Got to be fair. Can't play favorites. A few days ago I talked about the best reason why God doesn't exist. Now, here's the flip side: why you, and I, don't exist.
This is a central Buddhist notion, anatta, no-self. But my big fat ego has resisted the notion, despite the many times I've read about it. Somehow I just seem so…I don't know…me.
Last night, though, I heard myself talking as if I believed that there's no enduring central core to me. Laurel and I went out to dinner with some visiting relatives and two of their old college friends, who drove up from Eugene.
The conversation turned philosophical near the end of the evening. There wasn't a religious soul in the bunch, so we were all on the same churchless wavelength.
I shared my "don't know" rap, which segued into mentions of Douglas Hofstadter's notion that humans are a strange loop. We're simultaneously aware, and aware of our awareness. [See "You're a strange loop (and that's OK)" and "If I'm not an 'I', what am I?"]
I talked about how Hofstadter considers that his wife lives on in his memories, and other traces that she has left behind. But not otherwise.
And that, if all of our memories and other experiences could be transferred into a sophisticated computer, wouldn't that device be indistinguishable from who we feel ourselves to be now, in a non-bodily sense?
So where am "I" in all this? Well, in the past I've enjoyed believing that it could be possible to enter a state of pure consciousness where you're just a blissful bubble of being, or something equally (and indescribably) ethereal.
After all, if I could simply exist, not as anything outside of myself but as existence plain and simple, then seemingly this would be a really real me – separate from everything else.
I've never been able to do this, though.
And the more I've pondered the possibility, the less likely it seems. How would I know that I existed if there wasn't anything to be aware of except my own awareness? What's the difference between being dead and not knowing that you're alive?
This morning I picked up a constant companion in my meditation enclave, Alan Watts' "The Wisdom of Insecurity." Thumbing though a few pages, these thoughts hit me with a fresh anatta'ish force.
In each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.
To be aware, then, is to be aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, and all other forms of experience. Never at any time are you aware of anything which is not experience, not a thought or feeling, but instead an experience, thinker, or feeler. If this is so, what makes us think that any such thing exists?
Watts then talks about how memory enables us to recollect what we've experienced previously. This allows us to fashion a self out of the bits and pieces of prior experiences – not the whole shebang, obviously, because our memories are so incomplete and selective.
But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself form this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.
There is simply experience. There is not someone or something experiencing experience! You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling.
…No one ever found an "I" apart from some present experience, or some experience apart from an "I" – which is only to say that the two are the same thing.
Pretty persuasive. I still feel like me, but the foundation on which I'm standing is beginning to seem more like quicksand rather than concrete.
I could slip away at any moment. Which, for Watts, is the wisest thing to do.
The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the "I" out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.
Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate "I" or mind can be found.
Now this is getting down to what I have been trying to say all along.
What is the use of looking outside? All you will see is objects. Turn around and look within.
Will we see subject instead?
If we did we would be looking at an object, and an object is such in whatever direction we look.
But won't we see ourselves?
We can't see what isn't there.
What then do we see?
Perhaps we see the absence of ourselves, which is what is looking.
Every time we see an object we are seeing the subject of that object in its objective manifestation.
Every object is a mirror which reflects what is looking.
And we are nowhere to be found.
Posted by: tucson | September 20, 2008 at 11:39 PM
Thanks Brian for an excellent post.
I have some questions.
At this stage in my life I feel it would be self-
delusional to say to myself "I as I don't exist".
Nevertheless when deeply concentrated on a task
an "I" is not necessary or even obviously present.
Would it be fair to say that there is a "non-I"
present? After all even if there is no awareness of
an "I" there is still Existence/Awareness otherwise I would be unconscious wouldn't I?
If the "I" is just a thought isn't it a dual thought "I;Non-I" and could it not function in
this dual mode until the individual achieves a
state of non-duality?
Sorry if my questions are not to clear.It is not
always easy to put words to thoughts.
Posted by: Obed | September 21, 2008 at 01:44 AM
The ego is the part of consciousness that feels "I am in here looking out." This is a persuasive feeling. It is why the concept of no "I" is hard to swallow. But no "I" doesn't mean that "I don't exist." I do EXIST, just not as "I." I is reinforced through differentiation and negation. I am I because I am not you. You say hello I say goodbye. You say banana I say banAAna (I don't really say it that way, just trying to make a point). But there is no real separation, or so I think...
Posted by: Adam | September 21, 2008 at 08:52 AM
While an I really cannot be pointed at, it still doesn't mean that it does not exist. For one person can at the same time have many experiences. I am at the moment seeing words written on the screen, thinking thoughts and listening to music. These experiences have something in common - it is what I sense as myself that is aware of them and not some other being. Also what I sense as myself does not have experiences of other beings so what I am aware of is only the experiences that I myself can have. Yes it is always the present in which these experiences happen but they are always clearly limited to a particular point of view - mine.
Posted by: Amaranth | September 21, 2008 at 02:56 PM
Amaranth, or anyone, try this:
I am the dreamer of myself in the dream in which I appear, but as such what I am is not the objective, dreamed appearance. So, I am no entity.
It is not the object (person) that awakens when we speak of enlightenment. It is the IDENTIFICATION of the dreamer with his/her object (dreamed self) that causes the illusion of bondage. Notice I say 'illusion of bondage' because there is in actuality no entity to be bound. No one has ever been enlightened.
Awakening is disappearing, dissolving, vanishing as an object. Awakening is the dissolution of an appearance, the evaporation of a dream or an illusion.
Awakening is the disappearance of all objectivity as such and is the discovery that the apparently objective is in fact subjective and the apparent entity has disappeared..poof!
Every object is a mirror which reflects what is looking.
What you conceive of as 'you' is another object reflecting that which is looking.
And what is looking is nowhere to be found.
The unfound is the found. It is the nameless, ultimate, formless reality or God if you will, ever unknown except as its objects which reflect itself to itself.
But as what It is, It isn't any 'thing' at all. Thus the paradox of existence.
There is nothing to search for or be found, nor could there ever be.
Posted by: tucson | September 21, 2008 at 04:46 PM
A being needs some impetus to be, some energy. Watts' "thinker" or "knower" does a thing. This doing needs energy.
From the static to the ecstatic, the trip from non-existence to existence and back, is powered by desire. Our's is the strange loop of the seguro cactus, the black-eyed susan, kelp bloom, osprey. Awareness is the onus of our lives - we are aware like a snake uses the hollow of its fang.
Mirror Poem III
Eyes in a skull
Turning on a neck
:with a breath
I let that go…
Two centers of one rose.
Feeding my belly fragrance,
I take that all back.
Posted by: Edward | September 21, 2008 at 05:51 PM
Tucson you said "But as what It is, It isn't any 'thing' at all. Thus the paradox of existence.
There is nothing to search for or be found, nor could there ever be."
If I read your writing correctly I would quite agree with you. I also do not think of myself as any definite thing at all. That is I cannot define what I am, I cannot and do not have a desire to search for what I am because I am quite content with the present moment of simply existing as an undefinite thing - being a part of existence is quite enough for me. Yet experience also tells me that there is a thing which is aware of different experiences and is separate to other things and that this thing is what I am. I use the word thing here as something undefined in an objective sense but which is distinct from other things. These things also cannot be known because one thing cannot know what it is like to be another thing.
Many times I experience the feeling of oneness, of loosing myself, but this state is for me not superior or more real as the state of feeling duality. In this state of feeling oneness I do not become one with another thing, it is only that I forget about everything but what is happening - wind is blowing, guitar strings are ringing... Yet there has to be an I which forgets about itself, eventhough it cannot know what it actually is.
Posted by: Amaranth | September 22, 2008 at 07:15 AM
Thank you for expressing so well what I was trying to say.I am pleased I am not alone in feeling like this.
All the best
Posted by: Obed | September 22, 2008 at 07:49 AM
I enjoyed the following,
"In each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience."
"To be aware, then, is to be aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, and all other forms of experience. Never at any time are you aware of anything which is not experience, not a thought or feeling, but instead an experience, thinker, or feeler. If this is so, what makes us think that any such thing exists?"
----What is beyond, the experience, the thought and the feeling? What does non-thinking get One? I can see the management of thinking, feeling and experience. Good example is Risk management.
Posted by: Roger | September 22, 2008 at 08:16 AM
Amaranth wrote: "Yet experience also tells me that there is a thing which is aware of different experiences and is separate to other things and that this thing is what I am."
...What you speak of is a conceptual object and as such has no existence other than a passing phenomena in mind. What is it that is aware of this "thing which is aware of different experiences", etc.? See what I mean?
Posted by: tucson | September 22, 2008 at 02:26 PM
Tucson. What I speak of is a conceptual object but that does not make it any less real. For everything one thinks or talks about is always a concept,an idea, just as you say that this object has no existence other than a passing phenomena in mind. What I am trying to say is because I do not know and cannot know what I am,the only thing which I can say is that I am something undefined. I firmly believe that I do exist because of my experience which if reflected on, I have no other choice but to think that there is something distinct from other things. So yes, this is a concept, an idea, but it is based on experience. In this moment that I am writing this I am aware of different things, but always from my point of view, never from a point of view of another person. Yes, I may not truly exist ( awareness from my point of view will cease to be ) but I cannot possibly say that in the present I do not feel or think. I can even think of a memory which is never a memory of another being. There are passing phenomena in the mind, I do not equate myself with them, yet I cannot deny that I experience them. If there was no I to experience them than there would be no mental phenomena. I do not know the nature of this I but exactly because mental phenomena are experienced and because only mental phenomena which are related to my body ( I have no other choice but to say my body - when I look it is with my eyes, when I feel the heat of the sun it is my skin that is being affected, I do not feel anything when another person's body is affected ) are experienced,then I conclude that I exist. Just because I do not know what this thing is which is aware of different experiences, does not mean that there is no such thing. This idea that there is no such thing as an I but only passing phenomena is tempting.I have always found it to be useful when one tries to become less attached to a defined self, but it does not convince me that the undefined self does not exist.
Posted by: Amaranth | September 23, 2008 at 02:32 AM
Just a reminder how Nisargadatta felt about the
I am not this person,
this body-mind or any thing
you are not what happens,
you are he to whom it happens
The feeling "I am not this or that, nor is anything mine"
is so strong in me
that as soon as a thing or a thought appears,
there comes at once the sense "this I am not".
What changes is not real,
what is real does not change
I cannot be a person.
but I can't be this or that.
Posted by: Obed | September 23, 2008 at 04:07 AM
"What is it that is aware of this "thing which is aware of different experiences", etc.?"
---What is the "thing" which is aware?
"you are not what happens,
you are he to whom it happens"
--What is the "he" to whom it happens?
Thanks for your usual readable answers,
Posted by: Roger | September 23, 2008 at 07:31 AM
My dear Roger,
If I knew who "he" is then you could consider me an
enlightened sage.Sorry I cant oblige on this one.
But I am going to practice being an eccentric and this
may hasten my enlightenment.
All the best
Posted by: Obed | September 23, 2008 at 08:23 AM
You think that as subject you speak, look, listen, feel, but as subject you actually ARE these actions. That which seems to do it is object, conceived in mind and therefore unreal.
What is God? In God there is widespread belief, but how could there be such a thing as an objective entity we can call God? God is subject, the ultimate subject of all objects. God is the subject of the object we conceive as ourselves.
Conceptually, even as subjects we are objects. We act as subject and think of ourselves as objects incessantly, spinning like a coin, alternately heads or tails, but in all we are or could be subjectively we are whatever Godhead is.
And what is that? Just the absence of what we suppose ourselves to be, which is the presence of what we are, and that is our total objective absence which necessarily is the subjective presence of God.
This is not to imply that objective phenomena (ourselves) disappear as such, it is the identification with this objective phenomenon known as 'us', which we assume that we are, which disappears. We are not that. We are THIS and THIS is no 'thing'. Not nothing, rather no 'thing'.
One can read this and maybe think they understand, but being expressed in relative terminology it is deceptive. It is merely a pointing to an intuition that is beyond conception. At best, words take you to the precipice, but it is consciousness that must leap.
Posted by: tucson | September 23, 2008 at 08:25 AM
If you knew what "he" is, you would still be the interesting person, that you are right now. The "enlighten Sage" title, I have no interest in.
All the best to you too,
Posted by: Roger | September 23, 2008 at 08:47 AM
Thank you for the kind complement.I am not sure I
would define myself as an interesting person but
if any more complements like this come my way
that bright purple hat I saw in the millinery
is just not going to fit and I really do fancy that
hat.It would really go very nice with my red
Posted by: Obed | September 23, 2008 at 09:20 AM
Maybe it was Roger's compliment but you know I
really understood you this time.Dam it I am
going to have to find a bigger hat.
Thanks any how
Posted by: Obed | September 23, 2008 at 09:29 AM
Hey Tucson, I really like your reply. I understood more clearly what you were trying to say this time, I guess I misunderstood you before.
You said "This is not to imply that objective phenomena (ourselves) disappear as such, it is the identification with this objective phenomenon known as 'us', which we assume that we are, which disappears. We are not that. We are THIS and THIS is no 'thing'. Not nothing, rather no 'thing'."
This is I was trying to say to but your terminology is much more suited for expressing it. THIS is similar to what I think of as an undefined thing but better expresses the intuition as the word thing can be misleading. With "undefined thing" I meant the same thing that you expressed with "it is the identification with this objective phenomenon known as 'us', which we assume that we are, which disappears".
Posted by: Amaranth | September 23, 2008 at 11:52 AM
I sought a soul in the sea
And found a coral there;
Beneath the foam for me
An ocean was all laid bare.
Into my heart's night
Along a narrow way
I groped; and lo! the light,
An infinite land of day.
Posted by: ander | October 10, 2008 at 06:17 PM