The awareness of “I” emerges from a reflection of the stream of experiential consciousness that awakens when one becomes aware of being observed by an internalized watcher or seer who is felt but never known. This wavering consciousness, an “I”, knits together streams of memories, thoughts, feelings, and interactions in such a manner that formulates an awareness of continuity, striving, identity, as well as an sense of other.
Buddhist psychology suggests that the personal self that we experience, perceive, and conceive arises from five material and non-material elements: our bodies, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. These five categories of self introduce us to the nature of our being. We are the five and the five are us. Whatever we identify with, whatever we hold to as our self, falls within this collection. Together they generate the whole array of thoughts, emotions, ideas, and dispositions in which we dwell, “our world.”
Buddhism notes that these five elements, neither singly or collectively, constitute any permanent unchanging self, nor is there to be found any self apart from them. Hence the belief in a permanent solid self proves to be a mere illusion as we find a self riddled with gaps and ambiguities that appear coherent because of the monologue we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our minds.
Taking this discussion further, when we hold a rose we see that it also is composed of multiple elements, some tangible – leaves, stem, thorns, petals, stamens – and others intangible – scent, color, memories. If you were to remove any of these constituent parts, would you find an consistent, unchanging entity know as “rose”? As we are unable to find a permanent rose in the absence of any one of these parts, we are also unable to find an enduring rose in any one of these elements.
Contemplating the absence of an enduring and solid rose, is the mental “knowing” of the rose within the dynamics of I, the subject, and the rose, the object. To hold a rose is also to hold in your hand all the elements that make up both the tangible and intangible: the sun, rain, soil, eyes, nose, touch, consciousness, etc.
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “When we look at a chair, we see the wood, but we fail to observe the tree, the forest, the carpenter, or our own mind. When we meditate on it, we can see the entire universe in all its inter-woven and interdependent relations in the chair. The presence of the wood reveals the presence of the tree. The presence of the leaf reveals the presence of the sun. The presence of the apple blossoms reveals the presence of the apple. Meditators can see the one in the many, and the many in the one. Even before they can see the chair, they can see its presence in the heart of living reality. The chair is not separate. It exits only in its interdependent relations with everything else in the universe. It is because all other things are. It is is not, then all other things are not either.”
The words of Thich Nhat Hanh invites me to imagine the multiple phenomena present within both the rose and chair—sun, earth, rain, bacteria, worms, horticulturist, carpenter—to list a few. When I explore the elements within the horticulturist, my mind visualizes parents, doctors, teachers, grocery clerks, farmers, machinists, seamstress, etc. To extend this contemplation to the seamstress brings me to consider what elements are within designer labels: silk, bombyx mori, Chinese sericulture, organic nutrients, incubators, glass containers, designers, paper, sewing machines, laborers, mulberry trees, and the person who identifies herself with designer labels.
So…what elements are within a person who has an interdependent relationship with the phenomena of designer labels? If we were to remove all of the elements within labels what or who would actually be removed and what sense of “I” would remain?
What kind of world would it be if she and I came to honor and respect our interdependence with the seamstress, migrant worker, sales clerk, janitor, secretary, unemployed, homeless, negated other, rose and chair? If she and I saw that “I am them, and they are me?”
In summary, I draw upon Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing, “…An awakened individual vividly sees the non-chair elements when looking at the chair, and realizes that the chair has no boundaries, no beginning, and no end.
” …To deny the existence of a chair is to end the presence of the whole universe.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun, My Heart
B Catherine Koeford, A Meditative Journey with Saldage