When I was a young man I had the recurring feeling of being dissociated from my body. Everything around me had a sense of unreality; I felt as though my Self was the only thing that truly existed. This was accompanied by a vivid sensation that my Self had no substance either.
I had no framework for understanding the experience, and it really scared me. Desperately seeking respite, I hurled myself into every school activity I could get involved in. That flight into activity embodied the wisdom of survival; it was my instinct for not harming myself.
I would have told you then that learning about myself was the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do. Now, in the retrospect of middle age, I know that doing something else was the best way I could possibly have learned about myself during those years.
I think this is the way it often is with self-study. I don’t always know when I am learning about myself. To take a mundane example, my experience of eating breakfast this morning didn’t seem to teach me anything about myself, because I always have oatmeal (with delicious cinnamon) for breakfast.
But I had never experienced that particular moment, at that precise age, among the unique constellations of thoughts and feelings I carried in me this morning, with the birds in that particular conversation at the feeder outside my window. Admittedly my brain didn’t acquire any new facts as I ate that same old oatmeal. But below the radar of consciousness, my self continued to accumulate experience, growing incrementally by the moment.
The ten practices provide great opportunities for studying the self in these moments, as well as throughout the day. Each with its own voice, the practices ask me gently to measure what I feel and do. How well does my intention in this project conform to my practice of being myself and nothing else? Did my demeanor around my wife last night conflict with the practice of non-harming? I am being truthful as I loaf around in a funk over our disagreement, but am I neglecting my practices of contentment and fiery energy? I seem to have the job of an expert tailor, continually adjusting and perfecting the fit between my Self and these ten elegant heirloom suits.
Sometimes I am not in action and my intentions are nearly quiet. In these moments self-study can take on a different hue, a kind of contemplation of the feeling of beauty. This may come in quiet moments with my wife, or when I am out of doors. In these silent moments a vast emptiness may fill and surround me.
In this way, studying my Self inevitably leads me to my love of the world and the experiences it brings me. What a beautiful paradox and startling symmetry this is – that studying myself takes me outside the very thing I’m studying. Writing about it here, I also become aware of symmetry and beauty within my experience of emptiness during the brief measure of my life so far. From the angst of a sensitive young man, it has transformed in my middle age into a searing kind of beauty, into the scent of the miraculous.
and my need to have
or make bright, lasting things.
And when my gaze turns in, my
shoulders shiver to feel what is
is cavernous depth. Then jeweled swords
of ice, bats like butterflies
appear. The sighing sound
of sunlight, rivers
of forms… Then comes
the truth of