Dharma Talk

What is This Thing We Call the Self?

April 8, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

Good Morning, everyone.

I’d like to begin by reviewing what we talked about last week, just briefly. We talked about meditation with a lot of emphasis on the posture. I want to review that, and I want to explain why posture is so important.

The first thing is to have a secure base. Whether you are sitting on a chair or a pillow, a pillow should lift your butt six to nine inches off the floor –so you can keep a curve in your back and sit up straight. It’s stressful to do this when you’re sitting directly on the floor with no tilt to the pelvis.

Second thing is to own your body. By putting all your attention on it; sitting up straight; tucking your chin in slightly, so you pull your ears back over your shoulders. So that your spine is straight.We don’t sit in this way because we are looking for some state of mind. Sitting in this way is the state of mind of mind we want—-alert, controlled, completely open.

I showed you a mudra, a hand position—which I’m going to review. Again. I’m left-handed, so I put the back of my right hand over my left hand- placing the big knuckle of the upper hand into the corresponding inside of that joint on the lower hand. By putting our non-dominant hand on top, we are suppressing our action-orientation Next, we  make a soft, fat round circle by touching our thumbs together, without tension. I should be able to pull a piece of paper through the place where the thumbs meet. I call that our “attention gauge”. If your thumbs separate, if that circle collapses, it allows you to see that your attention has wandered.

I want to clarify that because I’m not happy with what I said last week that “by putting your awareness on your posture, and your breath, and your mudra, you sequester a certain part of your awareness, and that becomes a platform from which you can watch your thoughts.”I thought about that a little more deeply, and I wasn’t happy with it because it tends to create a dualistic way of regarding the mind and body.

The most important thing about sitting and meditation is to end dualistic perceptions. So we say in Zen practice, “not one, not two”. The mind and body are not one, not the same thing,and the mind and body are not two. The mind and body are one and two simultaneously. That’s important.

It’s important because … the purpose of my talk today is to talk about the self. The self that wants to get enlightened, the self that feels it’s missing things, the self that wants to fix, dispel, hold onto  a certain mood, a certain state of being, and keep it permanent. This is how many people think of Enlightenment—a state of permanent unchanging bliss. There may be some spiritual traditions that teach this and may achieve this, but I wouldn’t want to drive with any of them.

One of the reasons that “not one, not two” is so important, is because the self also is “not one, not two.”There are two ways of seeing—self-referential—the “I”, and then there’s everything else. Me and you. But we’re not actuallyt separate despite our conventional wisdom that we are entirely separate. When I’m looking as “I”, that’s one perspective of my awareness. When I’m looking as “us”, that’s another way.

Suzuki-roshi at one point said, “When we breathe, our throat is like a revolving door”. We inhale, and we exhale. There’s no “I” necessary in that formulation. To say “I am breathing” the “I” is extra. To say “I am walking” the “I” is extra.

What I wanted to revise about what I said last week concerning breaking awareness into discrete parts, is  “Stopping the mind” does not mean stopping the activity of the mind. It doesn’t mean stopping your thoughts, or preventing images from arising. What it indicates is imbuing your entire body— your mudra, your breath, your posture with the mind. And when your awareness completely covers yourself like that, there is no dualism. There is no mind / body distinction.

And when we sit, we sit erect, we sit on the edge of a chair, we don’t lean back against the chair, we tuck our chin, we assume this posture. And this posture is enlightenment. This posture allows mind to be mind, allows body to be body. Allows breath to be the breath, and we just breathe. We don’t lose our awareness of anything.. Also, let me add, when you sit, if you put a slight downward pressure on your diaphragm – it takes a minute to learn how —it’s the tightening just before a cough—to breathe that way. Relax your stomach, but press down, it gives strength to your zazen.

I said last week that meditation is as much for the body as it is for the mind. It strengthens the body to deal with shocks of realization and revelation. When you sit for a long time, ligaments will loosen, you will be flooded with memories or emotions – things you stored in the body because they were too important to forget are now liberated. And you want to be strong. You want to be … you want to own yourself.

So this leads me to today’s subject.

We all share self-consciousness. And it’s ridiculous to pretend we don’t. We all have a sense of our body, our seeing, hearing, tasting. It’s not a problem. We all have a sense of “other”, which is kind of the way we remind ourselves that “we” are over here. Buddhist philosophy has discovered that all of our organs each have awareness. Eyes have awareness, nose has awareness, ears, tongue etc.. Mind has awareness. And because the mind encompasses and organizes all of those other awarenesses, we tend to think it is central control and most important.

And then we invest that consciousness with a name. We call it the self.

Well, the problem is that it is difficult to consider the self in a “not one, not two” format.

When we name something –we don’t have to think about it anymore. We know what its essential characteristics are and it becomes resolved as a definition. Unfortunately, this happens with our idea of a self. It gets composed of things we have been told about ourselves; things we have implied about ourselves. habits we’ve made and observed, delf-reflections – trying to look at ourselves from outside to come up with some objective understanding of who we are, etc. At a certain point in time, it becomes sort of a known quantity. And even though it is complex, and even though it is contradictory, it’s a little bit like living in a museum. After a while, as large as it may be, you would eventually be familiar with everything in it. You would cease being surprised by anything you encountered.

It’s is obvious that  our sense of self—our ego— is there to help us. It would not have survived the crucible of evolution if it didn’t. It helps us brush our teeth. It helps us take care of our body, stay clean, groom ourselves, not bump into other people, not bump into trees. It has a real function.

Being aware of a self, or having an ego, is not the problem. Promoting that self as the most important thing in the universe, promoting its every impulse,whim, and desire, regarding that small personal mind, that little portion of the universe  as allimportant— that’s the problem.

One of the things that meditation allows us to do is dissolve such distinctions, including that apparent clarity about who we are. Ask yourself, “What is the self?”. You can’t find it when you meditate. You can’t find where it is located. You can’t determine its shape. You can’t describe its color.

If I was a car salesman, and I said, “I’ve got a great car for you.Uh—I can’t remember where I parked it. Don’t know what color it is. Don’t know what make it is.” You’d be skeptical. Well, that skepticism about ourselves is not a bad idea. Because, if we believe everything we think, we’re liable to get in trouble. And that includes thinking about ourselves.

Meditating allows all of those distinctions to settle back into a kind of formlessness, sometimes I think of it as the underlying energy of the Universe. Buddhists refer to that formlessness  as“Big Mind” because it has no boundaries and borders. That’s the place where everything is possible. Everything has potential. We don’t know who’s sitting. We don’t know who’s breathing.

It takes some practice to relax expectations, but we’re not trying for any particular state of mind. To have some idea that you can always be happy is like willing the clouds not to move, or willing the weather to be the same. The point is, can you stay upright? Can you stay firm and composed no matter what comes up? Because that’s where your life is, riding that exhale.

In this pandemic, one of the things that we need, beside the courage of the first responders, and beside the courage caregivers, is people with clarity and calmness,  people who assess things objectively and carefully. This is why Dr. Fauci has received such trust and approbation from a large majority of people.

Because we call it a self, we tend to think of it as a thing. We tend to think it might have a physical reference like an organ. Maybe a little walnut with my name engraved on it tucked under my liver. Or perhaps a little homunculus behind my forehead, doing my seeing and my hearing.

So, when we begin to consider the self as an awareness, that simple adjustment offers us a lot of freedom. Because it means that the things we don’t like about ourselves, our shyness, second-guessing, – our habits or learned responses or impulses that we are not yet taking responsibility for, are not fixed qualities, they’re just habits of focusing on something again and again. We are not bound to them.

One of the big shocks that occurred to me after several  years of meditating … just reviewing some of the things that were coming through my mind was how dangerous I could be. How dangerous any human being can be.

And what makes us particularly dangerous is if we get an idea of ourselves that we are good people. “I’m a good guy.”  If I think I’m a good guy, what is the point of doing any internal investigation? The verdict is in, “I’m OK.”Why monitor what comes out of my mouth, or the consequences of my actions.? Why monitor the impulses that come over my “spinal telephone”? I’m a good guy.

So if that means that I’m told to bomb an apartment building in Baghdad at midnight because my leader doesn’t like the leader of that country, “Hey, we’re the good guy, there must be a good reason for bombing men, women, and children in their beds.


I find it more useful—in an action-oriented way— to remind myself I’m a human being, with every capacity of that animal. I’m not all good or bad, in fact I’m an empty pipe that  can receive over the spinal telephone every impulse, thought, and feeling that any other human being can. The content may be related to my individuated existence, but we all know what love is, anger, envy, etc. Those attributes are universal..

We all know what anger is. We all know what hatred is. We’ve all known people who have hated haters and didn’t see any irony in that. I’ve attended ‘peace meetings’ where people were screaming for peace. So, one of the things about being fully human and accepting that we are fully human is that it’s our responsibility to pay attention to our actual inner states, what controls what may come past our lips. What impulses we honor, and what we don’t.

We start by cleaning our house. Our internal house. My teacher once told me when I was building an altar for my home, if you can make one square foot of your house pristine, you can make your entire house pristine. I failed in that. I’m pretty neat,and my altars are beautiful, but I still have to hire a house-keeper every two weeks to make the whole place shine. But I’m trying. I’m always trying to organize my desk, and my kitchen table, and my counters to make them as pristine as my altar. I know it’s possible. I can do a square foot. So can you.

A lot of people want to meditate because there are many things that make them uncomfortable. Uncomfortable feelings, being different, loneliness, feeling estranged. It’s not going to work. You can’t control the weather. And you can’t really control your internal weather.But you can learn to deal with it with equanimity. That’s one reason that we meditate/ And you can learn that all of those feelings and impulses are sourced in Big Mind—they are not “you,” consequently you don’t have to fear them.

There’s an expression in zen practice: an old zen master was asked, “What’s the Buddha?” and he said, “A shit-smeared stick” which is what they used in the ancient toilet. We don’t like to think that way in a dualistic culture and an idea that shit is “bad” shitty smelly and it’s over there. But from a Buddhist perspective, everything is generated from Big Mind and a shit-smeared stick is just as miraculous and holy as anything else. So my small mind may not like the fact that I am generated by the same Universe that generated my current president, but it’s true and if I want to live without delusions, I have to deal with that.

So once I can accept the full spectrum of being fully human and I’m facing another person that believes differently than I do, or has had different experiences than I have had, there’s no way that I can judge that person, because I’m judging myself. We are both human beings. I can judge the behavior, and respond, but even that – what does that do?

It’s far more profound to try to develop some sort of intimacy. Otherwise you have no control. If you have a relationship, even if you don’t agree with the person, you’re in relationship, and that person will respond very differently if they feel as if they are not being judged. I’ve had intimate experience with this, working for Governor Brown for 8 years, and winning of Republican legislators I needed for our agenda. It was only done through patience and relationship.

The question that I usually try to ask myself is what experiences did this person have which made them think and feel so differently from me? What is it? What happened to them? How are theirs different from mine?

Now, even though distinctions between self and other are a kind of delusion, we still need to encourage ourselves. We still need to be helpful to others. We still need to … get up in the morning and sit zazen.

There are always excuses, but just your my alarm a half hour earlier and “When you wake up, get up.” Don’t think about it. Just get up wash up, grab a tea if you need to, and sit. That is putting your lazy self in a tube. It’s ok there.

And if you take the first 20 or 25 minutes of your day, and dedicate them to yourself, and to surrendering your entire self in Big Mind, it’s almost like an extra hour’s sleep. You will discover that the rest of the day goes much more smoothly.

In many cases practice is going to feel like restriction, like limits. It’s going to feel frustrating, like “Oh God, I’ve got to sit still. I’ve got to cross my legs and my legs hurt.” Well, having a body is a limit.Having a life that has a definite ending is a restriction. And what we need effort and encouragement for is to learn how to accept restrictions with equanimity. Because there will always be difficulties in the world of form. They are not going to disappear. Even enlightenment doesn’t free you of karma. You will probably have the same problems after enlightenment as you do before. But you will regard them differently. And by practicing meditation, and by practicing uprightness, you’ll find that everything goes more easily.

And when you are not disturbed by restrictions any more, you’ll have a taste of what Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness. Suzuki-roshi said, “Finding your way under some restriction is our practice.” That’s not one, not two. We don’t get to put aside the parts of the world we don’t like. We just don’t. We can try – we can spend the rest of our lives running away from what we don’t like, and running toward what we do like, but then we’re just leaves blown in the wind.

What we want to learn is uprightness. We want to learn dignity. We want to learn clarity.We want to learn to find our way, somehow, through resistance. Most important. This will help us become the person that we’ve always intuited that we could be.

We impose the restrictions that sitting entails on ourselves. We impose the position of our mudra, of tending our breath. And doing that, accepting those restrictions, that’s what allows us to grow. That’s wha toffers us freedom—the transcendence of limits.

I want to share a poem this morning. Wonderful poem by Vaclav Havel. Remember that he was the President of Czechoslovakia? Elected in the bloodless Velvet revolution where they overthrew a dictator, and so many people came out and occupied the streets? And he was the President. He was a playwright. He wrote this poem. It is called “It is I Who Must Begin”.

It is I who must begin.

Once I begin, once I try, here and now. Right where I am.

Not excusing myself by saying “Things would be easier elsewhere.”

Without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures.

But all the more permanently to live in harmony with the voice of Being as I understand it within myself.

As soon as I begin that, I suddenly discover, to my surprise, that I am neither the only one, nor the first, nor the most important one to set out upon that road.

Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.

 I don’t want to strain people’s patience. But I’m going to say that little three-line prayer. I invite you to say it with me in closing. I’ll tell you each line before I say it.

May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.

May all beings be freed from suffering.

May all being be happy and at peace. [bark]. (Even my dog, Chico.)

This will be posted today and it will also be on my youtube channel, which you can find at this link.

Thank you all very much for showing up, I hope it’s been useful.