within to find that still small voice, the one that answers the whisper, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

The Ba’hais have a teaching, that God created all religions to guide mankind back home. “Home” in this case being Source, Creator, All That Is, the Spirit from which we all sprang. In this sense all religions honor “God” and there is no right and no wrong. I would like humans across the board to understand this.

I think that we get lost in words, and defining “God” is one of the trickiest of all. Words may be the same, in the case that we hear the words, we speak the words, but in the mind of the receiver of the words, a very different meaning can be taken than the one the speaker is trying to express. A very simple example, I may be talking about “love” and a Christian might be thinking “agape,” which is God’s love, but the guy next door who secretly visits the strip club might be thinking of a good fuck.

So the fact that we all receive words differently means that we get stuck in our idea of God and we forget that although the Buddhists don’t have an idea of “God” per se – they have the Existent and the Non-Existent – and that Moslems call God “Allah” and the Aboriginal Americans describe the Great Mystery as “The-Spirit-That-Lives-Within-All-Things” – we just might be talking about that great, broad, indescribable and ineffable Source of life that animates us all.

So why is it so hard to see the similarities between peoples and so easy to see the differences?

There is this thing called “programming,” that the Buddha called “conditioned arising,” and that Ruiz and AshAmara have called in their book on relationships, “domestication conditioning.” Of all these terms I like the latter one best, because it describes the conditioning we need to get along in life. Yet some of that conditioning is negative in how we perceive other people and our own role in relationships. It makes for expectations and assumptions that interfere with WHAT IS.

I think that it is so hard to see similarities, because of this thing termed “domestication conditioning.” Because we love our families and we have a need to belong to something larger than ourselves, we accept the terms of the social norms we find ourselves under. There is a layer of common agreement in the collective unconscious that we participate in to get along together, and we find this particularly well defined in the groups we belong to, such as family and nation.

So I can “identify” as the daughter of Lillian and John, part of me can identify as Christian because that is my “domestication conditioning” religion, and I can identify as an American, as “white,” as “woman,” but what does any of this really mean? These are simply ideas I hold in my head. The boundaries of a nation show up on maps people make, but not on the landscape of the Earth. For that same reason I prefer to identify as a human being rather those aspects defined by appearances.

Words are only the tip of the iceberg that act as descriptions that allow us to communicate with each other.

There came a time recently, when all the work I had done on myself to bring the shadows of my childhood into conscious awareness paid off, and I have become liberated within from a lot of repressed anger and anxiety I have carried for years. During the process of liberation, I saw within myself many aspects of “self.” It is not just differences of language that give us the term “babble.” There are nuances of feeling and emotion, like and dislike, pleasure and pain that compile in personal memory organized according to similar situations that contribute to the concept of “self.” It is not “one” self, but many compiled selves that contribute to a personality.

Gurdjieff gave an exercise just before sleep that helps to integrate these many soul aspects. Because memory is what pieces together the “self,” memory can be trained in such a way to waken the higher mind: the neo-cortex. So when I lie in bed waiting for sleep at night, I deliberately sense the whole of my body and simultaneously recall my day in as much detail as I can. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, but that is impetus for the next time.

The part of me that likes to sleep and be mentally lazy often interferes, and that is why the struggle, but when I can persevere, my memory serves to process the day and its events. If I have been present to myself throughout the day, this is easier than if I have spent the day avoiding myself. The exercise pieces together the random bits of things allowing the memory to integrate experience in a powerful and positive way without engaging fantasy. Fantasy seems to bear the ego’s message of self-importance.

My thoughts have rambled on quite a bit here, beginning with the Buddhist concept of “no self” and yet being a Westerner and raised in patterns of Western “domestication conditioning” I find allowing myself to have that concept of self has allowed me to understand the random bits of information input by my process of perception and interpretation of that perception in a deeper way than if I had no language for it at all. It helps me to understand my psyche and my own soul, and since I am playing somewhat with language here, the very term “psyche” stems from the Greek word for “soul.”

“Soul” is actually “Sol,” another name for our Sun. The Sun is the brilliant light shining forth within our Solar System as my Soul is the bright light shining within my own being. Without light and shadow there would be no contrast in life, and without contrast and contradiction, no way to struggle to understand just what it means to be human in this drama of life.

When Odin claimed the Runes from his death initiation on Yggdrasil, he sacrificed himself to himSelf. I am mindful that the Hindus have two meanings of self and they communicate this by capitalizing one -Self- and keeping a small case on the other -self. The “lower self” relates to the limbic brain, the emotions of survival (fight or flight), and memories that accumulate into new learning experiences. The “higher self” relates to the neo-cortex and its enhanced capacity for reasoning, making sense of things, and the “higher emotions” of love, joy, contentment, and ecstasy. Odin is the God of ecstatic knowledge. I find this legend useful when I am working to integrate or transform an aspect of myself within the larger view of who I want to be. This is what I sacrifice: an aspect of self that no longer serves me. The small death within the larger scope of being offers me a new and fresh beginning.

I started this blog intending to write about identity. The many changes in my being have left uncharted territory. I cannot “know myself” in the old ways any more. There has been an expansion of spirit. I don’t know what to do with this, so I have decided to just allow it to be. Within my Self, the Existent and the non-Existent. The Christian and the non-Christian. The Mystic, the Artist, the Healer, and the Hermit. Rolling these up into one, I wonder what adventure lives around the next corner?


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