I've become a fan of easygoing approaches to spirituality. That's one reason I enjoy Taoism so much. The Taoists I've known don't look upon life very seriously. Neither do many Buddhists.
A common denominator of Taoism and Buddhism is that neither philosophy assumes that we have a self or soul. Meaning, they're selfless.
This takes the pressure off of goals such as self-realization, self-awareness, knowing one's self, and so on. Those sorts of practices still can be pursued, but with the understanding that there's no such thing as an unchanging self or soul lurking within us. Just substitute "person" for "self."
No-self philosophies, or religions if you like, are very different from self-centered philosophies/religions such as Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The latter are seriously concerned with what happens to one's immortal soul.
The former say, "What soul? What self? We humans are like everything else that's alive in the world -- ever-changing, interdependent, part and parcel of all that surrounds us, and indeed is us."
Having been a believer for 35 years in an Eastern philosophy that taught we have, or are, a soul, and that the goal of life was to merge one's soul with God insofar as this is possible, I'm able to contrast that point of view with my current embrace of Taoism and non-religious Buddhism.
I'm a lot more relaxed now in my meditation. I no longer try to leave this world behind in hopes of finding a better supernatural reality, but instead simply try to be more aware of what is right here, right now, both inside and outside of me.
This image comes to mind.
No-self meditators are akin to people lounging on a beach, cool drink in hand, lounging under an umbrella, idly feeling the sand move beneath their toes, watching the sun go down over the ocean. Self-centered meditators are akin to people who make sure they complete an intense workout every day in the hotel exercise room even though they're supposedly on a vacation.
After hearing Jay Garfield converse with Sam Harris for 90 minutes or so on Harris' Waking Up iPhone app, I bought Garfield's book, "Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self." It's an enjoyable read, though a bit philosophically dense in places.
(Garfield is a Professor of Philosophy, Logic, and Buddhist Studies at Smith College and a visiting professor of Buddhist philosophy at Harvard Divinity School.)
I've read four of the ten chapters, so have a way to go in the book. Garfield's Big Idea is that while we are not selves, we are persons. OK, that may seem obvious to those who, like me, embrace science, dislike religion, and don't believe in a soul. But the notion of a self is tough to break away from entirely.
In order to be successful, these no-self positions must show both that the idea of the self is incoherent and that everything that the self is meant to explain can be explained in its absence. That is, the proponent of the no-self view must show that everything that the self is meant to explain can actually be accomplished by a person, a socially embedded human being with no self.
In an early chapter, the writings of Candrakirti, a Buddhist who lived in 600-650 CE, are discussed. Garfield says:
Candrakirti was writing in an Indian context. So, the view of the self that he took as the object of negation in his argument (an argument we will explore in chapter 2) is the view that to be a sentient being is to be an atman. This term is usually and appropriately translated into English as self or soul. The idea that the atman lies at the core of our being is ubiquitous in orthodox Indian philosophy, and it was a principal target of Buddhist critique.
In the Vedas, and in particular, the Upanisads -- the texts that ground many of the orthodox Indian philosophical schools -- it is characterized as unitary, as the witness of all that we perceive, as the agent of our actions, and as the enjoyer of our aesthetic experience. It is regarded as that which is always the subject, never the object; and as that which persists through life despite changes in body and mind, and which even persists beyond death and in transmigration.
Sounds good, right? I certainly thought so for 35 years.
But gradually I came to realize that almost certainly I didn't have a self or soul, and that was perfectly fine with me. This realization came about through a variety of means: daily meditation, Buddhist literature, a whole lot of books about modern neuroscience, and simply being mindful of my everyday experience.
Garfield also uses Western philosophers to buttress the contention of no-self found in Buddhism. This quote from David Hume was familiar to me, but a pleasure to re-read.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without perception, and I never can observe anything but the perception.
A comment from Garfield follows that quote.
Moreover, he [Hume] points out, the collection that we find is not constant, but is always changing. There is nothing permanent in our experience.
If this is so, Hume argues, when we use the word self, there is nothing to which it refers: we are nothing more than bundles of psychophysical processes -- changing from moment to moment -- who imagine ourselves to be more than that.
Note, once again, this is not the absurd claim that we don't exist, but rather the claim that the way we exist -- as persons -- is not the way that we normally take ourselves to exist -- as selves.
I'll have more to say about this illusion of the self as I read more of "Losing Ourselves."