Driving this rusty vehicle of self…

What is this vehicle we call the self? Certainly, the infamous ego is a part of it, but is that all of it? What does that even mean?

From the perspective of our 21st century consumer economy, the self has become the repository for all that we try, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate — think of the shopping cart icon on any of your favorite e-commerce sites.

There’s a famous Zen cartoon of a little man who is born into this world and proceeds to ingest the full contents of a massively rich cornucopia, to pass the residue, and then, in due course, to die, leaving behind nothing more than a sizeable pile of, well, you get it…

My friend and noted Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, often says that what we call the self isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (sorry Ken if I misquote a bit here – see Ken’s excellent website,  Ken Mcleod- Unfettered Mind ) Like a child’s flipbook, these experiences pass so fast that we mistake them for a continuous film, an entity with some sort of permanence.

And then of course we die.

As anyone who has ever had the duty of cleaning out the cherished possessions of a dead loved-one can attest, even the most closely held keepsakes are simple junk once we’re gone.

So, using this life, this self, as a cosmic shopping cart probably won’t work out.

But neither can we function without a self, an identity- we’re creatures of a relative world. The IRS insists that we maintain a self, and our significant others probably do as well. So how do we work with this self?

How best to drive this rusty vehicle?

One classic Buddhist image of ‘self’ is of waves in the ocean, each somehow distinct but each still entirely of the water, inseparable from it. I like to think of each of us as a local concentration of sentience, of mind, of life force. Why the universe has chosen to organize itself this way I have no idea; but I think it does — moreover, I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.

If I’m right about this, then our mortal selves remain essential, but in a rather different way — what if the point isn’t to see how much we can accumulate for our selves, but instead to see how much we can express of our selves?

This shift changes everything — instead of contracting and gathering, our life experience might take on the quality of a gift to be offered rather than a treasure to be hoarded.

This expression of self, of life, can take almost any form – an art, a skill, parenting, a job. The blood of the difference is in whether or not we’re subtly trying to bargain for a specific outcome from offering. Again, Ken McLeod talks often of the insidious nature of the exchange mentality, the bargain of the marketplace co-opting all of our human actions. For artists who need to sell their work to pay the rent, this is a perpetual quandary. Even in the spiritual realm, we’re so deeply conditioned to the exchange that we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) looking for a payoff. But that’s just another form of shopping, of using our precious time on this earth as some sort of coin.

 No, I’m suggesting here that the only “payoff” worth the race is the freedom to stop gathering, to stop hoarding.

 By “expressing the self fully,” I mean taking this life-stream as a gift to be given completely, as an offering of all of one’s talent

and all of one’s difficulties –

 as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, no privacy.

 Whatever our gift, we manifest it fully, without reservation,

no withholding.

 We live completely into our lives through the full offering of them

to this sacred world.

 We come to recognize our own basic goodness and that of the world

as being one in the same.

 We manifest sacredness and we offer that back to the source.

 No giver, no recipient, no gift.

 Outrageous, inscrutable

 and free.

old cars, old trucks, california

abandoned truck, sonoma california, 2014








6 thoughts on “Driving this rusty vehicle of self…

  1. Jeff, thanks so much for sharing the link to your blog, and for this piece in particular—so timely! I spent the morning feeling like I’d lived my life collecting ideas and understanding, and felt that it was time again to shift into somehow manifesting outward rather than just collecting inward.

    Even wisdom can become a commodity if not offered back through embodied expression.

    I loved this: “I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.” Just yesterday, my 16 year old son and I were discussing that light cannot be perceived without something to reflect upon—and what it reflects upon in turn defines the light itself—the leaves of the tree define the same light differently than the fur of an animal.

    Yet this is how we perceive all light—in its reflection.

    If wisdom is light (as in, “enlightenment”), merely collecting it won’t give real understanding, only sending it out (manifestation) will allow us to express and experience what wisdom really is.

    • Valerie- thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I think you’re right on about the “light”. The belief that there is a separation between perception and perceiver is the cause of a lot of suffering. Even from a modern scientific level, the observer essentially determines the “state” of that which is being observed. Each “field” is unified, in sanskrit called an “ayatana” referring to to the complex, or the field of “the seeer-the seeing-the seen”. Cutting it into bits, called you and me, is really only a habit, a convenience….

      Send me a link so I can follow your blog- I took a look but couldnt find a subscribe button.



  2. For sure some wise words & thoughts, others might never even think about (thanks to media.)

    And since you threw in the point of the junk we leave behind when we die, I think it is quite interesting if you listen to people close to their own death they seem to agree and quite ofen do have great thoughts to share. Not from a buddhist point maybe but still I like to listen.

  3. Jeff, You never know the impact that ideas and even words can have on someone unless you share them freely. For this I thank you. I found some of the ideas in this blog, and a previous conservation we had, cathartic in addressing an underlying approach I, and I think many others, seem to take in living. You addressed the exchanges, the consumerism, the expectation of receiving something in exchange for a given service be it material or immaterial. It’s a human mind set of give and get. And what if there is a paradigm shift of only giving of ourselves, our talents, our love with no expectations of reciprocity? This shift would be seismic. I want to embrace it.
    So a few words you said about my very human struggles of swimming in open water struck me. Para paraphrasing you words … “If you fight it (the water), it will fight back and win.” Fighting to win, to overcome, to be on top, to defy and outsmart the enemy is another human mind set. That’s when it hit me. I have no enemies, water included, unless I create them. Nothing to conquer or things to vanquish. And then your blog appeared today. I saw the open water as a “life stream”, a
    gift that is given completely by the Universe and that the individual waves are one with the water. The water, the waves are not my enemy. When I am “out there” I am apart of that oneness, not a separate being trying to conquer the water or my fear of it. (BTW… I swam my first mile today effortlessly … in a pool … but today’s new approach this will translate into my open water experience.) Thanks Jeff!

    • Sally, you’re amazing! Be smooth, keep swimming…

      Oh, and we do have enemies, real ones sometimes. Our challenge, I think is not turn our own thoughts into another one, to mistake the chatter in our heads for something real, even if it often feels that way.

      Bows to you….

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