Excerpted with permission from Idiot’s Guides: Zen Living by Domyo Burk
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t recognize when you are living without the filter of your self-concept. The moment you think, “Ah, here I am, experiencing no-self,” the self-concept is obviously back. Still, you can learn to live with less-self, and this is definitely something you can appreciate and work on.
Ironically, Zen practice can make experiencing less-self more difficult, at first. All of the Zen tools, including zazen, mindfulness, and the precepts, involve you looking more carefully at your life and sense of self. Rather than feeling like you have less-self, you end up feeling like self is front and center all the time!
I remember taking walks as I was learning how to be mindful. I paid attention to my physical movements and sensations, and tried to let go of extra thinking. Naturally, I evaluated the success of my effort, and I noticed how unruly my mind was and how rarely I was fully mindful. Instead of walking with less-self, it seemed like I was walking with a big extra dose of self-consciousness. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this phase of the practice. As the Dogen quote at the beginning of this chapter suggests, you have to study the self in order to forget the self.
Once you can manage to go about your life with less-self, this annoying self-consciousness is replaced by a more direct awareness of life. Your self-concept is entirely unnecessary to your full and effective functioning at this moment, so you learn to do without it. You are just washing the dishes, just eating, just walking. It’s a little like the way you used to do things, except for the absence of something. That something is your self-concern, which used to manifest in the background of your experience as low-level anxiety, vague dissatisfaction, anticipation, or regret, or as more intense things like anguish or a sense of meaninglessness.
The signs of self delusion—a sense of imperative, anger, resistance, greed, stinginess, physical tension—decrease as you live with less and less of a sense of self-essence. They still arise, but you can let go of them much more easily. You know all of these phenomena depend on your self-concept, which is a creation of your mind. You know how to return to life as it is, just breathing into the next moment, and things like anger or greed start to dissipate. Even if they don’t disappear completely, as their form begins to shift and break up like a cloud in the sky, you can’t regard them as entirely real.
Encountering people and things with less-self is especially rewarding, because you can appreciate and see them for what they are. You don’t assess how they fit into your agenda, and subsequently either manipulate them to serve your interests or dismiss them as irrelevant. In fact, you stop dismissing anything. There still may be many things you end up not noticing, because less-self doesn’t necessarily give you unusual powers of attention, but you don’t look elsewhere out of boredom because the thing in front of you is just another grocery line, just another customer, or just another evening at home with your partner. Dismissing something as being unworthy of your care, attention, and appreciation involves looking at it in terms of your small self’s agenda.
Living without an agenda means everything is fascinating. Even the annoying and painful stuff. It’s all part of the unfolding drama of your particular human life, which is, as far as you can know, your one and only human life. Awareness of this results in a curiosity that sustains you throughout all of the work you have to do to live.