Self as Illusion; Life as Process

Choosing a direction usually feels important. What goals to pursue? What values to honor? We often feel like these decisions are made by thought, by our thinking self. But how much do we really run our lives?

Not long ago I mentioned feeling disconnected from WillSpirit, uncertain of its purpose and unclear on where it should go next. When this blog began back in 2009 I simply wrote about my immediate concerns: depression, medication and side-effects, childhood trauma, therapy, career problems and disability, etc. After awhile my emotional life settled down, and I started covering metaphysical topics. A worldview that included a deeper sense of spirituality felt necessary to my continued growth. In time, that exploration led to my foray into acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and Eastern philosophy. Then my reentry into work as a healer ended after my big illness earlier this year, which I wrote about at length. After my health recovered, and having been rather close to death for a time, concepts no longer felt meaningful to me. They appeared too easily contradicted to seem reliable, and too intellectual to seem comforting. Hence, I resolved to focus on poetry. None of these decisions came as the result of deliberate thought; they arose out of necessity.

So, out of necessity, my recent posts have mostly consisted of verse rather than essays. As was predictable (and predicted) this has led to a slow decline in readership. That’s OK. I’m writing in a way consistent with my calling; whether my words appeal to others is not the central issue as long as I’m true to my values. Poetry still feels like the right direction, though I’m not sure how it got chosen.

After my retreats (mentioned in the last post), I feel tempted to shift emphasis back to exposition. The insights that resonate after my powerful experiences are begging to be described. I know that this new clarity cannot be adequately expressed with words, or at least not prose (which means that poetry may still be the answer), but something in me wants to discuss it anyway.

So here goes:

Probably the biggest realization is my new appreciation for the Buddhist concept of anatta or not-self. This idea challenges Westerners, since we’ve been raised to deify individualism and self-determination. How could a person function if the self were not real? I’ve grappled with this for a long time. Not because I place extra faith in Buddhism rather than Christianity or Hinduism or any other path I’ve explored, but because the Buddha seems to have looked deeply into the mind. If he found the self nonexistent, I feel obligated to determine its presence or absence through my own efforts. In the past I’ve occasionally glimpsed the meaning of anatta, but usually on an intellectual plane. On the recent meditation retreat I finally tasted “no-self’ directly, and I’m finding that it leads to feelings of transcendence that feel more stable and enduring than my usual ‘awakenings.’

The transformation grew out of something one of the retreat leaders said almost offhandedly. She pointed out that when we open our eyes a visual scene fills our awareness effortlessly. This comment was enough to trigger a long chain of cognitive reasoning followed by a deeper realization. I thought about how we don’t need to do anything to make our visual system work. You may recall that I was trained as an ophthalmologist and before that pursued graduate studies in a retinal research laboratory. Back in the day I knew a great deal about vision and how it works mechanistically. One thing is obvious: it all happens on its own. We don’t consciously manipulate our lens to focus light on our retina; that happens automatically. We don’t micromanage the photoreceptors in the retina or the early stages of signal flow that happen there. We don’t struggle to make the relays stations, occipital cortex, and visual association areas do their jobs. Everything happens according to its own intelligence, and vision simply shows up for us.

Following that line of reasoning, one can recognize how most living unfolds free of verbal, conscious involvement. When we walk we don’t need to adjust every muscle independently to keep moving forward without falling. Our hearts beat, our lungs breathe, and our blood chemistry adjusts under control of neural centers over which we exert little or no control. Even our life choices about partner, career, and so on depend on hidden influences that have less to do with thought than we like to believe. For instance, we might fall in love because a partner shares qualities with one of our parents; consciously we cite the person’s smile, good looks, earning capacity, and so on, but these are all explanations arrived at long after the inner mind has already determined to seek pairing.

So what role does the conscious, verbal, ego play? Mostly it’s a commentator that judges, categorizes, explains, and predicts. Sometimes its a designer or innovator, but in truth the most remarkable insights usually arise from realms outside deliberate, lexical analysis.

What can we conclude from all this? To me, it seems obvious that about 99% of human life can be explained by nonverbal process. There is the biochemical work that never enters awareness; there is sensory and motor activity over which thought exerts some supervisory influence but that mostly happens on its own; and there are the creative actions that may be devised lexically but depend on buried strata for authentic inspired artistry.

So if the ego is only the privileged 1% riding on the backs of the hardworking but less lofty 99%, it is hard to see it as an important, central aspect of any person. It is an accretion on top of dynamically evolved biology that’s been in process for billions of years. It may be little more than an epiphenomenon: something that seems important but is really a minor spin off from more vital activity.

And the ego itself is fragmentary. The part that wants a harmonious marriage may be at odds with the part that lusts after new acquaintances. The part that wants to eat a healthy diet disagrees with the part that likes ice cream. And so on. The ego is in no way a single, cohesive personality. It is a hodgepodge of desires, dislikes, memories, and fantasies. There is regret. There is pride. There is hope. There is fear. All these factors emerge in the conscious thinking mind from time to time, and then give way to whatever comes next.

So the egoic, verbal, narrative self is far from in control of the organism. It is also far from unitary. It is easy to conclude, therefore, that a single self is nothing but an illusion created by the ego itself. It serves to enthrone the role of thought, but it is not the centralized, controlling authority it pretends to be.

Why is this important? Mainly, because it is so freeing. If the self is an illusion, it doesn’t need to be defended. We can accept that we feel fragmented and out of control because, in fact, we are. We don’t need to judge our bad habits so harshly because we aren’t choosing them in the ordinary sense of the word. They arise from prior conditioning, often extending back into childhood or even further into family history, both social and genetic. All we are called to do is to encourage the healthier aspects of the organism and limit the destruction caused by the less noble pieces. There is a vast feeling of lightness that pertains once one genuinely experiences no-self.

Self-judgment, self-criticism, self-esteem, self-justification, self-actualization, self-determination, and so on all become rather irrelevant with this new outlook and understanding. One becomes far more willing to “self-sacrifice” for the good of others when the self is understood as an unnecessary illusion.

Well, that was just one of several realizations that rose from the level of intellectual knowledge to the plane of immediate experience during my recent retreats. I’m not sure whether I’ll go on to describe more, or just leave the subject alone after this essay. Apparently, despite my resolve to define my ‘self’ as a poet, the essayist is still alive and well.

No self. Many directions. One being.


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Self as Illusion; Life as Process — 17 Comments

  1. “They arise from prior conditioning, often extending back into childhood or even further into family history, both social and genetic.”
    I think this relates to something we discussed with Elaina – namely, handing back the guilt and abuse where it belongs – thus getting rid of it, as you felt “Why is this important? Mainly, because it is so freeing.” :)

  2. Trabel–

    I agree that it is important to release guilt, but I don’t think we have to place it ‘where it belongs.’ It seems to me that there is no guilt, just unfortunate conditioning. I could blame my father, for instance, but he was responding in kind to his own history. He could blame his father, but it just keeps going back. The point isn’t, I don’t think, to localize blame on any person or thing, but to recognize it as a verbal construct that doesn’t help anyone. At the very least, blame is about looking back, which is only productive if one learns to avoid prior mistakes, not if one simply wants to place responsibility elsewhere. Of course, this is ultimately just a semantic issue: do we look for ‘blame’ or ‘guilt’ or ‘conditioning?’ But it does seem helpful to avoid language that tends to stir up further confusion and angst. ‘Conditioning’ is less loaded than its alternatives.

    Thanks for the discussion.


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  4. Interesting post.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about how much of life is separate from our conscious awareness and control. The constant ebbing-and-flowing homeostasis of the body, and the nonstop birthing and dying of multitudes of microscopic cells. As you pointed out, our hearts beat, and we breath, largely on an unconscious level.
    When I was in nursing school years ago, my favorite thing was observing surgical procedures. There was no better place to be, in my opinion, than standing on a footstool at a patient’s head, looking straight down into his chest as the surgeon exposed his beating heart and breathing lungs…. wow Wow WOW. How awesomely and intricately are our bodies put together! Fearfully and wonderfully made, indeed! And yet — how little of our physical functions are we consciously aware of and responsible for.
    I know the same is true of our minds and emotions. We are aware, but only of the tip of the iceberg.
    My first Post Traumatic Stress dissociation — the first that I am aware of, anyway — 😉 — occurred when I was 12 years old, and I went deaf. I had been awakened to the horrible sounds of my mother pleading for her life, as my father violently attacked her. The sounds I heard of their life-and-death struggle were horrific. I leaped out of bed, opened my bedroom window, and was about to climb out and jump down, with the intention of running to a neighbor’s for help, when I heard a sound that was so horrible, I thought it was the sound of my mother being killed. In that heart-stoppng moment I believed that it was too late to go for help, because my mother was already dead.

    When I heard what I believed was the sound of my father murdering my mother, something on the subconscious level inside my brain decided that hearing was not good for me. In that moment, my ability to hear was instantly turned off. Not one sound could I hear after that…. not even the sound of my frantic mother loudly asking for my help. She was standing right in front of me, her mouth moving and her hands gesturing wildly, but I could not hear anything but silence. I remember thinking, “This must be my mother’s ghost! She is dead, and this is her ghost, and that is why I can’t hear her!”
    When my mother, seeing that I was in shock, reached out and grabbed my shoulders and shook me, I felt her solid fingers against my skin and realized that she was alive — in that instant, my hearing was turned back on, as though someone or something had thrown a switch inside my brain.
    It was done by my own brain, by my “self” — and yet, *I* had absolutely no control over it. I didn’t even understand what had happened until years later, when I learned about the phenomena of hysterical blindness and deafness, and then I understood what had happened to me at the age of 12.
    Will, in a poem that I wrote in June of last year, a few days after the death of my cousin, I asked:
    “Who am I?
    Am I separate from you?
    Or are we one
    our separateness only an illusion?”

  5. Trabel and Will,
    On the subject of releasing guilt that is not mine, I am on both sides of that metaphorical fence. For me, I find it most helpful to, as Trabel said, “…(hand) back the guilt and abuse where it belongs – thus getting rid of it…” After having done that — and only when I feel ready to take it further — then I do what Will said, and try to view the ultimate guilt as being a result of “unfortunate conditioning.”
    Somewhere, I think, there needs to be accountability, especially for the more perverse forms of abuse. Yet there is always so much more to everyone and everything, than there appears to be on the surface. Again, we can only see the tip of the iceberg, and even that we can only see a small fraction of, depending on the angle from which we are viewing the iceberg’s tip.
    In my belief system, the ultimate culprit for guilt and abuse is evil. I believe that there is genuine goodness, and there is also genuine evil. Evil is most in control when there is no compassion or empathy, when all that matters to a person is “self.”
    In my humbe opinion, that is.

  6. Elaina–

    It always makes sense to adopt a variety of viewpoints across a spectrum of philosophies. And what makes sense at one time or in one situation may not make sense in another. There does need to be accountability; we cannot allow despicable acts to be sloughed off and minimized as due to past problems. But the reason for accountability isn’t, in my opinion, the assignation of blame. Rather it serves the twofold purpose of inserting consequences in order to correct a person who has gone off track and (most importantly) to prevent further damage to others. So courts and prisons are necessary, even vital, as long as evil exists (and it certainly does, though what causes it may be questioned).

    Also, in early stages of recovery anger is natural, so blaming is needed. One cannot and should not move from traumatized victim all the way to dispassionate sage in one go. There is a process involved, and early on blaming and anger serve to validate one’s injury, one’s worth, and one’s right to speak up. At this point in my own journey I am finding it easier and easier to release all notion of blame directed at individuals, and focus instead on the deeper causes. But that doesn’t mean that I reject what was necessary before. And, let me say again, I think it vital that we identify and control perpetrators until such time (if ever) they have evolved enough to control themselves.


  7. Elaina–

    Your transient deafness does, indeed, highlight the power of mind. Imagine if we could learn to control our own mentation to that extent, as the most advanced yogis are evidently able to do? Wouldn’t we be free of a great deal of suffering?

    The question of separateness is interesting, and I think the answer is that we are both separate and unitary. The deeper principle is the union, but the more obvious manifestation is separateness. There are times, like in much daily life, when maintaining boundaries in clear sight is important. But for final freedom from suffering, nothing beats recognizing the continuity between all beings and the cosmos at large. For if we are but One, we cannot be born, we cannot die. Loss is balanced by gain. Sorrow is balanced by joy. Ultimately, one finds equanimity in these great truths.


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  9. Dear Elaina,
    I fully agree with this:
    “For me, I find it most helpful to, as Trabel said, “…(hand) back the guilt and abuse where it belongs – thus getting rid of it…” After having done that — and only when I feel ready to take it further — then I do what Will said, and try to view the ultimate guilt as being a result of “unfortunate conditioning.
    Such was my experience, as well. And I think that handing back the abuse allows us to distance ourselves emotionally from the abuser and from all those complex feelings that relate us to him/her … while getting awareness about the broader framework of conditioning seems to be more of an intellectual task.
    But, on the basis of my experience, I am convinced none of them alone can bring sustainable healing – they must work in synergy, and come at the time which feels right!
    (Actually, this differentiation is just schematical: the components of healing are much more and, in my view, a real change is operated not only on the emotional and intellectual level but is even more complex. The successful integration (although not perfect!) of all of them can feel as a healing!
    (and it can be regarded as “overcoming dissociation”, as well)

  10. Trabel–

    With regard to your statement: “awareness about the broader framework of conditioning seems to be more of an intellectual task,” I would add that at first it is indeed a largely cognitive enterprise. But eventually there is an aspect of direct realization (or, to use your terminology, integration) wherein the infinite interconnectedness and dizzying chain of historical antecedents no longer are known simply by the mind. They become felt truths for the heart, as well.


  11. Yes, Trabel, I agree, coming to terms with where the guilt and abuse belongs is a process, and each step of that process needs to unfold when it feels right. Trying to rush, or circumvent the process, can be abusive in itself.

    Here’s an extreme example that I personally observed about 30 years ago. I went to church one morning and the pastor called a young woman up to the front to give her “testimony.” As she told us, the night before she had been working at her job at a 24-hour-convenience store, when she was robbed at knifepoint. After clearing out the cash register, the robber took her into the back room and raped her. Then, he stabbed her, before taking the money and fleeing the scene. But this young woman wanted everyone in the church to know that she had already done her Christian duty by forgiving her attacker (who was still at large), and furthermore she was praying for his salvation, and hoped that we would pray for him, too.

    Argh. It makes me feel sick just remembering it. I’ve often wondered how she faired over the years.

  12. My comment to this will be explicit: by this, the church gave its contribution to cultivation of the victim’s mentality.

  13. And it claims, it seems to me, to empower human beings!
    PS: I cannot help being ironical, maybe because I am a daughter of a people who went through a lot of suffering but never fully believed in official doctrines.

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