It sometimes seems that so much of the Buddhist path is simply learning how to get out of one’s own way. It’s the Self — that tangled web of attachments and aversions constituting the network of me-ness — that complicates even the simplest of human transactions, making life more difficult than it needs be. Nine times out of ten, ”I” am my own worst enemy.
The other night as I was washing up after dinner, cleaning some baked-on mozzarella that had hardened on the ceramic cookware, my wife pointed out that I needn’t struggle so and poured some baking soda into the hot rinse water.
”Try it this way,” she suggested — and the cheese came off like a charm.
You’d have thought I’d be grateful, but ”I” got in my way.
Instead, my initial reaction went something like this:
”I’m sixty-seven years old. I’ve washed cheese off cookware hundreds of times. I’m perfectly satisfied with my old elbow-grease intensive method. Why’s she trying to improve me?”
Only she wasn’t “trying to improve me.” She was only trying to make my life easier. The thought running through my head was basically a screwy variation on a two-year old toddler’s way of thinking, namely: ”I can do it myself!”
Later, when my wife asked how it went, I stopped myself before grumblingly acquiescing that ”it went okay” and said — somewhat more appreciatively, I hope — ”it worked great!” It took a moment of mindfulness — the ability to stand back and see how my old reactive pattern, my stale old story about ”me” and ”my way,” failed to capture the reality and essence of ”now” — to catch myself in mid-knee jerk, and avoid (just barely) a fleeting emotional disconnect with my wife. Our lives are a tapestry made up of such tiny moments — moments in which we either honor or betray our deepest connections to those we love.
It’s a just a small example of something that probably happens to us many times each day. The imperial ”I” reasserts itself in ways large and small, imperiling our capacity for intimacy and warmth. ”I” want credit and appreciation. ”I” feel hurt or wronged. ”I” want to do things my way. ”I” feel superior or envious. ”I” feel included or excluded, wanted or ignored. ”I” get puffed up or deflated. ”I” deserve more or better. Who, exactly, is this ”I” who seems to be the center of the universe and interprets everything in terms of itself? Buddhism teaches that this ”I” is a fundamental mistake, the reification of an ever changing inter-relational process. The more we can see this Self for what it is, the more transparent it becomes, the more we can learn to get out of our own way.
It’s easy to see how this mistaken view of self comes about. Young children think they’re the center of the universe: their immediate needs are their ultimate concerns and it makes no sense to them that others are equally preoccupied with their own needs. Developmental psychologists tell us that very young children believe the the sun and moon follow them home as they walk down the street, and that they can’t visualize or imagine how things look from another’s point of view. The ability to understand that there are other ways of seeing the world and that everything isn’t about us takes a certain degree of maturity. Some of us never quite get there.
The Buddhist view is that nothing is about us. Things happen according to causes and conditions, not because we like or desire them. Other people, for the most part, are preoccupied with their own wants and needs; they don’t spend all day thinking about ours. Other people’s reactions to us often say more about themselves than they do about us. While we create our own karma, it too is an impersonal process. When negative consequences ensue from our actions, it’s not because the universe wants to punish us. It’s just cause and effect.
The more familiar we become with our own reactive patterns and decenter from our personal preoccupations, the more we’re able to open to the reality of the moment as it is, fostering our capacity to live relationally, and connect to and collaborate with others. It’s just a matter of getting over ourselves. It’s just a matter of getting our ”selves” out of the way.
10 Replies to “Getting Out of Our Own Way”
Thanks for the tip about baking soda. Nice article too. The idea of getting out of your own way reminds me of that old essay by Alan Watts on Zen and control in which he discusses the ‘higher’ self at war with its naughty twin.
Lovely reflection – have shared – thanks so much 🙂
Good old Alan Watts! 🙂
This post is so fundamental and so important! Thank you. Sharing.
My Laotian/Buddhist wife lives this message. It’s been my pleasure to learn her a different perspective than the egocentric model I grew up with. Then too, having been in recovery for thirty four years, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, are all about deflating ego. Thanks for posting this.
It sounds like you are a lucky man, Steve!
It seems the self will always be with us — even if we’re good Buddhists who don’t really believe that it exists in the first place. (Perhaps it’s a different story with those who have actually realized anatta, and not just accepted it as an idea.) Anyway, your post reminded me of one I wrote earlier in the year, about how our ideas (particularly our ideas about ourselves) keep tripping us up in life. If you have a chance to read it, please let me know what you think: https://loongling.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/as-easy-as-falling-from-a-tree/
And many thanks for your excellent blog. I’m beginning to appreciate the need to better understand how our experience of the Buddha’s teachings relates to Western intellectual traditions. I’ve also found Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s talks and writing on “Buddhist Romanticism” useful in this regard. I’m now reading his book-length treatment of this subject (http://www.dhammatalks.org/ebook_index.html) and have just discovered a talk he gave more than 10 years ago (http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/117.html).
Anyway, thanks again for sharing your insights.
Well, there’s “Self” and then there’s “self.” If by “self” you mean inherent self-existence, it’s never there. If by “self” you mean a biopsychosocial pattern that persists with relatively minimal change over months and perhaps even years, it’s always with us.