Making Friends with the Mind: An Approach to Egolessness of Self
One of the points that has helped me as a pratictioner when I am out in the world, traveling, or simply not in retreat or the supportive context of, for example, a sangha event, is to constantly come back to egolessness of self. Not egolessness of dharma, not egolessness of other people and the emptiness of other things. But rather, to reflect more deeply upon a sense of selflessness. How I approach selflessness is from the perspective of being friends with myself.
My best friendships have always been, not about what my friend did or didn't do or who they were or weren't, but about an openness and a kindness and respect for our relationship. Through respecting and acknowledging our differences, we get along so well—with a big helping of appreciation for our uniqueness and our history. We also try not to push so much to define things between us. We aren’t keeping them vague; we’re just not trying so hard to be something. That's how my best friendships have developed over time, and that's how my friendship with myself has also developed. I treat my relationship with my mind with a similar respect. By not trying so hard to be something or do something, I can see, “Yes, these thoughts arise in my mind, but it's not a permanent state. It's something that arises and changes. It's something that I feel, and then it dissipates. It's something that I don't need to judge myself on.”
This letting go of who and what I am in any kind of fixed way, letting go of that attachment to self, letting go of the ego of self is not just an intellectual exercise. I seek out the egolessness of self in all and every state of mind. Sometimes it's fatigue or other times it’s amped-up ego-clinging, which is exhausting and difficult to let go of. But, I understand that I change—I am one thing one minute and another the next, and I cannot be fixed into any permanent state. The more I appreciate that change and movement, the more I feel I am making friends with my mind, rather than relating to it as something that is constantly in turmoil.
Even if my mind is in turmoil, my approach can be like consoling a buddy in some ways. At that point with a buddy, you don't want to get so involved with the story of their distress, rather you just hang out. You have a beer or something like that, and you say, “You know, you can talk to me in your own time, and I'll be here, and we'll just hang out together. I don't have the best advice. I don't really know what to say. I don't really know what to do. It's your life, and so, we'll just talk about this and see what happens.”
The same approach works for the mind. Let the mind do its thing, and realize that it's not fixed, that you are not fixed, and that's okay. Actually, this is how we function, how we change, and how we grow. We can't hold on to being any one kind of way; otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up for some sort of lenchak relationship, some sort of emotional codependence with ourselves, with our own mind, our own identities.
To realize egolessness of self is emphasized on the path before that of egolessness of dharma. To just say, as sometimes we may be inclined to do, that all the terrible things in the world are empty, and by that not deal with it, is a kind of spiritual bypassing, a spiritual vagueness. But if you realize the egolessness of self, on that basis your relation with the world becomes more of an open engagement because it's not weighing so heavily on the mind, since your relationship with your mind is already more loose and flexible. When I think about the complexity of the outer world, it always comes back to me and causes me to question its implications in my life and my fears about other people, my fears about the world, about reality, my fears about death and dying, about consciousness. The more I am confronted by all that complexity, the more I’m reminded to return to a reflection on the egolessness of self. It turns out that contemplating the emptiness of the world, the egolessness of dharma, without egolessness of self doesn't feel so relaxing.
So, when I see that my Dharma practice may be getting a little stressful, then I may need to reaffirm this perspective of making friends with my own mind. Talking to oneself in a positive way is proven to boost confidence and change the brain’s chemistry. It relaxes the mind, not to be merely self-affirming, but to be kind to the self as well. Similarly, to engage with the outer world in a healthy way is also being kind to self.
Dharma practice is never about beating oneself up or being super critical. Even as we work with negative emotions and apply remedies to them, we don’t go about it from the perspective that the negative emotions and kleshas are bad. It's recognizing that I have anger, and that's okay. But I'm not going to let that define or control my actions. I'm not going to be spirited away by these negative emotions—but—it's okay that they arise. To see them as they arise, and then to gradually apply remedies—such as exchanging self and other, tonglen; looking for the storyline and the attachment to self and dissipating it through logic; generating compassion and considering that all beings have been our parents and mothers in previous lives—doing all these practices requires a friendship with the mind. It requires kindness. No practice should be about beating oneself up.
Become a positive force in the world
I'm not going to get into the moral or scientific arguments about plants having consciousness or not having consciousness—it's a little vague at this point for me—but even if trees don't have consciousness, even if tables, cups, wood, and rocks are not sentient beings, being unkind to these things or not showing appreciation for them is still a reflection of our own mind. It reveals how our own mind is or is not making friends with itself. There is no reason to be angry at a rock. And even if there were a reason, it's usually something to do with ego attachment. Whether the rock is sentient or not doesn't really make much difference to what's going on in our mind. If the rock is sentient, then there will be a karmic dynamic, but that's not really the point. Our focus is on what’s going on in our mind and whether we are developing a friendship, whether we are developing solidarity in our practice, and whether we are developing a kind awareness of all things.
So, making friends with our own mind is not ultimately different from making friends with others. It's not ultimately different from being kind toward others. It's being kind in general, being kind to all, being kind and compassionate to everything, and not seeing anything as different in deserving that kindness.
No matter where we are and what we choose to do with our lives, we do have the ability to be a positive anchor in the world, a positive force. To become a positive force is not so much about changing the world as it is about changing our relationship with our mind, which then changes the world because it really isn’t a separate thing. Whether the rock is sentient or not, it's really our mind that makes the difference in our relationship with the rock. Even with another person, although there may be karmic consequences at play in dealing with another person, it’s really our own state of mind that determines how healthy that relationship is.
I've had some pleasant relationships with people who initially seemed very antagonistic toward me. In the end, I developed an interesting friendship with them. By the time we said goodbye, we expressed a mutual appreciation. So, I made a lot of progress with this person. We hung out together and mostly had a good time. It wasn’t what the person said or did so much as a kind of understanding that was developed. They have their own thing and I have mine, but it's possible to have a positive relationship even with someone who's seemingly quite negative, so long as you're also making friends with yourself.
Being in a relationship with someone who has a negative mindset can be tough. We might say it wears on us, so we have to reassess our friendship. We have to reassess our relationship or our dynamic. A lot of relationships are ended this way because of codependency, and often that’s a healthy choice. For anyone who works in mental health, we see when we have to draw boundaries so that we're not subjecting our own minds to someone else's verbal abuse, or something like that.
Nevertheless, in those situations, I think a great deal of our strength comes from how friendly we are with our own minds and whether or not we give in to outer circumstances. I'm not saying that this is an easy thing to do, especially because it seems like there's my internal mind on the one hand, and then on the other there's this outer world. But over time dharma practice and the study and reasoning of emptiness, looking at the egolessness of self and the egolessness of dharma, provide the foundation to understand emptiness and interdependence. The study fuels the practice that fuels the understanding. That understanding comes in our aid when we are increasing our friendship with all things.
So, it takes time. It takes effort. But it's wholly possible to be in any situation—positive, negative, in a cabin in the woods or cave in the mountains, in a media circus, or just right downtown—and to have that same solidarity with the nature of mind, with the positive friendship of mind, which is really the positive friendship with all beings if that understanding is developed.
Emptiness is an antidote to fear and points toward joy
It's been a great experience for me to dive into this topic because I notice that when I don't keep up my practice of egolessness of self, when my practice of emptiness is incomplete, then all these dark thoughts and fears begin to threaten the edges of my mind. That’s because I'm seeing things separately—as me and then the world. “Self” and “other” is a scary place to live in because I'm just one person, and the world is a great big, dangerous, uncaring thing if I'm thinking in that way. It feels entirely out of my control, alien and separate—but that's only when I have that strong emphasis on and attachment to the self. And when I’m not being friendly. Regardless of what happens to me, I don't want to have that kind of relationship with my mind or with the world where I fear everything.
Maybe in a so-called “practical sense” it's helpful to my survival to be paranoid and distrusting and to protect myself from other people, but, I can make smart choices and be skillful without resorting to a life of paranoia. I don't think paranoia is necessarily the intelligent choice. It may seem like the intelligent choice to a mind that thinks that there is objective truth, and that objective truth resides largely in the outer world. But I don't think there really is a single objective truth in that way either. Everything is subjective because it is our mind, and when it is so much of our mind, it leads me back to egolessness of self, and points me toward kindness, which brings great joy.
A short introduction to the analytic meditation on egolessness of self
To put all this into perspective, and into practice, I’d like to walk you through a short analytical meditation on the egolessness of self. Please undertake this meditation in a spirit of curiosity and kindness toward your mind.
The meditation of egolessness of self begins with an analysis of our body in order to see, does the self reside in our body. We look into the question, Where is my self? Where is my mind? Is the mind in my body? Working my way up from my toes to my feet, my knees, my legs, my stomach, chest, head, asking—Is it my eyes? Is it my ears? Is it my brain? My frontal lobe? My cerebellum? In this way, break down the body into pieces and then to molecules. Where is the one mind? Where is the single, permanent ego-identity that is unchanging, unbreakable, and exists from its own side, the intrinsic mind or intrinsic self?
Going through the body in this way is one of the great methods for tracking egolessness of self. Similarly, we then ask those questions of the mind itself. Is the mind in our thoughts? Is the mind in our feelings? Is the mind in our perceptions? Going through each of the five skandhas—form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness, asking—Is the mind in any of these? Is the mind those things? Is the mind the body? Is the mind the owner of the body? Is the mind a product of the body? Going through all these questions, all of the different combinations and permutations, really look closely with your experience to see whether that is the case. Over enough time, this process will become fairly automatic. The point is not to answer this once and be done with it, but to continually explore this question as a practice.
One of the reflections that often suddenly comes back to me is, “am I my thoughts?” That reflection is how I jump into a more summarized practice when I’m not sitting on the cushion. I do it wherever I am. To think, am I my thoughts? Am I my history? Am I in this body? Leaving the question open, I remind myself that as I don't find anything, I still continue to search and prod a little. When nothing arises as the obvious answer, then I can let go. I'm in fact not concluding, “There is no mind,” but the letting-go of the analysis process helps with egolessness of self, with getting to that open space. It’s not a vague space, although it can feel that way at times, but it is a space where I'm not trying to hold on to something.
Vagueness and openness are two different things. Vagueness is deliberately avoiding something or making a statement without backing. With openness, it's not that something is being excluded; it's just that nothing was found to be included. I'm not stating there is no self, but that I found no solid self. I do find a relative self that I deal with, but it's not permanent or intrinsic. By going through such questions—like, am I my thoughts; am I my feelings; am I this fear; am I this anger; am I this attachment?—egolessness gains perspective for me pretty fast.