Rodney Smith’s previous book, Lessons from the Dying, derived from his many years of experience doing hospice work. The title of this new book, Stepping Out of Self-Deception, caught my ear thanks to its self-help–sounding title. While the title is suggestive of that genre, the subtitle, The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, indicates that this book may actually be the first of a new variety, the “no-self-help” book. When Smith left his home monastery, Wat Suan Mok, in 1983, his teacher gave him this injunction: “Teach anatta and don’t be afraid to shake people.” Within the pages of his new book, Smith takes those words to heart, expressing his own shaking and waking.
Smith’s many years as a monk in Asia, hospice worker, partnered householder and longtime vipassana teacher inform what he considers pivotal: that without Wise View, our pursuit of awakening will go nowhere. His concern, voiced repeatedly in this book (and something he’s apparently witnessed in person all too often), is that as long as we hold on to the assumption of our “self” as separate and fixed, we handicap ourselves; freedom from suffering will elude us. But then maybe we only wish to be comfortable, not really free. Wise View mandates letting go of the delusion of a separate self and thus opening to interconnection.
Having thrown down the gauntlet, our author does not leave us stranded. Early in the book he provides us with a map, a diagram of the “horizontal and vertical universes” intersecting at the still point of “now.” The horizontal is the mind-fabricated, time-filled world of past and future, story-defined and story-limited self. The vertical is the timeless reality of the present, empty of definition, filled with nothing but infinite potential. This model of the intersection of relative and ultimate realities serves as a reference point for all that follows.
It struck me that a consistent theme of the book is intimacy. How curious can we be? How close are we willing to get? Are we willing to look just a little deeper still below the surface? What is really driving us in this moment? Who are we anyway?
Our author has been down this road. He openhandedly shares his own struggle. His encounter with the Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj is an inspiring vignette. Clad in his Theravadan robes, filled with a sense of self and self-importance (after all, he had already done years of practice), Smith is forced to confront the “baggage” he is carrying. Is he willing to put it down and meet this moment? Stepping Out is filled with such steps: stories from his own life and those of hospice patients and workers, fellow practitioners and teachers. These stories give the book an earthbound vitality.
And then there is the “help” Smith offers. How will we extricate ourselves from our overt and subtle notions of selfhood? Chapter after chapter of thoughtful, intelligent counsel encourages us to be curious in the face of what has always before been daunting, be it physical pain, emotions, stored memory of childhood trauma or the sticky wicket of pleasant identifications. Everything seems workable if we are clear about where we want to go.
It should be noted that Smith is an ardent advocate for lay life. Far from seeing it as a distraction-filled obstacle to spiritual development, his view is that it actually is a crucible where profound insight can be garnered, given our willingness to really show up for what is before us. His bias toward lay life may derive from his deeply held conviction that Wise View needs to be integral to our actions. Instead of prejudging every situation through the filter of our “self-story,” can we open to receive what presents itself? If so, we will be more available to connect. Our having surrendered to the moment just as it is, our actions will embody spontaneously what is called for in the “now.”
I found this work affecting from beginning to end. In fact, my own process of reading the book for review went through some new twists. I found that at some point I was influenced to put down my usual obsessive note-taking and just let the words wash over me without fear that this self-as-reviewer would miss something and come up short. What a relief; maybe there is no self to help after all. May you who pick up this good book also be refreshed and relieved.