My relationship with Sam, my fellow monk for more than a decade, began after he was already convinced that the American dream was a charade. Like the Buddha, he had seen through the lie and was certain that experiences or things cannot bring lasting happiness. He walked away from his privileged life to seek refuge in the wilderness.
When I left my more conventional life to enter Sam’s, he was metaphorically sitting under the Bodhi tree on a quest for enlightenment rather than happiness. Together, we lived a simple life free of distractions in hopes of locating the peaceful place the Buddha said was possible.
In addition to a rigorous schedule of meditation and yoga, Sam and I studied a lot during our years together — learning about all the different ways people have historically understood the human condition and defined our purpose.
Teachings on the nature of the individual self were especially captivating. And confusing.
Thus we also argued a lot — hashing out the differences in our personal beliefs about self, soul, and spirit — ultimately reflecting how clueless we actually were about so much.
**To our credit, one thing we did know for certain was that it wasn’t enough to believe any teaching. We needed to experience the truth of its perspective first hand. **
Therefore, over time, we argued less and instead meditated more, logging thousands of hours of silence and focusing our attention inward, sustaining a profound curiosity and willingness to be shown the truth from the inside out.
I remember when it all came tumbling down on me — the moment when I collapsed in a heap under the realization that I was not who I thought I was. Though I’d already suspected this was true, the experience was a radical wake-up.
I felt completely obliterated.
Yet also finally liberated.
The teachings on the self finally made sense.
I now knew that the root cause of my dissatisfaction with my conventional life and what brought me to seek the monk’s life was a misunderstanding of who it is that seeks. I was not only confused about what constituted happiness, but I was confused about the self.
Earlier efforts to mold myself into a happy individual through psychological methods and material gain were thwarted, not because I did something wrong, but because there was actually no self inside to mold. I became acutely aware that my suffering was the direct result of believing I was entitled to a life of happiness and that the self inside who felt entitled was capable of manifesting this desire via its own will.
Though eastern teachings say that the self is an illusion, I didn’t get it. I even transferred my self’s quest for happiness right over to enlightenment. I was seeking enlightenment for the self just like I was seeking happiness for the self — and it was not the object of my seeking that was the issue. It was the subject. The self.
Once I pierced through the entire facade of the self altogether, there was nothing more to seek. Not happiness. Nor enlightenment.
So, then what?
Once Sam and I realized the truth within the eastern teaching and that the self was much more mysterious and way less concrete or personal than imagined, Sam’s path and my path began to diverge.
Where Sam was content to persevere in the monk lifestyle, spending more and more time meditating, patiently—and sometimes not so patiently — awaiting his physical death, I experienced a very different phenomenon occurring internally.
Where Sam was satisfied to lie down and die, I felt drawn to live.
This is what became clear to me …
When eastern teachings say there is no self, they are referring to the realization that, though there is an internal experience of me, this phenomenon is more like a dream — a phantom-like, impermanent, and unmoldable marvel.
Once seen for what it is, the whole seeking game changes but the self doesn’t disappear.It carries on.
Which is why Sam was content to meditate until he died. He wasn’t interested in allowing his phantom self to return to chasing after lies. He wanted it caged.
But I did not.
For me …
Once the realization of what the self is and is not became clear, I was inspired to live and express myself with this knowledge intact. After all, if the self wasn’t going away, and death would eventually come to me no matter what, so why not attempt to explore and experiment with the self on its terms?
The experience of suffering that was present when I started my journey and joined Sam was gone — I now knew with certainty that there was nothing I had done wrong, there was no heaven or hell I was headed to, and each and every one of us is in the same boat when it comes to selfhood.
So, I reasoned, why not see if I can live an interesting life with this new awareness?
What did I have to lose?
Yet so much to gain.