I’m not fond of the summer heat, but I like the sun, because it gives me reason to wear my sunglasses. Not only do they shade my eyes from the glare, but whenever I put them on I feel very cool. If I catch myself reflected in a mirror or a window, I’ll stop for a moment and admire how cool I look. It must be something near-magical about this particular pair. Because when I look at other people wearing sunglasses, not once have I been dazzled by how cool they look. If I notice their sunglasses at all, it’s not because I’m overcome with admiration.
When my wondrous sunglasses were stolen last year, I replaced them with another pair. To my surprise I found that whenever I put on these new sunglasses, I still felt very cool. Maybe even cooler.
This discrepancy between what I feel when I wear my sunglasses and what I see when I look at other people wearing theirs, leads me to believe that the near-magical property of my sunglasses is simply that they belong to me. Sunglasses obscure the face, one of the sturdiest anchors of self that is visible in the external world. In so doing, they accentuate our attachment to that elusive something behind the face: the very notion of our self.
How many other things am I so naive about, just because I identify them as “I”, “me” or “mine”? 1
There is a Buddhist story:
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”
At these words Banzan became enlightened.2
If collections of koans are anything to go by, in the old days, you had to elbow your way through a throng of people becoming enlightened, just to buy some groceries.
In this story the butcher is suffering from the same discrepancy about his products that I was with my sunglasses. He’s mixing up quality with ownership. But the monk saw through his trivial understanding to something deeper.
How can everything be the best? How could things be otherwise?
We make distinctions such as “best” or “cool” to serve our purposes. But if we look honestly we’ll see that such words merely identify those things which we belong to us, whether it’s stuff in the world or notions in our head — including the notion of our own selfhood. This creates a discrepancy of value between the things we put in the bucket of “I”, “me” or “mine” and everything else.
I try to be present to my life. But all these notions — chock-full as they are of vanity and pride — get in the way of seeing clearly and being open to what is happening. I can’t avoid distinguishing between what is “mine” and everyone else’s. But it’s possible to stop privileging one over the other. When we cease to cling to the things we identify as ours, the discrepancy between self and the world disappears altogether.
When it’s sunny, just put on your sunglasses.