Search This Blog

Friday, March 18, 2011

Overcoming the Suffering of the "Self"

"Our actor is self-centered - ego-centric. . . "
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 61.
How do we overcome the suffering caused by the ego, or small "self"? Over and over the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that the root cause of alcoholic addiction is "self" - a.k.a. the human "ego." Specifically we are told:
Selfishness - self centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. . . . So our troubles we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! (Emphasis added.)
God helps us to get rid of our "self" centeredness and all its manifestations we are immediately told, and working through the 12 Steps helps us to do that - to "deflate ego" in depth. Having done the work, how then can we continue to work on keeping the voice of the ego - "self" - in check? Fortunately, A.A. has "no monopoly" on this process of "self-forgetting." And all of the world's great wisdom traditions speak to this.

Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn, a renowned Buddhist monk from Vietnam (who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.), has written a small book, "Beyond the Self," that fits easily into one's pocket or purse. In it he examines the three mechanisms that help to drive the ego: ignorance, anger and lust. Of these, perhaps our ignorance of what "self" is, and how the "ego" operates, is probably our biggest barrier to allowing "a Power greater than ourselves" into our life and being, in order that this might surplant the raucous, painful and fear-based inner dialogue of the "ego" which drives us so blindly.

"Buddha," Thich Nhat Hahn notes, explains that "ignorance gives rise to impulses." It is our job to refrain from acting on our "self-centered" impulses. Hahn recommends "mindfulness" as a means to doing so, a practice that is an integral part of the continuing mental inventory of our thoughts and actions that we take in Step Ten. It is pretty well equivalent to what Bill W. means by "self-examination."
"Ignorance," Thich Nhat Hahn observes, "means that we don't understand what is happening, so we behave in a certain way. If we are able to see clearly we will behave differently. Each one of us is caught, to a larger or smaller extent, in our emotions, in our difficulties, and in our experiences of suffering in the past. Because we're caught, we repeat the same suffering over and over again. We have a habit energy of reacting to circumstances in a rote way."
Or, as it says in the "How It Works" reading: "Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely." Nil, nada, nothing! As one wizened old-timer pointed out to me, that is the only "absolute" that we find in the first part of the Big Book. He told me (and rightly so, I believe) that, "there is nothing to learn in A.A. It is a process of 'unlearning." It is a process of letting go of our "old" ideas and unlearning our "attitudes," which is defined in my dictionary (the "O.E.D.") as "a settled opinion or way of thinking," i.e., our "habit" of thought. And, God only knows how much an alcoholic addict loves and clings onto his or her habits!

So how do we let go of old ideas and habitual thought patterns? If we have completed the Steps we turn to Step Three . . .  if not, we pick up a pen and paper and begin working on Step Four. Assuming we are working Step Three, every time we don't know what to do, or our thoughts are running wild and we are feeling "emotionally disturbed," we are told to stop, pause and, from the quiet within us, say the Serenity Prayer.

In a very real sense, this is the practice of "mindfulness," a concept or practice that is increasingly understood and used in the West, but which is essentially and originally an Eastern (particularly Buddhist) term and methodology. "Mindfulness" is, to my mind at least, the result of the interwoven and logically interrelated practices of "self-examination, meditation and prayer;" what Bill describes  in Step Eleven of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," as "an unshakeable foundation."

Thich Nhat Hahn then further illustrates how we are habitually driven by our old ideas and ways of thinking, and describes how "mindfulness" can relieve us of this "bondage of self."
"Our habit energy is what causes us to repeat the same behaviour thousands of time. Habit energy pushes us to run, to always be doing something, to be lost in thoughts of the past or the future and to blame others for our suffering. And that energy does not allow us to be peaceful and happy in the present moment."

"The practice of mindfulness helps us to recognize that habitual energy. Every time we can recognize the habit energy in us, we are able to stop and to enjoy the present moment. The energy of mindfullness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit of energy and transform it."
 In a very real sense, practicing "mindfulness" is our practicing the 'presence of God' in our lives; a practice that asks us not to conform to, or change the world, but rather to recover and to be "transformed" by the "renewal" of our minds. (Romans 12:2)

(Excerpts are from Thich Nhat Hahn, "Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way," Parallax Press, Berkeley CA: 2010)

No comments:

Post a Comment