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Who Am I?

Look at “I”. What do you see? All sorts of thoughts and ideas may come rushing in, but don’t be distracted. Keep looking. At some point, we see that when we look at “I”, we don’t see any thing. Actually, it’s more accurate to say we see no thing. Initially, we don’t trust this “not seeing”. Something must be wrong, we feel, and we quickly shift back to thinking about who we are or trying to figure out what we are doing wrong. In effect, we don’t believe the bird and are consulting the book.

If we keep coming back to the looking, if we trust this “not seeing”, we gradually develop the capacity to rest in seeing no thing, and we come to know that we are not a thing: there is just awareness aware of awareness.

That may be all very well, but how does this help us negotiate life?

Nasrudin was visiting a friend one afternoon. They became so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t notice the passage of time. Night fell, and the friend said, “Nasrudin, it’s dark. Why don’t you light a candle? You’ll find a candle and matches in the drawer to your right.”
“What!” shouted Nasrudin, “How do you expect me to know my right from my left in the dark?”

First, let go of all absolutes. Since everything is a story, regard everything as a story. Stories change, and our relationships with people and things changes, too. Some people have such elaborate stories about things — flowers or stamps, or computers or cars — that they interact with them as if they were people. Conversely, most of us have experienced at least one relationship, be it in our personal or work life (tech support, perhaps?), in which we were treated as a thing. Peopleness or thingness aren’t absolutes: they are qualities defined by how we interact with our experience.

In other words, pay attention to relationships. The Buddhist word for this is interdependence: everything exists and is defined only in relation to other things.

Second, let go of fixed positions, inside or out. When we take a fixed position, saying, “This is how it has to be,” we create conflict — this against that, right against wrong, black against white. We see only two mutually exclusive possibilities and we are in a zero-sum game. In any conflict, the two poles are expressions of a deeper principle, expressions of a world that our fixed position prevents us from seeing. Black and white, for instance, are both expressions of the world of color. How many possibilities are there in a world of color compared to a world of black and white? When we see the underlying principle, we have a whole spectrum with which to work. In Buddhism, this approach is known as the middle way, not falling into an extreme position, but always including both poles in awareness.

Third, touch the awareness that is always present, even in the worst of times. As noted above, we carry stories about who we are and stories about who others are and, in the moment of interaction, we regard the stories as facts, as how things are. They aren’t facts. They are only ideas and projections arising in the moment. They distract us from what we are actually experiencing. To stop the projections, we drop the stories about who we are, who they are, how we are meant to be, or how they are meant to be. We drop everything and open to what we actually experience, the play of physical and sensory sensations, emotions and feelings, and thoughts and ideas. We open to the whole ball of wax, the whole mess, until we can rest in the clear empty awareness in which the whole mess arises. It’s there. It’s always there, just as silence is present in sound, and space is present in form. When we touch it, we know what to do and how to do it.

You live in confusion and the illusion of things. There is a reality. You are that reality. When you know that, you know that you are nothing, and in being nothing, are everything. That is all.
— Kalu Rinpoche (1904-1989)


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