Hello. my name is Santikaro and I’m a selfaholic.
Though many of us have no obvious problems with booze, drugs, gambling and other standard addictions, there is something on which all of us are hooked. And this could just be the hook that snags all the other hooks.
I’ve often asked myself questions such as: On what am I most dependent and stuck? Which habits and behaviors keep driving me into trouble and suffering? What is the worst drug in my life? The response that makes most sense to me is: “self,” ego, this knot of self-centered identity that I keep re-creating and rebirthing. Even though I have Buddhist beliefs that dissolve the reality of “self” as an entity, there it is again and again, sometimes less destructive and sometimes a real pain in the ass. And I am never free when it’s there—here.
To be honest, my life is quite happy these days: wonderful wife and marriage, beautiful refuge to live in, great friends and local community, healthy food and living, affectionate horses, meaningful work, peaceful meditations and joy in Dhamma. Yet some “thing” insinuates itself into all that joy. A thought nibbles on the edges; another distorts, puffs up or deflates; a “becoming” digs cracks, takes credit or possesses; a “me” fears control will be lost, an irritable somebody rankles, or self-centeredness defiles.
I don’t know if it’s easier to see these insinuations of self when life is good, when life is mediocre, or when life really sucks. Usually, such questions are just ego-based distractions anyway. I do know that recognizing these self-tricks bit-by-bit whenever we can—in all their un-glory—is essential to the Buddhist path. The Buddha regularly referred to awakening and liberation in terms of nonclinging and taught that the fundamental clinging is to conceptions and images of self. We cannot let go of something we don’t even recognize, so beginning to recognize the charades of self are the start of a fundamental letting go.
Recognizing the ego games is also necessary for sobriety and staying clean. As I’ve heard it, the alcoholic puts forth various forms of egoism to avoid facing the realities of being a drunk. Denial, sorry treatment of family, dishonesty and other alcoholic symptoms are rooted in highly defensive selves. Recognizing these addictive patterns is necessary for lasting, mature sobriety. Part of the wisdom of the Twelve Steps as a spiritual path is that they don’t stop with just staying dry. They bring the drunk face to face with these ego manifestations and provide guidance in releasing from them.
It seems to me that the addiction to self underlies and provokes all the other addictions. My AA friends keep pointing out that once one gets started with the Steps and maintains sobriety, then one must deal with the pains and hurts that got one lost in drinking or opiates in the first place. And when we face our pain, we find that its source is self-love run amok; it all comes down to selfishness.
As civilized creatures, we repeatedly tell ourselves stories about our importance, our hurts, our enemies and our heroism. We don’t simply let the sense of self arise and pass quickly, as seems to be the case with animals. We milk it with lamentations. We promote it with PR. We justify it with philosophical speculations. We sink tremendous psychological and material resources into reinforcing and sustaining it because we believe we can’t live without it. That’s pretty thick. Contemplating such a tangle of a tangle within a tangle is hard going.
In reflecting on this Gordian knot, I’ve wondered if the above addiction observations, perspectives and suggestions are overly metaphorical. And I worry that the metaphor might be misused (not for the first time in religious history). Yet I pursue it because the word addiction captures the power of how badly we are stuck in and deluded with self. One advantage the alcoholic has in working the Twelve Steps, as compared to the many of us who dabble in Buddhist teachings, is that the alcoholic has hit bottom, perhaps a few times, and more fully acknowledges the degree of suffering we are capable of inflicting on ourselves and those we love. By looking into the parallels between the work an addict must do to stay clean and the Buddhist practitioner’s work, I hope to help the latter—such as me—make the depth of commitment that is necessary for lasting liberation.
In the Buddha’s standard teaching, all of this self-centered stuff is described as rooted in ignorance and wrong understanding. In other words, self is ignorant. No wonder our selves prefer being drunk, lost, stuck and willing to let life be a train wreck. Who wants to wake up to ourselves as delusions, delusions that must bear the burden of self-inflicted suffering? Protecting ourselves—especially our highly educated, credentialed, clever, sensitive selves—from our basic not-knowing and insubstantiality is an overwhelming travail we foolishly accept, clutch at desperately, and positively pretend to be succeeding at. Self can never measure up and never be other than ignorant. Wisdom is in not-self. The true path frees itself of self-reference.
There is a social aspect to this conversation. As Americans, especially middle-class American meditators and Buddhists, our addiction to self and its security, esteem, success and comfort will prevent meaningful democracy, social equity, the dismantling of our war machine, and necessary action on global heating. As long as we are stuck on self we will be unable to give up our power and privileges. We may be nice enough people on the surface, but won’t be able to opt out of the collective horror and violence. Selfishness will trump metta and karuna, no matter how beautifully we practice them on our cushions. Self-cherishing puts a huge constraint on our willingness to let go broadly and deeply, which distorts much of the practice we do. Giving up and letting go mean just that: with no caveats and excuses, not even “security.”
How could we ever ask our selves to go there? Don’t bother, there’s another way, a middle way. The moments of spiritual freedom and sobriety that we all stumble upon point to a way out. As we grow accustomed to paying attention and being mindful, we can notice these peaceful, clear moments each day. And there are plenty of teachings to back them up. While Buddhism provides my favorite descriptions, the Twelve Steps have highlighted some necessary pieces. Take refuge in something higher and more dependable—like Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha—or Dhamma as the Law of Nature. Join a genuinely honest and caring community of those in the process of recovery from self and all its spawn that hurt us. Find a sponsor or mentor who knows the territory. Breathe well. Pay attention. Courageously face the nasty bits. Be kind. Forget about it being easy or quick. Wake up. Love. Serve. Have fun. Forgive the next self-relapse (they’re pretty common until stream entry). Get on the wagon path again and again, breath by breath.