The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Clarifying the Self

Who are you, anyway?

One answer is that you are the sum total of your self-referential statements. These are the endless ways that you complete the sentence I am…. For example:

  • I am happy.
  • I am unhappy.
  • I am afraid.
  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.

But do such statements really make any sense given the fact that all your thoughts and feelings are impermanent?

Can anything that changes constantly truly be called I, me, or mine?

Constructing a self

Shinzen Young described the self as “highly constructed”: We say “I” to only a fraction of our experience — whatever thoughts and feelings we happen to be aware of at a given moment.

In short, our ordinary sense of self is based on huge gaps in awareness.

The result is a kind of prison. The world gets sharply divided into subject and object, self and other. And whenever there is a sense of other, said Shinzen, there is fear.

Self as an embedded wave

Meditation helps us to relax this distinction. With continuous awareness, we find that no aspect of our experience can harden into something separate from the world.

The physicist who observes matter at the sub-atomic level sees mostly empty space and vibrating particles. Likewise, the meditator who observes inner experience sees nothing solid — just continuous waves of sensation.

The human body is dynamic and permeable. Over a lifetime all our body cells will regenerate several times. Many substances — such as food, water, and oxygen — pass through us daily. We are deeply embedded in our physical environment.

Self as co-created

The same is true of our psychological environment.

Our behaviors depend on interpersonal context: With people who understand and accept us, we feel safe to express ourselves fully. With people who resent or fear us, a different set of responses emerges.

Whenever we interact with another person, we are creating each other anew.

“You are the world,” Shinzen said during one memorable retreat. Whatever you call “other” — anything from flowers or clouds to politicians or garbage cans — is simply another aspect of you.

Seeing this is enlightenment. It is also compassion.

Self as elastic

Insights such as these lead some teachers to declare our sense of self as a delusion — something to lose.

Shinzen did not do this. We don’t lose the self in meditation, he said: We clarify it.

To say there is no self is inaccurate. We do have a sense of self, Shinzen said, but it is not fixed. Instead, it becomes elastic. Our sense of self can expand or contract as appropriate to the situation (hence the name of Shinzen’s YouTube channel — expandcontract).

While meditating, for example, you can allow boundaries between self and other to fall away. You can bask in the sweet bliss of Oneness with everything.

In other situations, however, you’re free to temporarily “freeze” your sense of self into something solid and separate.

This is especially true when you find yourself in the presence of someone who intends to harm you. Then it’s useful to resurrect the boundary between self and other. Run away, defend yourself, or do anything else needed to maintain your safety.

Here is one of the subtle beauties of the meditative path — embracing paradox. Our sense of self becomes more defined and more transparent at the same time. Gradually we become a little less confused about who we truly are.