Over the last few days, I have been reading and thinking about early Buddhism (i.e. the Pali Canon), and comparing them in my mind to Advaita Vedanta in preparation for one of my spring philosophy classes. One big difference between Buddhism and Vedanta (I think many would argue that this is the chief difference) is over the existence of self. Vedanta holds that there is a greater universal Self of which we are all a part (simply put, this means that ultimately, I am you and you are me, and there is no separation whatsoever between us. The trick is to find a way to realize this with our entire being; hence Self-realization.)
Buddhism (at least early Buddhism), on the other hand, holds that there is really no self at all. Self, the Buddhist would argue, is a convenient fiction that we use in order to live our everyday lives in society. Ultimately, says the Buddhist, all there is is an endless stream of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses of these things. The notion of a self, as it is conventionally understood, is simply a useful label we conventionally assign to a certain bundle of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses, because we have discovered that doing so allows us to conduct our practical existence in a way that is productive and fruitful. Suffering, the Buddhist holds, arises because we forget this simple fact--that what we call the self is simply a convenient fiction, nothing more--and over-identify with it. Notice that I said "suffering", not "pain". According to the Buddhist, pain is inevitable in human existence; suffering, however, is optional, and arises to the extent that we over-identify with the fiction of the self.
Which is all very well in theory. Despite my best efforts, however, I just can't bring myself to believe that there is really no such thing as a self. Very often, the first emotion that assails me when I wake up in the morning is anxiety. I'm not going to bore you with the lurid details of just what exactly I am anxious about. But they all boil down to one thing: Anxiety/angst and fear over what may or may not happen in the future. And it is pretty obvious (at least to me) that if one experiences anxiety/angst/fear, one must believe that there is a self to which these bad things may or may not happen in the future. In other words, one is being a "bad" Buddhist. Or, to put the same point more personally, I am being a bad Buddhist.
Come to think of it, maybe this is why I practice yoga. Assuming that my present yoga practice is based on a Vedantic worldview (hmm... is yoga still NOT a religion? Something to think about here, no?) which posits that I am part of a greater cosmic Self, it might be that I am attracted to yoga because of the prospect of someday attaining self-realization and becoming one with this Self; the image that comes to mind here is that of a drop of water (me) rejoining the great ocean of Self.
I wonder if all this means that from a spiritual point of view, I am trying to have my cake and eat it too: Might it be that I am trying to reap all the benefits of the Buddhist view of not believing that there is a self in everyday life (so as to avoid the existential suffering that arises with over-identification; something I haven't been too successful with thus far) while also having the assurance that I ultimately belong to and am part of something greater (the Self)? How long can one keep up this neither-here-nor-there spiritual position (if indeed, it is even possible in the first place)? Hmm... what a mess.