A rambling conversation with a self that does not exist.
This is a rambling conversation with a friend who believes he does not exist. (Mostly I’m just talking to myself . . .) Is there a real self, or is the self just a thought, a wisp of smoke, an illusion? (I think it is clear that there is physically no separate self, for nothing is separate. You are not separate, on a physical level, from nature - from the tree outside your window, from the birds singing in the park. Any division is ultimately created by the mind. But what about a non-separate self? Is the non-separate self just an illusion, a product of one's thinking.) First of all, we need to define the term 'thinking.' What do I mean by ‘thought’ or ‘thinking’ or ‘mind’? By all those terms I mean the same thing. I mean the 'voice in your head,' like the voice you hear when you read. Or we could say that hearing the thinking voice in your head is evidence that objective thinking (neuronic activity - (sounds dangerous!)) is occuring. I usually use the words "brain" and "mind" quite distinctly. The neurons associated with thinking (the voice you hear in your head) probably represent only a very small percentage of the total number of neurons in the brain. The brain controls and regulates hundreds of the body's systems - thinking is but one. Most animals don't hear a voice in their head - an educated guess. Yet even without a working symbol based language they can still recognize a large array of sights & sounds. Humans, probably, are the same. You don't have to be thinking to know something. Now here is an important point: It seems to me that the illusionary sense of self is more than just a thought. It is based on a set of experiences that are more basic, more primal shall we say, than thinking. I think that is one reason that the illusionary sense of self is so hard to see through - to realize as illusion.
Now back to defining 'thinking.' We can make the word 'thinking' mean whatever we want or agree upon.
1) Thinking can mean hearing a voice in your head, corresponding to the firing of the appropriate set of neurons.
2) Thinking can mean that the brain is operating. So when the hypothalamus sends a signal to release thyrotropin to help regulate some subsystem of the endocrine system, that is thinking. In other words, thinking means neurons are firing, period.
3) Thinking can mean that the cerebrum is operating - the part of the brain that controls higher reasoning, vocabulary, voluntary muscle movement, etc... This means that if you are walking, then you are thinking, (for voluntary muscles are being controlled).
But to keep things simple I usually define thinking as 'the voice in your head.' So I'll be using that definition for the rest of this conversation. For some, the thinking voice in the head is mostly not present. It comes when it is needed ... if that sounds like you I invite you to notice how much understanding takes place below the thinking level. Pure and primal recognition of various types of experiences, objects, sounds . . . without naming them - without a running commentary seems to be a very basic, fundamental ability of the brain. This kind of recognition seems to take place independently of "thinking" as I am defining it - the recognition happens when thinking is present, it happens when thinking is not present, it happens when thinking is just a faint background noise of the mind. It is more primitive than thinking, & probably evolved in the brain long before the language centres did.
Okay, now that we have at least attempted to define 'thinking,' let's get on with other matters. The real issue here is can subjective experiences (which are the only things that we can know directly) ever conclusively tell us anything about the existence or non-existence of a real objective will or self? So we agree, the subjective sense of self is illusionary - but does it necessarily follow that there is no objective self at all?
Consider the following two cases:
Case One: You twirl a flashlight in a circle in the dark - it appears that there is a solid circle. But that is just an illusion, really there is not a solid circle. Is the self's illusionary existence similar?
Case Two: You see your face reflected in the water at the river's edge. You are fooled, you think the reflection is your real face. You watch yourself (as the reflection), & perhaps on a windy day you notice how unstable it is, finally you touch the water with your hand and realize once and for all that the reflection is not solid - it is not a real face. You conclude that you do not have a face.
In case one you have reached a sound conclusion, the circle is not solid, it is an illusion. However, in the 2nd case you've made an error, your conclusion is not sound. Just because what you mistook as the self is now seen for what it is, a reflection (an illusion) it does not follow that you don't exist. Case two is how Ramana Maharshi saw things, I believe. I mean without the error. He used the term I-I to denote the relationship between the real Self and one's illusionary sense of self. He would say things like if you think you have not found the True Self, the very awareness of that lack is the True Self. (not an exact quote, but something like that...) So everyone's sense of self is a mirage, an illusion. But what does that even mean? What type of illusion is it? Most illusions still appear to be illusions even when you know that they are just illusions. For example, a straw sitting in a glass of water looks bent. It is not really bent, it just looks bent. Even when you thoroughly understand the optical principles behind this illusion - that the straw really is not bent, this understanding does not change your perception, the straw still appears to be bent. Now if you pour out the water or take out the straw, then the illusion is gone. The straw looks normal. But you can pour the water back in or put back the straw and the illusion returns. Or you can destroy the straw once and for all. No more illusion. The illusion cannot be created with this straw ever again. I'm trying to illustrate the different 'states' possible here. What are those possible states? Let's be more clear: First, there are those who's self system, functioning on a biological, physiological, neurological level, has remained unchanged. The fact that one's experience of being a self is illusionary has not been understood. (The straw is in the glass of water, it appears to be bent, and one believes that it really is bent.) Second, there are those who's self system is still functioning on a biological, physiological, neurological level, however the illusionary nature of one's self system, the illusionary experience that is one's sense of self has been thoroughly understood and penetrated. Although it has been understood, the illusion is still being experienced - it still definitely seems like you are or have a self. (The straw is still in the glass of water, and still appears bent, but one understands that this is just an illusion, that the straw is not really bent.) Third, there are those who's self system is still functioning on a biological, physiological, neurological level, however it has been significantly altered at the physical level to the extent that one's illusionary sense of self (a subjective experience) has completely and permanently vanished. (The water and the straw have been permanently separated preventing the illusion from occurring.) Fourth, there are those who's self system is still functioning on a biological, physiological, neurological level, however it has been significantly altered at the physical level to the extent that one's illusionary sense of self (a subjective experience) is normally, effortlessly and naturally absent. Although, it is still possible to create and experience one's illusionary sense of self to some degree by ....how shall I put this ... by letting the illusionary experiences of 'selfness' flow back into consciousness - (by letting the water flow back into the glass). Fifth, there are those who have undergone the complete biological, physiological, neurological collapse of the self system. (Serious brain damage equated with the destruction of the straw.) Now if one equates enlightenment with case 5, then we have a serious problem. The biological components of the self system are found within various substructures of the cerebral cortex (responsible for memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness, . . .), .including the hippocampus (required for the formation of long-term memories), the mammillary body and the Dentate gyrus (also important for the formation of memories), the primary motor cortex & other frontal lobe motor areas (responsible for planned actions), Broca area (a speech and language center), Wernicke's area (where speech comprehension takes place). . . and on and on and on . . . to completely collapse the self system would involve serious damage to countless brain structures. You'd be a vegetable! For a number of years after my mind became silent, when my identity (based on short and long term memories, and my inner voice's moment to moment running commentary) collapsed, when beliefs regarding myself held no power to create a functioning identity - I to reached the Alan Watts conclusion that there is no self. (I'm trusting that you've read a little Alan Watts, if not you should, his writing is very cool.) The experienced freedom of such a realization is hard to convey. The brain/body/mind operates naturally and freely. Subjectively there is no you, it feels like the body's actions and experiences unfold and arise of there own accord. All pressure is off to be anything whatsoever. The body/brain takes care of everything by itself. You are, subjectively speaking, equivalent to the moment to moment experiences that arise and fade away, you, as those experiences, are just along for the ride, you don't have to do anything or be anyone. In the first few years following the collapse of my identity, I did not realize that 1) functioning without a subjective identity & 2) not being a self on a more fundamental, unknowable level were completely different things. Are you a self? Is there any you at all, apart from the beliefs you have about you? Is there any will? Is there a willer? Breathing is a good way to attempt to answer these questions . . . I just took a few moments to notice myself breathing. Breathing is both voluntary and involuntary so experimenting with breathing can help penetrate very deeply into the nature of the self and the will. As I was breathing I willed my breath to be held on random inhales and exhales. I was not thinking during this experiment, just watching/feeling/hearing... I noticed that there was nothing in my experience that I could recognize as my self or my will or a willer. And yet, my breath was being controlled, was being willed to be held. It is curious, isn't it? Now suppose you try to hold your breath for thirty seconds or so ... when you hold your breath what is going on? Your brain decided to not let the lungs breathe for thirty seconds or so. Sounds like a rather odd thing to do. Why would the brain do that? It's not very comfortable. Physically, the body naturally inhales and exhales every few seconds. So part of the brain that controls voluntary movements is preventing another part of the brain that controls involuntary movements from functioning. (In this case breathing.) I think this difference between voluntary and involuntary systems is very telling. Perhaps we could just define the self (the will) as the parts of the brain that control voluntary systems. They are very real structures in the brain - messy tangles of hundreds of thousands of bundles of neurons. Maybe that is you. Sounds pretty freakin' awesome to me! "Hello my name is Tallis, I'm a messy tangle of countless neuron bundles, pleased to meet you." Is there any way to tell that these brain structures are not you? I do not see any possible way that you could determine if that is you or not. So your subjective experience of being a self has vanished, but the parts of your brain that control voluntary systems are still functioning. Maybe it's that simple. Maybe that is you! Or maybe there's more to you then just the parts of the brain that control voluntary systems, maybe there is something . . . transcendent. Again how can you possibly know whether or not you are something objectively real? Or maybe you could just define yourself as the objective/subjective reality that is called the body/brain/mind. Maybe parts of you are voluntary and parts of you be involuntary? I don't believe that the brain/body is functioning in such a way that it could make this determination. As a subjective experience I do not exist as a separate self, that is very clear. I am identical to the moment to moment experiences that arise. There is no division of experience. Inside and outside experiences, the sound of my own inner voice, the sound of a car's engine passing by, there is no real difference. But can I further conclude that there is no objective self, will, or willer, or Self? No, that is going too far. I am reminded of the expression 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' Does that apply in the case of the willer or self? Perhaps it is a basic principle that the self or Self cannot be known directly'- just as you can't see your own face directly (or at least you eyes directly) - you can only see your face as a reflection. ("The tip of this finger cannot touch the tip of this finger." "Fire can't burn itself.") This is the principle. But faces, eyes, finger tips and fires still exist nonetheless. Is there any me at all, apart from the beliefs that I have about myself? Sitting here ... not thinking, just being the experiences that arise ... yes, I can bring forth the experiences that create the illusion of a sense of self ... no self in particular ... sitting here I have no beliefs about myself ... without thinking, without checking my memories, I could be anybody or anything. It depends how much thinking is permitted to come back into awareness. And yet none of that seems to matter, seems to be relevant ... For me, here is what matters: Beliefs about the self are not the self. The sense of self that is more fundamental than thought is not the self. Thoughts about the will or willer are not the will or willer. The experience of willing is not the will or the willer. Experiences of any kind are not the self or Self. It seems the "I" is impossible to locate. Now what? When all seeking for the "I" has ended what is next? Perhaps, you can do nothing else but just be the "I" - be what you've always been - be that which is prior to all experience. Or maybe it's just time for bed . . . night.