178 – Declaring a Climate War and What That Means to a Buddhist
180 - The Dharma of Staying Calm When Facing Challenges

As human beings we have a self-narrative, and for most – if not all – of us, this narrative includes a sense of inadequacy. When we conceive of ourselves as a “small self against the world” we will always feel inadequate, and consequently our generosity is inhibited. Fortunately, we can rewrite our self-narrative to include our buddha-nature, because the “boundless self with the world” is a conduit for abundance. The world needs and wants what you have to offer.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Forming the Self-Narrative
The Self-Narrative of Inadequacy
The Self-Narrative Is Not Our True Self
Freeing Ourselves from Shame about Our Inadequacy
Rewriting Our Self-Narrative Around Our Buddha-Nature
Practicing Abundance Instead of Inadequacy

 

Forming the Self-Narrative

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all live with a self-narrative. It’s a natural part of being human. We start forming this narrative early in childhood: We learn our name, we learn “I am a girl/boy,” and so-and-so is my dad or mom.

For better or worse, those around us help us establish a sense of ourselves as a unique individual: I am tall, I am a good eater, I get whiny on long car rides, I love swimming, I’m good at drawing, I’m not very smart… Then, based on our preferences, we expand a list of our likes and dislikes and base more and more of our choices on this self-narrative: I hate olives, I love pizza, I love playing sports, I hate homework.

Based on our positive and negative experiences in getting our needs met or succeeding or failing at things we set out to do, we further develop a sense of ourselves in relationship to/compared with other people: I don’t fit in with most people, lots of people like me, I’m fun to be around, I’m capable and an asset to any team, I’m usually a disappointment to others…

Over the course of our lives, over the decades, we maintain our self-narrative, sometimes expanding it, sometimes refining it, and occasionally – very occasionally – rewriting it.

 

The Self-Narrative of Inadequacy

Vast majority of us – I venture to say all of us, to a greater or lesser extent – end up composing our self-narrative to include a significant sense of inadequacy. Sure, there are aspects of ourselves, usually, we’re confident about, or at least not bothered by. We all have things we know we’re pretty good at. There are things we’re proud of doing or having done. We don’t expect to be good at everything, or to have every talent or asset.

Sooner or later, though, we learn what seems like our fatal flaws. Some of us are brutally introduced to them very early in our lives through bad parenting, cruelty, or trauma. Sometimes it’s later challenges and failures that wake us up to our limitations: Troubled relationships, loneliness, mental health issues, rejection, betrayal, unemployment, unfulfilled ambitions, or a general and pervasive sense of disappointment – that we should have done more by now, or should a better person than we are. Our narrative comes to include the “fact” that – at least relatively speaking – we’re physically unattractive, not very smart, not very knowledgeable or well-informed, not very skillful with people, not a good leader, not athletic, easily overwhelmed, emotionally oversensitive, reactive, judgmental, not great at intimacy… the list goes on.

Even if our self-esteem is generally good, somewhere in our self-narrative is a sense that we’re not one of the chosen few. We’re not someone meant to play a significant role in the affairs of the world, or to brighten the lives of everyone around us like we imagine the Dalai Lama does. We’re not one of those people meant to achieve enlightenment. We’re not one of the people who are meant to contribute something remarkable or beautiful to the world. Or, if we do have a sense that we’re meant to be one of the chosen few (this is usually in a rather hidden part of our self-narrative), we also carry a sense that we’ve failed in that regard. Even if we still hold out some hope we’ll fulfill our grand potential in this lifetime, a suspicion grows, as the years and decades pass, that we may be deluding ourselves.

It may be that self-narratives of inadequacy are more common or extreme in modern times, and we could speculate at length about why that is. However, I suspect this is not just a modern phenomenon because of one of the central messages of the Lotus Sutra, which I have talked about on the podcast before (Episode 152 – Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU – The Lost Son Parable).  In the parable of the Lost Son, the Lotus Sutra tells the story of a young man who leaves his family and home to wander the world. He goes through very rough times, and eventually becomes just a shadow of his former self. In the meantime his father has prospered and longs for the return of his son, who is his only heir.

Eventually the son wanders back home but doesn’t even recognize it as home and doesn’t recognize his own father. The father, on the other hand, recognizes the son at once and sends a couple of his men out to bring the son home. The son reacts in fear, assuming that any officials would be coming to arrest him or do him harm, so he runs away. The father then begins a process that unfolds over many years where he first hires the son for the most menial of tasks, then gradually promotes him and eventually forms a relationship with him. Finally, the son has had his confidence restored and his self-narrative rewritten, and the father can publicly acknowledge their relationship. The son is ready to receive his inheritance.

This parable is a metaphor for our relationship to our own buddha-nature. According to Buddhism we all have the potential for awakening and freedom, but according to the Lotus Sutra it is often our own self-narrative which limits us. I think it’s remarkable that this 2,000-year-old text contains this parable about our need to build our own self-esteem. I think it’s evidence that self-narratives of inadequacy have been around a long, long time.

 

The Self-Narrative Is Not Our True Self

In Zen, one of our primary goals is to recognize our narrative as a narrative. A narrative is real thing, in a sense, but it is not what we think it is. The narrative is not the truth in-and-of-itself. It is a gloss for our life.

Gloss (n): a brief explanation (as in the margin or between the lines of a text) of a difficult or obscure word or expression.[1]

A “gloss” is not a full and comprehensive definition. It’s simplified explanation, a shorthand for something complex. Other parts of the definition include idea of “glossing over” something – to deal with it too lightly, even to be deliberating misleading. As complex as they are, our self-narratives are a gloss for our life: Gross over-simplifications of who we really are.

Who are we really? We’re the culmination of causes and conditions – biological evolution, cultural evolution, the choices of our parents, grandparents, ancestors… genetics, family of origin experience, schooling, childhood experiences, social responses to our unique physical, emotional, mental manifestation. If anything, we’re more like a stew than a narrative! In Zen we call this self-situation we’ve ended up with our “karmic package” – the result of many causes (many of them our own choices, many of them not).

But the story doesn’t end there. We also say that this karmic package of yours is only your “conventional” self, and not your real self at all!

Based on our human conceptions or other religions, you might then assume that your body, mind, personality, preferences, etc. aren’t your real self because you have a soul, and that’s your real self: A pure, ethereal, spiritual, disembodied, non-material essence that is nonetheless yours and yours alone, which animates you and which flies up to heaven after your physical body dies.

Nope, according to Buddhism we don’t have a soul either. So, what is our real self?

We say our real self-nature is no self-nature. Ultimately, only this moment, right here and now, exists. In this moment, we are riding the wave of causation, each in our unique karmic package – alive, breathing, perceiving, growing, dying, learning, and forgetting. There is no unchanging, independent, enduring essence inside us.

The wonderful thing is there doesn’t have to be! We assume there has to be some kind of self-essence. We want there to be, because it’s kind of unnerving to think we’re just a collection of karmic results in a state of flux!

Fortunately, through practice we can explore what it really means to have a true self-nature that is no self-nature. It’s not scary, it’s freeing. It’s not a nihilistic void, it’s incredibly intimate. Because we still EXIST! We’re still very much alive even though we are empty of any inherent, unchanging self-nature. It might be better to say our self is boundless. The experience of this is more like realizing the whole universe is your self, as opposed to realizing you have no self.

 

Freeing Ourselves from Shame about Our Inadequacy

What does all this no-self-nature talk have to do with rewriting our self-narrative of inadequacy?

Well, if you have no inherent, enduring, independent self-essence, who is there to blame for your inadequacy? Who is inadequate?

Our karma, or contrition, verse says:

All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old,

On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,

Born of my body, mouth, and thought,

Now I atone for it all.

Greed, anger, and ignorance are the “three poisons” which are at the root of all human suffering. But they are beginningless – who is to blame? If your parents hurt or failed you, are they to blame? But they were most likely similarly hurt and failed by their parents. So are your grandparents to blame? You can trace back the chain of causes and effects but eventually it becomes too complicated to lay at any one individual’s doorstep.

Beginningless causes and conditions are carried in our karmic package, and as practitioners we take responsibility for it here and now. There are some aspects of our karmic package we like and are proud of, some of it not so much. Nonetheless, here we are, taking responsibility without apology or blame.

This is freeing… we are only accountable for the choices we make from here on out. If we sit upright and do our best, we are without blame. Pema Chodron says to “start where you are.” There is profound healing and empowerment in radical acceptance of the karmic package you have ended up inhabiting.

 

Rewriting Our Self-Narrative Around Our Buddha-Nature

However, our true self-nature has further implications. It goes beyond freeing ourselves from a sense of shame and blame about our inadequacies. We can rewrite our self-narrative to include our buddha-nature, which is another way to describe our true, ungraspable, indescribable, boundless self-nature.

Here is the essence of this alternate and ultimately truer self-narrative: While the small self against the world is always inadequate, the boundless self with the world is a conduit for abundance. The irony is that when we serve as a conduit for abundance, it is our unique and limited individual bodies and minds that serve as the conduit. There is no other way.

What this means is that when we get stuck in our self-narrative of inadequacy, we are breaking the tenth grave precept: Do not disparage the three treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). Honor the Buddha, Unfold the Dharma, Nourish the Sangha. When we are stuck in our self-narrative of inadequacy, we are disparaging the Buddha, and probably also shrinking back from fully unfolding the Dharma and nourishing the Sangha.

What is essential here is recognizing we are not simply replacing a self-narrative of inadequacy with a self-narrative of adequacy. The small self against the world is always inadequate, so any narrative of adequacy will end up unraveling, or will be superficial and fragile.

What does it mean to rewrite our self-narrative in a way that accounts for our buddha-nature? Can you conceive of yourself as being no different than the buddhas and ancestors? No different from me, a so-called Zen teacher? No different from the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or anyone else you admire? Can you conceive of yourself as being a potential conduit for great generosity, acceptance, love, and strength at any time, in any situation?

We are naturally and spontaneously generous when we feel a sense of abundance. When we not only know we have all we need, but resources to spare, and confidence that those around us would greatly appreciate what we have to offer. Then the three wheels of giver, receiver, and gift melt into one. Who benefits who?

But much of the time we hold back, thinking no one will want to hear our thoughts or ideas, no one really wants or needs our expressions of love, appreciation, and encouragement. We think the world doesn’t really need us, so we can sit back and watch it from the sidelines, observing the chosen few playing the game.

This is a tragic misunderstanding…

Think about it: Whenever someone has taken the time to say something sincerely appreciative or supportive to you, haven’t you always felt good? When someone shows up to help, sticks around to help you clean up, offers to contribute, hasn’t the world always seemed like a better place? Whenever you have witnessed someone sincerely offering their thoughts and feelings – with open-handedness, honesty, and humility – isn’t your natural response empathy and appreciation?

You aren’t one of the chosen few, you are one of the chosen many. But buddhahood is as much your birthright as any. Any inadequacies you have simply lend flavor to the abundance that can flow through you if you get your small sense of self out of the way. The world needs you. The Sangha needs you.

The abundance that flows through us is not of our own creation, so what we give is what anyone can give: Attention, time, energy, effort, care, appreciation, affection, warmth, joy, strength, friendship, enthusiasm, creativity… It is not a matter of evaluating whether you have enough talents or skills or resources to make a difference. It’s a matter of making an open-handed offering of whatever you can and letting go any attachment to how it is received. Usually, we offer something of ourselves, we’re hypersensitive to our offering being judged or ignored or rejected. Then we incorporate yet another failure into our self-narrative and remind ourselves not to be so generous in the future. This is so unfortunate! We end up in a culture of stinginess and wariness. Instead, if we operate within a self-narrative of abundance, any offering we make is beautiful no matter whether it is noticed or how it is received. It’s not about “us” in a small self kind of way.

 

Practicing Abundance Instead of Inadequacy

Much of our Zen practice is aimed at revolutionizing your sense of self so you can break free from the delusion of a separate, limited, inadequate self-nature. Then we are better able to enact abundance in our lives.

However, there are two paths of practice we walk simultaneously. We work on realization followed by enactment, but we also work on enactment, which leads to realization. Think of it like this: A physicist and a gymnast may both be studying gravity. The physicist may understand how gravity works (at least to some extent) and be able to calculate what kind of positions on a balance beam will allow a gymnast to remain stable. The gymnast, on the other hand, gets up on the balance beam and figures out the same thing through direct experience.

Similarly, when we just go ahead and act out of a self-narrative of abundance, even if we’re really not convinced there is abundance, or that we are an adequate conduit for it, we can observe the results. As things unfold, we know through our direct experience whether we are aligning with reality or not. Do things feel right? We know whether they do or not, just as the gymnast knows whether she is balanced.

It can be difficult to step outside our self-narrative of inadequacy! I know from personal experience. I had a very fortunate opportunity, though, to observe how a different self-narrative can radically alter your perceptions and behavior. Generally speaking, I’m not the most socially comfortable or adept person. I find conversations with strangers awkward and assume we’re not going to have much in common and therefore you probably don’t want to hear about what I’m really thinking or what I really care about. I have never been popular or sought after in any social group, whether the setting was school, work, or leisure. I don’t think of myself as very effusive, warm, or supportive, so I assume you’d be better off getting your social needs met elsewhere.

However, when I am in the role of teacher at my Zen center, I function with an entirely different self-narrative. I assume that if you are present, you would love to talk to me. I assume it will be meaningful to you if I greet you, and show interest in you, and thank you for your contributions. I assume the people who attend – in person or online – want to hear what I have to say. And all of this ends up being true! Yet I believe the positive responses I get at the Zen center are much less about my being the teacher and more about my acting with much more confidence and warmth than I ordinarily do, when I tend to be limited by self-narrative of social inadequacy.

Try this practice, starting in small ways in the midst of your daily life: Tell yourself, “I matter in this situation. I am needed. What I say or do can make a difference. I can be a conduit for abundance here.” Then open up, get the small self out of the way, and notice what needs and opportunities surround you. Allow yourself to be a conduit of abundance. Allow generosity, appreciation, and kindness to flow without trying to manufacture them or overthink them. See what happens! I predict that as long as you keep the small self out of the way, the results will confirm that you are needed, and wanted, and a source of abundance. The small self will want to assign credit or blame and incorporate results into a narrative of adequacy or inadequacy, but you don’t have to fall for that.

 


Endnote

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gloss

 

Photo Credit

https://pixabay.com/users/jillwellington-334088/

 

178 – Declaring a Climate War and What That Means to a Buddhist
180 - The Dharma of Staying Calm When Facing Challenges
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