Across the board in all major traditions, there is a very evident cultivation of the Self to be the best version that one can possibly be. Rites of passage into manhood or womanhood exist in all kinds of varying customs and cultural variations, all with the emphasis on growth and heading towards or becoming a fuller version of who one already is.
Shinzen Young, a Zen Buddhist teacher says that the sense of Self is like a wave and fluctuates constantly. It isn’t a particle that can never change. It is the flow of thought and feeling that creates the perception that the Self is constantly changing. It is the circumstances that surround our day to day and how we feel about it that are actually changing, rather than the essence of Self. For example, when we are enjoying a quiet Sunday morning in bed cuddled up with a lover, our sense of identity and Self in the secular sense is diminished. When we are comfortable in our own skin, there is a letting go of the Self that is composed of preconceived ideas of who we are, what role we strive to play with colleagues, our plans, our judgments, our fears and doubts, and many other themes that occupy our mind during varying times of the day.
When we are hustling and bustling in life, going to work and doing whatever our quintessential duties beckon, like a medieval knight preparing for battle, we put on garments, physical and figurative layers that guard us in preparation to face the world head on. The way in which we choose to present our Selves through the clothing we wear, the colors, patterns and design, all reflect our perceptions of who we think we are, and how we think we ought to be perceived by others in the world. We then put on personality masks, modes of operating that change and fluctuate like a swift chameleon darting through a busy rainforest. Our manner of speaking change continuously when talking to a boss, gossiping with a friend, arguing with loved ones, or casually greeting the barista preparing the morning brew.
If we see the Secular Self (S.ecular E.go’s L.egislated F.rame) like the different strata of the earth, the many hats that we wear during the day. Mindfully, we can then unravel all of these frames or layers we have subconsciously put on, and return to the purity of the true Self (S.ublimely E.mbracing L.ove and F.reedom). The Self that is unclouded from societal pressure, the Self that is connected to Source, the Self that realizes that all things exist in polarity with a beginning and an end, perpetually in a state of opposition and duality. Once we put all our chips on the axiomatic truth of the true Self being one and absolute, connected to that which created the Self, (some may say Source or God’s Grace), then we can realize that our happiness is not dependent on states of fluctuation like wealth, social position, our relationships, etc. Not to say that this idea reduces the value of what we hold dear, but that we become grounded in a higher reality that understands wisely that impermanence surrounds the Self completely and indiscriminately.
In Buddhism, there are 5 skandhas or compositions of the Self: physical form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. One of the most important things to understand about the skandhas is that they exist in emptiness. They are not qualities that an individual owns because through the principle of anatman (no-self), the secular Self or the ego is a by-product of the skandhas that compose the True Self. Since the Self is considered the essence of all things that does not depend on anything outside of it, when the nature of the Self is fully perceived, it is said that one attains nirvana or enlightenment. In “The Essence of Zen,” Sekkei Harada says, “In our lifetime, there is only one person we must encounter, one person we must meet as though we were passionately in love. That person is the essential Self, the true Self. As long as you don’t meet this Self, it will be impossible to find true satisfaction in your heart.”
So like a caterpillar emerging out of a cocoon into a butterfly, we move through moments and periods of our lives looking for happiness and fulfillment in “becoming” and “arriving” to a destination we perceive to be an end goal. Is it a career goal, to find the love our life, to become abundantly wealthy, or all of the above? The fruits of life will arrive on a delicious plate so long as we apply these ponderous existentialist queries in manageable doses. Instead of getting confused in fanciful Cartesian analysis of “I think, therefore I am,” we can start at the basics and frame our secular self, or the ego, and observe all the many hats we wear during the day as a practice of mindfulness. Through the practice of alignment the mind, body and spirit through yoga, meditation and mindfulness, we will all eventually arrive home to the destination that was always just a process, the Self (S.ublimely E.mbracing L.ove and F.reedom).