This talk and inquiry did not get recorded, unfortunately!
Of course we begin with the self, that is where we are at the beginning, washed up on the shore of life wailing for the lost paradise of the womb and oriented toward getting our urgent needs met. This is the infant’s view of the world, grasping for what will nourish and sustain it, for someone—anyone to care for it. Gradually we include others in our view: parents, family, friends, fellow students. We experiment and explore. The world gets a little bigger, but we are still squarely at its center. This is the normal narcissism of the child, and later, the adolescent. Launching a life is a big challenge, and we are fully occupied by it for quite a long time. Some people never get beyond this self-centered concern.
Weather pleases us, or displeases us; it makes our travel difficult, or waters the garden. Trees, grasses, flowers, sunsets, mountains, oceans, exist in our world as ornaments in our lives. We are inspired or desolate at all the changes in our environment: buildings, traffic, new technologies. We like this President, we dislike commercials, we have a favorite restaurant, the shows we like to watch, we look out for sales so we can buy things we want at a special price. We worry about the proliferation of guns or the terrorist threat but set it aside because it has not yet touched us personally, unlike property taxes or a struggle at the office. We don’t talk about or act on the largest issues we face in our world. We can’t seem to think or act or feel in ways that go beyond our own personal interests.
So this is an invitation to think about what it might mean to become “unpersonal.” This is a bit dangerous, because already there is a kind of general view that Buddhists are unfeeling, self-absorbed, unthinking people who escape from the world through the seemingly self-centered practice of meditation. There is a sense that we become impersonal, even uncaring. This of course is a misunderstanding of Buddhist teachings and practice, which in any event have the opposite effect: they tend to make practitioners more sensitive and vulnerable to the world and all of its beings. That is only possible and tolerable because of the fearless optimism cultivated in this practice path. We foster an unflagging curiosity and conviction that everything—every situation— is workable. But it is necessary, in meeting all that the world holds, both terrifying and exalting, to become unpersonal.
What do I mean by “unpersonal?” It is not a distancing or uncaring perspective. It is grounded in an intimacy that is based on the profound realization of our “interbeing” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, with all that is in the entire multiverse of universes. When we begin to explore this unpersonal perspective on the experience of interbeing, we are free to consider the vastness and enormity of all that we are immersed and participating in. Our differences with other people pale in geological time. Our ambitions are puny at the scale of the universe, or even the world. The world keeps becoming, keeps unfolding all around us, even in speeded up time, even in this tiny space where we come together. It is, I always say, a participatory universe.
If you think about it as somehow about you, you are going to be at the very least quite disappointed time after time, if not completely crushed. Taking the unpersonal view even for a brief moment allows us to decouple from our conditioning and reconnect with our aspiration and our vow for serving the well-being and liberation of all beings. This in turn frees us and shapes our participation so that it matches our intention. That of course does not guarantee that our speech or actions will be well-received: we cannot control the impact, we can only control the intention. What happens next is not personal. You move into the next moment of participation, the next opportunity to experience and respond from aspiration rather than from karmic conditioning and self-centered views. We all have this capacity and this potential, when we get out of our own way.
What does this mean for our relationships, which we naturally take quite personally? Most particularly in relationships it is critical to take the “unpersonal” perspective. Rather than thinking “how can he say that to me?” the thought might be “what are we trying to understand together? How do we move deeper into mutual curiosity and truthfulness?” That can’t happen when we are busy protecting or defending ourselves. We must be able to get an unpersonal view of the situation in order to begin to participate with genuine care and compassion, wisdom and clarity. The unpersonal view is the long view, the recognition of the tiny span of a life, the briefest whisper in the vast world-system. So how do we want it to go? Not as in, what is best for me, but as in what serves life? What is in accord with all that is? What invites exploration and learning?
Because it truly isn’t personal, even when other people try to make it personal. It is always filtered through their own conditioning, opinions, concerns, reactivity. Even intimacy is unpersonal. Kafka said, “Love means overvaluing the tiny ways one person differs from another.” It’s OK. After my husband died, after Ben was off to college and busy growing up, what did I recall? My regret at taking the tiny as the vast, my moments of annoyance or blame or general stupidity at not seeing the fundamental impermanence of everything, the eye blink that is an entire human life. My grasping at the moments of joy and delight and missing the splendor of the ordinary, the everyday. The unnecessary suffering of my clinging to my own opinions and judgments. Try to take the unpersonal view and you see it all with such deep compassion for all those beings, everywhere, struggling to get their needs met, punishing each other, loving each other, lying awake at night with worry, getting sick, getting old, dying. But this unpersonal view keeps us from getting overwhelmed and terrified in hearing the cries of the world, so that we can be a genuine resource, as the calm abiding presence we feel with a good doctor, a loving parent, or a caring teacher.
Keep asking yourself in difficult situations, is there some way I can view this unpersonally? What might move this whole situation toward some spaciousness, some wholeness, some freedom? You may be surprised at how much creativity and capacity this view unleashes. Freed from opinions about “how things should go,” or “how I can get the outcome I want,” we can become improvisational artists of experience. Maybe it’s a lightness or humor that shifts the situation, a tiny gesture of putting a hand on someone’s arm, or an unexpected word. Once we set aside our defenses and fixed views, the entire universe becomes a playground for exploration and discovery. There are so many possibilities! Your warmth and care are unpersonal when they are not about you being a “good person,” or about the other person “feeling better,” or “showing appreciation.” It is universal kindness, an offering from the whole universe. And if you get it wrong, if you make mistakes, taking the unpersonal view means that these are not your own critical failures, but just one of the possible directions things can go. Then we are in the next moment, once again creating experiences for ourselves and others. It might take us to acknowledgment and repair. What could that way of being be like? What kind of world might we bring into being together if that were our point of view? In the end, the world will roll over us and keep on going anyway, unpersonally. This is what we mean when we say your life is not about you. In all the universe you are making a tiny sound. Be brave. Speak up for what is most important, caring, meaningful, and liberating. Don’t waste your moment of aliveness.
I read a poem by Robinson Jeffers from the anthology A Book of Luminous Things that speaks to this quality:
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.