Joseph W. Hall
My education in the fundamental nature of the self actually came in college, and was acquired via a long series of classes. Over many years of statistics, spanish, business, finance, and through a long series of 90 minute pedagogical lectures on a variety of tedious topics, I finally came to an understanding of the doctrine of no self. It wasn't the lectures that did it though, it was my shoes.
Getting there required groundwork. First, I came to the realization that college was expensive and therefore so was daydreaming. The determination not to daydream led to my second realization: that I could not bear another didactic word. The resulting paradox created the conditions which led to the natural arising of the conditions for a kind of proto-mindfulness, a state of mind my girlfriend called spacing out. Naturally, my eyes fell to my shoes for long periods and by the end of my freshman year, I had a solid daily practice. Quixotically, there was a Senior year, probably due to the fact that I changed my major to English Lit and started writing poetry. And it was during that year, that my breakthrough occurred.
It was the lines in my shoes. This was long enough ago for there to be Reeboks, and one day in some vague 101 class while my mind was wandering the creases that had formed from the flexion of my toes, the scuffed leather along the sides, and the long tongue of the tennis shoes, the fascination I found in the tiny cracks in the leather suddenly felt very familiar. Looking at my hand, I noticed the exact same sense of recognition when I examined my lifeline: this is me - it is who I am and I therefore exist. Fortunately, my education had taken root and I was immediately able to recognize the fallacy of anthropomorphising inanimate objects. Instantly I was able to recognize this delusion as a consequence of the very kind of materialism that needed to be dispensed with and the folly that it was.
Except over the next month or so an odd series of moments occurred. Almost every time I came upon my shoes sitting on a shelf or in a mud room, there seemed to be an instant recognition and a feint voice that said, 'hey, that's me over there.' I kept noticing that, whether they were on or off, my emotional reaction to my shoes seemed to fit a lot better than whatever it was my mind knew to be true about my self being separate from things.
Finally, after thinking myself into a strange place on the other side of campus, I awoke in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by the feeling that despite whatever thoughts had occurred earlier in the evening, every word that I had said, this place where I was not where I belonged. On the the other side of the room, my shoes sat, waiting. Despite any intellectual teaching I had understood, my subconscious was not buying it. If I paid close attention, there were feelings and there were sensations, and it was clear that somewhere deep in that place that we were calling the unconscious, the Reeboks had somehow merged with my self. Looking across the room, it was clear that I was not looking at my shoes, I was looking at me. Those Reeboks were who I was, everything else in this room was someone else. It was time to put them on.
Quietly I picked up the shoes and went outside the door, sat, and slid them on my feet.
As my heels dropped into place and the laces pulled snug along the top of my arches, I was startled by an inexplicable sensation of nerves extending into the leather, interweaving themselves into the rubber soles. By the time the knots were wrapped, the tennis shoes were fused with my feet. Rising and walking away, my feet moved deftly across the concrete, around the sticks and leaves, and into the street. As I settled into a steady gait, the sensation of feet was very clear. There was a framework of bone, wrapped in bands of pulsing muscle, an inner layer of skin, and and exterior layer of Reebok. Silently, these feet negotiated the terrain, aware of every crack in the sidewalk, and carried me back to my home. Along that walk, it occurred to me that pretty much everything I had learned with words was wrong and that I had known that I was my shoes all along.
*** Since this is not a story about an acid trip, my intellect was able to produce a functional didactic model where it found reassurance and it went like this...
Obviously the nerves did not physically intertwine themselves into the Reeboks. Instead, the map of the world inside my head did. There are only three kinds of nerves in the human body and they are buried like probes throughout our anatomy. While the nerves themselves can only transmit existence or non existence of stimuli, the brain can create a kinetic model of the world based on nothing more than balancing the data is gathers; over a billion points of pressure, temperature, and tissue damage (pain). This we call mind. Using nothing more than pressure and temperature, the mind is capable of creating a rich landscape of texture, We have no moisture sensors, yet the feeling of wetness delights us. There are about 7200 nerve endings in the human foot and none of them have direct contact with anything. By simply adjusting the sensitivity of the nerves, it is simply no big deal for the brain to integrate the information coming through the shoes into the self in the same way it integrates the surface of the skin. At the unconscious level, the separation of self and shoes vanishes, and until we think, 'hey, check out the shoes', there is no difference at the conscious level either. The result is that most Americans spend the majority of their time in a state of complete enlightenment about their shoes. They are just to busy to think about this.
This is not so much a matter of spiritual transcendence as it is a matter of life and death. We have all had enough experience hitting the ground just as we discovered that our shoes were not quite where we thought they were. We have learned that walking is a dangerous business and that it is better left to the unconscious.
*** The semester ended not long after I left that apartment and I drove West for three days through a blizzard, sometimes feeling the sensation of rear wheels spinning in a parking lot seeking tractionable contact with asphalt. It occurred to me that I was also a Pontiac Fierro. Coming through slick curves in Wyoming, I felt the pull of gravity on the full ton of my mass, and felt my way through corner after icy corner until I arrived at home in California for Christmas. College ended and the years passed.
Over the course of this life I have had occasion to own a great many shoes. My first pair of construction boots were Wolverines. The first Summer when I started building houses, I stepped on a lot of nails and went home with bloody socks until a remarkable thing happened. One day as I stepped down, I felt a nail penetrate the vibram sole of my boot, passing through the rubber exactly the same way as it did through my foot. There was no pain of course just a kind of sliding sensation. Reflexively, my foot simply recognized the nail and stopped. There was no clear separation between me and my boots and more importantly no blood. Instead I deatched myself from the nailmand walked on. I was starting to develop some skillfulness.
There were many other shoes, all of them with different purposes suited to different environments. There were cross trainers and running shoes, cycling shoes with cleats, Italian shoes, Swiss-made shoes and wing tips, boat shoes and slippers. Eventually, I noticed that this curious relationship with shoes had a second dimension; not only did my mind integrate each pair into my feet but each time my foot slid into the heel cup, a subtle shift also occurred in my mind. When I pulled on my ropers, a subtle quietness seemed to settle throughout my body and by the time I walked to the barn, I was ready to work with the horses. The feeling of gregarious uplift that came from the Luchesse ostrich boots was more than the 1.5" heel could account for. Somehow, I was not only changing my shoes but my shoes were changing me. Curiously, the oxfords improved my table manners, although I think they also made me a little more arrogant and I have quit wearing them. I also noticed that sometimes you could ask me a question in my oxfords and I would come to a completely different conclusion than I would have, had I been wearing sandals. Curiously, it always felt real when I said it.
I wasn't just the shoes. This whole me and everything else thing was no more than a story. Just like my mind had invented textures, and the emotions that went with them, using nothing more than series of pressure and temperate sensors, there was also no such thing as color, odor, or taste. These are nothing more that the music we make from detecting the length or rays and the exact shape of microscopic particals. If a tree falls in the forest of course there is no sound. I finally got it. In fact there is no sound even if you are there, just pressure waves and the way the mind communicates them to us. Nothing was real, and yet, reaching down to touch the neck of my horse, I was entranced by this beautiful illusion, the redish-black color of his mane, the smell of summer, and the fact that without any moisture sensors in my skin, I could feel him sweat as we galloped. Sometimes I was also a horse. This matter of the shoes didn't end there either.. Early on, it occurred to me that if my body was capable of integrating my shoes into myself, and since the Fierro had proven that my range of self extended far beyond the one inch of rubber sole, it was therefor possible to become one with anything. In fact, just like the shoes, this was something I was already doing all the time. It occurred to me that although I could train a horse, any attempt to explain why it did what I wanted was nothing more than a story made out of words. I had figured out how to get the horse do what I wanted when I quit being me and started being the horse. Since the horse was much larger than I, eventually it had had to become what the horse wanted.
And there it was, it was possible to integrate any object into the borders of my self or extend the borders of the self outward. If I ignored the voice in my head, It was plain to see that I was doing this all the time. My sense of wonder was nothing more than forgetting about the current line of separation between me and everything else and realizing that anything in this movie was as much a part of me as the voice in my head with all it's intoxicating stories. This wonder was the source of all beauty and joy and was constantly available?
This seems to leave us with choice. We can listen to the idea of who we think we are and stumble around or we can simply forget any notion about being outside the world as we see it. Instead of looking inside the words in our head for meaning and chasing our emotions into an imaginary past, we can realize that our mind is actually the buildings and trees around us and hidden in them is everything we are looking for. The mind not only invents the questions, but also the answers. We live in a maze of our own making. The solution to it is nothing more than walking through a world of wonder. Zen, it seems, is nothing more than looking at the world, realizing that what we see is an illusion, and trying as hard as we can to see what is behind the veil in exactly the same way as we feel the earth through our shoes.
So why have a self at all?
I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this has everything to do with the velocity of objects. Sitting next to a tree, there is no better way to spend the moment than to completely abandon the self and drift deeply into a some sense of wonder. When the kids across the street hit a fly ball which seems to gradually descend from the sky in a beautiful arc, a sense of separateness can prove suddenly useful to determine the proximity of trajectory to head. Unless one ducks, the tree may cease to exist. 'Wake up' has a different meaning when objects accelerate. After that, there are questions of food, shelter, and eventually, finding employment that affords a person the time to sit next to trees.
So eliminating self completely is not entirely functional. The size of the self, however, is changing all the time.
The task in Zen seems to me no more complicated than taking care of our shoes. It is also realizing that just because we are wearing a pair of shoes, does not mean that we always wear these shoes. We have a whole closet full of shoes and different places to wear them.
The lesson of the shoes was simple. My job in the Zendo is simple. It is to learn what I already know: how to wear and remove my selves as easily as I put on a pair of shoes.
Being human, I have managed to make this task more complicated than it needs to be.