Sunday, July 29, 2012


Side-Effect by Elihu Genmyo Smith

            When your words are criticized, your actions not accepted and even found at fault, what happens? When you are put down (whether by yourself or others) what is going on, what is the reaction? When body aches, hurts, and moving is painful, what then? In these and other situations, notice the thoughts, feelings and especially the words that arise such as “I like”, “I do not like”, “I am”, “I am not.”

“I” is a side-effect of being human, a by-product of being human.  “I” is not the main aspect of a human being, it is not the most important function of being human, nor is it the limit of being human. Do you believe it is? Often, many of us do.

            “I” is a side-effect which unfortunately can have the disastrous consequences such as violence and war, or the milder but more long-lasting and pernicious consequence of stress, dissatisfaction and suffering. Instead of living this life we are, we often become side-tracked into this “I” side-effect –  the “I” by-products of “I don’t want”, “I want”, “I should” or “I shouldn’t”….

“I” is a side-effect of being embodied, a by-product of body-mind-world, or to use the traditional Buddhist terms, a by-product of the five skhandas, a by-product in the midst of ongoing change. “I” arises –passes – that is unless we make something of this by-product, hold on to it, attach to it – then we do not see arising-passing, don’t embody ongoing change. For many of us, the habit of attachment, the misunderstanding of that, leads to being at effect of this “I”, this by-product which repeatedly arises and is clung to as a result of our not seeing it for what it is; it is a by-product and side-effect, an often problematic side-effect out of which we create self in the midst of non-self.

Of course I am writing this, you are reading this, he is speaking, she is listening – all of this is the way we function right now. And this makes sense, can be a way that we skillfully and appropriately use words and concepts. I is one aspect of this life, this being human, this functioning. And yet, if we become trapped by these conceptions and perceptions, if these perceptions and related beliefs are a seemingly fixed, permanent, and independent aspect of our life, then we miss this moment interdependence of my speaking and you listening, of the air which breathes me, of the ongoing change that is this moment life. What is this right now?

Being human includes wonderful body-mind capacities. These body-mind capacities can develop in all the many physical-mental ways we humans function in this universe that is our life. And we can see it in technologies and music, the sciences and medicine, in agriculture and literature, and all sorts of social functioning and compassionate actions. No need for me to enumerate them right now since if we reflect on this it will be clear that we are all experts on this in our own life, in our particular areas of functioning.

And yet this side-effect “I” can poison our life. And there is an antidote to this side-effect. The antidote is awakening to who and what we are, awakening to being human; forgetting self, not limiting our self to “self-centeredness.”  Then we will notice when the side-effect “I” appears in its many forms, the my, me, mine and so forth, and if needed, we will be able to make the practice effort that will allow us to not be at-the-effect of this moment by-product reaction.

Many limitations and distortions of our life, distortions of our functioning, result from the side-effect of “I”, the side-effect “I” which becomes entangled in our many forms and activities, the side-effect that seems to “call” for our attention. And this side-effect “I”, this by-product of being embodied, becomes so entangled in the many forms of human functioning that we often forget or fail to notice that it is only a side-effect of being human, of this particular functioning, of the particular activities we are engaging in. Instead we believe that the side-effect “I” is the main point of our activities, that the by-product “I” is the purpose of our activities. Along with the “I” side-effect comes the side-effect of “other”, the “not-I” side-effect. “I” and “other” may even determine and direct our functioning, our life. And we may believe this without being conscious of it, without noticing our holding to these beliefs, without seeing how we are acting out of these beliefs - bodily, emotionally, habitually and in many other ways. We may refuse to be intimate right now; “I” side-effect wants to avoid what is uncomfortable, much less painful, and to chase what feels good. While it is fine to not want to be uncomfortable, not want pain - whether emotional or physical or any other - when these arise, can we be this moment, can we embrace them in the midst of acting skillfully and appropriately. Paraphrasing Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, our life practice includes making friends with cancer, with the discomfort and even pain, with inability and mistakes, with the icy couch we are on when it appears – being intimate as this impermanent ongoing change, as birth-death life. Being intimate is appreciating this moment, being intimate is not being caught up in the side-effects of “I” and “other.”

Even likes and dislikes are simply emotion-thought, bodily reactions. It is the “I” side-effect entangled in them that results in difficulties, suffering and harm. Otherwise, likes-dislikes arise and pass as do other emotion-thought of human functioning cause and effect right now.

Seeing the side-effect arising passing, as it does, is one aspect of no longer fooling our self about the side-effect, no longer missing the life we are because we are blinkered and blinded by the side-effect and taken in by the many times this entanglement arises in our life.

As noted earlier, along with the “I” side-effect comes the side-effect of “other”, the “not-I” side-effect. These side-effects may perniciously taint our being human, and give rise to and underlie all sorts of habitual reactions. And when we are sensitized to these side-effects, the very side-effect can serve to enable us to release attachment, to awaken this moment. Being sensitized includes noticing the many ways “other” arises, the many ways “not-I” serves to justify actions and reactions – and then to make the appropriate skillful practice effort. When we believe things about “other”, become angry or hurt about “other,” and when the stories that we tell become the basis of how we see life, how we see events and how we react to them, then we become entangled in unskillful and harmful behavior which result in stress and suffering for many. Most fundamental of the entanglements is the believing of the solidity of “other,” instead of seeing “otherness” as a side-effect of our human functioning, of perceiving and so forth, as an inaccurate perception of what is so. This “other” that is a side-effect of being human is an inaccuracy in the way we are holding it, an inaccuracy that is reinforced by much of human culture, of social culture. The “other” can include states of this very body-mind.

This “I” side-effect can be expanded in many ways and it can be contracted in many ways. This “other” side-effect can also be expanded in many ways, physically, emotionally and so forth, and it can be contracted in many ways. These expansions and contractions, the various forms of these by-products, lead to further complications, to political, social and psychological problems and dysfunctions, to intolerance, racism and worse. We can treat emotion-thought as “other”, and raise up like and dislike reactions, and we can treat the world as “I” while raising up like and dislike reactions.

There are various therapies, political ideologies and other solutions proposed to treat the problems that arise from these distortions – some of these “treatments” can be temporarily and pragmatically effective. But if the fundamental clinging to the side-effect continues then the consequences of the “I” side-effect, of the “other” side-effect, will reappear, maybe even as part of the proposed solution for the very problems that the side-effects “previously” gave rise to.

We take for granted that the side-effects are naturally most significant - even to the extent that when we do not react out of the ”I” or “other” side effect, when we do not focus on these by-products, it may feel strange and unusual, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes as if something is lacking.

What would it be to live not at the effect of “I” or “other”, not at the effect of these side-effects, of these by-products? This is what we have the opportunity to discover this moment. This is what practice supports and encourages. And it takes great courage - because we have become so used to emphasizing the side-effect of “I” and “not-I.”

Please be courageous, do not hold to these side-effects, do not cling to these by-products - be free here now and live this awakened life.

© 2012 Elihu Genmyo Smith