I Am Water
The other week I was driving through Portland when we hit some traffic as we were merging on to the freeway. Above us I noticed a piece of graffiti (graffito?) written on a bridge that said, simply:
You Are the Traffic
This simple sentence really got me thinking. I had not come across it before - though subsequent searches showed it is not an original thought, having even been used as a slogan by a GPS company. But it is a powerful one, and one that can teach an important lesson.
When we sit in traffic we usually think about 'us' and 'them' - our car has a legitimate right to be on the road, with an important reason for getting wherever we are going. Everyone else is 'the traffic' and their motives, and the motives of the city planners, are at best suspect. The traffic is bad, and gets in the way of our own desire to be somewhere.
Of course this is obviously foolish, but we have all felt it. This separation of 'me' versus 'traffic' seems very real. Despite the fact that even a small piece of reflection shows that it is a deluded way to think we continue to think that way. For most of us the state of traffic only matters to us when we are in our car, and then we are, by definition, part of the traffic. I am Traffic.
This is a very clear example of the delusion of a separate self. In the concept of anatta (not-self) we see that our concept of our selves as completely independent separable entities is delusion. Not seeing ourselves as part of the traffic is delusion.
In his book "Selves & Not-self - The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta" Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu teaches:
Take an example from your childhood. Suppose you have a younger sister, and someone down the street is threatening her. You want to protect her. At that moment she is very much your sister. She belongs to you, so you will do whatever you can to protect her. Then suppose that, when you've brought her home safely, she begins to play with your toy car and won't give it back to you. Now she's no longer your sister. She's the Other. Your sense of your self, and of what is yours and not yours, has shifted. The boundary line between self and not-self has changed.This idea of our shifting sense of self, dependent on what we believe will bring happiness is exactly what is going on when we separate our self from the traffic.
You've been doing this sort of thing — changing the boundaries of what's self and not-self — all of the time. Think back on your life — or even for just a day — to see the many times your sense of self has changed from one role to another.
Normally we create a sense of self as a strategy for gaining happiness. We look for what abilities we have in order to gain a happiness we want. Those abilities are then ours. The hand we can use to reach for the object we want is our hand; the loud voice we can use to scare off the bullies threatening our sister is our voice. This is why the element of control is so essential to our sense of self: We assume that the things we can control are us or ours. Then we also try to think about which part of ourselves will live to enjoy the happiness we're trying to gain. These things will change depending on the desire.
There is a widely-quoted saying from Thích Nhất Hạnh that says:
Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean,Thay often used this analogy of the wave and the water, especially in the context of our limited life spans. The analogy speaks to how we are all part of many processes, and how having a sense of self that separates us from those processes is a delusion. We are traffic, we are our neighborhood, we are society, we are our family, we are sangha- we are water.
is the moment the wave realizes it is water.
PS. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on traffic, water and how we cannot separate ourselves from the process we are part of. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you wish.
PPS. The Thích Nhất Hạnh quote is widely quoted on the internet but I was unable to identify the original source. Normally I do not use quotes that I can't definitively source but in this case there are many examples of Thay using the same or similar analogies that I could source. I take sourcing seriously, so if you know exactly where the quote I used came from please let me know - I would be very grateful! As Abraham Lincoln said, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet.
"Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html .