Thoughts on Shedding the Self, or, ‘Who is it that carries this corpse around?’


I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my
mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so
heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the
air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical
roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing
to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in
action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what
is this quintessence of dust? – Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Who is it that carries this corpse around? – Zen Koan

We’re stuck, as human beings, in a sometimes-awkward place in the universe. Possessing of self-awareness and the ability to reason about and conceptualize our own existence – and to project our minds into the past and future (with all the accompanying wondrous and terrifying results), we like to think we’ve really got it going on. Our reason empowers us to perceive both ourselves and the wide world around us, to hope and dream of making that world a better or more satisfying place, and to both imagine and create the means of doing so. We can build things – and destroy them, too – on a scale that seems to be far beyond that of any of the other creatures with whom we share this world. We can make art and make love, elevating the basic necessities of our existence in beautiful and often transcendent ways. It’s no great stretch to think of ourselves as “the paragon of animals,” as Hamlet says.

And yet the end result of all this conceptualization has often been to isolate us from the world around us, from everything “else” that is. We live, most of the time, in a world of subject/object relationship, where we perceive the world – and other people – as external to us, and conceive of ourselves as entire, distinct, and separate. Even when we acknowledge the “interconnectedness” of things, we often imagine that interconnectedness as the interplay between moving parts in a complicated machine, or like the linked nature of two points on a map joined by highway or railroad. It’s easy to accept that parts in a machine “influence” each other, that they impact and affect one another. It’s a little harder to conceptualize of them as being more like parts of a biological organism, where the existence of the whole as whole is effectively indistinguishable from the existence of the various parts.

On some level, the end result of this conceptualization is the paradox that, by pursuing all these hopes and dreams, by searching after all the ways we can improve our lives, and by striving after all the things we imagine will make us happy, we often end up disappointed, frustrated in our efforts, and at a loss as to how to find peace amidst the turmoil of our lives – much less take our place as some kind of “paragon” and rise to the heights we feel destined for. Like Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, we find ourselves seemingly imprisoned and cut off by circumstances beyond our control. Life gets messy sometimes, in all its perplexity and permutation, and the results can be dispiriting.

But what’s the alternative? Do we just “give up” and resign ourselves to whatever fate may bring – and to the accompanying despair, despondency, and resignation – rather than contend with the never-ending ups and downs of life? For most people, this approach doesn’t really work, either. We’re too well wired for survival. Life is often a struggle, but most of us, I think, are tempted to argue that the struggle is worth it, in the long run, for the pleasures and success it sometimes brings, for the hopes we cherish for the future, and even for the edifying effect of all that hard work and striving. Many of us have been taught since we were kids to think about it this way, to try to remain positive and optimistic in the face of difficulties. Depending on our upbringing and worldview we may think about the end-goal differently, but it seems like we really want to believe that things will work out eventually, and that all our trials and tribulations will have been ultimately worth it.

But there’s a counter-argument that sees both sides of the success/failure dichotomy as two sides of the same coin (a coin which, it might be argued, isn’t worth nearly so much as we think it is).

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13 (transl. by Stephen Mitchell)

By this reckoning, when we grasp onto and cling to an unshakeable idea of the self as separate and distinct from everything else that is, we condemn ourselves to an unending cycle of success and failure, of hope and fear, and to the never-ending task of shoring up, buttressing, and otherwise defending that self against – to quote Hamlet once more – “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

The concept of self is, to some degree, unavoidable for us as human beings because of how we perceive, conceptualize, and interact with the world and those around us. But, as this counter-argument goes, it’s still a dangerous thing to cling to, because the self is, in some real sense, evanescent and not at all fixed. And the more we obsess over it, the more we hold on to it for dear life and defend it against all onslaughts, the less secure it becomes.

We think the self is a safe place to stand, that it’s something we can hold on to for safety when the storms of life are howling and raging. But the alternative is that maybe, just maybe, real security – and real freedom – lies in letting go of our illusions about being the center of the universe. It’s hard enough maintaining the idea that we can go it alone, and harder still to continually convince ourselves that everything in life revolves around us.

There’s an old Zen meditation question, a kind of koan, that asks, “Who is it that carries this corpse around?” I can’t pretend to have the insight to break open its full meaning and implication, but two things stand out immediately. One is the startling use of the word “corpse” – the implication that we are, in some sense, dead men walking, and that our lives, rightly measured, are just an instant in the immense vastness of time and space. But this realization, far from being terrifying or depressing, also has the power to give us the perspective we need to let go of fear and really live our lives now, in the only time we have. It makes me think of another line from chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching that reads:

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

So maybe the notion of being a blip on the radar, rather than being unsettling, can be our liberation instead. This world, this universe, is an awful lot bigger – and stranger and more wondrous – than we can possibly conceive of. It’s natural to try and wrap our heads around it it, but knowing its size and scope should take some of the pressure off of us. It’s a little like logging out of Facebook for a few days and realizing we’ve been sucked into needless comparisons with the lives and accomplishments of our friends, or like putting down your mobile phone and just looking around, realizing that there’s so much more to life than what can be represented on that tiny screen. It’s freeing, if we let it be.

The other initially important aspect of the question “Who is it that carries this corpse around?” is that it’s rhetorical, at least to some degree. After all, we imagine that we carry it ourselves, but do we really? Insofar as I dimly understand it, one of the themes and theses of Zen is that, the more we seek to know and perceive our own immutable Self, the further it recedes. The search for it may be a necessary part of the process of liberation, but it’s a search that always, ultimately, ends in exhausted frustration, as the fixed self over and over again evaporates as we near it, like a mirage in the desert or like mist in the warmth of the midday sun. It’s there, to be sure, and real at least in a conventional sense, but it’s not total and complete as it is, it’s not immutable, it’s not fixed and permanent.

We can see that as a threat to our existence, or we can see it as a liberation – as an invitation into a much bigger world than we could ever dream up “all by our lonesome,” a more amazing world than we could ever imagine all by ourselves.


Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Paragon

Image: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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