Who is experiencing this present experience? Which ‘I’ am I?

A student writes:

When mediating we often have the instruction ‘come back to your present experience’. As I sat with my experience and explored what ‘my experience’ actually is, the question arose ‘who is experiencing this present experience?’

I sat confused and with the sense that I didn’t know who I was. This was the most ‘certain’ or ‘real’ thing about the experience so far. 

Lama Shenpen responds:

This makes sense although I wonder if confused is the right word here.  When we are really confused we don’t realise it – we think we know but we are wrong. We are taking things to be what they are not. At some point we begin to realise that and that is when we say ‘I am confused!’ but it’s at the point when we are actually less confused than we were! So it’s a mixture of confusion and clarity and it feels very odd and disturbing!

Student:

However, I reflected that I do have a sense of an ‘I’ when I’m interacting I’m in my daily life, this ‘I’ has a sense of self or at least a vague sense of it…

Lama Shenpen:

Yes and that is important isn’t it?  We have a strong sense of self all the time but a vague idea about what it really is. Then we panic and grab onto what is not self as self and it lets us down every time – it lets ‘us’ down – we still have a very strong sense of self and we need to have – otherwise what kind of being would we be? 

And yet we think of a selfless person as kind and generous, brave and reliable and so on – so we distinguish between the self and the person somehow don’t we?  Or at least we acknowledge that there is such a thing as selfishness, which is not very nice, and selflessness that is compassionate and wise.

So that ‘self’ is dispensable and not what we are as a person, which is what we truly are – our true self in our heart of hearts.  There is so much wisdom in the way we talk like this. It is worth stopping right here to really experience that fully.

Student:

…But then I questioned is this actually true? I assume I have an identity, a sense of self or personality, but do I? I couldn’t find it and it made me feel as I was living in a kind of autopilot thinking and responding to things out of habit caused by unawareness. 

Lama Shenpen:

Again, I think two things are going on here. On the one hand we kind of need to have a sense of self – of who I am – what my responsibilities are in regard to my life and actions and so on.

On the other hand, we tend to identify with our body and character traits or even our own self-image in the eyes of others. It is well worth pausing here to reflect more on how we do this and how it is how we end up suffering and causing others suffering.  And as you say, go through life on autopilot just repeating old habits because of all the old wrong assumptions.

Student:

In parallel to this experience, I also had the reflection that if the ‘I’ is not the body, it may be my thoughts and beliefs, but this approach quickly fell apart. 

Lama Shenpen:

It does quickly fall apart doesn’t it? Yet the habit to identify with our body and opinions lingers on. It is a long job dismantling our assumptions.

Student:

So I am not my body, thoughts or beliefs. I am something but not any of these things…

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, experientially it is very important to know what we are in our self – yet anything that is an idea about it is not it – it cannot be known as an idea can it?  There is another point to keep coming back to again and again – what is it we are trying to do when we try to conceptualise an idea of self and what happens when we just experience it but don’t conceptualise – what is that experience?

Student:

This gave me a feeling of freedom and confusion. It also dawned on me that I have a choice in the way I respond to things – either as I always have done or in a more direct, live way. I suppose we would say with more presence.

Lama Shenpen:

Yes, keep wondering about that and remembering to open out in the meditation from the heart – ‘wake’ and just being what you are.

Student:

This brings me to other questions on the nature of what it means to be present. I often get this when I hear the meditator’s verse from the Ratnagotravibhaga and wonder what does ‘here’ refer to in this context?  I think I will sit with this some more before asking any questions…

Lama Shenpen:

That is a good idea. You are right – ‘here’ in the meditators verse is very significant…

Student:

I’m aware that as I type this, I am using ‘I’ in two different ways. You spoke about this during the teaching weekend and I wonder is the ‘I’ we experience in meditation and when our heart is moved or touched somehow closer to the truth that is the Indestructible Heart Essence, and the ‘I’ we experience in daily life, whilst also from the IHE further removed from it by our ignorance?

Lama Shenpen:

I think the ‘I’ in our meditation and our heart and the ‘I’ in our daily life are the same – but the ‘I’ that gets me into so much trouble – the ‘I’ I grasp and identify with on the basis of completely wrong assumptions is not really me at all – it’s an imposter and what is more it’s made up of parts.

All the parts can pull in different directions so it’s important to link into our true self or as near as one can get and that always feels right. You can really get behind it whole heartedly – aligning with what is already yourself and the power of that – the Bodhichitta power to help and liberate all beings!

I enjoyed reading your exploration so keep going – you are moving in the right direction.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Lama Shenpen taught on Self & Not Self in April, to watch the recording of these teachings click here.

Find out more about joining Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

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