Tuesday dharma talk/a short piece about egolessness
A reminder: every Tuesday here is a “dharma talk.” This means a period of sitting meditation, with instructions, and some discussion. Topics vary. This week I plan on working with the book the “Dhammapada.”
Also, I’m writing (slowly) so here is a little sample of something new on the topic of “egolessness.”
Egolessness has two basic usages in spiritual writing. The first is a Buddhist meaning. It has to do with the contrast between confused perception, or suffering infused perception, the contrast between that and reality (reality, in this context, being a synonym for what is beyond overly simplistic conceptions, what goes beyond confusion). The logic of it being called “egolessness” is a little abstruse, but it goes something like this: an ego is a self. A self is an idea of things as solid and separate. (In this format, then, the chair has a self as much as a person does.) In reality, the things we assume to have selves (unchanging, separate from other things in a significant way) do not. The second meaning is more about serving and helping others. If the ego means something like being arrogant, or too full of yourself, then being egolessness means being free from arrogance, being willing to work with others and serve.
It’s a little too easy to say the one meaning is equal to the other. There is a connection in Buddhism between the two, but it’s not necessarily simple or obvious. I think it’s sufficient to say that ideas about becoming less arrogant, and more able to engage with and help others around us are essential to the spiritual path (how they connect to ideas of the nonconceptual is a little more involved). It is possible to have the second meaning, service, without the first, but that is not how it’s done in Buddhism.
In regards to sitting meditation practice, both meanings come into play. First, when you sit, the concepts take a different internal position. It’s common to say something like they “fall away,” which is equally unclear, and equally helpful. There’s no way to actually feel what this means until you sit, until you actually do it. A very useful technique to have is called “labeling thoughts.” As you sit, and maintain your body is a relaxed fashion, thoughts and feelings come up, sometimes fantastically complex and colorful, sometimes very simple or repetitive. You can think to yourself “thinking” as you sit, the go back to the process of meditating.
As far as the second meaning of egolessness, there a few implications: a) meditation in action b) emotions and postmeditation c) not being arrogant. Meditation in action means finding ways to practice during the midst of chaotic life. There are tons of instructions for how to do this. One is to reconnect with the breath as you work, talk, whatever. Meditation in action is related to how to be in the world, as a practitioner. Maybe it’s almost impossible to “be egoless” and help others without thought for ourselves. Still, progress can be made, and being mindful through meditation in action is both helpful, and something that formal sitting cultivates. Postmeditation just means the period following meditation. You have no choice but to work with the emotions during postmeditation. (You’d do it even if you weren’t a practitioner.) There is a connection between sitting meditation and being able to work fully and properly with the emotions during postmeditation. A first step often has to with becoming more self-aware, more sensitive to what you’re going through.
Finally, being arrogant is problematic. It also very common. It’s also possible to feel arrogant after having done some meditating, or after having understood some complex spiritual idea. This is a problem, because sooner or later, said arrogance will create a communication problem, a lack of awareness, or will hurt someone’s feelings. It can sound a little overly religious or heavy handed to say “don’t be arrogant,” but it’s actually true, and has to be dealt with. It would be very difficult to be a good meditator and be full of yourself. (And remember, being a “good meditator” does not mean quickly being able to “turn off” thoughts or find some magical place of calm and stillness. It has more to do with being willing to try, and do the technique, and to face yourself.)