Tiny Revolutions №77: Believe in Your (No)Self
when you forget your small self the whole universe appears 🪐
Someone recently described Tiny Revolutions as being about “finding yourself,” and I've been thinking about it since. It was part of a shoutout from another writer who recommended the newsletter in an online forum.
And yet it annoyed me. "What am I, 19?" I thought. "Is this about smoking cloves, riding trains in Europe, and falling in love with a stoned Frenchman named Gaspard?"
This of course has nothing to do with the shoutout (which was a compliment) and everything to do with my own interpretation of it. I'm well into my forties, I thought. Shouldn't I have found myself by now?
Well, I have. But also I haven't. Because here's the thing: I don't think there's anything to find.
I have never been comfortable with labels. Even as a kid, I never quite felt like I belonged anywhere. Between moving around a lot and being the only girl amidst six brothers (my two sisters were much younger than me), I didn’t have a chance to get too attached any one identity.
I played sports but I was not a jock. I wrote for the newspaper but I wasn’t exactly hanging with the literary set. I was super into music but I was never exclusively into any one genre or scene. I liked being an observer and dipping into pockets of different people and seeing how they operated. I still do.
All of which is fine, for the most part. I belonged to everyone but I belonged to no one. No one but myself, that is. But it has at times made it hard for me to find my way in life. Not myself, mind you. My way. Those are two very different things.
One of the tenets of Buddhism is “no-self,” the idea that there is no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Learning this was radical to a Catholic girl like me, raised as I was to believe that I not only possessed a soul, but that the end goal of life was to earn it entrance into heaven. (Or at least avoid hell.)
It’s been liberating to leave that idea behind. When you practice Zen, you are constantly being reminded to come back to this moment, right here. To do the right thing again and again and again as the moment presents itself. That really, if you do that (which sounds simple but is actually the work of a lifetime), that’s all you need to do.
There’s also the idea in Buddhism that you are, like everything else, an expression of a universe that is always changing. I’ve heard multiple Zen teachers compare a human life to a whirlpool, or, as Brad Warner put it, “events that appear and disappear within the universe. But nothing is added when they appear or subtracted when they disappear. Not even the mind consciousness that we imagine to be our possession.”
Here’s how Alan Watts described it in "The Book":
“Our bodily cells, and their smallest components, appear and disappear much as light-waves vibrate and as people go from birth to death. A human body is like a whirlpool, there seems to be a constant form, called the whirlpool, but it functions for the very reason that no water stays in it. The very molecules and atoms of the water are also "whirlpools"—patterns of motion containing no constant and irreducible "stuff." Every person is the form taken by a stream—a marvelous torrent of milk, water, bread, beefsteak, fruit, vegetables, air, light, radiation—all of which are streams in their own turn.”
Another teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, said, “Who I am is simply experiencing itself, forever unknown. The moment I name it, it is gone.”
When you begin to regard yourself as just a temporary phenomenon, an entity that is made up of whatever water and matter that happened to be around at the time, it takes a lot of the pressure off to be a specific “self.” You can recognize that we’re just part of a giant whole that we don’t actually even know much about.
And yet we live in a world that demands categorization. We have to do some self definition so the world knows what to do with us, and so that we can bond with others who share our interests, values, and concerns.
Getting back to the labels thing, I have not historically been great about telling the world who I am, partially because I feel like a whirlpool most of the time — just constantly in flux. But at the same time, there seems to be a distinctness to my personal water pattern, and the way I direct the stuff that goes in and out. But isn’t that all of us?
As another Zen master, Kodo Sawaki, said: “The nose can’t replace the eyes, and the mouth can’t replace the ears. Everything has its own identity, which is unsurpassable in the whole universe.”
So here we are. Distinct and yet not distinct at all. Separate and not yet separate at all. It’s kind of a mindfuck, isn’t it? I don’t know if there’s a way to make sense of that, truly (though studying Zen can be helpful), but what I do know is that thinking about it doesn’t really help. All you can do is keeping coming back to your moment-to-moment experience. Keeping as clear of an eye toward what the next right thing to do is, and the next right thing after that, without letting your own personal thoughts about how things should go get in the way. What else is there?
I’ll leave you with some words from another famous Zen teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who said:
“To forget oneself is, with knowledge, to give up your human way of perceiving things, and give more room to see what is actually happening to your own self and to all other existences. When you forget your small self the whole universe appears.”
On to some other things I found worth sharing recently.
“I think what I enjoy most about listening is that I disappear.”
I loved this eight minute film about sound and silence in the modern world.
Don’t hurt your own feelings
“It wasn’t the pain of the breakup that stayed with me for so long—it was knowing how completely and willingly I had abandoned myself. The damage I had done to my self-trust took a long time to heal.
Loved this short post from Jillian Anthony’s great Cruel Summer Book Club newsletter about how sometimes the most painful betrayals are the ones we do to ourselves. Jillian just launched a new podcast that’s worth checking out as well.
Maybe the Joseph Campbell fans can relate? 😝
Hundreds of Ways to Get S#!+ Done—and We Still Don’t
“This is the black-metal nature of task management: Every single time you write down a task for yourself, you are deciding how to spend a few crucial moments of the most nonrenewable resource you possess: your life. Every to-do list is, ultimately, about death. (“Dost thou love life?” wrote Ben Franklin. “Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”)”
A fun long read in Wired about why we freak out over productivity apps and to-do lists. (I’m a pen and paper notebook gal myself.)
A quality rant against personal brands.
“One can have a personal brand without becoming a vile pod-person. You can talk about a subject all the time and still retain a social feed that isn’t about that subject, you can still be the person that is of X industry doing Y thing without only being that person. I just feel that society, through the breakdown of the separation between our personal and professional lives that social media has grown, has forced people into this belief that the only way to succeed is create false personas for capital gain.”
Ed Zitron doing the work here: Personal Branding Ruins People's Lives.
Mary Oliver says…
I have been enjoying the summer hiatus here at Tiny Revolutions HQ, but I have missed you all! Let me know what’s been on your mind recently in the comments — I’d love to know how you’re doing, and am taking any and all requests for what to write about in future issues.
p.s. If you got something out of this, give it a like or share it with someone else who’d appreciate it. Thank you for reading, as always!
Loved this, Sara! This piece was so lovely to read after diving into Haley Nahman's newsletter yesterday. (https://haleynahman.substack.com/p/66-what-if-i-told-you-i-have-a-theory) So many affirmations around the fluctuation of the self, which I in the past had seen as a negative quality of mine. Thank you!
As it relates to finding oneself I think Jonny Wilkinson had a great answer:
Question to Jonny: "Jonny who are you?"
Jonny: "That's the biggest question life has. If I had an answer for that, that would be my next problem. I have no idea. I see myself as, and every situation as, undecided potential"