Thirteenth century Soto Zen Master Dogen suggests, “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things your body and mind drop away.”
What does that mean? And how is it relevant to Spring cleaning, in this pandemic era?
This pandemic is a challenging time for people on many levels. Covid threatens our sense of safety and security. Too many have experienced the coronavirus either directly by being ill with it, or caring for someone ailing with it, or by grieving for those lost to the virus. Many are struggling financially. They have lost work, their material “life line.” For those who live month-to-month without a financial safety net, or those who are self-employed and are not eligible for unemployment benefits, or are not documented and have no access to government assistance, this can be a scary time. In America, one of the richest countries in the world, one fifth of our children under the age of 11 are not getting enough to eat. The demand on local food banks has multiplied by 10 times!
This situation is bringing up deep, core issues for most everyone. Many issues come up when you lose your job and the rug gets pulled out from under you and feel stripped of your former identity in the world. This might lead to feeling worthless. Other feelings are triggered when you can’t put enough food on the table for your children or loved ones, or pay rent, of inadequacy, worry and fear. Death can even be spread by people who are asymptomatic, could be anywhere, nowhere safe. Paranoia increases when daring to go outside, while the powerlessness of being under virtual house arrest is leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. We are social beings, but the pandemic has changed all of our relationships.
How do we study the self in such uncertain times? What does it mean to sit in the midst of such uncertainty and not knowing how it turns out? Can we tolerate much longer this pandemic stirring up our insecurities, inadequacies, loneliness, and so much more?
Breathe! For me, it has been important to spend time in nature listening to the birdsong, the wind rustling in the leaves, and the chimes singing. I find myself pausing to feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and the cool breeze on my skin. In quiet moments, when mindful of the breath of my body and breath of Nature, I am reminded that I am part of something much bigger. To study the self is to forget the self. Drawing from the felt experience of being part of something much larger, I can tolerate the many challenges presented in this time, and the difficult feelings that sometimes flood my consciousness.
When we walk the path of mindfulness, we are reminded that we are connected to this vast web of life by all the sights, sounds and sensations that touch us. Maybe we are feeling insecure or lonely through this pandemic, but we are not alone. We are always connected by the breath of life that moves through all living beings. Breath grounds us and supports us in uncertain times. Breath allows us to forget the self, that separate self with beliefs that we endure, as we forge ahead on our unknown and hopeful paths.
This is the human dilemma: we are small and separate, yet also Universal, boundless and connected. To be alive is to be the small self and to be the boundless self. We have this miraculous interconnected spirit paired to our small, conditioned self. Everyone will someday pass away, but we hold onto life strongly, even near death. The warm smile of compassion is key to acceptance in life. This is what gives us meaning to live our lives.
When our body and mind drop away, when we can accept both the conditioned self plagued with feelings of fear and inadequacy, and the boundless interconnected self with its feelings of tranquility and ease, our need to identify with either one drops away. Our consciousness can glide gracefully through the swinging gate between the separate and the boundless selves. Our consciousness is that swinging gate. Once through, our body and mind drop away, and we can do a Spring internal cleaning.