11 March 2006

The Problem of Self-preoccupation

Sculpture 'Wing'Last week I wrote that self-preoccupation was something that keeps us from happiness. I'd like to go into this a bit more this week. I translated sakkaaya-ditthi as self-preoccupation. The literal translation is personality-views, or as one translator puts it, self-identify views . These are views like "I exist, I do not exist, I will exist in the future, I will not exist in the future, etc". The common feature of all of these are that they are pre-occupied with self. I've already spelled out one route away from self-preoccupation in my essay on the six-perfections. But why is self-preoccupation is problematic?

I live with six other Buddhist men in a large house in Cambridge, UK. One evening a few weeks ago we had our usual meal together, and then moved onto our weekly Wednesday business meeting. After one fairly straight-forward item we found ourselves navigating a bit of a minefield as three issues in a row were brought up which people felt uneasy or upset about. I find this stuff really difficult. I find conflict distressing, and the meeting was very uncomfortable for me. In reflecting on the best part of an hour of difficult communications, in what is typically a very harmonious household, one thing became clear: that personal preferences were at the heart of our difficulties. We all, me included, were holding out for what we wanted, for what made us feel comfortable. Often this is not a problem but on this night what we wanted did not coincide, what we wanted was in conflict with what the others wanted.

There is a powerful story of harmony in the Pali Canon called the Culagosinga Sutta. In this story three Buddhists live a very simple life together in a wood. They own very little, but what they do have is shared between them. They live "in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes". [Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation] Each man makes sure that his friends' needs are met before he sees to himself. They practice acts of loving kindness with body, speech and mind, both in public and in private. And how is this concord achieved? Each one puts aside his own wishes and does what they the others wish to do. This is not too difficult for these men however because they share a spiritual vision and that guides all of their actions in anycase.

The strongest experience of harmony in my life so far was on my ordination retreat - four months in the mountains in Spain. A very regimented life. I struggled with it to be honest, but the level of harmony amongst us was remarkable because we were all giving up our preferences. It was a period of letting go of the familiar, and learning to live with what was: no running hot water for instance, or snakes slithering through the undergrowth, or blazing hot sun, or the absence of our favourite breakfast cereal. It was different for each of us, but grittily real. We also seemed very aware of the needs and wants of others. I recall feeling incredibly grateful to my friend Shantaka who regularly placed a cup of (decaf) coffee in front of me at breakfast, without my having to ask. To be seen and responded to in this kind of way is really delightful. I often felt a sense of chagrin at my own selfishness during the four months, and I came away with a resolution to be more helpful to others.

It's interesting to sit and hold these two experiences: one of discord, and the other of harmony, and reflecting on them in the light of the ideal portrayed in the Culagosinga Sutta. On the one hand I was largely self-preoccupied and that led to a painful situation. On the other I was willing to give up my self-preoccupation for the greater good and found that liberating. I once asked one of my mentors about the problem that we all face of the gap between our aspirations and how we actually behave. He told me that the way to bring them closer is through reflection. Well, I'm still reflecting, but I do find myself letting go of some of the small things and being happier as a result.
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