Monday, July 18, 2011

Seeing you Seeing me.

The amount of energy and consideration which routinely goes into the notion of personal identity is huge. It’s taken as a given that we know ourselves but even though the matter is of paramount importance it is questionable that anyone really “knows” themself. And if nobody knows themself how is it possible to truly know someone else?

When we meet someone for the first time we want to know something about them and they want to know something about us. So we say, “Tell me something about yourself”. And then they begin to tell their stories—Name, job, interests, family, etc. And then we tell our story. The question—the only relevant question is: Are we nothing more than a name or a job or any of the other characteristics we share? Names can change. Jobs come and go. Interests shift over time and sadly families die just like we do. All of these objective measures are in a constant state of change. Objects are impermanent. They are like a suit of clothing which gets put on and taken off. Do we in fact have a permanent identity? Something upon which we hang those objective, impermanent clothes?

It isn’t something we think about very much but perhaps we should because if we did we might discover an essential truth which explains the cause of much suffering. There is a beauty that comes with getting old and I’m not talking about impermanent clothes; not even my objective body which is not what would be called “beautiful”. That part of me would be called decrepit but that is OK because it is not who I am.

A long time ago I studied grammar and learned about such things as subjects and objects. I don’t remember much beyond that but just knowing the difference between a subject and an object is very helpful in nailing down this matter of identity. As I’ve aged I’ve noticed what changes and what hasn’t. Everything has changed except one thing: Me—The subjective me; the me who sees the changes, hears, smells, tastes, touches and thinks. So I like everyone else who has ever lived identifies with that subjective me—the one inside my changing, objective skin. There is just one little problem with that view: When I objectify my subjective me, and by that I mean when I imagine that me inside and convert it from a subject into an object called an ego or a self-image. When that conversion takes place that too then undergoes change and becomes subject to suffering.

Here is the truth: A subject can’t be seen. Only objects can be seen. We want to be true to ourselves and to others but it is very difficult to be true to what can’t be known, objectively and that applies to our self also. So to meet that mental challenge we create an objective surrogate which we then take to be who we are. If you want to conquer suffering you’ll take the time to understand this piece of mental slight-of-hand. WE SUFFER BECAUSE WE BOTH “REIFY” OBJECTS AND OBJECTIFY WHAT IS REAL. I write these words in capitals because suffering boils down to that. It is just that simple. So what does this word “reify” mean? It means to imagine life where there is none. And of course to objectify something means to mentally convert life into a stone.

The Buddhist definition of reality is most exact. Accordingly reality is understood as something which has substantial, intrinsic, independent status and the opposite is true as well. Something is unreal which does not subscribe to that understanding. Therefore “subjects” are considered real and objects are not. An object (any and every object) is dependent and has no intrinsic substance yet we can see objects. So here is where this understanding solves the suffering problem: If you can see (or perceive in any way) something, know that it is unreal and has no power to harm the real subjective you. That true you is beyond harm or suffering since it is eternal and hasn’t changed a whit during your entire life. Yes of course our bodies (the objective us) experience pain, but suffering is not pain. Pain is unavoidable but suffering is a spiritual/mental issue. If we can hold that understanding as our reality then when we see thoughts and feel emotions percolating up from our memories we can see them as objective residue rather than reality.

The essential matter is not who we are subjectively but rather who we aren’t objectively. When we confuse this identity issue not only do we not know ourselves but we mistake our real nature for an objective ghost.
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