I, Me and Mine

An edited talk by Shaila Catherine

Our focus tonight will be the thoughts of ‘I, me, and mine.’

Such introspective meditations are common place for Calvin, Bill Watterson’s famous juvenile intellectual character of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.  Calvin is a boy and Hobbes is his imaginary friend, a stuffed tiger who is completely animated in the absence of adults.  You’ll find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon on the bulletin board; don’t forget to take a look at it later.  No adult interferes with Calvin’s imagination in this frame, so it’s just Calvin and Hobbes philosophizing with one another in a wagon racing through the woods on one of those calamitously curving paths.

Calvin is saying, ”It’s true, Hobbes – ignorance is bliss. Once you know things, you start seeing problems everywhere. Once you see problems you feel that you ought to try to fix them.”  Calvin’s monologue continues down the treacherous trail.  ”And fixing problems always seems to require personal change, and change means doing things that aren’t fun! I say phooey to that! But if you’re willfully stupid, you don’t know any better, so you keep doing whatever you like!” (And they’re still going around.) ”The secret to happiness is short-term stupid self-interest.” And then from the back of the wagon, Hobbes says, ”We’re heading for that cliff!” and Calvin says ”I don’t want to know about it.” Then it’s ‘WAAAUGGHHHH!’ and they crash.  Dazed and seeing stars, Hobbes says, ”I’m not sure I can stand so much bliss.”  Then Calvin gets the last word. He says –”Careful! We don’t want to learn anything from this.”

Here is a Rumi quote.  He asks, What good is knowledge if it does not lift you above yourself?

So I want to speak a little about Insight knowledge. Insight knowledge doesn’t just inform us about ourselves. It’s not just our method for seeing our own personal patterns more clearly or understanding our peculiarities. It offers a possibility of lifting above or going beyond the limitations of self.

The process of I-making

The process of ‘I-making’ and ‘mine-making’ is one of the critical investigations that we explore in meditative practice. How do we do this making of ‘I’ and ‘mine?’ How many people today experienced some formation of ‘I’ and ‘mine?’ How many people had five minutes where there wasn’t any I, me, or mine formations? It’s a pervasive part of our thought constructions, yet how frequently do we really look into the process of creating the experience of ‘I’ out of simple things like hearing a sound, tasting a bit of food, feeling a sensation in the body, or having a thought or an emotion move through the mind? How do we shift from the bare experience of a contact, to possessiveness and identification? It’s an important link that we investigate in meditation practice. We look into the mind to understand how it operates.

How many people are surprised when they look into the mind?  We are often surprised, especially when we come on our first retreat, at just how many thoughts there are. Some people may think that meditation is making them think more. But it really doesn’t make us think more, it just allows us to see more clearly the pervasiveness of thoughts that are already there.  This can be shocking. It can be shocking because when we actually look at the content of our thoughts, most of us don’t want to admit to them. Just imagine how you would feel if the thoughts that you had in the last sitting were projected on a screen in full view of everyone.

Most of the thoughts that we have, surprisingly, are about what? Ourselves. Drama after drama, with ourselves in the starring role. Sometimes we play the hero. We usually like those thoughts. Sometimes we play the victim. Sometimes we have only a secondary role. Sometimes it’s a comedy and we’re the brunt of the joke; and sometimes it’s a tragedy. Yet when we look into it, it’s nothing more than a cluster of thoughts. Why do we take them so seriously? We suffer a lot because of these clusters of thoughts.

The Korean Zen master Chinul taught his disciples – Don’t be afraid of your thoughts: only take care lest your awareness of them is tardy.

We have many, many thoughts that actually don’t have much power to disturb the mind when we are aware of them. But when we’re not aware of them and we’re lost in them, when we’re swept away by them, we can be carried into incredible emotional dramas. We can even be drawn into actions when we are not aware of the thoughts. Thoughts are often repetitive.  We might tell ourselves the same story again and again, with slight improvements of the ending; we are constantly telling ourselves who we are.

Wei Wu Wei said – Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9% of everything you think and everything you do is for yourself – and there isn’t one.

Opinions, judgments and beliefs about ourselves

The pattern of self-construction is inherently flawed – it can not lead to happiness. As we observe our thoughts we begin to learn quite a bit about how we conceive of ourselves, what conclusions we draw about ourselves, how the mind forms opinions and judgments and concepts about the things we encounter. Sometimes we will develop opinions about things that we have never personally experienced. We can even have a strong opinion about our fantasies. We can weave interpretations so far removed from factual events that it should give us pause to ask whether or not we can really believe our thoughts.

Sometimes we come to conclusions about who we are based on these thoughts. We may have a pain. It’s a real pain, but the mind can weave a story about who I am in relationship to the pain and conclude – ‘I am a weak person’. Is that thought true, or is it simply that a pain arose? We can see planning occur in the mind, and we might even be obsessively planning, planning, planning some event, something that we must do, and we might conclude – ‘I’m the controlling type of person.’ Is that true, or was there simply the activity of planning? We might feel tension and conclude that we are an uptight person; or notice judging, and come to believe that we’re a critical person. But are we always that way?  Does that describe the totality of our experience? What about the times when we are calm and peaceful, when we’re joyful and loving, when we’re serving?

Curious to discover: Who am I?

Do you ever wake up in the morning and wonder ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who will I be today?’ You might just pose that question once in a while. Let it be a question, let it be something that’s not yet known, so that we give ourselves the chance to let go of the self-construction, the image, the roles, the identity that we created on the previous day.  We can be curious about what is going to manifest through this mind and body on this new day. Sometimes we find that we’re brilliant and other times we’re dull. Sometimes we’re cranky; sometimes we’re calm. Sometimes we’re openhearted and very sensitive, and other times we’re a little callous, fearful, or hurried.

Which one is the real me? Which one actually describes me? Often we say ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that.’ I am a meditator; I am a teacher; I am an artist; I am a daughter; I am a mother; I am a son; I am an engineer; I am a doctor. I am short, tired, sick, healthy, strong, weak, a man, a woman, happy, angry, sad, grieving, frustrated. So many things that we experience, we put after ‘I am….’  and then we identify with that experience and through that experience. We identify with our roles and our relationships, with our activities, with our feelings, with our emotions. Yet these are all simply momentary experiences, social constructions.

We can ask ourselves – ‘But am I really this?’ Even when we find ourselves saying ‘I am sad’, we can ask ourselves ‘Am I sadness, or is sadness simply arising?’ When we find ourselves very strongly identified with a role – ‘I am a daughter’ – we can ask ourselves ‘Am I this? Am I really that? Does that describe me?’  We can loosen the bonds of identification. We still function in roles, we still experience emotions; but can we loosen the grip of identification that arises around them. We can also investigate the ‘I am’ – what is the ‘I am’ that precedes the ‘this’ and the ‘that?’ Can we just be, without being ‘this’ or ‘that?’

Simply present

Can we be at ease with the quality of presence that doesn’t need to identify with this or that, here or there, before or after, yesterday or tomorrow? As we look into the mind and investigate this process, we see what the mind does. We see how it uses sensory experience to construct an identity that is a foundation for views, concepts, and opinions. We see how the mind constructs ‘I’ and ‘mine’ out of the very simple experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, thinking, and mind states. Without making more of our thoughts than ‘they’re just thoughts,’ we can look into the thinking and ask ourselves ‘Is there something here to believe? Is this true? or am I just believing a story, a fiction that I fabricated?’ We investigate how a simple experience of the body and mind gets construed into a sense of being ‘me’ through the distorting tendencies of identification. We notice how our relationship to perceptions gets distorted through ‘mine-making,’ through possessiveness, as being ‘this is mine.’ With a sense of ownership, we fight over things based upon ‘mine-making.’

Do we miss the reality of the simple experiences of here and now because we are wrapped up in telling ourselves the story of who I am and what belongs to me, of what I need to protect and what I need to defend. Can we experience ourselves clearly, strongly, and dynamically, without needing to defend our identities?

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said – Once we recognize that thoughts are just empty, the mind will no longer have the power to deceive us.

It is a powerful practice to look at our thoughts and to inquire – are they real? Is there anything substantial there? When we recognize that a thought is basically an empty phenomenon that simply arises, we still think, because that’s what minds do. We don’t lose our intelligence; we don’t lose the mental capacity to add two plus two.

The story of I and mine

So how do we construct the story of ‘I’ and ‘mine?’ Sometimes it seems like our life can be reduced to a particular pattern, almost like a holding pattern, almost like we’re caught in something. Our life revolves around the story of that pain, or this relationship, or that job, or this trauma that happened to me at such and such a time; or this success, or this dream that I try to accomplish. If we grip the particular content of the story we might not see much beyond it, even though it’s just a story. We might miss the vastness of the silence and the stillness in which we abide if we’re lost in our own narrative of life. Entranced by who and what we think we are, we might find ourselves absorbed into a realm of thoughts, until we find that we’re just entertaining ourselves with one drama after another, and have not empowered ourselves to see beyond the realm of what the discursive mind can conceive. We limit ourselves when we give too much credence to the content of the thoughts.

Are thoughts real?

There’ll be many times on this retreat when you’ll be aware that you are thinking. I know that many of you have already had the experience that you are thinking, and that will continue. It’s a waking up experience, again and again. But what do we do in that moment when we wake up to thinking? It’s a profound moment. It’s an opportunity to investigate thoughts, and one of the first things to consider is – what is this experience that we’re having? Are thoughts real, or are they thoughts? If I think of a dinosaur, is it a dinosaur, or is it just a thought? If I think of my sister, is it my sister, or is it just a thought? Now sometimes with the dinosaur it’s obvious that it’s a thought, but if we think of a trauma or a conflict or something that was hurtful – is that a thought? or is it somehow real? Sometimes we build up emotions and reactions based just on thoughts because we didn’t notice that they were just thoughts.  We didn’t notice that they weren’t really happening. We didn’t notice that they weren’t real. In that moment we attributed reality to them merely because we thought them.

One of my favorite comparisons is to Star Trek – I rather like Star Trek. I was sitting a three-month retreat, and  thought I was being mindful, noting various mental states. I was noticing agitation, anger – and I was actually noting it – “anger, anger,” and then “resentment, resentment,” and I was noticing the feelings in the body – the tightness, the heat, the pulsing, the throbbing that came with all of these angry mental states.  Then it dawned on me – there are no Cardassians! I was playing a drama in my mind that was an episode from Star Trek. For those of you who aren’t Trekkies, some explanation may be in order.  Cardassians are some kind of fictional humanoid species.  They do not really exist.  Yet I was having an emotional reaction. While lost in the delusion of believing my thoughts, I didn’t recognize they weren’t real. I may have been going through the motions of noting, but I wasn’t actually mindful at all that I was thinking.

Are thoughts real – or are they just thoughts? I don’t think we can ask ourselves that question too often. When you notice that you’re lost in thought, and then you wake up to it, you can do many things. If you are doing breath meditation, you might want to rush back to the breath. If you’re just releasing the entrancement of thought, you might want to just release the thought and connect with whatever you experience. But before you let go of that thought I would encourage you to first have a moment, a brief but decisive moment, of seeing the thought, of investigating the process of thinking, to know actually what is happening in the moment when you’re entranced by thought. Maybe we’re planning something that we’re going to do next month. Maybe we’re judging ourselves, maybe we’re fantasizing, maybe we’re analyzing something. What is the experience of those thoughts? Really know the experience of thinking.  Know how it feels to think. What is a thought – and why are they so seductive? We know the thought and we also know our reactions to the thought. Do we like them, do we not like them, do we identify with them, do we claim them, do we distance ourselves from them? What do we do with them?

There’s a Zen story of a monk who was an artist.  He spent many, many years living in a cave. He would sometimes paint pictures on the wall of his cave. He was painting a picture of a tiger, and he made a beautiful tiger, with all of the tiger’s stripes and all of the whiskers. As he was putting the finishing touches on the eye, he stood back to look at his work.  Suddenly he screamed and went running out of the cave. Sometimes we do that to ourselves. We fabricate and paint a picture in our minds, and then we scare ourselves. We run away from something that was actually fabricated within our own minds.

Through mindfulness of thought we see how rapidly thoughts change. What is more ephemeral than a thought? Even the Buddha said that there is nothing that moves faster than a thought.  The speed at which the mind thinks is incalculable – and he calculated a lot of things. He concluded that there simply is nothing that moves as rapidly as a thought.

Examining our stories

We can have a lot of insight into the workings of our thoughts when we’re not so concerned with the content, but just exploring the process. The content is rarely interesting.  Mostly I find that there is a repeated theme.  If anybody told me stories as frequently as I tell them to myself, I would be bored!  I certainly wouldn’t watch a movie over and over again. Yet we allow our minds to obsess on certain topics. Sometimes we think this is a really important thought. We find that we are completely preoccupied with some particular condition, event, fear, or plan.  But it isn’t very long before we are preoccupied with something else, and then preoccupied with something else again. So when I look at the content of my thoughts, I ask myself, “if this is so critically important, how could I obsess about something else five minutes ago, and probably be thinking about something else five minutes from now?” We  look into our thoughts not for the purpose of judging the mind, but in order to loosen the grip that we have on the “story of me,” of who I am, on the personal tales we tell of how we are, what we did, what we’re going to become, what we want to be. So we loosen our entanglement in the thought world. We loosen the attachments that we have to the thoughts we construct about ourselves.

The content of our thoughts is basically not very important from a meditative perspective. It’s a proliferation of mind that we can experience as a force, as a wave, as energy – perhaps the energy of habit. Until we see how we invest these habits, these stories, with the belief that this is really me, rather than just a story, we’ll keep getting lost in those dramas. It’s a little bit like going to the movie theater.  When we get absorbed in the drama, we forget that we’re in a theater. But then we might just connect for a moment and realize – oh, it’s raining on the screen but the screen is not getting wet. There may be a cops and robbers show, with lots of gunfights, but there are no bullet holes going through the screen. Romances seem to happen on the screen, but they just don’t live happily ever after. Do we get seduced in the stories? Can we remember that the movie is a fictional representation, and can we remember that our thoughts are also a fictional representation?

Emily Dickinson, a 19th century poet, wrote:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell!
They’d advertise you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong June
To an admiring bog!
— Emily Dickinson, c. 1861

In meditation we can broaden the sense of who we are beyond the limits of our personal stories and experience the touch of something that is vaster than my stuff, my issues, my concerns, my past, my future.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said: However strong the thoughts may seem, they are just thoughts and will eventually dissolve back into emptiness. Once you recognize the intrinsic nature of the mind, these thoughts that seem to appear and disappear all the time can no longer fool you. Just as clouds form, last for a while, and then dissolve back into the empty sky, so deluded thoughts arise, remain for a while, and then vanish in the voidness of mind: in reality nothing at all has happened. (Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, p 92)

A taste of freedom

I know there are times when you’ve all been aware of thinking. Are there also times when you’ve also been aware of the absence of thinking — when there’s a clarity, a brightness, a lucid and natural wakefulness that’s free of the proliferating tendencies of the discursive mind? These glimpses do occur in meditation. There is a gap between thoughts. Then a moment when we might drop into that gap with a mind that is quiet enough to perceive the space between thoughts. It might be during meditation in this hall; it might be as we’re sitting under the blossoms outside. It might be when we’re walking down the street when we’re back home; it might be when we’re waiting for a bus or just having a cup of tea in our own backyards.

These kinds of glimpses into a reality beyond conceptual fabrications occur both in the context of meditation practice and also in contexts that seem to have no spiritual focus whatsoever. They are uncontrived glimpses beyond the discursive mind. They are a taste of a freedom that’s possible; that’s not defined by the machinations of the mind. We can’t grasp them because it is an experience of not grasping. We can’t hold them because they simply can not be held. We can’t identify with them because it’s an experience that is only known in a moment in which we are not identifying with our thoughts.

If we don’t see this fundamental fact of emptiness we lose ourselves in the movie of life, grasping after the things that we desire and avoiding the things that we dislike. We become fixated on just the objects of perception and miss the space, the fundamental basic space of phenomena, in which all things arise and disappear.

My teacher in India, Poonjaji, often used the analogy of an ocean. He used to say that when we identify with our thought, we are identifying with a wave.  However, it’s a wave that doesn’t know that it is ocean, so as we approach the shore we are afraid that we will be crushed. We’ll be afraid that when we land on the beach we will be destroyed. But waves arise and pass, and they’re never separated from ocean. Like this, we’re never separated from truth. We’re never separated from emptiness. No matter how many thoughts we identify with, it’s just like identifying with the wave. Thoughts are only concepts, and yet there is a knowing that occurs beyond the rise and fall of concepts, beyond the tides of thinking, beyond what words can describe and beyond what the intellect can grasp.

There’s a short discourse in the Sutta Nikaya where the Buddha uses a number of words that attempt to describe the Unconditioned. They are:  The Unformed, Unconditioned, The End, The Taintless, The Truth, The Other Shore, The Subtle, The Very Hard To See, The Unweakening, The Everlasting, The Undisintegrating, The Invisible, The Undiversified, Peace, The Deathless, The Supreme Goal, The Blessed, Safety, Exhaustion Of Craving, The Wonderful, The Marvelous, Non-Distress, The Naturally Non-Distressed, Nibbana, Non-Affliction/Unhostility, Fading Of Lust, Purity, Freedom, Independence of Reliance, The Island, The Shelter, The Harbor, The Refuge, The Beyond.   (The 44 Names Sutta. Sn 43:1-44)

Drop all concepts

The exploration beyond the realm of concepts invites us to venture into unknown territory, into a knowing that may not confirm the story that we have constructed; that is, the story of me. I invite you to drop all concepts. Drop the concepts of past, the memories of all the fascinating things you’ve done. Drop the concepts of future; let go of all the brilliant plans and fantasies that you cherish. Drop the concepts of self-image, and the embellishments of  your persona. Drop the concepts of what experience should be like, let go of expectations, comparisons, and all the demands that you place on your moment to moment experience.

Drop concepts of what meditation should be like, what our minds should be like, what our experience should be like, what a retreat should be like, what a dharma talk should be like.  Allow yourself to enter the unknown present moment utterly free of concepts, unburdened by past and unadorned by self image. Even drop the concept of what non-conceptual realization would be like, because, in fact, we don’t know.

As Tsongkhapa said, “Enlightenment turned out to be the opposite of what I had expected.”

I’d like to stop here for the evening. Let’s have a few minutes of silence.  As you experience thoughts forming, see if you might drop the concepts and see what remains in a moment when the mind is free from concepts.


May all beings look into their minds.  May we realize the depth of truth and peace that is available beyond the discursive mind. May we come to rest in the nature of things.

[Gratitude to Christine Dann in New Zealand for transcribing this talk that was delivered at a retreat in New Zealand, 2006.]