One day I was running in Golden Gate Park, and I lost myself.
I had been purposely putting my attention on my body, my feet touching the ground, the trees and air and light around me, and I expanded my attention to include all of this at once.
As I immersed myself in the moment, a funny thing happened: I disappeared.
Not literally, of course — my body was still there. And I didn’t have an out-of-body or some other mystical experience. It was just that I lost focus for a moment on the idea that there is a Self called “Leo.” I stopped thinking about myself, and it was really strange, because apparently I think about myself in some form or another all the time, in the background.
Of course, as soon as I realized that my idea of Self had disappeared, it came back. But the funny thing is, I’ve found that place again, numerous times, the more I practice being in the moment.
Who cares? What’s the point of forgetting the Self? Well, if you consider that we spend a lot of our time suffering in various ways because we’re worried about failing or being rejected or not being good enough, you can see that all this fear and suffering is a result of worrying about the Self.
And if we can forget about the Self for a few moments, we’re free of that worry.
Picture someone walking along, thinking to himself, “I’m special!” and seeing an image of himself in his head of how special he is. And then he runs into a tree, because he’s so busy looking at that mental image of his specialness that he forgets to watch where he’s going.
We’re walking into trees all the time, thinking about our specialness. This is the Childish Mind we talked about earlier, wanting to be special and important and get attention and have everyone love it. The Childish Mind demands protection from scary things and comfort and pleasure. It doesn’t care about other people as much as getting its way, not being attacked or criticized, not being in discomfort. And it gets angry if any of this is threatened.
An example: I want my book to be great, and everyone to think I’m a great (and special) writer … and so I fear that it won’t be received well, and people won’t think highly of me (won’t think I’m special). As a result of this fear of not being special, I procrastinate on the writing. I don’t want to fail at being special.
Another example: I want to lose weight and get into shape, and so I’m motivated by this desire to be awesome and sexy (and special). But then not eating all the food I love, and having to do hard exercise, is uncomfortable — and I shouldn’t have to be in discomfort if I’m special! So I put it off until later. Also, when I exercise, I might feel awkward and ugly and clumsy and weak and sweaty and gross, which doesn’t support our specialness. And so we put it off.
All of this suffering because of my Childish Mind’s desire to be special. To be someone unique, honored, respected, loved. Which is a very normal desire, to be sure … but what if we could let go of this need to be special? What if the Self that we put above all else could be forgotten for a minute, and we could just be in the world and enjoy the world and not worry about the Self?
Then doing the exercise habit would be easier, because you just do it and mindfully experience the exercise, as it is, without worrying so much about yourself.
Then writing would be easier, because you know you’re doing it for someone else, not for your own glory, and so doing it becomes a pleasure, a way of helping, a way of giving rather than something that might result in you not being raised on a pedestal.
Do it for the love of others, not yourself. Do it to help others end their suffering, not to prevent your own.
We also don’t have to be defensive when we think someone is criticizing us, because there’s no special Self to defend. We don’t have to be attached to finding pleasure and comfort for ourselves, because there’s no special Self to build a comfortable nest around. We can let go of the defensiveness, selfishness, worry about rejection, worry about judgment.
How to forget the Self
It turns out you don’t need to focus on banishing the Self, or erasing or destroying it. You simply forget about it for a moment or two, maybe a little longer, by focusing on other things.
Let’s say you’re meditating. The Self, the Childish Mind, starts to assert itself, grumbling about being uncomfortable, worried about something you have to do later today, replaying a conversation you had earlier that was frustrating or embarrassing.
You see all of this, and you acknowledge the Self and its fears and desires. Watching this, you realize it’s nothing new, same old Self, same old Childish Mind, and that it will pass.
Now you turn your attention on your breath, and stay with it for a moment. As you’re experiencing the breath, you forget the Self.
In that moment, the Self is gone.
You can’t simultaneously be fully immersed in the moment and also worried about the Self. You can switch back and forth, but you can’t do both, or you’re not really immersed in the moment.
So you focus on the breath, the body, the full range of shapes and colors and sounds all around you in the room you’re in, and you are immersed in the present moment. In this instant, you have forgotten the Self.
Then the Self comes back, as urges and thoughts arise in your head, and you acknowledge these but know they will pass. They do, as you turn back to the present moment, and forget the Self again.
This is the process: acknowledge the Self but know that it will pass, return to the moment and forget the Self, repeat.
This is what we do when we meditate. We practice forgetting the Self.
We can do this in other parts of our lives. As we go for a walk or a run, we can immerse ourselves in that activity and forget the Self for a few moments. We can play a sport, ride a bike, wash dishes, take a shower, and be completely at one with those activities, and forget the Self. It’s harder when the activity is more mental, like writing or talking, but even in those activities, there’s the thought you’re trying to express or process, and you can be completely at one with that thought.
Forgetting the self is as simple as putting oneself completely into the present moment.
Mission: Forget the Self
As you do your habit today, practice putting your attention on your breath, then your body, then on every detail of your physical surroundings, from light to textures to sounds to small things your eyes can notice. If your Childish Mind, your Self, tries to re-assert itself, smile, and then return your attention to something physical around you. Keep doing this process the entire time you do your habit.