My Avatar, My Self

Everything now has a life online, including Zen. For example, the website Second Life – a virtual world with something like a million active users – includes a virtual zendo. I was invited to give a Zen talk to the online sangha but with no experience in that kind of virtual environment I needed coaching. I learned I had to create an avatar – a virtual self in the form of a 3D identity – through which I’d interact with the sangha members’ avatars. The movie “Avatar” made this idea commonplace, but it was novel for me.

To facilitate, Second Life provides a virtual warehouse full of parts and pieces that go into making up an avatar. I assembled body type, hair, features, accessories and garments, including priest robes and other Zen stuff. Very cool. I tried to match my virtual avatar to my actual appearance, but when the audience gathered in the zendo, I saw right away the virtual sangha was wildly more inventive than I was. A small puppy and a sexy vampire were the most prosaic, surrounded by elaborate creatures combining human body elements, griffon wings, fantastical costumes, what looked like robotic attachments, and other pieces too varied to list. It was impressively creative and kind of wacky.

But it also struck me as profound. It was a visible version of the construction we all engage in – albeit less visibly – as we cobble together parts and pieces into what we call our selves. The parts and pieces of our selves aren’t wings or claws, they’re ideas, fears, dreams, habits, cravings, and aversions we cling to as essential to our “me-ness.” We hope they’ll define and protect us. As these selves keep colliding with the world, we evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and we make ongoing adjustments, jettisoning an old idea here, taking up a new activity there. Seeing the elaborate avatars on Second Life only made the process more obvious.

When we use the term “small self” in Zen, I think this is what we’re talking about. Sometimes we talk as though “ego” and “small self” are the same thing. But I think that’s not quite right. I think the ego’s a more primitive, fundamental energy that has a wholesome purpose in our lives. But it’s also the energy that fuels the construction, ongoing renovation and maintenance of this small self. From this perspective, I think of what we call the small self as the ego’s avatar.

The ego’s avatar shows up on the surface, too, as how we try to appear in the world. We intuitively understand that some aspect of selfhood is at stake when we notice someone who’s working really, really hard to look much, much younger than they are. It’s clear lots of energy is going into the effort. But we all spend even more emotional and psychic energy keeping the ego’s avatar functional and on the road. It’s a relentless effort because the avatar needs to be re-created over and over in the face of changing circumstances and conditions. It’s a crazy and exhausting project that’s draining energy all the time.

One way Zen practice helps meet this difficulty is by making us more keenly aware through zazen of our own interior drama. As we wake up to ourselves in zazen, we get more objective about our behavior. We recognize feelings and reactions as clues to the avatar’s shape and mischief. Personally, I find the single best clue is defensiveness. In my life, defensiveness shows up in various costumes, but mostly as anger, fearfulness, or rationalization. When I get defensive, I check for a tense underlying energy. I can usually locate a particular kind of tightness in my body that tells me that something precious and vulnerable is being threatened: my ego’s avatar. What I think of as my self is in danger.

I believe the avatar changes shape but never dies. The “selfing project” never ends. I believe it’s hard-wired in. But being alert to it is a critical part of practice, because the ego’s avatar, the constructed self, is essentially a neurotic fiction. It doesn’t harmonize with reality and the result is suffering: suffering for ourselves, suffering for others. Fortunately, awareness sharpened and focused by zazen practice helps expose the avatar, and slowly but surely the exposure itself eases and can even release the tight hold the small self can have on how we think, feel, and behave.