the ‘I’ metaphor

2013-01-19 09.18.12Chiang Mai: Contemplating birdsong here in this place, next to a wooded area and a very large tree in the early morning and there’s a male Koel bird on a branch somewhere repeating its call: ko-el, ko-el, ko-el! a two-syllable utterance, at measured intervals, getting louder and louder each time, reaching its peak and the bird stops for a breath. It starts again from low volume working up to high volume, The sound, ko-el echoes around in the spaces between the hard branches and trunks, the layers of foliage and around in the air into my space here in the room: ko-el, ko-el. The end of the sound –el collides with the beginning of the next sound in the sequence: ko- and for a moment it becomes more like: el-ko-el-ko-el-ko, smoothly presented in a unity the bird knows so well and I’m just discovering it.

The preception of the sound shifts back to ko-el, ko-el, contained in this space. And in the space contained in all the other rooms in this building, the corridors and passageways, as I go down to street level; the elevator and front lobby. The ko-el sound can be heard everywhere in the building. I know, of course, it just seems like the ko-el sound is contained in the building, it’s an illusion. In fact the ko-el sound and the whole building are contained in space; space holds all, there are no boundaries, no beginning, no end. The ko-el sound can be heard all along the street too.

Back upstairs again and I am in this space, the space is in me. I can say ‘I’ am here, meaning the fictional ‘self’arising from the five khandhas, the mechanisms that filter conscious experience received through the senses. And the ko-el sound reaching my ear convinces me that if there is sound, there must be somebody in here hearing it – and that’s ‘me.’ The belief in self is backed up by sensory data input through ear, eye, nose, mouth, feeling sensations and mind. I can hold on tight to this belief that I am ‘me’ but there’s really nobody there. I can let go of it. It’s a metaphor; it’s saying conscious experience ‘is’ individual identity – a figure of speech, a kind of analogy. Not real. The emphasis on it being the same as the object of comparison pushes the whole thing over the edge and it ‘becomes’ the object. In fact the conceptual metaphor is a tricky business….

My Western conditioning still struggles with the anatta teaching, and the misleading statement: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ [René Descartes] isn’t helpful. It’s like the opposite of what Buddhists know to be true. If Descartes had been a Buddhist, he might have said: ‘I think, therefore I am a thought construct’ …but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? What I think I am is not what I am. Thoughts think themselves, dependent on conditions arising from other conditions which are dependent on other conditions; peeling back the layers of onion, like this, to discover there’s nothing in the center; just empty space (again). It’s the ‘I’ metaphor; a structure created by words to explain a concept. In the mind’s eye we can leave the body behind, soar up into the sky and leap up into the heavens. It’s a figure of speech. The self is not contained in me, ‘I’ am contained in ‘self’ – the universe – everything, no subject/no object.

The ko-el sound shifts to some other location and it must be because the2013-01-19 09.17.09 bird has flown to a different tree, further away. Later in the day I hear it again, coming from some distant place and after a while I don’t hear it anymore….


‘…the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?’ [“No-self or Not-self?”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 8 March 2011]

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