So I want to maintain a kind of serious focus without sending you screaming off the page. Well, here goes.
Like I say in the intro and the About page, compassion (love in its widest sense) makes perfect sense in a straightforward way, without any need to appeal to God or any other supernatural force for help. But there is a catch, or else we’d be living in a rose-colored world and I wouldn’t be writing this.
The catch is that something interferes with our ability to see things clearly. And it is something so basic that we don’t even look for a way around it, because we don’t even see the need for one. But we can’t even begin to talk about compassion until we deal with this elephant in the room.
The problem, perhaps not surprisingly, is our concept of self. We very naturally divide the world into me and others, mine and everything else. We accept that each of us exists as an individual because this is an obvious fact, right?
And there you have it. We need to look more closely at what we mean by “self.” Now I’m not talking New Age mumbo jumbo. Clearly each of us has an individual physical existence. What I want to look at is our concept of self, of who or what we think we are and, in particular, the idea of permanence that seems to creep in.
“What permanence?” you ask. For some it’s a soul, for others some kind of karmic wormhole. Here things start to get messy, because I’m willing to bet the house that you couldn’t give any reasonable accounting of how it works. We are quite OK with letting this part of our equation live a shadow life in a cloud of unknowing.
Let’s not get metaphysical about it. Instead, let’s just look at how we come into this world. There is not much separating one infant from another in terms of personality. Aside from a few insignificant details like skin and eye color, we arrive pretty much the same.
Even more interestingly, at least some psychologists have concluded that it takes time before an infant even realizes she or he is separate from her or his mother. Only as repeated frustration sets in when crying does not bring milk or remove discomfort do we start to realize that things happen and don’t happen despite us.
Slowly arms and legs become things that I control — my arms and legs. And so it goes. Eventually the body I learn to control becomes my body. Clearly the mind has been very active all along — observing and experimenting, comparing and drawing conclusions. Still, precious little has developed in terms of a distinct self-concept. This is much more complex.
In time I come to realize that I have unique sensations and perceptions that I store somewhere only I can access, that I am a unique center. Here is where we divide the world into inside and outside, the mental world that is uniquely mine and everything else. Since my body is the physical center of this mental world, the two blur into one in a rudimentary concept of self.
From this point onward, I keep adding things to the mix: family and possessions, what I like or don’t like, what I am afraid of or, eventually, what I believe. There is no flash of inspiration, no discovery of an on switch. I put me together bit by bit. And there’s the thing we need to look at more closely. I comes before me. I create me. The two are not the same.