Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Allergy to Self

February 11, 2015

There’s debate about what a self is, but most would agree it involves choosing. Wanting and disliking. Craving and aversion. The “three fires” of Buddhism—greed, aversion and misunderstanding—are all aspects of self.


This message is not clearly thought out still less backed by any kind of hard evidence. Please bear with me…

What if the self is basically an allergy?

Allergies are an over-reaction of the immune system to a perceived danger that is in fact no danger. A little pollen alights in the nostril. In a person with that kind of airborne allergy, the immune system goes into overdrive. The histamines start pounding round the blood stream, the membranes inflame, lymph production ramps up, the fluids pour, the sneezes come, the eyes redden, itch and stream. Then the bronchial tract tightens and the wheezing starts. Maybe hives light up in the skin. All the defense teams are on red alert, firing off every kind of defense they have. All for a little bit of harmless dust.

In the realm of depression there’s a theory now that the primary instigating factor in an episode is not so much feeling bad but the mind making desperate attempts to interpret and prevent bad feeling. We feel bad for some reason or other. That’s OK. But then if we start desperately trying to understand and prevent the bad feeling, to ward it off, paradoxically our very attempt to do so may send us down into depression.

Again, it’s the attempts made by the system to resolve the perceived problem that create the greater problem. As with allergies.

Likewise perhaps with anxiety: here the response or reaction is always “emotion in excess of the evidence,” as T.S.Eliot dubbed it. The original feeling may just be some momentary aversion. But because the symptoms of aversion are in themselves so strongly disliked, the mind tries to turn them off, or run away from them. Which is like trying to run away from itself. So anxiety kicks in: a self-propelling reaction in which we become afraid of our very fear.

Clearly this is a superficial, lay take on the subjects.  Allergies don’t seem to have an easy cure. They are most readily alleviated either with medicine or through avoidance of the allergens. There are courses of desensitization which can involve hundreds even thousands of injections over years, and have only a modest success rate (as far as I know). Even if they work, if you then move to another climate you may develop a new set of allergies. Anxiety and depression, at least in their less severe (but still miserable) forms, on the other hand, can certainly be helped with therapy and meditation training – that is, non-medical intervention.

So what about the self? Can we learn about it from these extreme vortices of self-protection gone wrong?

There’s debate about what a self is, but most would agree it involves choosing. Wanting and disliking. Craving and aversion. The “three fires” of Buddhism—greed, aversion and misunderstanding—are all aspects of self.

The self seeks what it believes to be good for it, avoids what it believes to be bad for it, and lives in the misunderstanding that it is more than merely these two impulses. In other words, the self takes the existence of these impulses as evidence of its own intrinsic existence.  Since I like chocolate and hate being ignored, I must exist. There must be someone who is doing the liking and hating. To blow out the three fires – moksha, nirvana – is to be released from all three of these functions at once.

So does that make the self an allergy? … As long as the sense of self is in charge, it is busy trying to manage our experience of the world, to make it this and not that, or vice versa. Anything but letting it be the way it is.  A constant unease, trying to make things work out in favor of the self. Constant war on the world, constant lawsuit with the world, as John Crook, a late English Buddhist teacher put it. Isn’t that a bit like an allergy? What arises is not at all OK. It must be changed. There must be more of this and less of that. And if conditions are just as we want them, then there must be a guarantee of preserving them. Which of course there never is… A lifetime on the wheel of like and dislike, in the purgatory of the three fires…

Is there really a way out? Zen says so. Sit still. Breathe. Surrender. Welcome what is… and see…

Image: Self Portrait, by Wikilmages CC0 Public Domain photos, from

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