“The self, the place in which we live, is the place of illusion. The good is associated with the attempt to see the self…to break through the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it truly is,” wrote Iris Murdoch in her 1970 masterpiece—a notion so radical in her time and in her culture, that it contradicts With concepts of individuality and self-actualization considered the basis of Western philosophy. Today, practices such as meta meditation and mindfulness — practices rooted in self-dissolution, which remain the greatest challenge to human tasks even for the most devoted meditators among us, offering only fleeting glimpses of reality as it really is — flood the global mainstream, drawn from the groundwater of philosophy. The ancient oriental and carried across the cultural bay a handful of pioneers in the sixties and seventies of the last century.
At their head was the great Sayyid Zain and peace activist This Nhat Hana (October 11, 1926 – January 22, 2022), who arrived in America in 1961 to study the history of Vietnamese Buddhism at Princeton Theological Seminary, brought what he had learned back to his native Vietnam for two years and devoted himself to the peace project, for which the South Vietnamese government punished with exile for four decades. After half a life—after being nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, after establishing the foundations of civilized optimism in the village of Bloom in France, after surviving a stroke that left him unable to speak or walk—he was finally allowed to return to his motherland, Leaving the West he celebrated as a waking father.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s journal began to preserve his arrival in America as a young man and was published half a century later Scented Palm Leaves: The Journals 1962-1966 (a public library). This remains his most intimate writing – a rare record of his selflessness, which made him himself: the monk who brought awakening to the world.
In an unusual diary written ten days before his 36th birthday – the age at which Walt Whitman opened his business grass leaves With the discourse “I sing my self, a simple separate person” – Thich Nhat Hanh contemplates the illusory and interconnected nature of the self as he confronts his own audiences, engaged in the all-encompassing inner conflict that comes with being a person in the world, a private universe in the public sphere:
It’s funny how much our surroundings affect our emotions. Our joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes are so colored by our environment that we often let our surroundings dictate our course. We agree with “general” feelings so we don’t even know our true aspirations. We have become strangers to ourselves, having shaped the whole of society…Sometimes I feel trapped between two opposing people – the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self”. How often do we confuse the two and assume that the mold of society is our true selves. Battles between ourselves rarely lead to peaceful reconciliation. Our mind becomes a battlefield where the five aggregates – the shape, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being – are scattered like debris in a hurricane. Trees are falling apart, branches are cut down, houses are collapsing.
Two centuries after Coleridge viewed the storm as a lens on the soul, and a century after Van Gogh praised the explanatory power of storms in nature and human nature, Thich Nhat Hanh adds:
These are our loneliest moments. However, every time we survive such a storm, we grow a little. Without storms like these, I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I seldom hear such a storm coming until it has already hit me. He seems to be stomping silently on silk slippers. I know it must have been fermenting a long time ago, boiling in my thoughts and mental formations, but when such a frantic hurricane hits, nothing on the outside can help. I am shattered and torn, and I am also redeemed.
In keeping with Alain de Botton’s insight into the significance of avalanches, he looks back on what the most formative storm of his life taught him:
I saw that the entity that I considered “me” was really a fabrication. I realized that my true nature was more real, uglier and more beautiful than I had ever imagined.
In a remembrance that makes my soul tremble with the tenderness of confession, he goes on to detail the storm of his self-pity—his version of the Epiphany in the Garden that revealed to Virginia Woolf the purpose of her life:
The feeling started a little before eleven o’clock at night on the first of October. I was browsing on the eleventh floor of the Butler Library. I knew the library was about to close, and I saw a book related to my field of research. I slipped it off the shelf and held it in my hands. It was big and heavy. I read that it was published in 1892, and donated to the Columbia Library that same year. On the back cover was a slip of paper recording the names of the borrowers and the dates they were taken out of the library. The first time it was borrowed was in 1915, and the second time in 1932. I’ll be the third. Can you imagine? I was only the third borrower, on October 1, 1962. For seventy years, two more people stood in the same place I stood now, pulled the book off the shelf, and decided to check it out. I was overcome by the desire to meet these two people. I don’t know why, but I wanted to hug them. But they are gone, and I too will be gone soon. Two points on the same straight line will never meet. I managed to meet two people in space, but not in time.
Suddenly, all the lines dissolved into a boundless field of consciousness, without space, time, or subject:
I feel as if I have lived a long time and seen a lot of life. I’m about thirty-six years old, and she’s not young. But that night, as I stood among the piles in Butler’s library, I saw that I was neither small nor great, existing nor non-existent. My friends know I can be just as funny and sinister as my childhood. I love to joke around and get into the game of life fully. I also know what it means to be angry. I know it is a pleasure to be praised. I’m often on the verge of crying or laughing. But beneath all these feelings, what else is there? How can I touch it? If there isn’t anything, why would I be sure there is anything?
Still holding the book, I felt a glimmer of insight. I understood that I was free of ideals, hopes, viewpoints, or loyalties. I have no promises to keep with others. At that moment, the sense of myself as an entity among other entities disappeared. I knew that this insight did not arise out of disappointment, despair, fear, desire, or ignorance. Veil lifts silently effortlessly. That’s it. If you hit me, stone me, or even shoot me, everything that counts as “me” will fall apart. Then, what is already there will reveal itself – faint as smoke, elusive as emptiness, and yet neither smoke nor emptiness, ugly, nor ugly, beautiful, but not beautiful. It’s like a shadow on the screen.
But out of this feeling of loss of self, of this complete breakdown of identity, a profound feeling arose that he had come to himself, to a fundamental unity of his being with every being:
At that moment, I had a deep feeling I had is back. My clothes, my shoes, even the very essence of my being was gone, and I was as comfortable as a grasshopper standing on a patch of grass… When the grasshopper sits on a blade of grass, he does not think of separation, resistance, or blame… The green grasshopper blends perfectly with the green grass… He neither retreats nor tempted. He knows nothing of philosophy or proverbs. He is simply grateful for his ordinary life. Ride across the meadow, my dear friend, and salute yesterday’s child. When you can’t see me, you yourself will come back. Even when your heart is filled with despair, you will find the same grasshopper on the same blade of grass… Some of life’s dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thinking. We just live with them, struggle with them and become one with them… In order to live, we must die every moment. We must perish over and over in the storms that make life possible.
Complete this part of Palm leaf freshener – Great read in its entirety – with poetic physician Lewis Thomas, writing in the same era, on how slug and jellyfish illuminate the permeable boundaries of the self, then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening, Four Buddhist incantations on transforming fear into love, and his teachings Transformational timeless about love as an art of “interlacing”.