The Cage of the Self - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 6 (conclusion) – The Cage of the Self

The nature of reality is unobscured as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Seng-Ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, was speaking of the practice of Zen. On the other hand, he may well have been referring to what took place in the proverbial Garden of Eden once our forebears had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; i.e., they began to make distinctions, thereby precipitating their estrangement from both the creator and created. Then again, he may well have been speaking of the construction of the self as I’ve been speaking of in this chapter so far. For the construction of the self is nothing if not an endless series of judgments and distinctions that cleave “us” from everything else: I like this. I don’t like that. I want that. I don’t want this. I’m good at this. I’m not good at that. This is me. That’s not me.

Yes, the human maturation process involves the making of distinctions as to who and what we are. By adolescence, or at least young adulthood unless some inordinate developmental difficulty has arisen, we’ve begun to adopt our various personae and play our various roles. Before too long we’ve become so used to this thing that we call our self that we can’t even imagine it not existing in some way, somehow, somewhere, no matter what. And along the way we’ve likely adopted certain beliefs regarding an afterlife, or reincarnation, or heaven and hell – elaborate imaginings that serve to assuage our fear that this thing that we’re expending so much energy to construct might one day no longer exist. Our self might no longer exist. Children, however, have no need for such beliefs. They’ve not yet adopted such a strong sense of self, and so they don’t yet have the same fear of its nonexistence as do we adults.

Unfortunately, the creation of the self does not only bring with it the fear of nonexistence; it brings with it an abundance of other fears that further constrain the freedom that we once enjoyed as children. So, do you remember running through the woods or through the neighborhood without concern for how fast or how far, and without concern for the smoothness or clumsiness of your gate? And do you remember how one day your self began to whisper in your ear that you’re a “runner” and you should be concerned with how fast and how far you run, and the form that you exhibit as you do. Or perhaps you recall deciding that you’re not a “runner” after all. You’re “no good” at running and so you refrain from doing it until such time as some life-threatening danger might present itself. And do you remember drawing or finger-painting or coloring without the question ever entering your mind as to whether you were “any good at it” or not, or whether it was a worthwhile pursuit or not? But then one day you concluded that “you” are not “artistic” after all, and that your time is much better spent engaging in things that you’re “good at” rather than not. Or perhaps you decided that you are indeed an “artist” and, as such, everything that you create must be deemed worthy of inclusion in your oeuvre. From now on every act of creation will be judged in terms of how it impacts your reputation, your product, your marketability.

Of course, these are just a couple of very simple examples. In fact, there are countless ways that we allow our ideas of self to constrain and confine us. “I’m a no-nonsense person,” you might say; and so whenever you find yourself in the midst of some nonsense or other you feel the sudden urge to flee. “I’m a successful person,” you might continually tell yourself; and so your determination that your career has taken a nosedive has your self-esteem in the gutter. “I’m an independent person,” you’ve always told yourself; and so the fact that an illness now makes you completely dependent upon others has you questioning your self-worth. “I’m an honorable person,” you’ve always thought; and so the fact that you just got caught stealing money from your church has left you contemplating suicide. It’s strange how, after having entered this world with unbounded freedom, we risk departing it within a cage of our very own creation. Yes, perhaps we even end up departing it with an act of irreversible self-destruction.

The nature of reality is unobscured as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

What are the criteria by which you judge your own happiness? Come on, you know you have them! Even a hermit living in stark simplicity out in the middle of the desert has them. Take away his beloved solitude by forcing him to wander ceaselessly in the middle of a noisy and bustling urban sprawl and those criteria will quickly become apparent.

What does your cage look like? Is it a professional image and demeanor from which you mustn’t stray lest you cease to be taken seriously by your clients and colleagues? Is it some illusion of beauty versus unattractiveness? Is it a tangle of political beliefs that you can’t help but trip over no matter how nimbly you move? Is it the need to be “good”, or the need to be “bad” for that matter? Is it a system of doctrinal religious belief that keeps you from engaging fully with the very reality of being itself? Is it an image…, a fashion…, an attitude…, a sense of some personal progress? Is it the illusion of health that ensnares you, or the illusion of sickness? Is it the idea of being wealthy that captivates you, or the idea of being mired in poverty? Do you have some reputation for intelligence or creativity or competence that you must uphold, or do you seek the shelter of their opposites? Do you live in a plain box of stability and normalcy, or is it a profusely decorated one that screams out the wildness and unconventionality of “you” that constrains you? And if it should come to pass that you see some truth being spoken here, what will you do? How will you free yourself? I’ve got an idea. How about by returning to that which you already know?

End Chapter Six
End Part II

Image References

Cartwheels by Tanya Little via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank


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