What Is the Self? Part 1

A common interpretation of many spiritual practices is the transcendence of Self, or rising above one’s identity. This is reflected most prominently in eastern religious traditions, and to a lesser extent, in those of the west. Throughout the ages, much about this subject has been watered down or misinterpreted. The modern pseudo-spiritual approach has taken the concept of No-Self and warped it into a method for simultaneous depersonalization and innocuous egoism. Getting back to the root and original intent of these ancient teachings can help dispel this benign confusion.

Buddha taught that the Self is an aggregate of five skandhas, or the particular mental factors that give rise to one’s cravings and attachments. They include form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Together these factors comprise the foundation of one’s personality. In Theravada Buddhism, suffering is shown to arise when one clings or becomes attached to these aggregates. In Mahayana tradition, the nature of the skandhas is entirely empty of independent existence. A side note: In Blavatskian Theosophy, it is possible to conflate this teaching with the “Seven Principles” of the monad.

The first skandha pertains to our body or physical form. The second, sensation, is primarily made up of physical and emotional feelings. The third skandha, perception, is what can be most accurately defined as cognition or the ability to think. It’s the part of ourselves that recognizes and identifies. The fourth, mental formations, includes our behavioral patterns, conditioned prejudices, and both negative and positive mental states. It manifests as cyclical karma, or the causes and effects of our actions. The fifth and last skandha, consciousness, is pure awareness without conceptualization. It is the bedrock of the Self that knits together our experience of reality.

Something to keep in mind is that, because they are empty, the skandhas are not characteristics that an individual possesses. Beneath the emergent identity of these aggregates, there is only No-Self, which is the True Self. Simply put, the ego, or the individual and autonomous “you,” is a manifested illusion. This doctrine is referred to as Anatta or Anatman in Buddhism. Stripped of greater context, this teaching can be dangerous and easily misconstrued as nihilistic. While our Self is inherently empty, this does not mean we are “soulless.” In my opinion, it simply necessitates a reinvention of the idea of a soul. I will attempt to further develop this idea in Part 2.

The Art of Wordsmithery: A Spiritual Experience

Writing for me has always been a bit like singing a song. It requires combining the melody of good syntax and diction with the soul of a purposeful theme. I can feel a profound sense of rhythm when I stumble upon just the right sequence of words. Its both liberating and enlightening to write with that sense of velocity. I could only compare it to the feeling of flying and careening through the skies.

But there is also another aspect to writing; a frustration and helpless abandonment of the creative muses. When I feel as if all the original thought and genius has been stripped from my soul, I know there is no hope for any writing endeavor. When a mental embargo has hindered me from putting pen to paper, I know it is time to slow down and take a breather. This describes my writing mentality perfectly: a continuous fluctuation between supreme literary prowess and the icy, empty and void-like hollowness of writer’s block.

Asking myself “who am I as a writer?” requires facing both aspects of how I feel on the subject. Both the negative and positive are important in their own right. Without this acceptance of duality, any conclusion I could make would come out skewed and biased toward one aspect over another. That is the reason I must face my own inner demons of insecurities and writer’s block. I would not be able to define who I am without total acceptance of the broad perspective of my writing.

In essence, for me, the ability to write is akin to the  ability to meditate. Some days are vastly easier than others and there is always an experience of flexing the creative muscle, just like the spiritual muscle stretched with meditation. When I try to envision the tranquility of writing, I see a vast hay field yawning out before me, wide and free. I see the sky above stretching into oblivion, patterned with shifting cotton clouds. I see the massive expanse of field spreading outward; its golden hills rolling with the richness of harvest. There is peace and pride for my hard work. There is some nameless and swelling emotion transcendent of bliss. It’s powerful and motivating. It’s what I live for as a writer.

Lewis Carol, author of Alice in Wonderland, once said “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Introspection has always been a great part of my writing in general. There is always an element of questioning my own perspective and ruminating on how I simply ‘feel’ at the core. I think that any good piece of writing takes its author on a journey of self-discovery and realization. That is certainly the case for me, and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t been doing this creative craft for a while. Sometimes the goal is the journey itself, and self actualization can only be found when that is accepted. Writing epitomizes this internal struggle.

For me, the image of the Buddha symbolizes peace, solitude, and inner-harmony. It provides a path for me to follow and a spiritual goal to achieve. It gives my soul a moral framework onto which I can build the rest of my life. Attaining these ideals is also the process I use to write my best work. Striving to hone the inner fire of creativity and passion is spiritual at its essence, and there is no better symbol for this act in my  opinion than the Buddha. Literature that embodies the greatest sense of clarity and divinity requires just as much restraint as it does enthusiasm. Embracing solitude and a deeper peace of mind is crucial for developing restraint.

There are moments when I am in the midst of a creative effort that I become aware of a certain emptiness in my center. Its not the void-like disparity of writer’s block, but a very light and buoyant emptiness, filled with satisfaction and confidence. Pardon the contradictory description, but that is exactly how it feels. The Buddha teaches about this emptiness and encourages all to cultivate their awareness of it. Again, this occurs most strongly when I am writing or in the middle of any art. I would hazard a strong guess that many other artists have beheld this experience as well.

At the core of any type of art or craft is a need for the sincerity of the artist. The utter honesty of self is something I strive to incorporate in my own work. There is a quote by Spencer Johnson that reflects the two natures of sincerity needed for authentic writing: “Integrity is telling myself the truth, and honesty is telling the truth to other people.” Whether I am hindered by writer’s block or my creative energies are manifest, I make it a requirement to only complete work that is genuine to my soul. Writing for me is an incredibly honest act that means far more than merely creating entertainment for someone else to enjoy. It’s a spiritual exercise that requires me to be completely and utterly sincere with myself. There is no room for obfuscation and facades; only severe, blinding truth. Like a surgeons scalpel, I use literary expression to cut away all the denial and bottled emotions from my inner integrity.

There is also a strict importance for an outward sense of honesty in my writing as well. This entails expressing my purpose and message concisely and with the desired effect. I do not wish for others to misinterpret my meaning due to faulty word choice. I also do not wish to be dishonest about myself or lead someone on a ersatz path of understanding. Whittled down to the marrow, this is the creed of my writing. That is the rule that I religiously adhere to. Just like the Spencer Johnson quote expressed, true sincerity is doubled-faceted in nature. It requires a personal sense of integrity and a public obligation to honesty. That is the ethical code I instill in all of my writing.

Calling myself a writer means a lot more than using a superficial label or identity. It means that I have taken up the sometimes painful, yet beautiful art of wordsmithery. It means that I have taken the road less travelled and delved inwards to confront my own insecurities, all in order to give my craft the tranquility, introspection, and sincerity it deserves. When I ask myself “Who am I as a writer,” there is no clearcut answer or identity that separates me from the rest of the herd. There is only the willingness to do right by my creative efforts and craft something that is truly representative of how I feel within my heart. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing is expressing the chaotic and complex web of intelligence, or our minds, in a way that we can give the readers the purest and most honest sense of understanding. This is ultimately the goal I live for as a writer.

Under the Cedar Tree

I was surrounded by a thicket so dense I could almost feel the rhythmic throbbing of hearts in every tree. The needles beneath my feet padded every footstep, and my tread was silent. I could hear the birds chirping their songs of joy and sweet content, careening through the skies like angels patrolling the heavens. Dawning bright and glorious, sunlight crept through the branches. I reveled in these sporadic windows of light and warmth. I felt the thrum of life in every direction, and it was invigorating. Good morning Serenity, I thought to myself.

There was a friend hiding somewhere in this forest of cedar trees. My friend and your friend; a friend to us all.  Sometimes I could hear her calling from a limb above my head. Or maybe she was whispering from just behind my back. Every time I looked up or turned around, her kind cajoling ceased to invite me. Her presence wavered in and out of my consciousness elusively, like a guttering candle in the wind. I danced on the threshold of frustration, and somehow I felt that this would be the greatest impediment to my quest. Most could never find their friend in the forest. Some searched, but always in the wrong direction. This friend did not like to hide, for it was not her nature. The wanderers of the forest had merely forgotten how to look.

My passage through the thicket was halted when I met a wounded tree in my path. This broad cedar bore an impressive girth and towered above its neighbors. How lucky I was to witness this goliath; still a King of the Wood however marred his flesh had become. I gazed upon a charcoal wound spanning the diameter of his trunk, stretching from the base to several feet above my head. The King had been a victim of fire, in similarity to how the wanderers had been victimized by life. I had garnered many scars of my own throughout this search for a friend. The forest had dealt its blow in numerous ways, and I grew wary of the endless suffering. Deciding to break from the pain and momentarily renounce my title of seeker, I sat down beneath the cedar tree. Crossing my legs, I thought: There is no place like here and now. 

A lesson can be found within the needles and bark of trees, like the one I was leaning my back upon at that moment. These envoys of wisdom toil with the natural forces of the greater wood, collecting garish wounds in the process. However, they do not suffer from such adornments. The King at my back lived on, healing ever so slowly with lasting remnants of his scar. Yet he did not fight back, for all trees know that scars are inevitable. This unconditional acceptance was captivating and held me in sway. This compliance with the whimsical and unpredictable nature of life was compelling. In an act of capitulation, I turned inwards and yielded to the throes of existence. It was then that I found my friend. She had never been hiding, but merely resting below the surface of where I chose to search. My quest to seek the hand I wished to hold was over, and it ended under the cedar tree.