Many religions and spiritual traditions venerate selflessness, ego-loss, transcending individuality. Here's the problem with that notion, according to both Buddhist philosophy and neuroscientific evidence:
There's no such thing as a "self."
So getting rid of one not only is impossible, but the belief that we have such a thing that needs to be done away with, or markedly reduced, perpetuates the delusion -- in much the same way that an obsessive attempt to rid one's garden of fairies feeds this fantasy by all the attention given to it.
Another aspect to this problem is the widespread belief in an enduring soul or true self which only becomes apparent when a supposed false self fades away.
For example, lots of people believe in the oft-heard adage, "we have thoughts and feelings, but we aren't those thoughts and feelings." Which implies that we are something more permanent than the passing show of experiences in our psyche.
However, it's more accurate to say, "we aren't our thoughts and feelings, but we also aren't anything else."
This is the Buddhist and neuroscientific view of psychological reality. No-self is what we always have been from birth, are now, and will be until we die. Understanding this -- or at least seriously considering that it is true -- is key to understanding what it means to be "spiritual."
For many years, over three decades, I believed that my spiritual goal was to become self-realized, which would open the door to god-realization. In other words, the whole atman/brahman, soul/spirit, drop/ocean thing.
But countless (almost) hours of daily meditation, combined with just living life in an eyes wide open as much as possible attitude, have brought me to a different way of seeing what spirituality is all about.
I don't claim to fully grasp the following classic Buddhist verses. However, in the past I found the first much more reasonable. Now, the second resonates with me. Here's an excerpt from Mark Epstein's book, "Thoughts Without a Thinker," where he describes some Buddhist seventh-century happenings.
The foremost disciple, Shen-hsiu, who was expecting to assume the role of the master, presented the following.
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.
A perfectly acceptable resonse, Shen-hsiu's verse made a virtue of the empty and reflecting mind, a recurrent motif in Buddhist literature. But the clear mirror, like the true self, too easily becomes an object of veneration. Such a view merely replaces the concrete self with a more rarefied version that is then thought to be even more real than the original.
An illiterate kitchen boy, Hui-neng, grasped the imperfection of Shen-hsiu's response and presented the following alternative:
The Bodhi is not a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing,
Fundamentally not one thing exists,
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?
...Hui-neng avoided the common misconception of liberation as a mind emptied of its contents or a body emptied of its emotions. The mind, or self, that we conceive of does not exist in the way we imagine, said Hui-neng; if all things are empty, to what can we cling? If the mind itself is already empty, why should it have to be cleansed? If the emotions are empty, why do they have to be eliminated?
Again, spiritual seekers are faced with some clear (though not always easy to discern) alternatives. Having been a "wipe the mirror" meditation-guy for many, many years, I realize how difficult it is for people who've embraced a self-realization path to recognize the validity of another way.
I urge you, though, to open yourself to the notion that you are not a self. Nor a soul. Nor a drop of the divine ocean. You're as empty of intrinsic being as anything or anyone else in this vast, mysterious cosmos.
Here's some more quotes from Epstein's book that I like a lot. They're well worth pondering.
For both sexes, something similar can seem the only option in spiritual circles: the need to see some one as embodying the idealized qualities of the awakened compassionate mind can be very strong. The wish, in this case, is (again) for some object, person, or place to completely represent the sought-after qualities of mind.
Meditators with this misunderstanding are vulnerable to a kind of eroticized attachment to teachers, gurus, or other intimates toward whom they direct their desire to be released into abandon. More often than not, they also remain masochistically entwined with these figures to whom they are trying to surrender.
...This approach implies that the ego, while important developmentally, can in some sense be transcended or left behind. Here we run into an unfortunate mix of vocabulary. Yet listen to the Dalai Lama on this point:
Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of "self" is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent.
It is not ego, in the Freudian sense, that is the actual target of Buddhist insight, it is, rather, the self-concept, the representational component of the ego, the actual internal experience of one's self that is targeted.
The point is that the entire ego is not transcended; the self-representation is revealed as lacking concrete existence. It is not the case of something real being eliminated, but of the essential groundlessness being realized for what it has always been.
Meditators who have trouble grasping this difficult point often feel under pressure to disavow critical aspects of their being that are identified with the unwholesome "ego." Most commonly, sexuality, aggression, critical thinking, or even the active use of the first person pronoun I are relinquished, the general idea being that to give these things up or let these things go is to achieve egolessness.
Meditators set up aspects of the self as the enemy and then attempt to distance themselves from them. The problem is that the qualities that are identified as unwholesome are actually empowered by the attempts to repudiate them.
...Rather than adopting an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness, these meditators are so concerned with letting it (their unwholesome feelings) go that they never have the experience of the insubstantiality of their own feelings. They remain identified with them through the action of disavowal.
In a similar way, those with this misunderstanding of selflessness tend to overvalue the idea of the "empty mind" free of thoughts. In this case, thought itself is identified with ego, and such persons seem to be cultivating a kind of intellectual vacuity in which the absence of critical thought is seen as an ultimate achievement.
...Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight. Only the belief in the ego's solidity is lost.
Posted by: Malcolm | October 02, 2012 at 05:44 AM
"No-self is what we always have been from birth, are now, and will be until we die. Understanding this -- or at least seriously considering that it is true -- is key to understanding what it means to be "spiritual."
---What would be this understanding of what "spiritual" means? I think, I understand what the no-self or non-self means. However, I still don't have that key to the understanding of what spiritual means. Brian, do you have any info on what spiritual means, as noted?
Posted by: Roger | October 02, 2012 at 09:46 AM
Roger, "spiritual" means different things to different people. Now I see it as shorthand for "finding meaning in life." Or "understanding what life is all about."
Posted by: Brian Hines | October 02, 2012 at 09:57 AM
Correct, "spiritual means different things to different people
There are those definitions that express,
---finding meaning in a spirit life or understanding what a spirit life is all about.
Posted by: Roger | October 02, 2012 at 10:34 AM
The only problem I can see with having a sense of oneself is that one can get a false sense of "who" one is. But once it's clear that I am no more than what I'm feeling, thinking, experiencing right now, and everything I've felt, thought, experienced, and can't deny having done up to this moment, I see no problem.
Posted by: cc | October 02, 2012 at 12:07 PM
I really like this post.
I nearly considered taking you on as my Guru Brian, until I copped myself on and shook that notion off! You can be a wise olde chap now and then.
Maybe the reason I like it is because it happens to resonate with what is going on in my life - considering the notion of no self. I actually love all Marks points that you quoted. Maybe because I have been there and worn them all.
I too, for 14 long long long years tried wiping the mirror clean! Yes seeing certain aspects of the 'self' as bad, trying to get rid of them which just seemed to make them stick more. Ah the great trick.
For me to push away or try to grasp is what creates a self - somebody that owns something likeable or disowning aspects as if they were your own in the first place.
Once upon a time I seen thought as something to get rid of, quieten the mind, see thoughts as enemies. Tried to get the camel through the eye of the needle. The odd time it seemed I was getting somewhere but the camels stupid humps would never get through. So I usually always ended up with a disgruntled camel!!
I love this "..adopting an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness"
And especially this "...Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight. Only the belief in the ego's solidity is lost."
I could go on and on all night about this post but I shall have some discipline.......
Just one little question, is Epstein's book good all the way through? Would big time consider buying it on kindle with your recommendation.
Posted by: Marina | October 02, 2012 at 12:17 PM
Marina, I haven't read all of the book. I just re-found it after rummaging through a drawer of books that I'd put away for future reading.
Epstein is an MD, a psychiatrist, I recall. He takes a psychological rather than religious approach to Buddhism, which I like. I can recommend the book. I've put some question marks next to some passages which I disagree with, but I do that with almost all books.
Give it a buy. I think you'd like it.
Posted by: Brian Hines | October 02, 2012 at 12:32 PM
""...Contrary to this way of thinking, conceptual thought does not disappear as a result of meditative insight. Only the belief in the ego's solidity is lost."
---what is meditative insight?
---conceptual thought, resulting from this way of thinking, doesn't require belief or non-belief in the ego's solidity or liquidity. This way of thinking creates a conceptual thought that simply points in the direction of the nonconceptual no-thing-ness.
Posted by: Roger | October 02, 2012 at 01:29 PM
Just wondering what you think of this article which brings attention to how the Buddha approached the issue of No Self, Self, Not self etc.
"Some writers try to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an analytical answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside."
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 02, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Delving further into the Thanissaro pages, this struck me as very reasonable and worth sharing:
1. Compare the following two dialogues.
Having taken a seat to one side, Vacchagotta the wanderer said to the Master, 'Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?' When this was said, the Master was silent.
'Then is there no self?' For a second time the Master was silent.
Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, the Venerable Ananda said to the Master, 'Why, sir, did the Master not answer when asked a question asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer?'
'Ananda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self, were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism (i.e., the view that there is an eternal soul). And if I... were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism (i.e., that death is the annihilation of experience). If I... were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?
'And if I... were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: "Does the self which I used to have, now not exist?"'
— S XLIV.10
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 03, 2012 at 09:49 AM
Could there be a nondual Self, the noumenon of ones mind/ego/physical self.
Posted by: Roger | October 03, 2012 at 10:02 AM
It seems so Roger. The expanded, much much all self. It seems there might be nothing else, or no one else but The Self! No object, no subject, no percept no percieved? Or am I going beyond myself again?
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 03, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Perhaps, "...the question should be put aside."
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | October 03, 2012 at 11:37 AM
Our nonconcepted nonknown Self would still be present. There is the non-conceptual, no-nsubjective, non-objective existence, which the nondual Self resides. Yes, this Self would not be perceived/known by the senses/mind.
Posted by: Roger | October 03, 2012 at 12:25 PM
"Roger, "spiritual" means different things to different people. Now I see it as shorthand for "finding meaning in life." Or "understanding what life is all about."
Those are two very different things. Anyone can find meaning, but can anyone ever understand what life is all about?
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Perhaps, "...the question should be put aside."
But if one has an itch, one must scratch, therefore when it is said that
during spiritual introspection the true nature of the I / Ego is experienced as not being concrete (as it is in ordinary life) but ideation is still occurring and being experienced by an amorphous type of I/Ego, one logically asks how does this translate into the dogma of No Self ?
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 03, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Good question. Depending on how one defines life. One could find understanding in life as an objectified reality. On the other hand, I may have an itch, but I still don't absolutely know what i'm scratching.
Posted by: Roger | October 04, 2012 at 08:18 AM
There may be a self to Buddhism after all (see above link)l. And because neuroscience can't find one does not mean that is not one. From the classical spiritual perspective, it should not be able to find one anyway. But why should one believe a false self that says there is no self? That is not the voice of truth.
Posted by: swami | April 19, 2014 at 02:36 PM
If you say not-self, then you are correct. we can achieve that not-self state. but while we don't achieve, ourself still real. we do have a self.
Posted by: Brian | August 12, 2016 at 12:30 AM