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Love and Self

17 Oct

Watts: “There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when [you are] convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love [yourself]. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self-love all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”

I’ve broken my usual rhythm in this conversation so I can bring out a second quote of Watts, from the chapter entitled “Creative Morality.” His concluding remark “that one has no self to love” stands in obvious – which at this point only means apparent – opposition to our Western notion of the self as something solid and enduring. Besides, how can we make sense of Jesus’ “second greatest commandment,” to love your neighbor as yourself, if there is no self to love?

The answer to this question depends on the definition of self that we assume. My working assumption is that “self” designates a unity of three distinct centers of experience and their corresponding realms. Body involves us in the physical realm as a living organism inhabiting an environment. Ego involves us in the social realm as a member of a tribe, one of “us.” And soul involves us in the spiritual realm, which as I’m using the term isn’t something separate and apart from these other aspects of self, but instead opens us to the deeper ground and greater mystery of being.

These didn’t come together as my “self,” as in popular mythology where the soul preexists, briefly occupies, and eventually survives the body. Body, ego and soul are not separate “parts” but, once again, merely distinct centers of experience that evolve together through time. It is only because the language we use to make sense of all this is tethered to an ego, which is itself a social construction of the tribe, that we even presume to “have” a body and a soul.

In a fateful series of steps, ego, taking the dominant position, imagined an antagonism between body and soul, proceeded to scandalize the body and identify with the soul, and finally stepped fully into the role as a transcendent and heaven-bound immortal. Of course, this didn’t transpire in a vacuum, for we must remember that ego is itself only a construct and symptom of the tribe. In fact, this entire fantasy was very useful to the tribe, as it provided a way of managing the ego and enforcing a morality of obedience.

This was the situation in India 2,500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama saw through the trance and found a path of liberation. As the Buddha (awakened one) he came to the realization that ego’s self-designation as a metaphysically separate and permanent center of identity was not only lacking a basis in empirical experience but was also being exploited by the tribe to keep everyone in the game and awaiting their turn.

He stated his break from orthodoxy on this point in the doctrine of “no self” (anatta): The individual is a composite of mutually-arising conditions, just as a candle flame depends for its existence on the interplay of numerous elemental forces. Full enlightenment and perfect freedom come as we are able to quiet our cravings and allow the flame to “blow out” (nibbana). What comes after that? It’s not for us to know, he said, simply because it is unknowable. In other words, it’s a mystery.

Now we have sufficient background to understand where Watts is coming from, and what he means by saying “there is no self to love.” Though he never abandoned his Anglican roots, Watts became increasingly interested in the teachings of Buddhism and was convinced that it offered an effective alternative to the strangling orthodoxies of the West.

The idea of “no self” might even help us interpret the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (It was already part of the Hebrew scriptures that shaped the spirituality of Jesus). In this case, self is not the immortalized ego but merely a reflexive reference to what I am. I don’t have a self to love because I am this self, which makes self-love essentially spontaneous, unconditional and free-flowing.

And perhaps that’s the take-away message: Love creates and connects, and flows like a stream. We love ourselves when we can get out of the way and let its current move through us.

It’s not about me after all. What a bummer.

 

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