Maybe I have a "self." Maybe I don't.
There doesn't seem to be any way to tell. Which makes me wonder, who the heck cares, if there's no evident difference between self and no-self?
I've enjoyed the comment conversation between Manjit and me on this blog's "Losing your self is so egotistical" post. We've been going at it discussing whether there's a self to lose.
Something related to my brain and laptop-typing fingers -- sure seems like a self -- keeps arguing that unless we're one with the cosmos, there's a separate sense of identity.
Manjit prefers to see this as a non-issue. Since there's no such thing as a self, there's no way to lose it.
I mean, this sure doesn't seem to be the same thing as not being able to lose my unicorn, since I don't have one.
People don't travel to India and spend years meditating in a dark closet trying to come to the realization that they don't have a unicorn and shouldn't be worrying about what happens to it.
Yet there's a huge spiritual industry associated with losing the self. Or, as some put it, becoming aware that there never was a self to lose.
Gurus... books... seminars... retreats... web sites... what's the point of it all?
Here's how I've come to see this self vs. no-self question: if there's no way to tell the difference between someone who considers they have (or are) a self and someone who doesn't, we're in the realm of words, not reality.
I want to see a Who Has a Self? reality show. Put a bunch of people together. Film them interacting and doing everyday stuff. Viewers vote on who has a self and who doesn't.
If the public thinks someone is full of themselves, they get booted off Selfless Island.
Of course, we have to wonder whether the vote would be just a subjective opinion or an accurate reflection of reality. Are some people -- perfect gurus, realized souls, enlightened beings -- truly selfless, having seen through the illusion of duality?
And the big question: If so, how would anyone know?
"Anyone" includes themselves. Because usually non-dual teachings say there's no obvious sign of having attained a selfless state.
No capacity to perform miracles. No freedom from normal human frailties. No extra-sensory perceptions. No knowledge unavailable to self-filled humans.
Often this issues comes up in books about, or by, some supposed guru or spiritual master. Why does he or she still get angry, irritated, depressed, or forgetful? Why does he or she not show any unique qualities that scream out, not leaving any doubt, Realized Being Here! ?
I've heard many first person stories similar to this one: a guru who is considered to be God in human form angrily throws a book manuscript at the would-be author. This is viewed as an act of grace, a "tough love" lesson.
Yet a neutral observer would say, "Gee, that bearded guy in the turban sure acted angry for no reason."
So I'm still looking for evidence that there's a difference between selfless and selfed people (including the non-dualists who straddle the self-no self divide).
Sure, there are wonderful devoted Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and others who serve the world in a seemingly selfless fashion. But there also are plenty of ordinary people with the same compassionate, centered, caring characteristics.
Sam Harris makes some good points in "A Contemplative Science." The brain just does what it does. There's no evidence of an immaterial "ghost in the machine," or self.
If we flow with experience, understanding that there's no hard and fast distinction between us and the cosmos, inside and outside, self and non-self, things seem to go more smoothly.
But this is a far cry from the religious claims of those who elevate the elimination of ego (or the realization that such doesn't exist) to sacred status. I'll end with this Harris quote:
Needless to say, any truths uncovered about the human mind through meditation cannot be "Buddhist". And if meditation ever becomes widely adopted as a tool of science, it will be quickly stripped of its Buddhist roots. There are, after all, very good reasons we don't talk about "Christian physics" or "Muslim algebra".
Physics and algebra are genuine domains of human inquiry, and as such, they transcend the cultural conditions out of which they arose. Today, anyone emphasizing the religious roots of these intellectual disciplines would stand convicted of not understanding them at all.
In the same way, if we ever develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, speaking of "Buddhist" meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that will have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.