Self and No-Self II

We continue to explore the enigma of the self. In our previous blog we saw that self as a concept or image is not the same as self as an experienced reality. The concept of self is largely static and fixed while the direct experience of self is constantly changing. Today we explore another enigmatic quality of the self, and that is its dual nature. To illustrate this dual nature we will turn to the field of quantum physics, specifically, to the dual nature of subatomic particles. Let’s consider the electron. The electron can be seen to exist locally as a particle or non-locally as a wave. The electron may be both a particle and a wave at the same time. The way that it appears to us depends upon how we choose to observe it. From one point of view it behaves like a particle, and yet, from another point of view it behaves like a wave. It seems to be both finite and infinite at the same time: a finite particle when observed, and a wave field of infinite dimensions when not observed.

We can consider the self as being very similar to the electron in certain ways. When my awareness is focused on “me” the self can seem very solid, but when my awareness is not focused on “me” the self can seem to disappear! For example, imagine that you are engrossed in reading a book. When you are completely “into the book” there (seemingly) is no “you,” there is only the contents of your mind as you read the book. Then, imagine that someone walks into the room and says “What are you reading?” Suddenly, in your awareness, “you” appear—along with the book in your hand and the image of the other person in the room!

To take our thought experiment a step further, remember when you first heard your alarm clock go off this morning. Seemingly, out of nowhere, “you” appeared, along with the sound of the alarm, the feeling of the bed and the covers, and whatever thoughts and desires might have arisen at the time. Where did all of this come from? Where were “you” five seconds before the alarm rang?

Let’s draw upon yet another analogy from our everyday life. Let’s say that you are taking a walk when you begin to feel raindrops falling on you. You will think “It’s raining!” Now let’s ask, what is “it” that is raining? Where is the rain coming from? Who put the rain there? Of course, the answer is that it “just happens;” it seems to come out of nowhere. The rain appears when the conditions are present for rain to appear. Where is the rain a minute before it crystallizes into a snowflake and then melts into a raindrop? Of course, it is “everywhere”… in the form of water vapor. Given certain conditions the invisible water vapor materializes into a localized and visible form known as rain.

We can consider the self as having a dual nature similar to an electron or an H2O molecule which can appear as finite or infinite depending upon existing conditions. The self can appear both finite and infinite; the existing conditions, which includes the nature and quality of our awareness, will determine how (and if) the self is experienced.

A very interesting mindfulness practice is to simply be aware of when and how the experience of self arises during the course of our day. Notice how the sense of self arises under certain conditions and then disappears under other conditions. Notice if you see any relationship between the arising of self and the arising of suffering (dukkha) or unhappiness. Notice if you see a relationship between the experience of suffering and any attachment to the experience of self.

See if you can experience the rising and falling of self as simply another phenomenon that is occurring-- such as a sound or a sensation. Notice the relationship between the sense of self and the experience of thinking. You may see that your sense of self is largely a construct of conditioned thought patterns, and like everything else it rises and falls with changing conditions.

Although it may be a bit disorienting at first, the realization of the relativity of self turns out to be very good news after all, for then we can begin to see other, more expansive, experiences of self. The more fluid the sense self, the greater the freedom we experience; and we may see more clearly the wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching to “cling to nothing as self.”