Thinking Like an Elephant
Recently a close friend and old student of mine was diagnosed with cancer. When I visit him I see him sorting out his situation, thinking about his life, the time he has left and how he would like to die. I think, “Roy is here now, but I don’t know how long he will be here. What will it be like when he is gone?” I think of my own death. We all have to die. We don’t know when. These kinds of situations prevent us from going about our daily business without giving death much thought.
We hold strongly to existence. Because there is ”me” there is the extinction of ”me.” Because there is ”mine” there is the extinction of ”mine.” Even if we believe in reincarnation we still have this sense of ”me” to contend with, the ”me” that continues and experiences whatever comes next. But before our next rebirth what we think of as ”me” is severed from everything that defines it — its body, all of its characteristics and possessions, its friends and loved ones. This is the loss of “mine.” So even after death the pain of “me” and “mine” and the extinction of “me” and “mine,” continues.
The ordinary dualistic mind is limited to thinking in extremes: existence or non-existence. We believe phenomena — including our “selves”— exist objectively from their own side as independent and autonomous things. This is not merely philosophical. Most likely it’s not philosophical at all, or even conscious. This is how we emotionally and viscerally experience our life and our world.
If we were to see, for instance, “me” in a broader way — an interdependent way— it would lose its distinction as a solid, individual entity. We would experience the self as less contracted and separate from everything else, as a dynamic that changes and interacts with other elements, so our experience of everything would become more open and relaxed. But this broad way of looking is not our habitual approach. Habitually we hold to a sense of autonomy. We don’t usually see the constantly changing components and the various causes and conditions that underlie that sense of autonomy.
When we hold to existence in this way it seems we have to succumb to extinction. Something must necessarily become nothing in the end: a void—complete annihilation. “Here today, gone tomorrow,” as they say. What other alternative to existence could there be? The great scholar Mipham Rinpoche describes the dualism of ordinary mind in this example: “Ordinary mind is like an elephant who bathes in the water to wash off the dirt and then rolls in the dirt to dry off.”