Part Seven - Freeing up the Self
Dogen is not advising us to punish ourselves for having a Self, nor to start all over again, to knit a completely new garment, a clean sense of one’s Self made with fresh pink wool. What he is saying is - look at the size of those knitting needles - observe how your hand and mind work together when you knit - the neatness, the sense of dexterity and detailed attention to design and pattern – the order and form your consistent effort brings to it - learn why it is you want to knit in the first place – the pleasures and the pitfalls of knitting - how you could be free of knitting - because once you start observing your actions closely you’ll see that it’s not the Self alone, but the constant knitting of it, that is entirely superfluous.
I brought into my Buddhist life the sense of my Self that included all the various peccadillo’s and neuroses inherited from my life before. I was a naive and frustrated idealist. A tad cynical and bitter as a result. Life didn't come up with what I’d felt worthy of. I’d spent most of my adult life living on my own, running it within tightly defined boundaries. Self-disciplined, self-reliant, determined and tenacious, these qualities saw me through many difficult times. Some of these same qualities, learned from my earlier life, aided my Buddhist practice, some impeded it, and others somehow managed to do both simultaneously.
Initially there seemed to be so much to become aware of and transform. Swept under every innocent preference, I discovered another surfeit of stubbornly resistant habits and hang-ups. It’s in the nature of self awareness, to only reveal incrementally how trapped you are by the sense of one’s Self. Tensions in my spiritual practice inevitable arose, as my desire for freedom from, grew in parallel to my discontent with. Discontent itself arises out of a desire, spiritual or mundane, that is in some way thwarted. Ajahn Brahm points out how a different emphasis on freedom and desire must be established. It differs quite radically from the materialistic perspective of our rights and choice orientated secular world:-
“Freedom is being content to be where you are.
Prison is wanting to be somewhere else.
The Free World is the world experienced by one who is content.
The real freedom is freedom from desire, never freedom to desire.”7
Being free to desire will tend towards binding us to the Self and its proliferation, whilst being free from desire will tend towards liberating us from this constant cycle of self-perpetuation.
As a Buddhist, I have to openly acknowledge the full spectrum that constitutes me, my imperfections, as well as my more virtuous attainments. The things I want to be free from; the flaws, taints, discolourations and stains inherent to owning a discriminating consciousness. Knowing my perception is somewhat sullied, it’s understandable I might desire to be perfectible, to purify my every thought, word and deed. However, this practice to purify these elements of our consciousness has to be a delicate balancing act; juggling staying at peace with my imperfections, whilst simultaneously working out how to purify and be free of their influence. Laying siege and declaring an intense - war on imperfection - is a strategy destined to fail, there is nothing cleansing or cathartic about such carnage. If handled with sensitivity, the cultivation of renunciation, freedom from desire, ethical probity and judicious guarding of the senses, can gently restrain and bind the Self, like a healing bandage placed over and around an infected wound.
Applied harshly, these very same practices can have a deceptive and cruel shadow. To affect a spurious consistency, gives an outward appearance that sanctifies our practice, but having no depth, can only be maintained by insensitive and rigid self constraint. Our aspirations can sometimes override, and treat as insignificant, those resistant, belligerent parts of our experience which refuse to play along with this Buddhism lark. We can unwittingly cultivate an aggressive intolerance toward our own inconsistencies. This is one way a ‘ negative consequence’ can follow in the wake of too willful a practice. In the psycho/physical pains, emotional deadness, erratic mood swings, the characteristics of an unconscious or suppressed resistance. This mode of practice attempts to literally bind craving and desire, lock it away in a dungeon in an iron mask, so no-one can recognise its face. Instead we should warmly welcome our inconsistencies as gifts, observe our desires compassionately, renounce where gross if necessary, but hold them all with a kind awareness ‘without a rope’. Gradually, through quietly determined practice, is the only way we will softly liberate ourselves from their binding grip.
This is perhaps an appropriate point to take a look into the problematic nature of our relationship with ropes. Binding describes the principle that ropes are the practical application of. Though ropes have many beneficial and practical uses; they hold animals in harness, tie back gates, form ship's rigging, weigh anchors and fly flags etc. There ability to tie, hold or restrain something from moving, is just as easily used to punish, kidnap or imprison. Ropes are a harsh way to bind a body, or even, metaphorically speaking, a mind. They’re strong, difficult to break free from, rubbing the skin raw, often to the point of bleeding should you struggle to escape. They imprison the unwilling impulse via an imagined penance, or a perverse dream of self flagellation. Whether ropes are made from hemp or willpower, they can be used to mortify a soul. Yet attempting to shift emotional intransigence in this way, instead of eradicating it, makes it dig its heels in further or creates further obstacles on the path to self purification.
A simple innocent aspiration to change, to become something other than what we currently are, can sometimes appear impeded. If we respond with impatience, this response twists and tightens our sense of bondage, using our own frustration as the wrench. Aspiration quickly becomes aggravation, turning to desperation when faced with the intransigence of The Self and reality, to conform to our will. Any practice we take on, be it a cultivation or renunciation, needs to float on a steady stream of forgiveness towards ourselves. If we fail, we fail, if we succeed, we succeed. These are very worldly winds and waters that we are traveling through on our journey of purification. If we skillfully avoid the jagged rocks of willful self discipline, or any constraint arising from guilt or gross self coercion, then we neutralise the possibility of any later storm or tempest throwing us off-course. We can at least cultivate becoming equanimous to any future negative consequence that arises. Bind ‘one’s Self’ to a practice, be determined by all means, but do so without the use of a rope, whip, or outward sign of force.
Part Seven - References
7- Taken from - Who ordered this truckload of dung? - By Ajahn Brahm
Published by Wisdom Publications 2005.