15. Love And Fear—It’s All You

I received a kind of questioning message from someone who had suffered the loss of a loved one, and presently must cope with serious medical worries of her own. While preserving anonymity, I want to share the gist, because these questions occur to so many of us.

Q: People say that what happens to you doesn’t show who you are, but how you react to what happens does.

A: From my perspective, this looks like a false dichotomy. There is not a “you,” to whom things happen. What happens is you. Your reaction is not something a “you” does. Your reaction is you. It’s all you.

I know this can be hard to understand. Long before the age of reason, by means of reward and punishment, cultural norms are foisted upon the child, wedding that child to a permanent identity called “me.” A chief aspect of that identity is the supposedly clear, unambiguous separation between myself, the doer, and what that doer does. That erroneous separation benefits the individual not at all, I say, but societies require it so that each person (“person” is a cultural designation, not a biological fact) can be held legally and socially responsible.

That apparently fixed entity — the person to whom things happen, and who then has to “be strong” or whatever—is a misconception. It is a false identity imposed upon the child from birth. “Myself,” I say, is better understood not as a fixed entity, not as a doer, not as a person, but as the entirety of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings in this very moment. Except as a social convention, there is no other “myself.” Even memories of the past or fantasies of the future, which seem to support the notion of a myself that exists outside of this moment, are only the perceptions of this moment.

Although the physical body changes constantly just like everything else, the body seems to persist in ways that perceptions, feelings and thoughts do not. Others recognize this body, and call it by name. The named body itself is regarded socially as a “person.” Because we have learned to identify “myself” as that named body and with the person others consider it to be, we may begin to imagine actually being that “person.” Then, any thought having to do with that person—with that name and form—takes on exaggerated importance, even sometimes becoming entirely obsessive.

Name is durable; it’s on your driver’s license and credit cards if you have them. It is part of your “permanent record.” Form is durable; the body that lay down to sleep is still there upon awakening. Personhood, constructed from name and form, is durable: “good old Robert.” But myself, I am saying, is not durable. Myself is a flow—a process, not a “thing.”

Consider this scenario: Little Johnny, who has been carefully and properly socialized to “behave,” does something his mother considers naughty.

“Johnny,” scolds his mother. “What are you doing? That’s not like you at all!” What does she mean “not like you?” What could be more like him than something he just did? What she means is that this latest ripple in the flow called “Johnny” does not jibe with the person she imagines her son to be or wants him to be. But the flow is a fact, whereas the person, Johnny, is fictitious—only a social construction.

Because we are so deeply conditioned socially, we fall readily into the illusion of a myself that is not a flow, but a fixed presence that persists over time, and the frequent replay of memories—including nowadays photographs, recordings, and other memorabilia—seems to confirm the existence of “myself” in the past, deepening the illusion of permanence. But an image in a photograph is not myself. It never was. The photograph portrays a body, not a self. Don’t take my word for this. Look at it. Consider it.

Perceptions, feelings, and thoughts are not objects, so they cannot be recorded by a camera. And even if the photograph seems to evoke somehow a myself who existed in the past, that myself is not here now and can never come back again.

When we look deeply into it, myself, which so many of us simply assume exists as a fixed presence, is not like that at all. Myself arises freshly in each moment as the instantaneous, transient gathering of the perceptions, feelings, and thoughts of that moment. Those perceptions, feelings, thoughts are not happening to me, nor are they mine. That flow of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts is me.

When we love another sentient being, we may intuit more easily the true impermanency of the self, for the deepest love is a continual goodbye, moment by moment. When a loved one dies, and we understand that we will never again look into those eyes, we see the depth of our attachment to name and form, even though, in our heart of hearts, we knew all along that all must pass away.

There is no proper way to respond to a loss like that. What is, is, including “my response,” and cannot be otherwise. Responding to loss is not something that an agent called myself does; the response is myself and so is the sense of loss.

Q: I wish I could feel love instead of fear, but how?

A: There never was an “instead,” and there never will be. There never was the possibility of choosing to substitute love for fear. No one can decide to feel fear, or decide to not feel it. When fear is present, fear is felt. If the fear subsides, and if the heart opens to love, no one chose that either. We may speak of choice but no one is really choosing anything. The stream of consciousness—including any thoughts about decisions and choices—is a river that just keeps flowing as it must, and that river is me, the only me I can ever know.

So, if there is to be love, it must include compassion for all of us whose fears and desires were never chosen in the first place. Compassion for the one without permanency. Compassion for the one always in flux. To me, “compassion” means comprehension without expectations.

Q: The root of my question, Robert, is this: I used to feel a kind of inner strength that now is lost, and I want to get it back again. But does inner strength really exist? Or did my pre-loss self just live in a world of naïveté so I was able to operate without fear? How do people who are faced with difficult challenges find joy in scary circumstances? I think most, if not all people, would choose joy, but how?

A: Yes, you were living in a world of naïveté along with the rest of your human brothers and sisters, and will continue to live in a world of naïveté no matter what. The relative depth of one’s naïveté may lessen, or not, but one is never fully in the know. That is the human condition. Myself never is just what it thinks it is, and never knows just what it thinks it knows.

Your pre-loss self was naïve about certain kinds of loss and pain, and what you are calling the post-loss self is naïve about other kinds of loss, and other varieties of pain. We do not know how we will feel in moments to come, or what we may experience. We do not know what we will feel even in the very next moment, to say nothing of the fantasized faraway future. Perceptions, feelings, and thoughts are revealed only moment by moment, never in advance.

This unpredictability of thought and feeling is one aspect of the impermanence that is the natural, root-level condition of human life. Impermanence is not a disease or a problem to be cured, but simply the way things are. There is no remedy — psychological, spiritual, or otherwise — for impermanency. There is no path from here to some improved future, nor any assurances at all. Except in fantasy, “future” has no existence. Future is everything we don’t know.

One does not get to choose anything, I am saying. Neither joy nor anything else. In this moment, things are as they are, and cannot be different. So when there is joy, it comes not by means of any “how,” but because joy may arise spontaneously under the strangest circumstances in ways that one might never imagine. This moment unfolds as it must, and this moment is you. I know this is hard to understand. Our early and continuing conditioning as “persons” makes it hard to understand.

There is the story of the renowned master whose students arrive to find him sitting on the rain-soaked ground in front of his house. Disheveled, mud-spattered, and naked, he is beating on an empty pot with a wooden spoon, and keening. Having known the master always as a person of utmost dignity in dress and bearing, at this spectacle the students are shocked into a long silence. Finally, the most senior student is able to speak:

“Master, what has happened?”

The old man just keeps on beating the pot and singing his keen. “Master, master,” the student says. “You have instructed us above all to sit peacefully, residing always in the calm center. Why are you carrying on like this?”

At last the master stops beating on the pot, and replies.

“Well,” he says. “Last night my wife died, and I find myself sitting here on the ground, naked, and alone, beating on a pot.”