essays on suffering and awakening

A useful question

I increasingly find myself exploring the question: what is mine? The answer seems to be nothing.

This is easiest to see in the phyiscal world. We might think our bodies are ours, but eventually, they’ll grow old and die despite our best efforts. They’re not under our control, however much we might wish otherwise.

Similarly, we might think that our home or our car or our possessions are ours. But our home can burn down, or we can be evicted, or we can simply end up moving. It won’t be with us forever, no matter what. Likewise, our car will break down and our stuff will wear out. We’re not actually in charge of what happens to them.

None of this is news. But if we turn our inquiry inwards, asking what is mine suddenly gets really interesting.

I think most of us assume that our thoughts, our feelings, our minds—our very consciousness—are ours. Indeed, that’s at the heart of how most of us define ourselves. But if we really look at it, that assumption of possession starts to unravel.

Let’s take our thoughts, for example. They just happen, all on their own. We can jump on board and start chasing them or arguing with them, but we can’t control them. Not successfully anyway. Not really. Anyone who’s ever fought with themselves knows this.

Similarly with our feelings. We all want to feel good, but we often feel bad. We can take action to feel better, but eventually, we’re going to feel bad again. No matter how hard we try, we can’t only feel good. Our feelings change despite our best efforts.

Broaden this examination to the operation of our minds. We might want them to behave in a certain way, to be faster, more agreeable, more powerful, more probing and incisive—more able to help us accomplish whatever we want. If only wanting made it so. The more we push our minds to be other than they are, the more they push back, in the form of anxiety, neurosis, depression, whatever you want to call it. Our minds are often emphatic when they tell us they are not ours to control.

Let’s go even further, to our very sense of consciousness. Surely that is ours, right? But even that, if we look at it, is beyond our control. Ask anyone who’s ever used drugs. We can affect our consciousness for a while—dim it, shift it, even put it to sleep. But the effects never last—eventually, clear consciousness always resurfaces. We can’t keep it down forever.

The whole world—inside us and out—is here and happening all on its own. This begs one final question: if none of these things are ours, what is?


Ian Cooper