Killing ‘little I’

The Zen master invites me to sit opposite him. “Do you have a question?” he asks.

I nod and search for the right words. “I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m meditating…” I hesitate, wondering if what I’m about to say will make any sense. “…something will happen. I’ll be really aware of my breathing and the present moment and then suddenly I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. Do you understand why this happens?”

He nods knowingly. “That’s your ‘little I.’”

“My ‘little I’?”

“You begin to occupy the space of the ‘big I’ and then your ‘little I’ gets scared. Before, the ‘little I’ is who you thought you were and now you have the understanding that you are more. She is threatened. You are making progress and you might not need her. That feeling of anxiety or panic is her tool. You have no choice but to come back to her.”

I’m amazed at how effortlessly he presents his answer, as if this issue was brought to him regularly. Then I remember a small detail I read about the Buddha. In recalling the years leading up to his enlightenment, when he was meditating in the forest by himself, he said fear and terror became his “constant companions.” They could be aroused by the smallest things like “a peacock dropping a twig and the wind blowing the fallen leaves.” That must have been Buddha’s ‘little I’ rebelling against his increasing awareness.

So maybe these sensations aren’t a sign of my going backwards, as I had believed. I think back to the moments of panic, not just on this trip but at other times in my life too. Perhaps they were all fueled by the dawning realization: I might be more than this individual identity. Maybe I was starting to sense the vast space outside the thought highway.

“So how do I get rid of her?” I ask my Zen master.


“My ‘little I’? How do I kill her off for good?”

A look of concern washes over his face. “You don’t.”

“I thought that was the point.”

“No. You need her.”

“I need her?”

“She takes care of you. She gets things done. Be compassionate toward her.”

“But…” I was about to say that I thought she was the enemy when it occurs to me what a bizarre thing that would be to admit. She’s me…

“Be aware of her. That’s enough.”

I’m staring at the patch of nubby white carpet between us trying to recalibrate my perspective when my Zen master asks, “What is all that exists?”

I look up. It’s a koan, a Buddhist brain-teaser meant to slap me upside the head so I can see things with fresh eyes.

“Truth?” I say.

He slams his open palm against the floor, making the thwacking sound I’ve been hearing all afternoon.

“If you can name it, you’ve limited it,” he says. He’s been transformed into a Buddhist drill sergeant. “This…” he hits the floor again. “Is all there is. It has no words!”

He tries again. “What do you see?”

Now I’m worried. I don’t know the answer. I’m looking into his eyes. “A soul?” I say. The second it comes out, I know it’s wrong.

He looks disappointed. “You see a soul?”


“Come on!”

“Love?” Another stupid answer.

He bulges his eyes out at me. “What…do…you…SEE?”

“Eyeballs! I see your eyeballs!”

He smiles. “What color are they?”


He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”

13 thoughts on “Killing ‘little I’

  1. Corinna, APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!! How WONDERFUL !! It reminded me of my trip many years ago to listen to the Indian Mystic Krishnamurti in a park in Ojai, Ca. He was already old at the time and they propped him up in a chair on top of a table so everyone could see him and he them. There was a large crowd gathered. Finally, he said several times, “How can I teach you to know the unknowable.” Even the Kaballah talks about the “Nothingness”. Your wonderful Master and his “thwacks” were really for all of us who think we have adequate answers. I have passed this story on to others since you have a “share” link on it.

  2. I don’t have a lot to say but just wanted to say I’ve been enjoying reading about your spiritual journey, especially as you delve into such unfamiliar territory. You are a very steady and pleasant traveling-companion and tour guide.

  3. This morning at coffee I sat down next to a friend and asked her: How are you doing? I was thinking about her immediate life, but she started in talking about how she is still getting used to being retired….which has been since September, and we have talked about that many times!……It surprised me, but I guess that it shouldn’t have. We are all too often in our heads, kicking ideas around about all kinds of things in the past and the future. It is much harder to stay in that present moment. I think that our language doesn’t really lend itself to the present either. “How are you?” implies a bigger picture….a longer answer. Or it might elicit a quick, “Fine.” But we don’t usually go around saying, “How are you at this very moment in time and place?”

    Maybe we don’t even want to hear the answer to that question, because then we have to be prepared to listen… listen deeply. Many of us are already jazzing up our brains to deal with the next topic: How WE are doing! It takes great concentration and commitment to stay with the present, I think.

    I have been reading and thinking about your Buddhism entries, Corinna. I don’t always have something relevant to say to the general populous, but I am still with you on this journey. Take care. Merrill

  4. A friend of mine said he no longer asked people, “How are feeling?” but surprised them by asking, “How are you thinking?”

  5. Perhaps the real mindfulness is knowing what to ask. I can think of some good change-ups. Like: Who are you right now? That one might bring some contemplative answers, which is what an introvert, like myself, really wants. We don’t much like that shiny, surface stuff. We desire conversation with another human being talking about what is happening in our inner lives, where a great deal of our journey happens! Although, “What do you see,” seems to turn a person outward into what is right before us. Not what we think and feel about what is in front of us at that moment….or last night….or next week. Interesting. This reminds me that intentionality is essential not only in writing, but also in speaking. MET

  6. OK, so you were seeing his two “Big I’s” I guess…..did he have two because he was a master?
    I’m joking, probably because I’m trying to figure out too hard what this all means….I’ll just wait on you, our master leader, to tell us a little more of your discoveries…..

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