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  • D.J. McKay

Do We Have Individual Agency?

I intend this blog to be a post-script to the three recent posts on the role of emotion in the conditioned process. I'll offer here a different way of looking at this thing we call "identity", and how it is created and maintained.

As I've often asserted in these blogs and elsewhere, we are not one unified person that remains consistent through time. We are taught to believe in an essential "me", but this "me" is an illusion. In fact, each human's personality is constructed out of a variety of different identities, a collection of selves, each with it's own independent wants and needs, its own self-talk, its own point of view, its own belief systems, and so on. It is also an illusion that there is anything on the level of essence that persists through time. I am not what I was last week, or even earlier today: in each moment I am born anew, without any real connection to what I was before. This emptiness of self is a difficult thing to directly perceive. The reason it's so difficult is that our conditioned system has it such that identity appears to be carried from one moment to the next. We carry forward the fundamental assumption of a "me" that all experience is happening to. The thoughts that occur are "my" thoughts; the emotions are "my" emotions; the memories that we drag along are of things that happened to "me".

There is an ancient Buddhist teaching called "The Five Skandhas" that talks about this. The skandhas, or "aggregates", are the building-blocks of the illusion of "me", I think we could say. Here they are:

  1. Material form (body)

  2. Feelings (sensations)

  3. Perceptions

  4. Mental formations (thoughts)

  5. Consciousness (the experience of being aware).

When there is a body, and when this body has feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and awareness, there can easily be the illusion of a "me" that all this is happening to. There isn't, however: there is just a collection of processes responding and reacting to whatever is happening. There is no "I" that owns experience, in other words: there is merely a body that feels, perceives, etc., and this body fundamentally lacks self-nature.

Conditioned mind has as its primary role to create the illusion of agency out of this palette of body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. That's just what it does. It assumes there must be an "I" these things are happening to, and in this way distracts awareness from a state of pure attention as time passes and things occur, to a state of identification with a self that lives in the illusion that it is outside of the moment, autonomous and in control of things. So, from the point of view of conditioned mind, in any given moment I am having a particular experience--I'm sad, or lonely, or excited, or whatever. From the point of view of awareness, conditioned mind is calling a variety of experiences a particular something ("sad", "lonely", "excited"...), thereby promoting the "I" that is supposedly having the experiences. When we assume agency we step out of the ever-unfolding experience of the moment and fix ourselves within an unchanging, isolated perspective, and it's this perspective that we call "me".

This teaching has always been profound for me, as it shows that I don't need to take experience personally. If there is no "person" who is me, then there is no entity to take anything personally. "I" have no real agency. What I experience as "my" agency is just Life moving through form. And if I don't need to take experience personally, then there is nothing to resist, nothing to try and make different within "my" experience, nothing to suffer over. There is just what is.

That which we call "experience" is without self-nature, and yet there is a nature that is authentic. This authentic nature is without a self, but at the same time it's our most intimate experience of who we are. I'm remembering a couple of dogs I saw playing together the other day. They were having a wonderful time, running and tumbling with each other in the grass. Dogs do not experience themselves as separate from Life, at least as far as I can tell--they ARE Life manifesting in form. We are like that, too, only better, because we have a level of awareness that dogs don't have. We have the capacity to be aware of ourselves and of the fact that we exist. This capacity can lead to self-consciousness and the invention of a self that is having our experience (that's what happens in conditioned mind), or it can open a door to the possibility that we may identify with Life in relationship with experience, that we may function naturally from our authentic nature in the way that a dog can do, and be aware of that at the same time.