What is This Me?

Are we interested in exploring this amazing affair of ‘myself’ from moment to moment?

Toni Packer
1 May 2002

Are we interested in exploring this amazing affair of ‘myself’ from moment to moment?

A somber day, isn’t it? Dark, cloudy, cool, moist and windy. Amazing, this whole affair of the weather!

We call it weather, but what is it really? Wind. Rain. Clouds slowly parting. Not the words spoken about it, but just this darkening, blowing, pounding and wetting, and then lightening up, blue sky appearing amid darkness, and sunshine sparkling on wet grasses and leaves. In a little while there’ll be frost, snow and ice covers. And then warming again, melting, oozing water everywhere. On an early spring day the dirt road sparkles with streams of wet silver. So—what is weather other than this incessant change of earthly conditions and all the human thoughts, feelings and undertakings influenced by it? Like and dislike. Depression and elation. Creation and destruction. An ongoing, ever-changing stream of happenings abiding nowhere. No real entity weather exists anywhere except in thinking and talking about it.

Now, is there such an entity as me or I? Or is it just like the weather—an ongoing, ever-changing stream of ideas, images, memories, projections, likes and dislikes, creation and destruction, that thought keeps calling I, me, Toni, and thereby solidifying what is evanescent? What am I really, truly, and what do I merely think and believe I am?

Are we interested in exploring this amazing affair of myself from moment to moment? Is this, maybe, the essence of this work? Exploring ourselves attentively, beyond the peace and quiet that we are seeking and maybe finding occasionally? Coming upon an amazing insight into this deep sense of separation that we call me and other people, me and the world, without any need to condemn or overcome?

Most human beings take it for granted that I am me, and that me is this body, this mind, this knowledge and sense of myself that feels so obviously distinct and separate from other people and from the nature around us. The language in which we talk to ourselves and to each other inevitably implies separate me’s and you’s all the time. All of us talk I-and-you talk. We think it, write it, read it, and dream it with rarely any pause. There is incessant reinforcement of the sense of me, separate from others. Isolated, insulated me. Not understood by others. How are we to come upon the truth if separateness is taken so much for granted, feels so commonsense?

The difficulty is not insurmountable. Wholeness, our true being, is here all the time, like the sun behind the clouds. Light is here in spite of cloud cover.

What makes up the clouds?

Can we begin to realize that we live in conceptual, abstract ideas about ourselves? That we are rarely in touch directly with what actually is going on? Can we realize that thoughts about myself—I’m good or bad, I’m liked or disliked—are nothing but thoughts, and that thoughts do not tell us the truth about what we really are? A thought is a thought, and it triggers instant physical reactions, pleasures and pains throughout the bodymind. Physical reactions generate further thoughts and feelings about myself—”I’m suffering,” “I’m happy,” “I’m not as bright, as good-looking as the others.” That feedback implies that all this is me, that I have gotten hurt, or feel good about myself, or that I need to defend myself or get more approval and love from others. When we’re protecting ourselves in our daily inter-relationships we’re not protecting ourselves from flying stones or bomb attacks. It’s from words we’re taking cover, from gestures, from coloration of voice and innuendo.

“We’re protecting ourselves, we’re taking cover.” In using our common language the implication is constantly created that there is someone real who is protecting and someone real who needs protection.

Is there someone real to be protected from words and gestures, or are we merely living in ideas and stories about me and you, all of it happening in the ongoing audio/video drama of ourselves?

The utmost care and attention is needed to see the internal drama fairly, accurately, dispassionately, in order to express it as it is seen. What we mean by “being made to feel good” or “getting hurt” is the internal enhancing of our ongoing me-story, or the puncturing and deflating of it. Enhancement or disturbance of the me-story is accompanied by pleasurable energies or painful feelings and emotions throughout the organism. Either warmth or chill can be felt at the drop of a word that evokes memories, feelings, passions. Conscious or unconscious emotional recollections of what happened yesterday or long ago surge through the bodymind, causing feelings of happiness or sadness, affection or humiliation.

Right now words are being spoken, and they can be followed literally. If they are fairly clear and logical they can make sense intellectually. Perhaps at first it’s necessary to understand intellectually what is going on in us. But that’s not completely understanding the whole thing. These words point to something that may be directly seen and felt, inwardly, as the words are heard or read.

As we wake up from moment to moment, can we experience freshly, directly, when hurt or flattery is taking place?

What is happening? What is being hurt? And what keeps the hurt going?

Can there be some awareness of defenses arising, fear and anger forming, or withdrawal taking place, all accompanied by some kind of story-line? Can the whole drama become increasingly transparent? And in becoming increasingly transparent, can it be thoroughly questioned? What is it that is being protected? What is it that gets hurt or flattered? Me? What is me? Is it images, ideas, memories?

It is amazing. A spark of awareness witnessing how one spoken word arouses pleasure or pain throughout the bodymind. Can the instant connection between thought and sensations become palpable? The immediacy of it. No I-entity directing it, even though we say and believe I am doing all that. It’s just happening automatically, with no one intending to “do” it. Those are all afterthoughts!

We say, “I didn’t want to do that,” as though we could have done otherwise. Words and reaction proceed along well-oiled pathways and interconnections. A thought about the loss of a loved one comes up and immediately the solar plexus tightens in pain. Fantasy of lovemaking occurs and an ocean of pleasure ensues. Who does all that? Thought says, “I do. I’m doing that to myself.”

To whom is it happening? Thought says, “To me, of course!”

But where and what is this I, this me, aside from all the thoughts and feelings, the palpitating heart, the painful and pleasurable energies circulating throughout the organism? Who could possibly be doing it all with such amazing speed and precision? Thinking about ourselves and the triggering of physiological reactions takes time, but present awareness brings the whole drama to light instantly. Everything is happening on its own. No one is directing the show!

Right at this moment wind is storming, windows are rattling, tree branches are creaking, and leaves are quivering. It’s all here in the listening—but whose listening is it? Mine? Yours? We say, “I’m listening,” or, “I cannot listen as well as you do,” and these words befuddle the mind with feelings and emotions learned long ago. You may be protesting, “My hearing isn’t yours. Your body isn’t mine.” We have thought like that for eons and behave accordingly; but at this moment can there be just the sound of swaying trees and rustling leaves and fresh air from the open window cooling the skin? It’s not happening to anyone. It’s simply present for all of us, isn’t it?

Do I sound as though I’m trying to convince you of something? The passion arising in trying to communicate simply, clearly, may be mistaken for a desire to influence people. That’s not the case. There is just the description of what is happening here for all of us. Nothing needs to be sold or bought. Can we simply listen and investigate what is being offered for exploration from moment to moment?

What is the me that gets hurt or flattered, time and time again, the world over? In psychological terms we say that we are identified with ourselves. In spiritual language we say that we are attached to ourselves. What is this ourselves? Is it feeling of myself existing, knowing what I am, having lots of recollections about myself—all the ideas and pictures and feelings about myself strung together in a coherent story? And knowing this story very well—multitudes of memories, some added, some dropped, all interconnected—what I am, how I look, what my abilities and disabilities are, my education, my family, my name, my likes and dislikes, opinions, beliefs, and so on. The identification with all of that, which says, “This is what I am.” And the attachment to it, which says, “I can’t let go of it.”

Let’s go beyond concepts and look directly into what we mean by them. If one says, “I’m identified with my family name,” what does that mean? Let me give an example. As a growing child I was very much identified with my last name because it was my father’s and he was famous, so I was told. I liked to tell others about my father’s scientific achievements to garner respect and pleasurable feelings for myself by impressing friends. I felt admiration through other people’s eyes. It may not even have been there. It may have been projected. Perhaps some people even felt, “What a bore she is!” On the entrance door to our apartment there was a little polished brass plate with my father’s name engraved on it and his titles: “Professor Doctor Phil.” The “Phil” impressed me particularly, because I thought it meant that my father was a philosopher, which he was not. I must have had the idea that a philosopher was a particularly imposing personage. So I told some of my friends about it and brought them to look at the little brass sign at the door.

This is one meaning of identification: enhancing one’s sense of self by incorporating ideas about other individuals or groups, or one’s possessions, achievements or transgressions, anything, and feeling that all of this is me. Feeling important about oneself generates amazingly addictive energies.

To give another example from the past: I became very identified with my half-Jewish descent. Not openly in Germany, where I mostly tried to hide it rather than display it, but later on after the war ended, telling people of our family’ s fate and finding welcome attention, instant sympathy, and nourishing interest in the story. One can become quite addicted to making the story of one’s life impressive to others and to oneself, and feed on the energies aroused by that. And when that sense of identification and attachment is disturbed by someone not buying into it, contesting it, or questioning it altogether, there is sudden insecurity, physical discomfort, anger, fear and hurt.

Becoming a member of a Zen center and engaging in spiritual practice, I realized one day that I had not been talking about my background in a long while. And now, when somebody brings it up—sometimes an interviewer will ask me to talk about it—it feels like so much bother and effort. Why delve into old memory stuff? I want to talk about listening, the wind, and the birds.

Are we listening right now? Or are we more interested in identities and stories?

We all love stories, don’t we? Telling them and hearing them is wonderfully entertaining.

At times people wonder why I don’t call myself a teacher when I’m so obviously engaged in teaching. Somebody actually brought it up this morning—the projections and the associations aroused in waiting outside the meeting room and then entering nervously with a pounding heart. Do images of teacher and student offer themselves automatically like clothes to put on and roles to play in these clothes? In giving talks and meeting with people the student-teacher imagery does not have to be there; it belongs to a different level of existence. If images do come up, they’re in the way, like clouds hiding the sun. Relating without images is the freshest, freest thing in the universe.

So, what am I and what are you? What are we without images clothing and hiding our true being? It’s un-image-inable, isn’t it? And yet there’s the sound of wind blowing, trees shaking, crows cawing, woodwork creaking, breath flowing without need for any thoughts. Thoughts are grafted on top of what’s actually going on right now, and in that grafted world we happen to spend most of our lives.

Yet every once in awhile, whether one does meditation or not, the real world shines wondrously through everything. How is it when words fall silent? When there is no knowing? When there is no listener and yet there is listening, awaring in utter silence?

The listening to, the awaring of the me-story is not part of the me. Awareness is not part of that network. The network cannot witness itself. It can think about itself and even change itself, establish new behavior patterns, but it cannot see itself or free itself. There is a whole psychological science called behavior modification that, through reward and punishment, tries to drop undesirable habits and adopt better, more sociable ones. This is not what we’re talking about. The seeing, the awaring of the me movement is not part of the me movement.

A moment during a visit with my parents in Switzerland comes to mind. I had always had a difficult relationship with my mother. I had been afraid of her. She was a very passionate woman with lots of anger, but also love. Once during that visit I saw her standing in the dining room facing me. She was just standing there, and for no known reason I suddenly saw her without the past. There was no image of her, and also no idea of what she saw in me. All that was gone. There was nothing left except pure love for this woman. Such beauty shone out of her. And our relationship changed; there was a new closeness. No one changed it. It just happened.

Truly seeing is freeing beyond imagination.

This article is an excerpt from The Wonder of Presence and the Way of Meditative Inquiry, by Toni Packer. Published by Shambhala Publications. © 2003 by Toni Packer.

Toni Packer

Toni Packer began studing Zen in 1967 with Roshi Philip Kapleau at the Rochester Zen Center. In 1981, she founded the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry in Springwater, New York.