September 17, 2014

Reinventing Ourselves

How do we overcome fear and the terrible influence it has over us? We must have great courage - we must be prepared to make mistakes, to show failure, and to show our human vulnerabilities. We must be willing to be outcast by our social groups, friends and family. We must be prepared to encounter our dark-side if we have suppressed it, our bright-side if that's what we have suppressed. What we discover is that the pain and aguish involved in these courageous acts are slight compared with the pain and suffering we've been living with by allowing fear to control and manipulate us.

(originally published as "Thoughts on Living: A collection of loosely related topics")

Life and Death

 

All spiritual quests entail delving into the essence of our lives. Often we forget that we are mortal and that our lives are nothing but brief flickers of energy radiating through the cosmos. We live as if we are somehow important - doing important things, wanting respect from others. We become so engrossed in our worldly affairs that we loose perspective; so much so, we forget who we are. In one sense we are merely a bunch of atoms that were created inside some distant and forgotten star somewhere deep in the universe billions of years ago, now organized in a specific way to give us the ability to feel and think and act. Yet in another way, we are something far greater than this, far greater than the sum of our parts.

When I was eight years old I lived on a remote farm in Southern Illinois far away from any town or city and it could get very dark at night. One late summer evening, after I had gone to bed and the house was quiet, I snuck outside, mostly for the adventure of it. It was a dark moonless night and I decided to climb up a familiar nearby hill. There were no trees so I had a complete view of the stars. This was the first time I remember looking up into the sky with breath-taking awe. A banded cloud peppered with bright and dim stars extended from horizon to horizon across the sky. In that moment I felt the shear insignificance of being "me". I had heard about stars and about how far away they were but I had never before experienced them. For many nights thereafter I remember lying in bed reliving the view of those stars, projecting the tiny speck that was me upon the heavens, watching it disappear in the great expanse of space and time. I felt the nature of infinity and also that I was somehow part of that infinity. I wouldn't learn for another two decades that infinity, itself, is at the heart of Buddhism. Amitabha, the Buddha-aspect of infinite light, and Amitayus, the Buddha-aspect of infinite time, are central to Buddhist theology. Having had an early humbling experience with infinity as a child (Buddhists sometimes refer to this as the Nirmanakaya), it came as no surprise as I later learned of so many Buddhist practices intended solely to aid the practitioner in identifying with the infinite. This is an important step toward the attainment of Buddhahood - the realm of the Samboghakaya.

In the mystical tradition of Chan, we see our lives in relation to this infinity - our lives are infinite, our deaths are infinite, we are infinite. Reincarnation, to a mystic, means the "rebirth" of our essence - energy - in other forms; it is the continuation of the infinite essence of all that transcends form and function - the pure energy that gives birth to all things, yet itself never dies, and never is born. While the things of the physical universe come and go in a constant flux (Dharmakaya) , the creative energy never ceases - when our bodies die, so do our thoughts and wishes and desires, but the essential energy that is our True Self merely transforms into other domains of energy - either energy of mass, energy of radiation or something else entirely. The corollary in physics is expressed by Einstein's famous law of mass-energy equivalence -- E=MC2 -- and by the conservation of energy which states that the total amount of energy that enters a system must equal the total amount of energy leaving the system plus the change in the energy contained in the system; i.e., energy can be neither created nor destroyed. In mathematics, this principle originates from the continuous translational symmetry of time: that all moments are the same. Sound Chan-like? Yes. And when we consider this, is it any wonder that Truth should not fail to manifest itself in more than one domain of knowledge?

The Fear Factor

 

Fear is perhaps the most damaging emotion to our psychological and physical well-being. We all know fear - fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of death, fear of being shunned by a religious or social group, or by friends and family. Ironically, the effects of fear manifest in ways that often increase our fear, limiting our ability to make friends, to communicate effectively and honestly with others, to initiate and follow through with projects… When we are knowingly or unknowingly consumed with fear, we may exhibit shyness and our shyness may be perceived by others as aloofness or even self-righteousness. We may try to hide our fear by donning a friendly persona to mask our insecurities. We may exude extreme friendliness in an unnatural way; or we may choose a different persona, wearying a guise of depression or cynicism. Depending on the persona we choose - or that chooses us -- we will seek out activities and knowledge and friends that support, sustain, and build this artificial self-image.

The physical effects of fear can be as severe as the psychological ones. We may suffer from headaches, nervousness, insomnia, rashes, ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, frequent colds, etc. We may even develop permanent facial wrinkles from scowls, sadness, or anger that give us an untoward appearance.

Fear has the ability to paralyze us, to prevent us from living our lives, to prevent us from learning about ourselves. It also keeps us from seeing others in a compassionate way, for we are quick to project our own fears and insecurities on others, seeing the dislikes of ourselves in them, whether they are there or not. We end up separated from the world, isolated, and alone.

How do we overcome fear and the terrible influence it has over us? We must have great courage - we must be prepared to make mistakes, to show failure, and to show our human vulnerabilities. We must be willing to be outcast by our social groups, friends and family. We must be prepared to encounter our dark-side if we have suppressed it, our bright-side if that's what we have suppressed. What we discover is that the pain and aguish involved in these courageous acts are slight compared with the pain and suffering we've been living with by allowing fear to control and manipulate us.

Detachment is the essential principal we must embrace to overcome fear. We must disassociate ourselves from our image of ourselves. With courage and faith, we all have the ability to overcome this most tenacious and destructive emotion. And what we loose is nothing real - it's just a dead skin that had no life in the first place.

Reinventing Ourselves

 

Before we can enter the domain of the spirit, we must exit the domain of self, that is, our ego-self. This requires nothing less than reinventing ourselves - creating a new understanding of who we are - an understanding apart from that formed from the accumulated impressions of ourselves over the years. Often these impressions are a result of our interactions with other people or the jobs and tasks we have performed. Our image as "successful" or "unsuccessful" often guides our inner feelings of ourselves and it is just these feelings that create either an exalted sense of self or the opposite, a low self-esteem. In either case, the cause is ego-inflation. It's the ego that brings these false self-images of ourselves: externally created images that we adopt because we have lost the connection with our True Self - the knowledge of who we really are. Reinventing ourselves means shedding the accumulated emotional sense of who we are - our attitudes about ourselves. With that done, we naturally come to discover our true identity; and it's a discovery that brings with it the joy of emancipation and freedom that makes us whole again.

And happy.

And isn't that something worth working for? :-)

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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