Self and Non-self – A Student’s Question

“Where I specifically get stuck is around the “sense of self” and “non-self”. This is a real learning edge for me. I clearly see separation, although many of my spiritual teachers (including you) tell me otherwise. I still think there’s a “Jane Doe”. I get it that if I have a conversation with someone, I can impact their thoughts and behaviour. I also get that my conversation with them can then impact interactions with others. But I don’t see the greater interconnectedness and “non-self” that you describe.”

The central notion to be considered is ‘context’. Here is an example: When you want to build a house, Newton’s laws of physics work perfectly well. In fact, they are the only laws that can be used successfully. But if you want to understand chemistry, galaxies or the finest manifestations of matter, they don’t work anymore. This is to say that Newtonian physics is perfectly valid within a certain well defined context, within certain parameters of reality. 

Human beings are organisms in the form of open complex systems with a certain defined anatomical and physiological structure, with sense organs that are also limited by their structure and physiology. We construct a view of reality that is defined by the capacities and limitations of the way our organism is built. Think of this deeply for a moment: You do not experience and see unfettered reality, but what your organism constructs on the basis of a vast reality it is part of, and that is largely inaccessible as such.

And now, let’s get a bit more complex.

Yes, what I said is accurate, sort of, but there is more. We are capable of meta-awareness, of thinking, as well as thinking about both thinking and our experience at large. Like a map, thoughts stand for a reality they represent, and we are capable of manipulating them in lieu of the reality that gets mapped, thereby transcending the limitations of our senses and discovering features of reality that are otherwise inaccessible through our senses. That is what science and philosophy are all about; but not only science. Our mindfulness and mindsight practices also allow us to develop levels of consciousness that go beyond the mind and its sensory constructions to discover features of reality way beyond our common unexamined day-to-day experiences of life.

In lectures of the Mindsight Intensive I have extensively talked about ways our brain is wired to create illusions as a way of protecting the integrity of our organism for survival. These illusions are sometimes more like delusions, meaning that what we subjectively experience does not correspond at all to what is really going on. The eye’s blindspot is such an example. Sometimes they indeed are more illusions, meaning that we do experience what is, but in a distorted, modified or incomplete way. The sense of self is such an example.

As an important survival mechanism humans construct a sense of self from the physiological processes of the body. That I am a passing, impermanent entity that lives a life is clearly an aspect of reality, and the way I experience this entity is in the form of a sense of me as myself. That entity is me, and when I don’t look at it more closely, I end up saying that ‘I am’ this organism. I can also say that the psychological experience of being a distinct organism in nature takes the form of a notion called ‘self’. This is a sloppy conclusion, because saying that this entity is me is only relatively true, relative to a restricted view that is based on a limited use of consciousness.

Look more closely, and you will soon discover that defining who you are by the boundary of your skin is quite problematic. Temporally, when do you start existing? Before your parents’ sperm and egg join, right after, when you are a 3 month embryo, a 7 month embryo, when you are born? Microscopically you have a vast microbiome in your body with billions of microbes that are responsible for your health. Are they you or part of you? Molecules of all sorts are exchanged between your organism and its environment, are they you when they swim through your blood stream and not you anymore when they depart? Where is your mind that has wired your children’s brains and many other people around you, and are other people’s minds that have wired your brain you? As you age and die, molecules and atoms that constantly came and went during your life time and upon your death continue to come and go in new directions, are they you? If you define yourself by the boundary of your skin and your legs are amputated, are you still you? If you define yourself by your personality and you develop Alzheimer’s, are you still you?

For many, identifying one’s sense of self with the apparent boundaries of this organism with a skin that appears like a boundary, is quite problematic and causes a lot of suffering. The way I see who I am can be the source of a lot of anguish when I don’t look deeply into the nature of reality through deeper contemplation. Context is everything. Relatively speaking, like when I build a house, certain local principles of viewing reality can be sufficient for survival, to pay taxes and save for retirement. From a contextually more encompassing perspective, beyond taxes and retirement, there are meaningful existential questions about our existence, our lives and the universe, which cannot be addressed with a conventional state of consciousness designed for survival only. We realize that who we are is far more complex than who we may think we are, and figuring out these deeper truths is profoundly liberating, decreases one’s suffering and provides us with a sense of meaning that is deeply healing and loving. This cannot be done philosophically, but has to be an embodied experience of reality that opens up through mindfulness and mindsight training.

In other words, the sense of self is not a problem per se, and the work does not consist in getting rid of it. The problem lies in our capacity to look deeply and our relationship to the inevitably existing sense of self. If we take it at face value as it presents itself to our awareness in unexamined everyday life, we are likely to suffer, because we only see the tip of the iceberg, believing that it is the whole iceberg. We need to first develop a strong sense of self, meaning a solid sense of the open complex system that we are as it regulates itself for survival throughout a lifetime. In other words, we first have to learn to feed ourselves, work, pay taxes and save for retirement in order to survive. Once that is achieved, we can look deeper and recognize that the tip of the iceberg is part of a much grander reality, much of which is hidden from view and requires special training to be discovered.

No-self then is not a thing that is opposed to this other thing called ‘self’. It is a notion that denotes the impossibility of defining who we are as a separately defined thing. No-self is the realization that who we really are transcends any notion, any nameable essence or entity we can imagine. The self is just the tip of the iceberg, the restricted view of an identity that transcends the boundaries of the skin. The nameless context of unfathomable reality is who we really are, and until we deeply realize that, in the sense of discovering it as a deeply lived reality, not just as intellectual concept, we will tend to continue suffering in more or less subtle ways.

Copyright © 2017 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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