On Being Self Less
As I dig into the Buddhist rabbit hole of emptiness, one thing comes up over and over — this idea of selflessness. As I struggled to understand the Buddhist description of selflessness, I realized I was limited by an existing indoctrination that had a very different (mis?) interpretation of selflessness, that comes from my midwestern religious upbringing.
I was taught selflessness as some aspect of Christianity, that Jesus was selfless and we should be too. And I learned that this kind of selflessness was about thinking about others, considering others, putting others before you. And I was indoctrinated that I should put others before me.
Well this didn’t work so great for me. While I was busy putting others before me, I did not receive the same treatment. I was expected to put others before me, AND ALSO meet all my own needs. Hello burnout, not to mention unfairness.
I rebelled against this and went to take care of my needs first (well first I had to figure out what I needed cause I’d been brainwashed by society). This caused the Christians in my life to call me selfish. But if I didn’t take care of my needs, and other people didn’t take care of my needs either, where did that leave me? Was I supposed to be ok with that?
As I’ve gone deeper into the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist canon of emptiness, I came against “selflessness” again. Selflessness is supposedly one of the easiest ways to understand the weight and important of emptiness (I disagree, but that is a post for another day), because by starting with selflessness, you supposedly realize emptiness directly and relatedly to yourself. (There are also some epic mental logistics!)
Selfless in the Buddhist canon means you (and everyone) has an ever changing “I” aka this thing you think is you, that you ascribe an identity too, is not solid or everlasting — it is constantly changing based on the context and relation to the world. A bunch of years ago, I gave a talk called “How We Create I(dentity)” which talked about how we each have complex identities that change based on context.
Remember the uproar when Facebook was like you can only have one identity there, and it has to be the legal you? That’s the wrong view of identity. Your FB identity is constrained to the FB platform. (And teaser: your FB identity is dependent on the platform too.)
This “you” is dependent on many things. It’s dependent on the evolution of DNA so you have a brain and a body to move around in this world. It’s dependent on the social structure and education and global politics and the food you eat and what your ancestors ate and food is itself dependent on the earth and the sun.
We have a business description for this: the supply chain.
Think about it. You go to a store, you have shelves of products. Those products didn’t just magically appear out of nothing! They don’t exist on their own. The box of cookies exists because of all the steps it took along the supply chain, from the growing of the farmer’s wheat, the harvest tracked on an IoT connected John Deere tractor, the grain shipped cross border (and taxed) to a factory, which makes, say, King Arthur flour, which then is sold to bakeries, and those bakeries use human and machine labor to combine the flour with eggs, sugar, butter, baking soda, and chocolate, which is baked, packaged, marketed, shipped to your store where you can buy and eat them during a global pandemic.
This is called “dependent arising.” Which basically means, the thing does not, can not, exist on its own, of its own accord.
The box of cookies does not magically pop into existence from emptiness. It comes into existence bit by bit as it moves along the supply chain. We Create the Identity (and the product) of the thing.
The Supply Chain of You
Now, apply this scenario to you. You are the box of cookies. Your existence is dependent on many things. You can not exist separately. You are dependent arising. If you understand and accept that you are a result of the “supply chain of you” and you are constantly changing based on context, you may also accept/realize that you are not as solid as you think you are.
This is selflessness. It is the understanding that your existence is dependent on the world around you AND this constantly changing you is not a solid everlasting thing. You have no self to center on — because the self is a constantly changing projection. (I like to think about the self as disco lights at the club creating the ambiance of the dancefloor.)
My Christian understanding of selflessness is about putting others first because ??? IDK Jesus said so?
My Buddhist understanding of selflessness is about realizing I could not exist without everything in the world, and that I do not exist — my identity/self does not exist — outside of the world. And so in this understanding I see how I connect and am created/influenced by everything.
In the Christian sense, if I do not put others first, I am “bad,” but this is self alienating. Whereas in the Buddhist sense, who I am is created by the world, and thus, I have the power to influence and create others as much as they have to influence and create me. So I can authentically consider others in order to influence and co-create who they are. Which if I think about it, is perhaps not so different from intention of considering others in the first place, with one key difference, considering others as if they are you instead of not-you, because together We Create (individual & collective) I(dentity).