Ironically, most of us think that the way to happiness is taking care of “I, Me and Mine.” Almost all of our activities can be categorized as looking out for our own physical, mental and emotional well-being and the well-being of the things we identify with – ideas, opinions, plans, possessions, people, relationships, etc. (that is, those things that we see as being intimately tied to our well-being).
We could almost say that we hold the truth that we need to look out for ourselves as being “self-evident.” Even an amoeba enacts this truth, right?
Basic self-preservation and taking care of our lives is a natural and healthy activity, but the irony is that our very obsession with this kind of activity leads to misery. The fact that obsession with “I, Me and Mine” leads to misery is one that probably can only be verified experientially. A philosophical argument isn’t likely to convince you, because in some ways it doesn’t make any sense. We are able to test and verify this teaching if we experiment with our subjective experience of our life.
For example, in a given situation we find our concern about “I, Me and Mine” being aroused. This leads to fear, which may manifest dramatically or more subtly as something like stress, anxiety, worry, impatience or irritability. Then, while remaining aware and engaged in the situation, we drop our concern with “I, Me and Mine.” Amazingly, the fear decreases or disappears entirely even though our ability to take care of ourselves and our lives does not.
This strange phenomenon occurs at least in part because we humans are too smart for our own good. We are able to create elaborate concepts about self and other, past and future, desirable and undesirable. Our basic, natural, functional drive to take care of ourselves becomes blown way out of proportion as we brood over the past, analyze the present for threats and opportunities, and try to anticipate future ones. While a simpler animal is devoted to preserving its own well-being and that of its family, humans devote themselves to the maintenance of an infinite number of complex and amorphous things like reputations, roles, ideas, estates, plans and pride. Our “I, Me and Mine” develops into an elaborate universe that exists mostly in our own heads.
There is a time and place for useful analysis and planning, and we can’t function as human beings without concepts. However, the more obsessed we are with “I, Me and Mine,” the more stress and misery we will experience. That elaborate universe in our heads takes an enormous amount of work to maintain, even just mentally, and it is under constant threat. The number of ways something might go wrong are infinite, and if nothing else we have to stay on our toes because everything is constantly changing.
When we put down the burden of worrying about “I, Me and Mine” for a moment, we feel grounded and relieved. We can deal with what is right in front of us – and even if that is a dire emergency, it will be easier to handle than a dire emergency plus the myriad fears and reactions we can add to it by evaluating it in terms of “I, Me and Mine.”
The ability to drop the concern about “I, Me and Mine” – at least for a moment at a time – is something we develop with our zazen practice. It’s a little like we’re behind the wheel of a car for the first time, and it takes us a while to figure out how to turn the windshield wipers off; there’s an internal switch for our “concern for I, Me and Mine” that we can toggle at will. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s well worth learning how.