Seeking the Seeker

by Jack Engler

When we practice mindfulness meditation, many things arise in awareness. We typically turn our attention to each thing in turn—different thoughts, feelings, body sensations, states of mind. We often don’t turn our attention to that which is doing the observing, that which seems to be doing the thinking, that which is aware. This is what I want to do today—to actually seek, in a very practical way, who it is that is doing the seeking, who it is that is practicing. Of course, you say, I am seeking, I am practicing. But who is this I? Can you show it to me? When we turn to look for it, what do we find?

The Buddha said he taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering. What did he mean when he talked about ending suffering? What kind of suffering? He wasn’t talking about the suffering we bring to a therapist’s office. He wasn’t directly talking about conflicts in relationships, or difficulties in communicating with our spouses or teenage children.

He wasn’t talking about finding a better direction for our life. He was interested more in the great existential suffering we all experience by virtue of being alive. The world is on fire, he said. The mind is on fire. And the only thing that matters is quenching that fire, putting it out. To do that we have to find the source of the fire and the fuel that feeds it, which he identified as a certain kind of ignorance or culpable not-knowing. We burn because we don’t really know who we are. Today we will try to get closer to knowing who we are.

The seeker is seeking liberation from suffering. Yet meditative inquiry reveals that suffering is largely self­-generated. More to the point, at the core it reveals that suffering arises from grasping or clinging to notions of a self. The technical term for this in Buddhist thought is ahaṃkāra, which literally means “making a self.” If we want to do something about it, we must get to the root of how we make ourselves into a self that can be grasped.

The only thing that matters is stopping the grasping. It doesn’t really matter how we do it or what the point of leverage is. In traditional Buddhist practice, there are said to be three doors to liberation: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). A profound enough experience of any one of these fundamental marks of existence can catapult the mind into finally letting go. It cannot continue to hold on to the view of self as something that can be grasped once its transitory and illusory nature has been revealed. At a certain stage of formal practice, this is exactly what happens, though it can happen outside meditation as well. The scriptures are full of accounts of individuals awakening as the result of a direct, profound encounter with one of these realities. Each of us, it turns out, will have a predilection for one of these doors as our passageway to awakening.

Of the three doors to liberation, the most difficult one to grasp in direct experience is anattā. I’m not sure what your own experience has been, but it’s not so hard to experience the moment-to-moment flow and change of things. The constantly changing nature of experience is apparent every day, every moment actually. Neither is it particularly hard to experience the discomfort inherent in just being alive—the underlying discontent, the unease, the nagging restlessness which we can’t pin to any one thing, the insecurity of life. Approaching liberation through the door of anattā, emptiness of self, however, is more difficult, in part because we are so thoroughly conditioned to construct our experience around some sense of I, me and mine. It’s the most deeply conditioned impulse in us, the hardest to see through, and the most difficult to relinquish.

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