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.