Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where did my "I" go?

Last Sunday I was sitting zazen in the zendo when I started to feel woozy. My head became heavy and my mind spacey. I've had similar symptoms before when my blood sugar drops (I'm mildly hypoglycemic).

This put me in an awkward position. Should I get up and tell the jikido? I wondered. Or should I just sit it out? Trying not to get too anxious, I decided on the latter and just began to observe the sensations. Peering inside, I tried to penetrate the feeling of unreality. Quickly I found it, a kind of solid barrier in my nerves, almost a literal physical pressure around my body. It was manageable and not too unpleasant, so I decided to have some fun with it. I probed the feeling deeper, and what I found fascinated me.

The moment I located the sensation, my sense of "I" disappeared. Not in a non-dual, dropping of body and mind Dogen way; but in the sense that for the life of me, I couldn't identify who was experiencing any of this. Sure I knew who I was--my name and memories--but I couldn't locate this sense of I. I've had these kind of depersonalizing experiences before; they can be real creepy. You feel disembodied from your own thoughts and mind. It's very unsettling, not at all like the accounts of Buddhist breakthroughs I've read.

But this wasn't like that. It was more interesting than anything else. No matter how hard I tried to find this sense of I--something I take for granted virtually every moment of my life--I failed. Sure I was conscious and there was awareness, but it was a vacant awareness (I'm intentionally not using the word "empty," for it's a loaded Buddhist word and I don't think this was a case of sunyata. But then again, maybe it was).

Interested, I kept searching for my "I," but it continued to elude me. I think this is what the Buddha meant by anatman. There was nothing I could say with certainty was "me" or "mine," for my sense of "I" had vanished.

This persisted through walking meditation, all the way up until I ate an apple in the car. Then, either as my blood sugar leveled or the drive home distracted me, everything snapped back to "normal." It wasn't any kind of transcendental experience--I certainly don't feel changed by it--rather, it all felt kind of ordinary. Mundane even.

Since then, when a strong emotion arises, I've tried to play with it and search for the "I" feeling. And while the experience isn't as poignant as it was on Sunday, I still can't locate the person feeling any of this. There is only sensations and perceptions.

I feel like Derek Zoolander staring at his reflection in a puddle. "Who am I?" he asks, a goofy expression on his face.

"I don't know," his reflection says back, flashing his signature male-model "look."

And neither do I.

But then again, who is it that doesn't know?

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jahnia.

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