The second we wake up, all of our yesterdays come flooding in, swiftly followed by our tomorrows.
We crawl out of bed and into our roles and labels. We pick up our suitcase of views and beliefs that we’d tucked in the night before. We carry our lingering feelings to the bathroom, coffee pot, fridge, Facebook and the kitchen table. Throughout it all, a rapid undercurrent of, “I-ing.”
But what if, for a day—or even an hour, or five minutes—we let it all be? What if when we crawl out of bed, we’re just crawling out of bed? What if when we’re walking through the house, we’re just walking through the house. And when we’re sitting and drinking coffee, we’re just sitting and drinking coffee?
There’s so much baggage rattling through our minds that we don’t always need. We can set it down. Some of it we never need for anything, ever. If our minds were like an inbox, 90% of it would be spam. We don’t even need to define ourselves, especially when we’re alone. When we’re alone, we don’t have to be someone, we can just be.
While sitting on the toilet, we don’t have to defend ourselves with labels. There’s no one there to fight against, and nothing to attain. Labels and roles are for social interactions. How we blew that out of proportion to include even those moments of solitude, I’ll never know.
Zen is mind training.
We learn how walk, talk, and do most things by observing others, but we never learned how to think or how to regulate ourselves because we can’t see other people’s minds. So we live by a double standard that puts our minds and bodies out of sync.
Most of us would never dream of babbling constantly or endlessly putting other people down, but that’s exactly what we do to ourselves in our own heads. Most of us don’t hurt people on purpose, but we’ve probably all had the impulse to burn someone’s house down. Many of us totally despise ourselves, more than anyone else.
We could say that that’s because we know ourselves better than anyone else, but that’s not true. We only know these roles and labels. When we set those down, we’re truly ourselves, but there’s nothing that we can say about it.
As long as the inside and outside are on different pages, we’re gonna carry cognitive dissonance throughout our lives.
But we can break out of that, because it’s just a habit. By learning to set things down and pay attention to the raw, tangible aspects of what we’re doing, we can find a little harmony with ourselves. Then, over time, the effects of being no one in particular when we’re alone start to spillover into our interactions as well. We find life less disagreeable, and people less annoying. We make fewer social blunders, and since our minds are clear, we can see in an instant which path we should choose.
Here’s a thought experiment:
Imagine box. Now, ask yourself, “Who am I?” and whatever answer you give, put it into that box. “I’m John.” Into the box. “I’m, uh, a person,” into the box, “a guy,” box, “I like music, reading, writing, nature, and comedy.” All into the box. “I’m a son, a brother, an American citizen,” tossed in the box. “I’m this body and mind, I have feelings, I’m quiet, I’m a Buddhist, and secretly a bleeding heart romantic.” Every trait, every label, view, or behavior, anything we can all I or mine goes into the box. Seriously, take a few breaths and try it out.
When you can’t think of anything else, just look at the box for a moment. Just visualize it sitting there in your mind. Now, ask yourself, “Who’s looking at the box?”
This is the only us that we need to be when we’re alone. Everything in that box is for other people, for standing our ground in the world and interacting with others.
We don’t need it to wake up and make coffee. It just holds us back and blinds us to the simple wonders that are always all around. If we work at keeping all of that other stuff in the box, we can choose what to pick it up and set down as needed. We create ourselves from moment to moment. But we usually put this creative process on autopilot and trust our genes and habits to navigate us through life.
This doesn’t work well because there’s no course, no set destination. This is a floating world, nothing is fixed in place except the natural laws that cause things to not be fixed in place. If we trust autopilot to navigate through that, then we’re gonna bump into a lot of shit, and it’s probably gonna bump back.
When we can just be naked, if we take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and attention by letting ourselves be the uncarved block, then we can navigate this asteroid field. It all depends on having a steady, open, inquisitive, unlabeled mind as a baseline. If we can maintain that mind, then life is no longer a minefield and we’re no longer bound by imaginary shackles.
Basho wrote, “Sitting quietly, doing nothing; spring comes and the grass grows by itself.” We don’t have to do anything to be who we already are, who we want to be. By learning to be no one, by letting the grass grow, even death loses its menace. It all starts by just learning to be just this, just here doing what we’re doing. No tricks, no gimmicks, no complicated philosophies, and no labels.
As Layman said:
“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
[My] supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and carrying firewood.”
If we could just do that, most of our sorrows and stresses would disappear in an instant.