The 'I' of me is a snapshot of something in motion.
A core part of my Buddhist-led understanding of the way things are is that we are in fact constructs, moments in a flux of causal relationships. The “I” of me is a snapshot of something in motion. I am constructed out of a variety of things. Some, such as my genetic makeup, more or less stick together so long as the body sticks together. Other things, such as my experiences, good and ill, are more transient. Some mark my character more or less “permanently,” most become a bit of who I am for a period of time but sooner or later fade away within the half-life of memory.
Related to this, I’ve long felt that those who are offended at the idea of a deity who is more or less a big person in the sky pulling various strings might more profitably aim their ire at the idea of a soul as something that sits somewhere inside our bodies, but which is ultimately unaffected by the trials and travails of life and which will in good time move on to better (or worse) things.
The cognitive error of a separate, isolated, and permanent self is a veritable cornucopia of misfortune. As we strive with more and more energy to defend the indefensible, it leads us to guard against the world in ways that hurt us and all around us, sometimes in terrible ways. Perhaps always ultimately in terrible ways.
At the same time, there is a sort of a ghost in the machine in how our consciousness, particularly our self-consciousness, arises out of the mix of conditions. Sort of like magic: Stuff. And then me. Poof! And I am aware. Or, if not, it’s a pretty good facsimile of self-awareness, sufficiently so that I have no problem in treating it as real.
This seeing self, feeling self, is, of course, rooted in all those conditions and is temporary. But it is here. And it is real.
So far nothing has disabused me of this analysis.
What I’m most interested in for this briefest of meditations is how, while we are contingent and passing, we have a certain autonomy. And out of that, a “so what?”
We have some ability, limited though it may be, to say yes, or to say no. With that ability comes a certain responsibility. Somehow this ability to choose sets off consequences, following like day and night every choice, and interestingly, challengingly, our non-choices.
This is who we are.
And so, the koan. Mary Oliver presents it for us when she asks the question, perhaps the only question:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Adapted from a post at Monkey Mind, June 17, 2011.
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The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, a UU World online columnist, is a Zen Buddhist priest and senior guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen as well as senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island.
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