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Letting go of “I am”

August 31, 2012

Whatever gets involved with “I am” is not easy.   – The Bad Lama

In our practice of meditation, we can learn to distinguish concepts from physical sensations. Concepts are projections of the conceptual mind; they are interpretations, memories and predictions that we overlay on top of the direct experience of our senses. Concepts range from powerful fantasies to simple labels.  We often take these concepts very seriously.  We praise each other with concepts. We insult each other with concepts.  We get in fights over concepts. We are wounded to the heart over concepts. But when we realize that concepts are our own projection, not something inherent to ourselves or others, we can learn to take our concepts – our beliefs and expectations – lightly. Then we can be much more skillful in our use of concepts.  As Sangharakshita writes in The Three Jewels

Concepts…should be handled in the spirit not of logic but of poetry; not pushed hither and thither with grim calculation like pieces on a chessboard, but tossed lightly, playfully in the air like a juggler’s multicoloured balls.

There’s one concept in particular that we take very seriously indeed. But it’s such a persistent concept that we might not even notice it. It’s just there all the time, like the air that surrounds us. This is the concept that the Bad Lama calls “I am.” You could call it “Me.”

We usually make this concept the center of our experience, but  it is actually an overlay on top of our experience. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

If you think, ‘I breathe,’ the ‘I’ is extra.

The concept “I am” can have enormous power over our lives. Try filling in some of the blanks in the sentences below.  Do it honestly.  You can fill out each sentence more than once, if you want.

I never ____ because I am ____.

I have to ____ because I am ____.

I am unhappy with myself because I am ____.

I am too embarrassed to ___ because I am ____.

I’ll never understand ____ because I am ____.

As you filled in those blanks, did you have an experience of the ways in which the concept “I am” limits your freedom of action and your experience of your life? (Honestly, I’d like to hear whether you did or didn’t – please leave a comment.) The Bad Lama says: ‘“I am” shrinks our minds.  It’s like looking at a black dot on white paper, and seeing only the dot — not seeing the paper and not seeing the room in which the paper is sitting.’

“I am” also limits our experience of our own physical sensations. Here’s an experiment for you to try.  Take your meditation posture, allow your mind to settle, then place your attention on your physical sensations. Whenever an unpleasant sensation arises, try mixing it with “I am.”  Let yourself speculate on how this sensation might affect you. Bring “I am” close to the sensation.  See what you notice about the sensation.  Does it feel any different? Also notice the state of your mind.  Does it feel more open or more closed? Next, try distancing “I am” from the sensation.  Just try to experience the sensation without any reference to yourself and how that sensation might affect you. See what you notice about the sensation.  Does it feel any different? Also notice the state of your mind.  Does it feel more open or more closed?

When you hurt your hand, you might think, “I’m hurt; I am in pain!” If you identify  yourself with only one aspect of your experience – the pain in your hand — your experience shrinks down to the size of your hand. “I am” can create physical and psychological knots which make a painful sensation much worse, and also prevent that sensation from going through its phases. When you let go of “I am,” you can release physical tension, and psychological and physical knots.  Just rest and let the sensation blossom, even it it’s painful and unacceptable to Me.

When we focus on “I am,” we distance ourselves from the full range of our sensations. In our meditation on physical sensation, we can distance ourselves from “I am” and experience all of the sensations that are happening.  If your foot hurts or your nose is itchy, don’t let “I am” shrink your experience down to your foot or your nose. Your life is bigger than your foot! Your life is bigger than your nose, too!

Because we have a strong habit of “I am,” when we experience a physical sensation we immediately try to assess it in terms of its effect on Me.  “How is this going to affect Me? Is this  good for Me or bad for Me; is this for Me or against Me?” When we engage in this kind of assessment, it becomes difficult to refrain from reacting to a painful sensation. “I am” gives us a justification for reacting: “This sensation means that something is happening that’s bad for Me.  I have a responsibility to take care of Me. I have a right and a duty to react!”

But the Bad Lama says: “Don’t use “human rights” as a cover for impatience.” Intense sensations challenge our patience.  When we meditate on physical sensation we practice refraining from reacting to our sensations both physically and mentally. Practice experiencing all of your sensations and letting go of the concept “I am.” If you can do that, you’ll find that painful sensations becomes less of a big deal.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2012 8:52 am

    I’m working with this like so: My ego manifests most negatively when fear arises. A lot of ego seems to be a response to that…. once a little space is established around fear, then love and humor have an opportunity to influence thought and action. Fear and ego still manifest but space allows a greater context. Even so, I talk a much much better game than I practice.
    Thanks for publishing this. Love the Sangharakshita quote. That’s a keeper.

    • September 5, 2012 2:52 pm

      Thanks, Rob. I’ve also been practicing with deliberately associating “I am” with my sensations and also distancing “I am” from sensations. I’ve found that when I really tie “I am” to a sensation, that gets much more intense, unpleasant and claustrophobic — as you say, there’s no space there. Distancing “I am” from sensation creates more space and as you point out, that allows love and humor to arise. Then the sensation opens up and tends to move and shift.

  2. November 8, 2012 5:21 pm

    I find it interesting that Sangharakshita implies that poetry is not calculated in a chess-like fashion. As a poet and a extensive reader of poetry, I find that the best poems are extraordinarily calculated, almost like a puzzle piece–think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Edgar Allen Poe’s iambic pentameter, and William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Those are all extremely calculated. I would go so far as to say poetry that is tossed lightly and playfully is generally pretty bad (if I may be so forward).

    • Justine permalink
      February 23, 2013 3:23 pm

      As a writing major at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, I find this last comment by Jade extremely funny and think the poets mentioned “tossed” their poetry “lightly and playfully”. In “The Wasteland,” Eliot jibes Shakespeare frequently,
      O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag – / It’s so elegant / So intelligent / “What shall I do now / What shall I do?” / I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / “With my hair down, so. / What shall we do to-morrow? / “What shall we ever do?”
      Maybe the extraordinary calculation that the critic senses is the innate talent of the poet in translating experience. Bad is perhaps too constrained or inauthentic. Even within constraints creativity seeks to blossom in a wild, rebellious, or playful way.

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