What Is The "Me"?
The following article was adapted from a talk by Toni Packer on Day 4 of the August 1997 retreat.
A somber day, isn't it? Dark, cloudy, cool, moist and windy. Amazing, this whole affair of "the weather!" We call it "weather," but what is it really? Wind. Rain. Clouds slowly parting. Not the words spoken about it, but just this darkening, blowing, pounding, wetting, and then lightening up, blue sky appearing amidst darkness, and sunshine sparkling on wet grasses and leaves. In a little while there'll be frost, snow and ice-covers. And then warming again, melting, oozing water everywhere. On an early spring day the dirt road sparkles with streams of wet silver. So — what is "weather" other than this incessant change of earthly conditions and all the human thoughts, feelings, and undertakings influenced by it? Like and dislike. Depression and elation. Creation and destruction. An ongoing, ever changing stream of happenings abiding nowhere. No entity "weather" to be found except in thinking and talking about it.
Now — is there such an entity as "me," "I," "myself?" Or is it just like the "weather" — an ongoing, ever changing stream of ideas, images, memories, projections, likes and dislikes, creations and destructions, which thought keeps calling "I," "me," "Toni," and thereby solidifying what is evanescent? What am I really, truly, and what do I think and believe I am? Are we interested in exploring this amazing affair of "myself" from moment to moment? Is this, maybe, the essence of retreat work? Exploring ourselves minutely beyond the peace and quiet that we are seeking and maybe finding. Coming upon clarity about this deep sense of separation which we call "me," and "other people," without any need to condemn or overcome.
Most human beings take it totally for granted that I am "me," and that "me" is this body, this mind, this knowledge and sense about myself which so obviously feels separate from other people. The language in which we talk to ourselves and to each other inevitably implies separate "me's," and "you's" all the time. All of us talk "I" and "you" talk, we think it, write it, read it, and dream it with rarely any pause. There is incessant reinforcement of the sense of "I," "me," separate from others. Isolated. Insulated. Not understood. How is one to come upon the truth if separation is taken so much for granted, feels so common sense?
The difficulty is not insurmountable. Wholeness, true being, is here all the time, like the sun behind the clouds. Daylight is here in spite of cloud cover.
What makes up the clouds?
Can we begin to realize that we live in conceptual, abstract ideas about ourselves? That we are rarely directly in touch with what actually is going on? Can we realize that thoughts about myself — I am good or bad, I'm liked or disliked — are nothing but thoughts — and that thoughts do not tell us the truth about what we really are? A thought is a thought, and it triggers instant physical reactions, pleasures and pains throughout the bodymind. Physical reactions generate further thoughts and feelings about myself — "I'm suffering," "I'm happy," "I'm no good." Feedback that implies that all this is me, that I have gotten hurt, or somehow feel good about myself, or that I need to defend myself, or get more approval and love from others. When we're protecting ourselves in our daily interrelationships we're not protecting ourselves from flying stones or bomb attacks. It's from words we're taking cover, from gestures, from colorations of voice and innuendo.
Just now words were spoken, ". . . we're protecting ourselves, . . . we're taking cover." In using our common language the implication is constantly created that there is someone real who is protecting and someone real that needs protection.
Is there someone real to be protected from words and gestures, or are we merely living in ideas and stories about me and you, all of it happening on the stage of the on-going audio/video drama of ourselves?
The utmost care and attention is needed to follow the internal drama fairly accurately, dispassionately, in order to express it as it is seen. What we mean by "being made to feel good" or "being hurt" is the internal enhancing of our ongoing me-story, or the puncturing and deflating of it. Enhancement or disturbance of the me-story is accompanied by pleasurable energies or painful feelings and emotions throughout the organism. Either warmth or chill can be felt at the drop of a word evoking memories, feelings, passions. Conscious or unconscious emotional recollection of what happened yesterday or a long ago surge through the body-mind, causing feelings of happiness or sadness, affection or humiliation.
Right now words are being spoken, and they can be followed literally, intellectually. If they are fairly clearly and logically put together they can make sense intellectually. Perhaps at first it's necessary to understand what is going on in us intellectually. But that's not the whole thing. The words that are spoken point to something that may be directly seen and felt, inwardly, as the talk proceeds. And as we go along from moment to moment, now and after the talk is over, (and after retreat) can we experience freshly, wakefully, directly, when hurt or flattery are taking place? What is happening? What is being hurt? And what keeps the hurt going? Can there be some awareness of defenses arising, fear and anger forming, or withdrawal taking place, all accompanied by some kind of storyline? Can the whole drama become increasingly transparent? And, in becoming increasingly transparent, can it be thoroughly questioned? What is it that is being protected? What is it that one thinks got hurt? Me? What is me?
It is amazing. A spark of awareness witnessing one spoken word arousing pleasure or pain all over. Can the connection become clear? The immediacy of it, and no I-entity there directing it, even though we say and believe we are doing all that. But we also say that we don't want to do that. Words and reaction proceed along well-oiled pathways and interconnections. A thought of loss comes up and the solar plexus tightens in pain. Fantasy of love-making occurs and an ocean of pleasure ensues. Who does it? Thought says, "I do!" To whom is it happening? Thought says, "To me of course!" But, where and what is this I, this me, aside from all the thoughts and feelings, the palpitating heart, painful and pleasurable energies circulating throughout the organism? Who could possibly be doing it all with such amazing speed and precision? Thinking about ourselves and triggering physiological reactions take time, but present awareness brings the whole drama to light instantly. Everything is happening on its own. No one is directing the show!
Right this moment wind is storming, branches are creaking and leaves quivering. It's all here in the listening — but whose listening is it? Mine? Yours? We say, "I'm listening" or, "I cannot listen as well as you do" and these words befuddle the mind with feelings and emotions learned long ago. You may be protesting that "my hearing isn't yours. Your body isn't mine." We have thought like that for eons and behave accordingly, but presently, can there be just the sound of swaying trees and rustling leaves and fresh air blowing through the window cooling the skin? It's not happening to anyone. It's simply present for all of us, isn't it?
Do I sound as though I'm trying to convince you of something? The passion arising in trying to communicate simply, clearly, may be misunderstood for a desire to influence people. That's not the case. There is just the description of what is happening here for all of us. Nothing to be sold or bought. Can we simply listen and test out on our own what is being offered for exploration from moment to moment?
What is the "me" that gets hurt or attracted, flattered, time and time again, the world over? In psychological terms we say that we are identified with ourselves. In spiritual language we say, that we are attached to ourselves. What is this "ourselves?" Is it feeling myself existing, knowing what I am, having lots of recollections about myself — all the ideas and pictures and feelings about myself strung together in a coherent story? And knowing this story very well — multitudes of memories, some added, some dropped, all inter-connected — what I am, how I look, what my abilities and disabilities are, my education, my family, my name, my likes and dislikes, opinions, beliefs, etc., etc. The identification with all of that, meaning, "This is what I am." And the attachment to it, meaning, "I can't let go of it."
Let's go beyond concepts and look directly into what we mean by them. If one says, "I'm identified with my family name," what does that mean? Let me give an example. As a growing child I was very much identified with my last name because it was my father's and he was famous — so I was told. I liked to tell others about my father's scientific achievements to garner respect and pleasurable feelings for myself by impressing friends. I felt admiration through other people's eyes which may not even have been there. It may have been projected. Perhaps some people even felt, "What a bore she is!" On the entrance door to our apartment there was a little polished brass sign with my father's name on it and his titles: Professor, Doctor Phil. The Phil impressed me particularly, because I thought it meant that my father was a philosopher, which he was not. I must have had the idea that a philosopher was a particularly imposing individual. So I told some of my friends about it and brought them to look at the little brass sign at the door. This is one meaning of identification — enhancing one's sense of self by incorporating the ideas about other individuals or groups, or one's possessions, achievements, transgressions — anything — and feeling that all of this is "me." Feeling important about oneself generates amazing, addictive energies.
To give another example from the past: I became very identified with my half-Jewish descent. Not openly in Germany, where I mostly tried to hide it rather than display it, but later on after the war ended, telling people of our family's fate, and finding welcome attention, instant sympathy, and nourishing interest in the story. One can become quite addicted to making the story of one's life impressive to others and to oneself, and feed on the energies aroused by that. So that's a bit of what identification and attachment are about. And when that is disturbed by someone not buying into it, contesting it or questioning it altogether, there is sudden insecurity, physical discomfort, anger, fear, hurt, whatever.
Becoming a member of the Zen Center and engaging in spiritual practice, I realized one day that I had not been talking about my background in a long while. And now, when somebody brings it up — sometimes an interviewer will ask me to talk about it — it feels like so much bother and effort. Why delve into old stuff? I want to talk about listening, the wind, and the birds. [Laughter] Are you listening too, interviewer? Or are you more interested in identities and stories?
At times people bring up the question about why I don't call myself a teacher when I'm so obviously engaged in teaching. Somebody actually brought it up this morning — the projections and mental as well as psychological associations aroused in waiting outside the meeting room and then entering nervously with a pounding heart. The images of teacher and student offering themselves automatically like clothes to put on and roles to play in these clothes. In giving talks and meeting with people the student-teacher imagery is not there — it belongs to a different level of existence. If images do come up they're in the way like clouds hiding the sun. Relating without images is the freshest, freest thing in the universe.
So, what am I and what are you — what are we with- out images clothing and hiding our true being? It's un-image-inable, isn't it? And yet there's the sound of wind blowing, trees shaking, crows cawing, woodwork creaking, breath flowing without need for any thoughts. Thoughts are grafted on top of what's actually going on right now, and in that grafted world we happen to spend most of our lives.
And yet, every once in a while, whether one does spiritual work or not, meditating or not, the real world shines wondrously through everything. What is it when words fall silent? When there is no knowing? When there is no listener and yet there is listening, awaring, without any separation?
A moment during a visit with my parents in Switzerland comes to mind. I had always had a difficult relationship with my mother. I was very afraid of her. She was a very passionate woman with lots of anger. But also love. Once during that visit I saw her standing in the dining room facing me. She was just standing there, and for no known reason or cause I suddenly saw her without the past. There was no image of her, and also no idea of what she saw in me. All that was gone. There was nothing left except pure love for this woman. Such beauty shone out of her. And our relationship changed, there was a new closeness. It just happened.
Someone said that seeing a shattered image caused grief. But the shattering of self-image need not cause suffering. Truly seeing that the "me" is nothing but a habitual mental construct is freeing beyond imagination.
Toni Packer began studing Zen in 1967 with Roshi Philip Kapleau at the Rochester Zen Center. In 1981, she founded the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, New York. From The Wonder of Presence and the Way of Meditative Inquiry, by Toni Packer.