“To study the Self is to Forget the self”
“Gnothi seauton - know thyself”
- Ancient Greek motto
A while back I had a kind of epiphany: not an intellectual one - it was intuitive - like getting a joke. I had been re-reading some Bertrand Russell, and was thinking to myself that one of the main themes in his Conquest Of Happiness, is to lose the sense of self. Russell was a philosopher: a professional thinker; someone who suffered at times from prison that is the self or the Ego. Quite a few times in his book he stresses the importance of letting go of one’s anxieties, one’s ego, one’s obsession with thinking. As I was contemplating this I remembered a phrase I had read in Zen Mind beginner’s Mind: “to study the self is to forget the self”. I saw that, in many ways, both men’s projects for happiness: abit very different as to means; are, in their ends, rather similar.
It is something of a paradox: the paradox of individualism. Both Russell: representing Humanism; the Stoics such as Epictetus and Aurelius; Zen Buddhism such as Dogen, Suzuki; all, doctrinally stress the importance of individual development, restraining the ego, and promoting wellbeing. I recognise of course that this is a somewhat broad and idiosyncratic representation
of all these systems of thought; they, however, contrast markedly with Islam, Christianity or Communism and Fascism - all laying stress on the individual conforming to the group and submitting their interests to it - to the collective.
Individualism in this sense differs from what can be called Egoism. I had this distinction clarified for me by Karl Popper in his book: Open Society and its Enemies. Egoism - can best be grasped by example - the kind of “Aristocratic” selfish, cruel, and violent individualism of a Nietzsche or a Byron. Altruistic individualism on the other hand sees the individual as a free agent, who keeps his independent mind, yet helps others, and integrates himself as part of a larger whole. The example of the Buddha, Socrates and Jesus attest to this altruistic individualism.
“Find something greater than you are and surrender yourself to it”
- Dan Dennett
In meditation practice you sit and notice the Self; you notice all the vain, useless and selfish thoughts that whirl into focus then drift out. Meditation practice, as I have wrote, is a kind of mental discipline, its also like mental weeding: a process by which you break down all the barriers and barricades that separate you from other people, that keep you wrapped up in the prison of the self. Joko Beck has a illuminating analogy were she compares the gradual practice of meditation to melting ice cubes. The cube, at first, is cold, sharp and impenetrable. It keeps people from connecting; when two people (or cubes) collide - chaos and anger ensures. Meditation then, is a heat that melts the cube, that frees people - this is why perhaps, contemplative practice is often called a liberating experience. Indeed, the vow of the Bodhisattva: “I vow to liberate all beings, without number”, express this sentiment well. Bertrand Russell, who did have a admiration for certain aspects of Mysticism, did not meditate of course; but he sought similar states of attention through love; through work; through hill climbing and many other activities. He ends his gem of a book: Conquest of Happiness, with this, marvellous little peroration.
“In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream, of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divides against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that if affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”