Loss and the Study of the Self

To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.

Source: Dogen Zenji, Genjo Koan Case 5

As we forget our small self ego, we may sense something missing. We may regret the loss of something we once cherished, no longer plagued by some obsession or worry. Either way, we come to a point where all that stuff that used to occupy our time and interest no longer compels our efforts, and the situation confuses and disturbs our forever-grasping monkey mind. Deprived of its distractions, the ego looks for something to do.

Once our attention is no longer kept by the distractions that used to interest us, we are a blank slate. We aren’t yet sensitive to the new and more subtle experiences that remain after the ones that occupied us are no longer interesting. Thus we may feel adrift, unable to focus on the old but not yet able to attend to the new situation.

This feeling is a kind of loss, a form of dukkha of omission. From long years of habit we no longer how the mind fills our attention with distractions, something new and shiny. It now happens faster than our conscious awareness can react.

This stage of a deepening practice represents a wiping away of old habits and ideas that prepares the way for training the ability to attend and respond to things that were covered over with noise. Just removing the old habits doesn’t sensitize use to the deeper, more subtle, reality yet.

Neuroscience tells us that we are not naturally content because in contentment we are less wary – we lose awareness – of threats, and that exposes us to mortal dangers, or at least it did when we were primates who walked upright and began using tools. We learned, for our survival, to imagine the very worst, and we got very good at it. Thus, when we start to see our own distractedness for what it is, we feel a kind of fear.

When no discriminating thoughts arise, the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes.

Source: Xìnxīn Míng, Third Chinese Patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan

With continued practice we gradually become sensitive to the more subtle things. Much like having eaten very spicy food for a long time, if we then eat moderately-seasoned food it will taste bland and uninteresting until we become accustomed to the new flavors.

We learn to taste the spice of no-spice, the flavor of no-flavor. We perceive tathātā.

Our practice changes how we see reality. We begin to perceive, relate, and respond with increasing sensitivity to everything.

all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the present is like a flash of lightning, and that all that will be conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly

Source: Açvaghosha’s Discourse on the awakening of faith in the Mahâyâna, Aśvaghoṣa.; Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki