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Copyright 2012 Ian Ellis-Jones. All Rights Reserved,

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  1. 1. M I N D F U L N E S S, THE ‘SELF’ AND SERENITY By The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-JonesMany, especially those in Twelve-Step Programs, will be familiar with what is knownas The Serenity Prayer. The prayer was written by the famous 20th centuryProtestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.The short form of the prayer (see opposite) is usually employed but there is also anextended version as well, the wording of which can be found on the link above toThe Serenity Prayer. Here is the form of the prayer that is most widely known andused:Some people have trouble with the word ‘God’. I always say to such people, ‘AsKrishnamurti used to say, The word is not the thing.’ The word ‘God’ means ‘God asyou understand [God]’, and I have come to understand the word as referring not somuch to a supposed ‘Higher Power’ - for I dislike that expression as it tends tosuggest that there are supposedly ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ levels or orders of reality(which I believe is not the case, on both philosophical and scientific grounds) - but a‘power-not-oneself’.I am very grateful, as are many others, to the late Rev. Dr Dilworth Lupton, sometimeminister of the First Unitarian Church (Universalist-Unitarian) in Cleveland, Ohio, andlater of Waltham, Massachusetts, who used, and perhaps coined, the phrase ‘apower-not-ourselves’. (I am, of course, aware of Matthew Arnolds oft-quoted‘definition’ of God as ‘the enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for 1
  2. 2. righteousness’.) Luptons delivered a very famous sermon, ‘Mr X and AlcoholicsAnonymous’ , on 26 November 1939 when AA was in its very early years.In any event, Step 2 (‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves couldrestore us to sanity’) of The Twelve Steps refers to a ‘Power greater [NOTE: notnecessarily ‘higher’] than ourselves’. Also, there are only 2 places (on pp 43 and100, respectively) in the 4th edition of the ‘Big Book’ of AA - entitled AlcoholicsAnonymous - where the actual expression ‘Higher Power’ is used, but thereare numerous other places in the book where other expressions are used to refer tothe need to find a ‘power’ or simply ‘Power’ (to overcome the problem of ‘lack ofpower’) and to the ‘God’ of ones own understanding.I have no difficulty in believing in a ‘power-not-myself’ or a ‘power greater thanmyself’. Why? Because there is no such thing as ‘self’. Now, I know that is a hardconcept for many to grasp, but I firmly believe it to be true. Dr John HughlingsJackson (pictured below), who was the founder of the (then known) British School ofNeurology, wrote that there is something intrinsically wrong with our notion of the‘self’. Jackson demonstrated - yes, demonstrated - that consciousness is neither afixed quantity or quality nor of fixed duration, but simply ‘something’ quite intermittentin nature that undergoes change moment by moment.The idea that there is no actual ‘self’ at the centre of our conscious (or evenunconscious) awareness comes as a great shock to many (except to Buddhists, whorightly assert not a doctrine of ‘no-self’ but the fact of ‘not-self‘, and to variousmetaphysicians), but it is the view held by most, but not all, neuropsychiatrists,neuroscientists and other like professionals.The truth is our consciousness goes through continuous fluctuations from moment tomoment. As such, there is nothing to constitute, let alone sustain, a separate,transcendent ’I’ structure or entity. True, we have a sense of continuity of ‘self’, but itis really an illusion. It has no ‘substance’ in psychological reality. It is simply a mentalconstruct composed of a continuous ever-changing process or confluence ofimpermanent components (‘I-moments’) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind 2
  3. 3. in a way which appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independentexistence and life of their own.The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that we tend to believe that the ‘self’ isreal and one because of what we perceive to be the ‘felt smoothness of the transitionwhich imagination effects between point and point’, but all that we are dealing with,he said (as have many others over the years such as Friedrich Nietzscheand Bertrand Russell), is a bundle of experiences which have the illusion ofcontinuity about them. The truth is that the ‘self’ is not an independent ‘thing’separate from the various aggregates of which we are composed as persons.Indeed, every attempt to postulate or assert the existence of a ‘self’ is self-defeating(hmmm) as it inevitably involves an element of self-identification. (According toBuddhism, there are 5 such aggregates: form or matter, feeling or sensation,cognition or perception, volition or impulses, and consciousness or discernment.)So what gives us this sense of mental continuity? How does it arise? Russell andothers have written that our mental continuity is simply the result of habit andmemory. Each one of us is a person in our own right - I am not denying that.However, the person which each one of us is recognizes that there was, yesterday,and even before then, a person whose thoughts, feelings and sensations we canremember today ... and THAT person each one of us regards as ourself ofyesterday, and so on. Nevertheless, this ‘myself’ of yesterday consists of nothingmore than certain mental occurrences which are later - say, today - recognized,interpreted and regarded, and, more importantly, remembered, as part of the person- which each one of us is - who recollects those mental occurrences.Now, lets get back to this supposed ‘I’ (and ‘me’). Actually, within each one of usthere are literally thousands of ‘Is’ and ‘mes’ ... the ‘I’ who wants to go to work todayand the ‘I’ who doesnt, the ‘I’ who likes ‘me’ and the ‘I’ who doesnt like ‘me’, the ‘I’who wants to give up smoking and the ‘I’ who doesnt, and so forth. Think about it fora moment ... how can the ‘self’ change the ‘self’, if self is non-existent? It cant. Endof story. I love what Archbishop William Temple (pictured below) had to say aboutthe matter. He said, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of theself can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’ Therefore, let us freeourselves from all forms and notions of self-identification, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centredness. 3
  4. 4. Are you familiar with the Zen kōan about the goose in the bottle? The goose grewand grew until it couldnt get out of the bottle. The man didnt want to break thebottle or hurt the goose, but he did want to get the goose out of the bottle. So whatdid he do? Ponder on that one for a day or two ... but please do not email me for thesupposed ‘answer’! Heres a simpler piece of Zen. A disciple asks, ‘Master, what ismy Self?’ The master replies, ‘What would you want with a Self?’ Indeed.Now, if we want change - especially positive change - in our lives, we have to relyupon a ‘power-not-oneself’ ... that is, the power of ‘not-self’. Your such power maywell be different from mine. That doesnt matter at all ... as long as we realize that theso-called ‘I’, as Krishnamurti used to point out, is simply a habit and a series ofwords, memories and knowledge ... which is the past. Note that - the past. The ‘I’and ‘me’ of us - and even the belief (actually, misbelief) ’I am I’ - are simply broughtabout by thought ... and thought is always a thing of the past as well.The Serenity Prayer recognizes the importance of Mindfulness. Let me explain.The prayer begins with the words, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things Icannot change’. What are those things? Without attempting to give an exhaustivelist, here are some of the biggies ... there is no ‘self’ which can change ‘me’ ... I haveno power to change myself (my ‘self’) nor other people ... I cannot change the past,and that includes my past actions and my past intentions, as well as theaccumulated results (karma, if you like) of those things ... although there issomething that can be done about the latter. Thank goodness Mindfulness is allabout the present.The prayer continues with these words ... ‘courage to change the things I can’. Whatare those things? Again, without attempting to give an exhaustive list, here isperhaps the most important thing of all ... my present and, as a consequence, myfuture. How? (I know we should never ask ‘how’, but, be that as it may ... .) By beingmindful in the present moment ... moment by moment ... and by mindfully makingchoices in the present ... I can, and will, gain insight and understanding into theperson which I am, as well as other persons to the extent that it is possible to trulyunderstand (that is, ‘get into the mind’ of) others. (By the way, insight means seeing 4
  5. 5. the way things really are. Understanding is ‘learning’, something which Krishnamurtidescribed as being ‘movement from moment to moment’.)The short form of the prayer concludes with these words ... ‘and [the] wisdom toknow the difference’? How do we gain that wisdom? (Theres that word ‘how’ again!)Well, by means of the regular practice of Mindfulness we gain, as alreadymentioned, insight and understanding into the person which each one of us is. Thatinsight and understanding brings us wisdom ... NOT book knowledge, but truespiritual (that is, non-material) wisdom.We are then able to know the difference between, to use some expressionscommonly used in Buddhism, what is ‘wholesome’ and ‘skilful’, and what is‘unwholesome’ and ‘unskilful’, for each of us.Amen. 5