You’re Not the Situation

Something makes me laugh, then I’m Happy John for awhile.

Something makes me cry, then I’m Sad John for awhile. Something pisses me off, and I’m Angry John. Something turns me on, and I’m Aroused John.

All of these mes are situational. As the situation change, I change. My views, goals, and preferences change. That’s anatta, not-self. Ignoring this, taking the situational self as ourselves, as our natural self is what causes suffering.

If someone asks me, “What’s your name?” “John.” That’s situational. I was given that name by my parents. If I make up a new one, say, “Clark,” then even though I chose that name myself, I was given the letters and the sounds they represent.

Without relying on anything that’s been given to me by situations like birth, culture, education, or even the way my vocal cords and mouth operate, what’s my name?

When I say the phrase, “Answer without leaving this room,” what I really mean is to answer without relying on situations and circumstances. “Natural” here just means original, authentic, or unaltered. What is my original name?

My name is _________?

If we can answer that question, then we’re Buddhas. Buddha is just this natural self, this unaltered mind. Unaltered by situations, unaltered by happiness, sadness, anger, and arousal. Pristine experience.

The situational self is like a log cabin. The natural self is like the forest those logs came from. Our task is to see the trees in the wood because most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving our cabins and living in the woods. That’s why Zen came along.

“What’s my original name?” is a hua tou. It’s the equivalent of, “What’s my Original Face? What was my face before my mother and father were born?”

The situational self is a series of masks that change depending on what role we’re playing at any given time. When I say natural, I don’t mean that our natural face is given to us by nature and our situational face isn’t—because wearing masks is natural as well—just that we acquire these masks over time.

Most of us spend our whole lives never knowing our names, never seeing our actual face. We toil and strive, suffer and cause suffering all in the name of an imaginary person. Our views, preferences, and thoughts aren’t ours, they’re all character bios that add depth and realism to these fictional selves.

When we break open a hua tou, we see through the situational self and all of its narratives. Then, we finally have a choice, an ability to choose who we are in any given situation. We can choose our masks, we can choose to go naked. And these choices will always be appropriate.

Depression and anxiety are situations. By learning our original name, by taking off our masks, we can choose to no longer be molded by our illnesses.

There’s no such thing as Happy John or Sad John. I’m not a happy person or a sad a person. I’m a person who sometimes feels happy and sometimes feels sad. Who’s sometimes depressed, sometimes anxious. Appearance isn’t essence. The guest isn’t the host. Depression and anxiety check in and check out. I don’t.

The situational self is a guest. All of the afflictions and stories attached to these selves are their baggage. The natural self is the host. Nowhere to go, no luggage to carry. We live upside down lives, acting like guests in our own inn with these situations as our hosts.

In a flash of illumination, “Oh yeah, I’m the host. I’ve always been the host.” Looking at the guests: “Get out of my office.”

All that just by answering the simplest questions. “What’s my name? Where am I from? What do I do?” Answering with a pristine experience.

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