I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible.
Janet, I fear, is not alone. Most of us, I suspect, have a Book of Janet–or Josh, or Frank, or Amanda. And many of us carry our books with us throughout the day, making choices and judgments based on that fictive text. According to the Book of Benjamin, for example, I will not be happy if I don’t begin the day with a pot of sencha, fukamushi, or gyokuro tea, fresh from Japan, brewed with pure water at precisely the right temperature and for exactly the right length of time. Reality may be otherwise, but that doesn’t stop me from believing the Book of Benjamin and acting accordingly.
“In my book . . .” we sometimes say, as well we might. Our self-constructs and attendant guidelines help us navigate our days. But by clinging to those constructs or strictly complying with their constraints, we limit our possibilities for growth and full awareness. And according to Zen teachings, the very existence of such constructs is based on two fundamental misperceptions.
The first is that the bundle of attitudes, preferences, and habits known as Janet or Benjamin is a solid entity, possessed of an intrinsic essence and impervious to time and change. Where infants and toddlers are concerned, the error of this perception is readily apparent. Our children and grandchildren are changing before our very eyes. But in the world of grown-ups, an apparent sameness rather than an underlying impermanence may be a person’s most salient feature, and a calcified habit may easily be mistaken for an enduring trait. Uncle Henry may be difficult, we say, but he is just being Uncle Henry. And if we turn the spotlight on ourselves, we may reach the same conclusion. How comforting it can be to define oneself as such-and-such (“I’m a purist”; “I’m an inveterate introvert”) and attribute our choices, blunders, and triumphs to our inherent natures. But constructed self-definitions are one thing and true self-knowledge quite another. Vivid and compelling though they be, our labels may have little to do with the fluid aggregate to which they so tenaciously adhere.
The second misperception, no less beguiling than the first, is that the self exists in separation from the rest of the world. In our culture of individualism, we are conditioned to view the self in this way. We are seen–and may tend to see ourselves–as on our own. Yet even an irregularity as minor as a winter power outage should suffice to remind us that our autonomous selves co-exist in dynamic, interdependent relationships with nature and our fellow human beings. Should we look more deeply into the matter, we may also be reminded that what we call a self consists of “non-self” elements: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we consume. And should we choose to examine our emotional lives, we are likely to discover what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called an “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which our states of mind and indeed our spiritual condition are bound up with those of other living beings. As the Zen priest Norman Fischer eloquently puts it, “my suffering and your suffering are one suffering,” and “that suffering is empty of any separation.”
To remain continuously aware of the impermanence and interdependence of all life, as Zen teachings advise, is a daunting task. Prevalent forces in our society, including the denial of aging and death and the glorification of the youthful self, militate against it. But we can begin by discarding the notion of an unchanging, separate self embodied in a twice-told tale. With steadfast intention and diligent practice, it is possible to see through that illusion and recognize it as the life-denying obstacle it is. By so doing, we can open ourselves to selfless awareness and assume our rightful places in the unending stream of life.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer, “Love + Wisdom = Buddha,” Shambhala Sun, January 2015, 58.
Photo: “Old Book Gathering,” by Remi Mathis