Zen is an interesting path. It tells us that nothing exists including our self, that we have no essential reality or even a soul. This can be very confusing if left without deeper study to find its meaning.
We are basically an accumulation of thoughts and desires. They make up the essential reality of your individual self. However, it is our thought habits which keep us separated from discovering our true nature. This conundrum is where many people get stuck, saying that your true self prevents you from discovering itself.
This is true, and easy to understand if you take yourself as a machine with many parts of which some are malfunctioning. It is those broken parts which prevent the machine from discovering itself because it is stuck in an endless loop and so cannot move forward past where it is right now, other than moving in a very small circle of experiences of life.
Just as a little note, the way out of this circle is to force yourself to have totally new experiences by doing exactly what you are scared of or dream of.
I think what keeps a person away from discovering their true nature is to say that there is no true nature, that there is nothing other than your imagination. That is simply too confusing if left as it is. It makes one think that the way to be enlightened is to kill all sensations by sitting in meditation staring at the wall for ten hours a day.
One great Zen master of the past called people: “blocks of wood staring at the wall.” Wood will not become enlightened. Yet Zen works for those who understand it. I am not saying Zen is the right path for everyone, but I refer to many paths and Zen is a good one for this discussion. I must say I like Zen for it’s simplicity in how it leads to a life of happiness, but I have seen far too many people waste their life in false Zen. Just take that little warning if you choose the wrong teacher.
I liken our true nature to a dust bunny, that clump of threads, hair and dust that grows under the furniture. Each one is as individual as a snowflake, no two are alike. I don’t think we could attribute that level of individuality to many humans!
Get a dust bunny and start to pull it apart one thread or hair at a time. Eventually you are left with nothing. It is at this point you must exhibit and prove what it was that held it all together.
This is the exercise to find your true nature. You should do this with several dust balls before it sinks in, then do it to yourself. Pull out every thought, desire, aversion, like, dislike, what you love, what you hate, belief and opinion you have. Take apart everything that makes you who you are and see what is left.
This is much easier than answering the Zen koan of who were you before your mother and father were born but serves the same purpose.
Essentially we do not exist but yet we feel pain and pleasure. A terrible pain is when you know there is something more to life but cannot find it. You cannot and will not find it because it does not exist. When I say it does not exist I am referring to what most people are looking for, which is an eternal being that has individuality, and usually a body just like theirs. What does not exist is your concept of your soul. That is just a thought formation in your own mind and imagination which is far from reality. This actually is easy to understand with a little honesty.
You cannot know what something is until you have experienced it. So how could you find your soul? You have never seen a soul, you have not seen your real self. This means, just like many things in life, that you may meet it and not know it. I know, you are sure you will know it when you see it, just like many other things you have missed in life. I am only trying to get you to give up this idea because as long as you have any idea about finding your true self, that imagination and thought will prevent you from finding it. So forget it, you cannot find something when you have no idea what it is like.
If we turn to the Zen teaching that to become enlightened we must stop all our habitual thoughts, then we have something to work with. What are habitual thoughts? Everything you think. Every automatic opinion and judgment, desire and aversion. Every time a something happens and the same thought that has come up before pops up again, that is a habitual ought. Most often, these thoughts are inappropriate for the situation, which is how to find a habitual thought.
Automatic thoughts are far more than this, they are the static electricity that holds the threads of your individuality together.
Who you are and the conditions of your life are created from your thoughts. It is the habitual, meaning default and automatic thoughts, which you do not notice, that are the culprits of your present condition.
These thoughts are the energy that hold the threads together. To achieve freedom we can either release those thoughts or disassemble the dust ball.
Until there is nothing left to the dustball, your eyes are clouded and mind obscured. You will not have the cutting insight to see what is behind everything. You will see the wall but not look over it to see what is on the other side.
If you do not accept that the spiritual search may turn out to leave you with discovering that you are nothing, then there will be too many threads left and you will stay blind.
One last crucial point. Trying once or twice to do this does not work. Thinking and talking does not work. Only by doing regularly over the long term can we get anywhere.
You will never get to your destination if you stay home talking about it and looking at pictures. But likewise if you do not sit down and determine which way to go, study the dangers and pitfalls, then failure is guaranteed.
Learn, but practice more than you learn.