Remember all those times when someone, in breaking up with you, said “it’s not about you; it’s me”? That might seem like a trite cliche, but it is likely true. So little in life is really “about you.”
Buddhism teaches that the cause of all of our suffering is our clinging to what we believe to be our “self.” Understanding egolessness or selflessness is the key to healing our personal wounds as well as our relationships, and is an important concept in Buddhist psychology.
We tend to cling to our belief in a solid “I” out of a fear of groundlessness, in a false attempt to create some ground under us. However, in clinging to a solid sense of self, we close down our world, believing that we are in the middle of it all. In other words, we become self-centered. The experience of selflessness opens us from the claustrophobia of self-centeredness into the spaciousness of possibility and connection.
Analytical and mindfulness meditation are effective methods for directly experiencing and understanding that no true “self” exists. Here’s an exercise that can help you get this important concept:
- Sit in a comfortable position, and bring your attention to your breath.
- Once you are relaxed and undistracted, examine your notion of a solid self, and ask questions that challenge that notion. Some questions that can aid this exploration are: “Am I my head? My hands? My gut? My profession? My hobbies? My thoughts? Where is ‘I’ anyway?”
- As you go through this exercise, notice your emotions and body sensations. You might feel fear, and with accompanying tightness in a particular place in your body. That’s normal – we all fear groundlessness until we realize that groundlessness, or selflessness, is actually an opening into spaciousness and possibility.
- Be patient when you slip into a state of self-clinging. We all have this habitual tendency, and it’s a tough habit to break. Realizing the universality of self-clinging, we can develop compassion for ourselves and all others. This in itself can be incredibly transformative and healing.
Because of our human tendency to cling to a sense of self to maintain what we believe to be stability and ground, you will need to return to this exercise over and over. As you become familiar with the body sensations that accompany your fear of selflessness, you can breathe into those sensations to loosen the grasp of self-clinging when it arises. In doing so, you will have a better understanding of your everyday experiences, reactions and communications with others.
Have you ever noticed that the people in your life have different opinions and viewpoints about you? If the “self” were solid, how would that be possible? People’s views are merely their own projections, and no two people see things in exactly the same way. This concept is extremely helpful in human relationships. When we are able to get our ego out of the way, we can actually hear what another person is saying or requesting.
A useful way to put this into practice is in your personal and professional relationships, which always offer the opportunity for growth. For example, when someone criticizes something we did, our habitual tendency is to immediately defend our actions – and ourselves. At these moments, our egos tend to rear their ugly heads and we really don’t hear the request underlying the criticism. It takes discipline to let go of the knee-jerk reaction to protect the ego.
One of the best tools for letting go of this tendency to defend our egos is to slow down, and feel where we feel the emotions connected with the criticism. For me, it is a clenching in the stomach and jaw, and fluttering in my heart. When I am able to slow down without immediately reacting, I take a breath and ask myself what those body sensations are telling me. Often, it is feeling hurt and misunderstood. I can then discern what the most effective response would be. When I am able to leave my ego at the door, I breathe into my hurt feelings with self-compassion, and let it go. I can then determine what the underlying communication truly is, and respond accordingly. This is the opening into true compassion, connection and openness.