The sense of identity or self is the union of aggregates (such as body, sensory signals, perceptions…) that constitutes the uniqueness of a person and manifests as continuity and consistency in the individual’s behavior. According to ‘orthodox’ Buddhism, suffering–anxiety and stress in modern terminology–originates in our sense of identity and results from our attachment to the meanings of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’ and ‘myself’. These words set excluding boundaries between each individual and the rest of the world.
Do we have to extinguish the self to eliminate suffering? No, ascetic renunciation is not a practical solution to anxiety or stress. Instead we need to get rid of the redundant ego, a more reasonable and viable alternative. What is redundant ego? Let us talk about the neuronal software that creates the self.
Our sense of identity is coded in the prefrontal cortex of our brain as zillions of not-yet-understood neuronal instructions. A fraction of this huge number contains the basic software code that we need for an effective and serene life; this portion sets rules for what we call essential self.
Somewhere else there also exists a big chunk of instructions that handles all our undesirable conditionings and habits–the harmful formations in Buddhist terminology. Such harmful formations generate the cravings that lead to greed and addictions, the aversions that cause panics and hatred, and the biases that blind our understanding; they make up our redundant ego. If we are to end suffering, we must inhibit all harmful mental formations, that is, we must turn off their associated neural instructions.
The redundant ego grows out of behaviors, originally innocuous but that swell out of control, such as the desire for that extra food we should not eat, the dislike for that person that failed us, or the unconditional support to our doctrinarian affiliations. The essential self, on the other hand, is the reduced, downsized self that remains once the harmful formations have been silenced, that is, what is left out from our inflated self once we suppress the redundant portion.
Once we have eliminated our redundant ego, the essential self takes over our life. Then, effortlessly, without any struggle to complete specific goals or reach certain destinations, we will peacefully flow with our existence.
Michelangelo, the great Italian Renaissance artist, believed that images already existed in the blocks of marble as if they were locked in there. Before the first cut, he thought, the sculptor should discover the idea within and then proceed to remove the excess material. Michelangelo, so easy for him, just chipped away from the marble what was not statue.
In the same manner, our inflated self, jam-packed with harmful formations, is like a huge stone, very, very heavy; our essential self, our own piece of art, lies somewhere within that rock. If we are to find it, as the artist suggests for marble, we also have to remove the excess. We do possess the skills to chip away the portion that is not really us; the endeavor–just ask Michelangelo–does require much perseverance.
When we are done, we will experience our own existence and everything else very differently. Our essential self comes out spontaneously after silencing our harmful mental formations and removing our redundant ego. We do not find our essential self through reasoning dissections or belief systems because these depend upon the mental formations that already make up our inflated self.
Neither can we rely on masters, spiritual teachers or gurus. Some sages might point the right direction but nobody can steer us toward our essential self; we have to find it by ourselves. We do not develop, build or refine our essential self; it is already in there. Neither can we come across it through intellectual gimmicks; the process is about quieting mental noises and unlearning–deprogramming, erasing–harmful mental habits.
Once Michelangelo removed the superfluous fragments in the blocks of marble, the harmony of his Pietà, his David or his Moses was magnificent. When we cut down the surplus material of our inflated self’s big stone, right there, within us, our essential self will manifest, vibrating in inner harmony. We just have to remove the unnecessary.
Atlanta, September 7, 2014