An Ever-Changing ‘Self’

January 27, 2012

The Wednesday night class has finished its discussion of Rodney Smith‘s “Stepping Out of Self-Deception” and has begun reading Thich Nhat Hanh‘s “The Heart of Understanding,” a commentary on the Heart Sutra. Hour after hour, page after page, of non-self, impermanence, and emptiness.

‘Emptiness’ is a tricky word. It’s easy for me to understand providing it doesn’t become a thing, that is, a noun. Once I read, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form” I get into trouble. So sit, sit, let know-nothing mind have a chance.

Smith and Hanh write a good deal about impermanence of the physical body. This slides down easy. I am a chemist so my awareness that the atoms and molecules of my body change with every breath is simple stuff. Impermanence in the physical world, you might say, is a chemist’s bread-and-butter.

But what about those other skandhas? Feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness? There are a lot of strong ‘self’ thoughts that I cling to. When I say, “this happened to me at my Bar Mitzvah”, the “me” in that story somehow feels so close to the “me” that is typing on this keyboard. I can remember his joys and pains. Our histories feel so strongly connected. Isn’t there a mental “me” that is ongoing, happening inside my head, and separate from you?

Surely “I” have changed over the last 40-odd years, but it all seems so gradual and memories seem to take me right back to where I was then. Can that old me be gone for good? I think so. Let’s try a thought experiment: Suppose you tell me a joke that I have never heard. The punchline is so terrific and so unexpected. It hits me like a pie in the face. I laugh. A moment later, you try to tell me the same joke (it was that good). “Wait a moment,” I say. “I’ve heard that one already.” The pie never lands. I have already ducked.

So the old “me”, the old “feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness” have all changed. And they keep changing with every passing moment. Change cannot be stopped, it can only be forgotten or overlooked.

Last night, in the few minutes that passed between the end of kinhin and the start of dokusan, I composed this poem for my teacher:

Before the boat slips away from the dock,
Birds fly overhead,
A fish craps in the water –
Everything is in motion.

Life is the only joke whose punchline always changes.

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