Nondual Zen Article:

Beyond Your Best Self

nondual title

Beyond Your Best Self
by Kathleen Sutherland

You are that. You are that which you’ve been searching for. You are everything: complete; the absolute. This is the essential message of Advaita Vedanta – simple and clear. But it must be understood correctly. Who is that? You are. But to fully experience this truth, you must know who you are. Otherwise, you might think the character, i.e., the body-mind unit known as Kathleen, George, Mary, etc. is that. And that will lead to confusion and frustration because you will think you understand that you are the absolute, that you are awakeness itself – but you won’t feel it. You won’t feel like anything exalted or expansive. You won’t feel that you are the totality of all creation and the emptiness that gives rise to it. So you might give up. You might accept on faith that you are this wondrous light. But you give up trying or hoping to directly live this truth.

The key to stepping into the sublime experience of your true nature is the willingness to relinquish the belief in your false self. This is simple but not easy. We are very attached to what we think we are: a separate self, with a long history and hard-won identity as one who is intelligent, accomplished, a good friend and family member, with a unique mix of beliefs, opinions and view of reality. If we cannot let go of believing that this is what makes us who we are, then knowing that we are the absolute will remain a concept, forever blocking us from the intimate experience of who we truly are.

Be willing to say goodbye to the self you thought you were, the self-identity you’ve long cultivated, nurtured, and of which you’ve grown so fond. You have a lot invested in this phantom. But perhaps it is not such a wise investment. Reassess now. Don’t throw good money after bad. Write the ego off as a loss. This body-mind unit, like the Titanic, is going down.

As we age, we loosen our identity with the body. As a 56-year-old woman, my physical appearance is no longer an important part of my self image. (I wish it had never been, but I was insecure as a youth.) I am also no longer an accomplished hatha yogini, but I don’t feel diminished by that loss. I’m still me.

But although we may accept physical change and loss, we still tend to cling to the attributes of the mind as somehow essential to our core self. It can be hard for mathematicians to accept that by midlife they have lost their edge. Of those who have suffered a brain injury or age-related dementia, it is often said that the person is “gone.” But their loved ones know better. Despite vastly altered cognitive capacity, behavior or personality, their loved one is still “there.” In the novel Still Alice, about a Harvard professor’s early-onset dementia, Alice is promptly shunned by her colleagues, who value intellect above all else. But although she knows she is losing her cognitive abilities and memories, she still has a core sense of being. She is innately aware of the essential unchanging self, regardless of her external losses.

Your body has changed and will continue to change – and not for the better. Your mind has changed and will continue to change – and not for the better. This is distressing news if you believe these things are you. But they are not. You are not a thing. You are no thing. Step out of yourself. The sooner, the better. You are the unchanging, and cannot be touched by the waning or demise of the body-mind.

Take a moment to consider your best traits, those you value the most. Perhaps you are especially kind, sensitive, generous. Or you value all your spiritual knowledge and experiences; you value being a seeker – and finder. Or you are intelligent, a skilled communicator, or deeply introspective. Or imaginative and creative. Or very funny! These attributes likely feel so intrinsic to “you” that their absence would feel like a loss of “self.”

So now imagine that these traits are lost. Perhaps a brain injury takes all memories and the cognitive capacity to practice nondual inquiry and contemplation. Perhaps dementia takes your ability to think clearly and communicate with others. Or it zaps your creativity. Imagine your personality changes so that you become childish, short-tempered, self-centered. Who are you now? You know that you would still be You (even if you couldn’t formulate that thought).

If you can let go of your most cherished qualities, then relinquishing the rest is easy. Let it all go: no body, no mind, no name, no possessions, no good or bad traits, no relationships to other living beings, nothing to define what you are, nothing that makes you unique. As the Buddhist Heart Sutra says, in the void there is “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, touch, taste, object of mind; no realm of the eye, and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.”

Let it all go, and all that remains is you. Just you. And notice that you are fine. More than fine: you are luminous and serene. You have lost or relinquished everything, but you are completely untouched, undiminished by any of this. Notice that form and emptiness are one.

And now, of course, notice that all these gifts, this human mind and body and all its wonderful attributes, are still here – for now. What a grace these extras and flourishes are, now that we know we have no need of them. But we are grateful to have them for today to cherish, cultivate, share and enjoy. How much we’ve been given beyond what we actually need! For we need nothing. We are nothing. Yet abundance flows.

ou are not smart or funny or kind or spiritual. You are so much more (and less) than your very best self. And this can never be lost. Nor can it be found. But it can be experienced – here and now. Allow it. Shift your identity from form to emptiness before you lose your form, i.e., your mind, body, thoughts, opinions and all your most wonderful qualities. Then when you do inevitably lose something, anything or everything, you will let it go with grace. You will see that you are untouched. You are that: the unborn, unbound and untouched. You are free - absolutely free.