Zen Self Inquiry

Realizing the Dilemma of Our Self as a Subject and an Object

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“We are the subject that only knows itself as an object”. Richard DeMartino

Normally when we talk about ego it’s referred to as something we ‘have’, it’s an extension of self or a characteristic of our psyche but in the Zen sense it’s not that we have an ego, we are the ego.  The ego here is defined as the separation of self from other; the act of becoming a self by the act of separation of subject/self from object/world.  As I have stated before we are that which separates itself from the world.  To say ‘I am’ is to also say ‘ I am not’.  The infant does not have this separation of self from world.  It is not until we become a little older that we assert our self as an individual most commonly expressed when a toddler says ‘No’.  At this point we become self conscious.   We are aware that we ‘are’, we have a self that exists seemingly independent from the rest of the world.  We are now self aware.  Along with the arising of a sense of self comes the realization of not only that I am but also that I will not be thus causing anxiety.  Animals exist but don’t have an objective sense of self that they will eventually die.  If they did squirrels would never try to cross the street.

So there is this sense of a self that is an object and yet at the same time is a subject; what which is hurt, appreciated or not appreciated, understood or not understood.  A common complaint in a relationship is ‘you don’t know me’.  The problem here is that we generally do not know our self.  For women being objectified is a major issue.  They are reduced to objects because of their anatomy.  It’s common that a male will look at a woman and say ‘look at that’ rather than ‘look at her’.  They are not seeing the person, the subject, they are only noticing the physical object.  Woman do this to men too but it’s clearly happens more to them.  Besides doing it to each other we do it to ourselves in many forms.  We dress to amplify parts of our bodies by shoulder pads, tight clothing and garments that reveal cleavage or muscles.  We decorate ourselves with tattoos and jewelry, like a Christmas tree. We objectify ourselves by declaring we are a democrat, republican, Christian, or any other construct that we identify as.

So we are a personal self/subject that is also an object.  We want to be known as an individual but we don’t want to stick out too much. We will dress to express our concept of whom we are and yet we generally don’t want to alienate our self from the bulk of society.  We don’t want to be reduced to a stereotype either.  When we are young we see our self as young and strong, beautiful and desirable but then we age and we try to cling on to youthful vision of self.  Some people will embrace their aging but at some point it’s apparent the object self is decaying.

A curious thing about our self is that though the body ages the conscious does not.  Oliver Sach’s book “Awakenings” gives evidence to this.  The patient is catatonic for years and when they awaken to the present after given dopamine they are unaware that they have aged.  Their consciousness hasn’t aged but their body has.  The sense of self, I am, is the same throughout life.  Even those people who have severe memory loss still have this sense of self.  They may have lost all sense of history, culture and family but they still ‘are’.  They are still that which separates to become self and they still want to be/live.  Even with the loss of those things we identify as our ‘self’ we still know that we ‘are’ and want to continue to be.

Normally any loss of those things that we identify as self causes us anxiety and pain.  ‘I am losing my looks’ or ‘I am losing my strength’ can cause great distress or depression.  Those things that we are self aware of, our own self identity can and will change.  We think that losing them is losing our self but it’s not; it’s just losing what we identify as self and not the core of self.  We cling to our objectification of self not realizing they are illusory and impermanent.

I heard a great interview lately with a doctor.  She was talking about how we cling onto a vision of self that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.  She had met this patient and was told by her that she was diagnosed with a fatal illness.  Because of this she restricted everything she did knowing the end was imminent.  The doctor asked her when she was diagnosed and she replied, “twenty years ago”.   The doctor was stunned and said, “You beat this illness but you’ve clung to the diagnosis for twenty years. You stopped living because you held onto this”.  It’s an amazing and genuine example of how we objectify our self and become blind to reality.

In everyday life we are all guilty of objectifying each other.  We make judgments that people are fat, thin, pretty, ugly or whatever.  We constantly compare ourselves to other people and to each other.  We do not see what is but see what our memory compares them to.  The master Foyan once said, “When I say tree you don’t see tree, you think of everything other than tree.”  When we see something our brain forms a thought about that thing, a reflection of it and not it as it is.  We think we know what something is, a quality, but it’s just a relative view.

What does it mean to be beautiful?  Is this an objective or subjective observation?  In one sense you can say it is objective in that there are objective measurements of what is defined as beauty.  There is the math of beauty, eye, nose, face and mouth ratios.  It changes from culture to culture but it can be objectified.  That is very impersonal and sterile; just objective beauty.  What is truly beautiful to us?  Will a child choose a model’s beauty over their own mother?  What toddler doesn’t see their mom as truly and deeply beautiful?  When we love someone we love them for all they are beyond anything superficial.  Beauty transcends just the physical objective self and embraces the pure subjectivity of the person.  This is the unconditional love between parents and children.

Classically in Zen and in most Eastern thought this is called the discriminating mind.  Many of the practices attempt to recognize this process and to attempt to stop it.  Lao Tze refers to it as ‘before the naming of things’, before we began objectifying and quantifying the world around us.  Try to be aware of this in your own life.  The thought that arises is not the reality of the situation, it is a reaction.




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