Self is a Story

Excerpts from "Sticking the World Together with Words," by Tim Parks, The Guardian, July 19, 2010:

Reading silently – stories, histories, explanations – we learn to move in a separate system. The habit is congenial, compulsive. The words speed up. The eye streaks ahead. The page turns while our sense of what came before is still falling into place. Other perceptions – a distant lawnmower, a smell of pastry – are crowded out. Soon the solid world is left behind. A spinning word machine has lifted off from the heavy surfaces of soil, cement and skin. Mind and body part company.

The damage begins.

"Creativity" is an accomplice. If everything we see in the world has its word, its name, we can also invent words for things we can't see: angels, souls, spirits, ghosts, God, paradise. This other realm exists, in words.

One of the words we invented was "self".

Using the words we know, insistently, in our heads, we create an entity and call it "self"; a creature with a past and a future, in much the same way that the sentences and stories we read have a beginning and an end. To reassure ourselves that it is really there we invented another word, identity. And another, character. And another, personality. The more words, the more it exists.

Self is a story existing in a web of words spun out of the mind.

Some people exploit this state of affairs to invent stories, writing down thousands on thousands of soundless signs, mimicking the way people construct their lives. Written narrative is intimately connected with the reader's mental construction of self. The more we think of life as narrative the more we dig our own plot. Narrative is self regarding...

...Foreign languages are unsettling. They remind us how arbitrary the mental world we live in is. Silence is worse. When we try to imagine consciousness without words, when we think of a day, even an hour, without any words in the head, we are overcome by a kind of vertigo. As when we think of death.

A chatter of books is an excellent thing. It reinforces the self, which is bound for the paradise we have invented for it, with words...

But inevitably, from time to time, it happens: some spoilsport grows dissatisfied with words. Words won't say what at some wordless level he feels. Words don't correspond to reality, for him. A writer who finds himself in this distress starts to interrupt the sacred sequences on which our language depends.

"Geb nodrap" apologises Beckett's Watt. "Nodrap, geb nodrap."

It is dangerous to do this kind of thing. Suddenly we see how precarious our world view is. We had been progressing nicely inside our word map; but the map wasn't the territory.

Why do writers do such antisocial things? Don't they have an investment in keeping the word machine in the air?

It can be a question of health. Using words so much, the writer begins to find them oppressive; not any word in particular, but the compulsive onward movement of words in the mind. He begins to fear that for all his ability, he is not in control.

Off it goes on, says the Unnameable.

...In 2005, I ran into a health problem that seemed to be walling me in for a life sentence of chronic pain. It took me two years to realise that at the heart of it, behind all the symptoms and treatments, was a collision between word and world. Now, like a fool, I've returned to my old word habit and told the story.

Read the rest of the essay here...

See also:

We Can Be with Both

“Psychology has refined such a nuanced observation, understanding and insight about the particulars of our human psyches. And certain existential truths that are universal, of course. And there is a realm that we call absolute or universal. It’s not separate. We can call it emptiness, there are so many names. But it’s completely interwoven. It’s one with, it’s connected to, the words don’t express the fact that it’s not  separate from the particular. And the trick for us as practitioners, whether we are practitioners of psychology or meditation, is to really see and unite these experiences so that we can be present with the ordinary moments of our life, and more and more hold an understanding of those moments as Weeds and Purple Flowersbeing deeply significant, expressions of the truth of that moment. Not truth with a capital T that some reified, always true…but the truth of that moment because it’s life. It’s life in the form of you, me, this moment of experience. And then, when we really can truly know that, so many things are possible for us. We don’t have to be afraid of experience or afraid of our own minds. Of course, we like flowers, we hate weeds. We wish for happy experiences and we kind of dread scary sad ones. But as practitioners we can really be with both.”

~ Trudy Goodman, from “Zen, Vipassana, and Psychotherapy,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast: Episode 173 (May 24, 2010)

Human Sensory System

From “Spiritual Practices and the Sliding Scale of Identity,” from Har-Prakash Khalsa’s blog:

Shinzen Young has reworked the common western categorization of the sensory system into a simplified and elegant model. This TSSFIT chart, particularly when combined with the triple skill-set of mindfulness – concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity— is eminently practical and effective in helping us to understand how the various constellations of the human sensory system, and our relationship to that sensory system, affects identity and behaviour.

In the west we usually conceive of the sensory system as seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. External sights and sounds are usually identified as other—other people, other beings, or the world in general as something existing separate in relation to our conventional sense of self.

Now when we consider how our conventional sense of self arises, what we most identify as who we are is composed of a combination of our body’s touches (for a simple working model smell and taste will be considered special categories of touch or body space—see chart below) and emotional feelings, and thoughts that have internal visual and auditory components, or T-F-I-T for short.

Individually we often refer to this as “my” body and mind. Deeper within the self-referential body/mind system are the feelings and thought combinations arising in F-I-T, or feel, image, and talk space.

Our reactivity arises most personally as F-I-T activity – shame, embarrassment, rage, terror, grief, happiness, joy, compassion, etc., accompanied and reinforced through thought. “You’re making fun of me!” “I love you.” “That’s mine!” These sensory components of body and mind are self-referentially reflected and reinforced in the “I”, “me”, “mine” of our language.

There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but as we’ll see later, if that’s all we identify with we stay limited within our conventional fixed identity.

Now let’s look at the chart below. Notice how in the right side of the TSSFIT chart the FEEL-IMAGE-TALK, or F-I-T sensory spaces, represent the more subjective “I, me, mine” conventional sense of self. On the left side of our chart the T-S-S sensory spaces represent a more “not I, me, mine”, or a more objective “other” or “world” space.

Conventional Sense of Self and World

Subjective—Self (I, Me, Mine)

(body space, smell, taste)

(emotional/body space)

(external seeing space)

(visual thinking space)

(external listening space)

(auditory thinking space)



Life is a Giant Feedback Device

"As long as you stay focused, you’re perfectly happy, but it’s when you get scattered that your life becomes unhappy. I came to realize that life is actually a giant biofeedback device. The reason you go to the monastery is so you eventually come to the place where you can see ordinary daily life as a monastery; it just took a special situation in order to develop that sensitivity.”

From “Shinzen Young: The Reluctant Monk,” NEXUS, July/August 2009

The Dhamma Brothers

"In 2002, Donaldson Correctional Facility [near Birmingham, Alabama] became the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding course of silent meditation lasting ten days. The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of 36 prison inmates who enter this arduous and intensive program. It challenges assumptions about the nature of prisons as places of punishment rather than rehabilitation and raises the question: is it possible for these men, some of who have committed horrendous crimes, to change?"

The Key to Life is to Forget Things

"The key to long life, is to immediately forget things. If you forget, then instantly and inevitably, a new state of consciousness always arises," says Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master who turned 100 years old this month. My meditation teacher, Shinzen Young interprets for his teacher in this short news clip.

Sasaki Roshi entered a Rinzai monastery when he was fourteen. He earned the title of Roshi (which means "old" and "teacher") when he was forty and moved to California to teach in 1962. His most famous student is Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-writer who served as the Roshi's personal assistant during the years he spent in seclusion at Mt. Baldy Zen Center.

Shinzen was ordained as a Shingon monk in Mt. Koya, and has been teaching Vipassana meditation for thirty years. He draws the majority of his teaching analogies from mathematical and scientific concepts and emphasizes the similarity among the contemplative and ethical traditions of the world's religions. He has extensive experience coaching people who are suffering from chronic and acute pain.