(NOTE: We are exploring the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, a handy set of tools that help us recognize and end suffering in any situation. The first of the eight ‘tools’ or aspects that we’ve been looking at is Skillful View. Our view of existence is off-kilter if we think that everything can or should stay the same, and if we believe we are isolated instead of an integral part of the fabric of being. Because impermanence is so obvious in the changing of the seasons and in the mirror, I only ask that you look around and at least accept if not celebrate the ever-changing wonder if life.
Understanding the concept of ‘no separate self’ is more challenging, because everywhere we look we find cultural reinforcement of the belief that we are separate and in need of identity fortification. So to help us, I’ve brought in the Buddha’s Five Aggregates to delve deeper.)
In the last post we considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is this body we care for, enjoy, abuse and suffer. We saw how the body grows, ages, dies, and is subject to illness and injury. We recognized that on a cellular level the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways.
These are what make us understand that the body doesn’t define us: changeable, inseparable and beyond our control. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these filters to the four other aggregates. All these teachings shine a light for you to look and see for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it, or even the Buddha’s. Discover for yourself if this is true.
Yum, yuck and yawn
Now we continue to the Second Aggregate that keeps us clinging to the painful belief that we are separate: Feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what I like to call yum! yuck! or yawn.
We all have things we like and don’t like. Where we get in trouble is when we lock in those preferences and believe they define us. What a depletion of enjoyment it would be to narrow down life’s experiences to only a predefined set of preferences that relies on our not being fully present to our senses in each moment.
Let’s use chocolate as an example. Look at the difference between tasting a piece of chocolate with a fresh palate, really experiencing the flavors, and claiming “I’m a chocolate lover (or a chocoholic) so I love this.” Caught up in assumptions and beliefs, we activate the craving and maybe gobble it up without tasting it at all. Do we even like chocolate in this moment? How would we know? All our thoughts and emotions are abuzz and entangled in ideas of identity.
As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that, if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not as satisfying as I believe them to be. Oh no, who am I without my chocolate? There’s almost a sense of betrayal to my tribe of chocolate lovers.
Now let’s expand our exploration into other preferences and how we define ourselves by them. How about a sports team? Our local basketball team is almost all new players and one of the team’s shining stars has an injury so won’t be able to play this season. Yet fans will continue to follow and root for their team, wear their jerseys and wave their banners. Why? Because that team brand is part of how they identify themselves as part of a particular tribe. Automatic acceptance and connection.
Then there’s political affiliation. This is not simply a logically thought out set of ideas and then finding politicians to go carry them out, is it? No, this is deeply rooted loyalty. When I was in elementary school, enjoying the easy camaraderie of my classmates, I suddenly felt isolated because it was presidential election season and all the kids sang “I like Ike!” while my mother was devotedly working for Adlai Stevenson. My sense of self was more strongly defined by family and there was no way I would ever betray that by putting on an Ike button to fit in with my friends. I was too young to have any clue what either of the candidates planned to do if elected, yet my perceived identity forced me to take sides. Notice how much other-making comes out of preferences. It can be pretty toxic stuff!
RIght about now, you might be feeling like the Buddha’s asking you to chuck your choices in life, and that is not the case. All that is being asked is to be fully alive in this moment to recognize that our preferences are not who we are. In doing so we might actually be able to enjoy them more or engage in a more meaningful way. Because all we’ve been doing is narrowing our options for savoring life in the fear that without labels we will be lost.
When in fact we will be found! We find ourselves fully alive in this moment, able to appreciate all that arises, able to send lovingkindness to all beings without regard to their tribal affiliations. We can root for a team for the fun of the game, yet still care if a player on another team is hurt. We can seek solutions to challenges without making enemies of those who out of fear resist the changes we seek, or don’t see things as we do. In not making enemies we open to the possibility of real conversations and beneficial means.
I remember arriving late to my 20th high school reunion. My classmates were already seated at big round dinner tables, and the only seats left for us were with people I didn’t know. It turns out in high school they were kids I kept clear of — the ‘greasers’ with their hot rods, the girls with beehive hairdos and heavy makeup. Oh no! But guess what? Twenty years later they were just ordinary people like us, and we had a very pleasant time with them.
Defining ourselves by our preferences, we may feel loved when someone gives us what we like — they’ve been paying attention! – and conversely feel invisible if they give us something we would never choose for ourselves — OMG, they have no clue who we are. But maybe we’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. After all, our preferences change throughout our lives, depending on what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. There was a time our granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change.
One day in the mid 1970’s I was walking down the street wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!
For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.
How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years before. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.
Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive an electric car. Enough said! I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity, or the identity of someone you perceive to be very different from you.
Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.
When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might experience discomfort being seen in something that so ill suits us.
Because these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle, how can they define us? Beyond that they are ungovernable, out of our control. Don’t believe me? Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?
We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is this the self we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — hmm, probably not.
There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post represents the Five Aggregates we take ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.
The Pali Canon, the recorded teachings of the Buddha, quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored.
Notice for yourself over the coming week the degree to which you believe your preferences define you. To the degree that they define you, they confine you! We are not trying to erase preferences. We just let go of the idea that they are us.
Come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness, you might free yourself from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. How does that feel?
Image by Jill Wellington