Who is the “I” that is anxious?

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Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • Seeing “me” and “everyone else” begins the inaccurate view of things
  • Asking the question “Who is anxious?” gives us some distance and perspective

Green Tara Retreat 039: Who is anxious? (download)

42 Who is the "I" that is Anxious – Green Tara Retreat 01-27-10

Today we’re continuing with this topic of “Anxiety, Fear and Refuge.” (It’s just kind of grown tendrils.) Someone way back there asked a question about fear and we had about seven or eight talks about it. It was very rich. At the end of the last talk I did, where I talked about a couple of ways that I look at anxiety or try to deal with it, Venerable said to me that I hadn’t talked about who is anxious. Let’s look at that a bit today.

There’s a “me” sitting here and then there’s “you all.” Right there, the anxiety begins because that’s not an accurate view of things. If you just sit with that and really notice, there’s a “me” (very solid, a bit anxious, you know whatever is going on: happy, excited, a little sleepy, something), and there is a “you.” There’s this division. There’s personal territory that I have to protect that’s more important than your territory. It’s this idea of some personal space and territory that I’m more interested in. “I” am. “I” am in; “you” are not in. So this bifurcation right away starts this kind of, “Ah! Not so safe. I don’t really know what you are going to be doing.” I don’t know what “I” am going to be doing, but I have some sort of sense of control there.

I had this one teacher who said, practically every time he sat down, “Give up all personal territory. Give up all personal territory.” This freaked me out. Like, “What is he talking about?” Just take that thought and work with it, “Give up all personal territory.” Always we have to have it like this, not like that. “I don’t want that person at the tea counter when I’m there because I’m coming to get my cup of tea. I don’t want to wait.” All those little, even tiny, inkling kinds of things, much less than bigger ones, where no one does what you want them to do the way you want. When we look closer at who the “me” is, as soon as I ask that question, I get a little distance from whatever is going on. I get a little distance from anxiety or whatever as soon as I say “Who is this?” It’s almost like a little mist, kind of [a] cooling mist that comes on and it’s like, “Oh, there’s a question there. Who is this?”

There are many ways to meditate on this, and I am absolutely not expert at it at all. So please read and get much more accurate information than this. But I’ll say a few things. Even in Western science (nothing to do with Buddhism), they will tell you there is not the body there that we think there is. It is just not. The theories have gone way beyond atom theory, and we still talk about that, cells and atoms. But the scientists in the West are now looking at string theory and energy. There is no “there” there, once you go into the cells of the body. There is no “there” there. Now they’re looking for the God particle. They are trying to find the “there” that Buddhism would tell us is not there.

All you have to do is, do these exercises over and over; looking for “me,” looking for “the Kathleen,” looking for the (put your name in). Just sit and quietly look over and over. Now the trick to it, it seems to me, is you have to get a grasp on what you’re looking for, and it slips away constantly. I’ll start and say, “Okay. I’m looking for Kathleen. I’m looking for ‘me.’ Okay, okay, I’ve got that, ‘me.’ Now I’m going to start looking.” And you look out there, “Well, no, it’s not out there. Obviously it’s not out there. It’s around here somewhere, close in. Maybe it’s inside. Okay, let’s look in the body. There’s no room inside the body for this Kathleen. ‘The Kathleen’ … ” Now you’ve got to stop and get that Kathleen again, because she’s already started changing a little. You have to stop and get her again. “Oh, the ‘way’ I see Kathleen. Oh, yes. Okay, I got it. Is she inside this body? No, it’s just blood, guts, bones, fluids, all kinds of organs. She is not in there.” That’s pretty shocking right there. I find it kind of shocking. Because I think there’s sort of homunculus, a little Kathleen pulling the levers or something. “Not! I can cut open my body and, not there. So, where did she go? Oh, you have to get her again.”

Geshe Dorji Damdul says, “You want to do this meditation until you can call that ‘I’ in just like a faithful dog.” You can say, “I want you here.” You want it there and you have it clear and then you can discombobulate. You have to be able to call it. That, to me, is the trickiest part. I can do that for about a nanosecond, and then it’s all slipped away somewhere.

Clearly it’s not in the body. Even Western science will tell you that. You can cut this all up, take it all apart, there’s no Kathleen there. Or we can leave it all together and just throw my body down, and if it’s just my body, would you say, “There’s Kathleen?” No, you’d say, “What happened? Where did she go?” There’s just a hunk of whatever there.

We start looking. “Where else could it be? Well, the mind, the consciousness … Okay, well what’s that? That’s shifting every nanosecond.” I forget how many things they say shift in a second. In one text I read, the monk said, “Just imagine 5,000 things shift in a second.” Just try and imagine that. There are many, many more than that. But just even try to imagine that, “Oh, 5,000 just shifted. Oh, 5,000 just shifted. Oh, 5,000 just shifted!” Mind boggling! So, where is Kathleen in all that? Where did she go?

You can do that with your consciousness, your body, your emotions, the sensations like the seating [sensation] on the chair, and the [sensation] inside of your clothes. Try to feel the inside of your clothes. We’re feeling those sensations all day long and just block a gazillion sensations from the inside of our clothes. So just go through all of those and what will you find? Not there!

So, who’s anxious? Now I’m anxious, because there’s no one there! This kind of fear comes. Just like, “Wait a minute. This can’t be true.” There’s that kind of clinging thing there. But that is why we then take refuge. Now we take refuge. Then we take refuge.

We have to get reality. It’s really difficult for us to do. We’ve been so trained away from reality. And on the way, get refuge, because otherwise we will freak out. Who knows, permanent freak out—although nothing is permanent. We’re always taking refuge in something—always, always: my favorite food, sitting and talking with friends. You should identify what your favorites are: family, certain addictions, sleep. We’re always taking refuge in something. But let’s start taking refuge in something reliable that never disappoints, and that is the Buddha.

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