A talk on finding our true nature (based in part on Pema Chödrön’s chapter)

The impetus for this talk came from a question from one of my students. Monica happened to be reading The Alchemist, and she asked me if Buddhists believed in destiny. I wasn’t sure. Karma is a type of destiny (i.e. your actions now affect your fortunes later) but this is not the same sense of fate that is prevalent in myths, folktales and fairytales the world over. As I grappled with this question, it seems to me to be intricately knotted up in my beliefs about the nature of self-hood.

            I spent a lot of time alone as a child, mostly outside.  I actually remember the day that I realized that I was thinking—that I could think about thinking. I even remember what I was wearing and where I was standing. I came across a similar moment in a book by Jann Martel. His protagonist says,

I became aware of a voice inside my head. What is this, I wondered. Who are you, voice? When will you shut up? I remember a feeling of fright. It was only later that I realized that the voice was my own thinking, that this moment of anguish was my first inkling that I was a ceaseless monologue trapped within myself (1996, 9).  

Having discovered this voice, and the sense of being “apart from,” that came with the voice, that came with thinking, like every other child I tried to figure out where I would fit into the world, and having very little guidance to draw from I tended to study and observe everyone and everything that came into my little universe.  The sense of solitude that comes from self-hood feels frightening. There are so many things that a person can do from moment to moment, and no way to foresee the consequences of each choice; and every choice is potentially the foreclosure of other possible choices; and emotions like doubt and fear and shame become attached to these choices. And as children we experiment. This behaviour causes this reaction, and either will or will not be repeated based on whether we are punished or praised. So already, I was learning about conditionality.  Environmental conditions were acting on me, and I was adapting so that I could have the things I desired and avoid the things I did not.  So I could not, really, lay claim to my self-hood. It was being shaped by family, teachers, friends, the church, the library, and by my limited TV options: The Six Million Dollar Man, re-runs of the Monkees, and Monty Python.

            Buddhism is very clear that our sense of self is an illusion. In the Dalai Lama’s book called How to See Yourself he suggests this meditative reflection:


1.     The person is at the center of all troubles.

2.     Therefore it is best to work at understanding your true nature first.

3.     After that, this realization can be applied to mind, body, house, car, money and all other phenomena. (His Holiness the Dalai Lama 2006, 125).

The Buddhist view of self-hood is hard to comprehend and a hard-sell in our self-obsessed society. The Buddha said,

Just as a chariot is verbalized

In dependence on collections of parts,

So conventionally a sentient being

Is set up depending on mental and physical aggregates.


            But Buddhism does use the word self in two ways: one to describe a person living in the world (working, eating, loving, hating, creating good and bad karma) and the other meaning is often expressed as selflessness or no-self. Selflessness refers to the principle that there is no such thing as inherent existence. As Donne said:


No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.


 The self that we tend to believe we have is imaginary, overly concrete, and a creation of language, of thinking. Buddhism argues that the self is ethereal, impossible to pinpoint, constantly changing, and without inherent existence. The Buddhist self only exists in relation, in interdependence with everything else. “There is no person to be found either separate from mind and body or within mind and body.” ( His Holiness the Dalai Lama 2006, 127).

            When I first came across this teaching it explained something that I had been grappling with. I had worked for many years with demented people, and over and over again had heard adult children say, “this is not my Dad, or this is not my Mom.” I always found myself wondering, if this is not your Mom, then who is it? But the thing I find so hard about this teaching is that it runs pretty much counter to everything I was ever taught, and it problematizes the idea of the soul. Now to be clear, the Buddha abstained from any questions about an afterlife, and many Buddhists believe in reincarnation (the belief that you will be born again into a better or worse life, depending on the actions you take in this one).  The Buddhist teachings on self are based on logic and phenomenology. What is observable. What is testable. Buddhism doesn’t deny that you have a self. It just denies that you have a fixed and locatable self. The Dalai Lama says,

Because the “I” appears in our minds to be established in and of itself, when we use analysis to try to find it and it is not found, it seems that the “I” does not exist at all, whereas it is only the independent “I,” the inherently existent “I, “ that does not exist. Because there is a danger here of stumbling into denial and nihilism, it is crucial as a first step to understand what is being negated (His Holiness the Dalai Lama 2006, 129).

            I recognize that I’ve been caught in the tension between the Buddhist view of the self and the Western view. Misreading the Buddhist understanding can, I think, result in self-abnegation, self-denial, and sometimes a sense of paralysis. Understanding the self in this way left me feeling like the only way I could manage in society was to drop out. To hide in the monastery, or to dedicate myself entirely to selfless service, which although admirable, does not pay the bills.

            This train of thought led me to mull over how we, in the Western world conceptualize the self, philosophically and in our everyday affairs. Open any women’s magazine and you are likely to find some helpful article about being true to yourself, identifying your inner truth, and following your dreams.  There is an entire industry built around the premise that we are all on a hero’s journey and self- awareness and self-determination are the keys that open the doors of paradise.  If you work in therapy, social work, yoga, career counselling, or even travel-advising you will recognize this unspoken but omnipresent belief. 

            When it came to finding my own true nature, my instinct was always to look outside myself for the answer. I took dozens of surveys, numberless career checklists, consulted counsellors, horoscopes, psychics and self-help books.  I’ve got three degrees, one and a half college certificates, yoga teacher training and probably a hundred professional development courses and none of them ever made me jump up and say, this is it! This is what my calling is! Right now I feel that my calling may be to teach yoga and meditation, but I am not confident that I won’t wake up a year from now and decide that I’d rather pick mushrooms at the farm just up the road.

            Along the way, though, I did realize that we all have a multiplicity of selves. We all have a little bit of the chameleon in us. I can swear like a trooper or genuflect like an angel. I can dance like an idiot or bow like a nun. I think this is universal. Rumi said, “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop.”

            The idea of a soul is universal, although there are as many ways of framing the concept as there are cultures. If you are Christian your soul is given to you by God. If you are Hindu your soul is a piece of the bigger soul (Brahman). Plato described a soul-guide, called a daimon, that accompanies us into the world and which points us in the direction of our true calling, even when we don’t have any consciousness of what that is.

            The idea that we each have a destiny is archetypal. It applies in both Eastern and Western cultures and refers to a sense that we are part of a pre-written narrative. Regardless of which choices you make, your destiny is to play your part towards a predetermined end. You may say that you don’t believe in predestination, and yet at the same time, if you are yearning for a more meaningful life (the reason that most of us ended up here) the idea is likely to hold some appeal. The self-help industry runs on this premise: You just need to find the thing you were meant to do, and all your other troubles will evaporate.

            James Hillman argues in his book The Soul’s Code that we all yearn for a sense of personal calling (as opposed to a sense of the meaning of life in general) and we have feelings “that there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round that give the daily round its reason, feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image which I am filling out in my biography” (4).  

            In the prologue to The Alchemist Coelho defines personal calling as the path that God chose for you here on earth, the path that you were uniquely designed (by nature and by nurture) to fulfill. We don’t know what our path is, but can recognize that whenever we are doing something that fills us with enthusiasm we are on the right track.  So the instruction when we are unsure about what to do is to just do something, and decide based on engagement if you are on the right track.  This teaching grates rather noisily against the Buddhist teachings on desire (but more on that later).

            Why do some of us seem to fall easily into our calling and others, like me, seem to struggle endlessly? Lots of reasons: fear of failure, lack of support, lack of opportunity, fear of success, lack of determination, and delusion. Sometimes when we get side-tracked in our lives, or when we feel like we don’t have a direction it’s because we are learning skills that we don’t yet know are important, even if those skills are just about dealing with failure.

            When we think about having a calling we tend to feel like it should be important, gigantic or at least fiscally rewarding. We also have deeply ingrained beliefs about mediocrity. Working for a bank is frowned upon in self-improvement circles, unless you are making boatloads of money. Nobody writes columns or blog posts about their calling to be a janitor. And yet, when the janitor is not present the place goes to hell pretty quickly.

            James Hillman dedicates a chapter to mediocrity. He argues that “No soul is mediocre, whatever your personal taste for conventionality, whatever your personal record of middling achievements” (250).  In a culture that focuses its entire media (i.e. its attentional organ) on the exceptional, on the successful, on the beautiful, and on the wealthy, it is natural to feel small and insignificant. Hillman emphasizes that “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”  He adds, “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living” (255). Your calling, your vocation is your life. Your life is your work.

            The idea of predestination does appear in some Buddhist tales: it is often the kitchen helper who is destined to take over the monastery. The Buddha’s father was told that Siddhartha would either be a great King or a great monk, and his attempts to bring about the first option were futile.

             Buddhism and meditation are often equated with withdrawal and inaction, but really we could think of the practice as training, the development of tools. Not the end of action but the beginning, the sharpening of the blade of the sword of discrimination. We learn to listen to the inner stirrings of an embodied wisdom. We learn to feel. We learn to see with clarity.

            The western alternative is the Pilgrimage: the trip to India, the hike along the el Camino or Pacific Coast Trail, or to a mountain top ashram in India. All of these “bucket list” experiences ultimately bring us to the same place. We think we have to drop out of our habitual routine to find our path to service (and maybe some of us do). The habitual routine is only an issue if it is unconscious. Nothing could be more habitual or routine than retreat practice—your whole day is laid out for you. So routine is not the enemy. The enemy is distraction, inattention, and becoming caught up in consuming and escaping.  For some people, the habitual routine is their service. My parents spent their lives at 9 to 5 jobs so that they could give me opportunities that they never had. Their contribution is the foundation of my contribution. Working at an ordinary 9 to 5 job is not a shortcoming (although the self-help world will leave you feeling that way). Likewise, those who just quietly show up week after week are the strength and foundation of a sangha. Presence, in and of itself is a great contribution.

            Where the idea of calling tends to trip me up the most is that I tend to measure myself in the way our culture measures things: by results, by income, by status, by achievement. Buddhism argues that we should not be concerned with those things. How can we undertake our quests with no expectations of results? How can we allow desire in, without becoming caught up in grasping and gaining? The Gita says:

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or failure.
Yoga is evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same. — trans. by Juan Mascaro

            Desire is a motivator. I don’t think we can function without desire. It’s built into us biologically and functions towards our survival. The trick is, I suppose, to recognize it for what it is—love, and to recognize aversion for what it is—fear.  But it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes desires are driven by fears (I want that new position so I’ll have security), or fears are driven by love (I don’t want to abuse my partner’s generosity)

            And what do we do about our feelings of failure, the feeling of being on the wrong path, of not living up to our potential? Chödrön advises us to practice:

 What I have realized through practicing is that practice isn’t about being the best horse or the good horse or the poor horse or the worst horse. It’s about finding our own true nature and speaking from that, acting from that. Whatever our quality is that’s our wealth and our beauty; that’s what other people respond to (Chödrön 2001, 8).

I think our relationships tell us more about our true nature than anything else—our relationships and our desires. What we find beautiful. What attracts us? And also, what comes up in our practice over and over. Which angels? Which demons?

Chödrön tells us to embrace doubt. She says, of practice, that as long as you have these kinds of doubts, your practice will be good. Doubt gets along well with the practice of not knowing. She also advises us to embrace failure because sometimes when we find ourselves to be the worst horse; we are inspired to try harder. She suggests we stop striving after some idea of perfection, some idea of the heroic.  She writes:

In his talk, Suzuki Roshi says that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature is one continuous mistake, and that rather than being a reason for depression or discouragement, it’s actually the motivation. When you find yourself slumping, that’s the motivation to sit up, not out of self-denigration but actually out of pride in everything that occurs to you, pride in who you are just as you are, pride in the goodness or fairness or the worstness of yourself—however you find yourself—some sort of sense of taking pride and using it to spur you on (Chödrön 2001, 10).

She finishes the chapter with a discussion of the great losers in the Buddhist lineage who went on to become great teachers. They all had faults: Tilopa was mad; Naropa was so conceptual he was hopeless (repeatedly run over by a truck), Milarepa was a murderer, Gampopa was arrogant, Karmapa was ugly and got thrown out of the monastery.  She says,

We could all take heart. These are the wise ones who sit in front of us, to whom we prostrate when we do prostrations. We can prostrate to them as an example of our own wisdom mind of enlightened beings, but perhaps it’s also good to prostrate to them as confused, mixed up people with a lot of neurosis, just like ourselves…

The point is that our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It’s who we are right now, and that’s what we can make friends with and celebrate (Chödrön 2001, 12).   

            So again we come back to maitri, to self-compassion, to gentleness, to trust. We take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, and then we roll up our sleeves and go out into the world to do our best with whatever skills and talents we’ve been given, even if we aren’t quite sure yet what those are.  Whether our practice is going well or going badly, we can’t fail at Buddhism. We are already buddhas, right now, just the way we are.



Works Cited:

Chödrön, Pema. 2001. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness. Boston: Shambhala.

Coelho, Paulo. 2012. The Alchemist: A Fable about Following Your Dream. London: Harper.

Hillman, James. 1996. The Soul’s Code. New York: Warner Books.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 2006. How to See Yourself as You Really Are. Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Hopkins. Toronto: Atria Books. 

Martel, Jann. 1996. Self: A Novel. Toronto: Vintage Canada.