In some ways of looking at a human life, having a healthy sense of self appears to be a good thing, worthy of attention, possibly meriting professional support. The same goes with having healthy boundaries (if, for instance, one’s boundaries are somewhat permeable or tentative). If the sense of self is amorphous, or if the orientation to self is negative, there may be an effort to address these perceived “issues.”
It is thought (for instance) that you should “love yourself.”
There is much attention on all of it. The underlying assumption is that it’s a plus to have a clearly-defined and highly regarded sense of self, contained within unambiguous boundaries. From some perspectives, it does make sense.
But from a more spacious point of view, having a clear-eyed sense of self turns out to be a godawful burden to haul around, giving rise to ceaseless striving and inevitable dissatisfaction. A strong sense of who-you-are and what-you-want erects structures impervious to the light of awareness, leavng you at a pained distance from the reality – including “your” reality – underlying it all.
The you that wants to be healthy does not awaken.
We think the reason we suffer is that our desires are never entirely fulfilled, or not for long. But really, the cause of suffering is the enduring belief that you are the conditioned self. The self that does the desiring is so deeply identified with as being you that it’s hard to see there’s something else underlying it all, something of a different order of reality.
The mind-made self can never hope to deliver us to lasting contentment. But that doesn’t stop us from trying like hell, all our lives.
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Cultivating a solid self does nothing to attune a person to the deeper knowing of what aliveness itself feels like, in the moment. Within each of us is an awareness that’s not at all devoted to the creation and maintenance of “you.” Like light, it’s able to penetrate softer, more limber expressions of selfhood, enabling the detection of a more expansive sense of reality.
The you that wants to be healthy does not awaken. It’s not “on the way” to awakening – unless its eventual demolition turns out to be a step in that direction. The clearly-defined self is what a person awakens from. It’s what’s left behind. Who-you-are no longer feels substantial, as it did before.
We work so hard at it: feeling good about ourselves, helping our children develop a clear-eyed sense of who they are; establishing good boundaries, meant to protect and respect ourselves and others. Yet it all ends up being the very infrastructure subject to dismantling when the well-constructed person begins to detect the ongoing presence of a larger and more generous reality – one in which there is (in fact) no discrete self, nor any separation from anyone or anything.
Because a human being is physical, a contained body in a certain location, it’s easy to see how the sense of separateness persists. Because the body is solid, having a kind of obvious reality, it’s natural to have the sense of an equivalent “solid” and separate “you” on the interior. The conditioned self appears to be not only real but valuable, worthy of development and healing.
A person – a spiritual seeker, say – might wonder whether we humans could simply skip the culturally-sanctioned norm of ego development, since it causes so much trouble, in the end. Seeing from the more spacious perspective makes it vivid that the mind-made self keeps us at an agonized distance from what we truly are. Pretty soon somebody like a coroner is filling out a piece of paper with the name and the end date of a used-to-be self, and the whole rich and juicy thing was missed.
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But maybe the ever-absorbing drama couldn’t really be skipped. Conditioning starts very early in life and is a potent force, given that everything about life is saturated in messages about what it means to be a person. It might even be that the rigmarole of building a self and then having it subjected to repeated bludgeoning is in fact the very process that enables a kind of eye-opening weariness. If you’re paying atttention, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is going to satisfy this mind-forged, trouble-making self. All of which has the potential . . . once in a blessed great while . . . to tilt a person toward the larger truth that’s always been within.
It’s a reality a person may even have detected hints of right along, beneath and behind all the drama. Maybe it’s true of you. Like when you were a little kid, before time started feeling substantial. Before it even occurred to you to wonder who you were, or who somebody else was, or why such things should matter. Back when all that felt substantial, felt real, was the watery sand running through your spread fingers on a summer day. When awe came naturally to you. Before the well-meaning grown-ups (who wanted only the best for you) worked so hard to shape you into a somebody. To make you believe you were a distinct and special person.
Rather than present-moment awareness itself.