Survival and Personal Continuity

“Once you realise that there is nothing in this world which you can call your own, you look at it from the outside as you look at a play on the stage, or a picture on the screen, admiring and enjoying, but really unmoved. As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, actually existing in time and space, short-lived and vulnerable, naturally you will be anxious to survive and increase. But when you know yourself as beyond space and time — in contact with them only at the point of here and now, otherwise all-pervading and all-containing, unapproachable, unassailable, invulnerable — you will be afraid no longer. Know yourself as you are — against fear there is no other remedy.”

~Sri Nisargadatta


By thoroughly examining ourselves and our relationships, both collectively and individually, we can recognize a fundamental source of our chronic and habitual conflict: wanting things to be other than they are. That dominant desire for things to be otherwise coalesces most directly in the primal effort to survive as an independent entity, even in the face of inarguable impermanence.

So many wise voices through the years have weighed in on the subject that it would seem a bit redundant to proceed further here, but regardless — let’s set the scriptures, the consensus wisdom, and the prevailing hearsay aside for a moment and see what is true of us.

What is at the core of our motivation, in all our thoughts, impulses, behaviors, intent, striving? Is it not survival? We don’t know what we are, but whatever we are, we want it to survive, to endure. Even in the depths of any catastrophe, we want to keep on going. Beyond that, we want to thrive and expand. After all, we are not separate from life, and that seems to be the job of life – to endure and thrive, and expand to infinity.

We have many methods we use to survive. Some of us survive by grasping, and some by avoidance. Some survive by attempting to control the world around us, others by submitting to the controllers. Some of us survive by stockpiling whatever we believe we lack.

Paradoxically, however, whatever is used to survive inevitably becomes the basis of the very condition that limits us, and so inadvertently becomes another obstacle to the natural flow of life itself. Indeed, our chronic fixation on survival actually keeps the awareness of Life’s support and abundance at some distance from us.

Survival is all about the conditional. It is conditional on being stronger, smarter, and more specialized than any competition. Survival pits one living being against another and everything becomes justified, any action is condoned in the name of survival. In this system, there is no support, there is no chance for an all-win situation. All our energy goes into defense. We end up creating enemies where there were none. Whatever technique we use to survive will be the problem in our life.

Survival is based on an identification with fear, lack, and limitation. As such, it is a reaction to the felt experience of contraction, the knot at the core of the human experience that spawns the alternating cycles of desire and avoidance.

In that regard, the contemporary teacher Anam Thubten makes a good point when he writes: “There is a deep seated fear of life because of the unpredictable and wild nature of it. So we are always trying to control and master it, and, doing so, we kill it. That fear has to do with insecurity. We are insecure because we think we will not be able to survive unless we have firm control over life. This approach is truly unrealistic. And as long as we are caught up in this meaningless game, we will never know how to embrace and celebrate life, which is the only thing there is to do.”

Prior to the elaboration of all of that, of course, we can inquire: what is it that survives? Obviously, the physical body, even in the most optimum of circumstances, comes with an expiration code. Even if we were to extend our lifespan for thousands of years, whatever is born will eventually die. Trying to squeeze a few more years out of the biological vehicle can be acknowledged as an understandable but ultimately futile effort, at least in the scheme of eternity. Nevertheless, there are few of us who would not want just one more day, when faced with the prospect of their imminent physical death.

Beyond the three dimensional “earth body”, is there an invisible (to our eyes) portion of the being, usually called the “soul”, which lives on eternally and survives the death of the material self? Certainly, most religions seem to suggest so, as does the huge body of testimonies submitted by near-death experiencers throughout the ages. Although categorizing such a belief as an error of “eternalism”, upon his awakening, even Buddha himself reported remembering all of his past lives, which he claimed to be able to recount in exact detail.

More recently, there have been a number of credible experiencers who have provided fascinating reports, such as Nanci Danison, Anita Moorjani, Natalie Sudman, Eben Alexander, and Thomas Mellen Benedict. One can also visit the Near Death Experience Research Foundation website to review over 3500 documented cases, at On the scientific side, researchers such as Dr. Michael Newton (here) have hypnotically regressed clients into reporting a plethora of experiences of life between lives. Also of note is the research of Julia Assante. All of that is very hopeful, of course, for the mind which fears its own extinction, and yet, is it really true, that there is some permanently independent and continuous “person” that survives?

What is being questioned here is the very presumption of personal continuity itself. After all, it is only memory that holds in place the image of some continuous being, and memory itself is a rather flimsy, arbitrary thing. For example, we have little memory of the person we took ourselves to be when we were children, or even when we were in deep sleep last night. The body itself replaces every cell on a regular basis, and even moment to moment, we are not the same person that we were previously, based on the ongoing process of conditioning by thought energies, relationship factors, and environmental variables.


In fact, the concept of our own existence is always arising and dissolving, spontaneously. When it appears, we take it to be real, but even when it is absent, the assumption of our enduring continuity is rarely questioned. Since everything about our self is in a constant state of flux, what is it that grants some sense of continuity, in turn prompting the effort to maintain and survive? Is it not the primal sense “I Am”? Indeed, one can observe that all subsequent notions regarding our enduring continuity spring from that original assumption.

One salient point which we can notice is that this sense of “I Am” arises in mind, and since it can be observed, the very act of observation implies that there is something prior to it. What is prior is Awareness, the silent background, but it is not personal. In fact, we are that which appears on the screen of awareness, and whatever appears, disappears. Only awareness remains. As Ajahn Maha Boowa noted: “This vanishes, that vanishes, but that which knows their vanishing doesn’t vanish. . . all that remains is simple awareness, utterly pure. “

It is awareness which makes the difference between reality and memory. Ramana Maharshi said: “You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you.” When we practice being aware of being aware, rather than identifying with the time-bound play of consciousness that passes on the screen, then we are closer to the real continuity, but keep in mind that awareness itself is not perceivable or graspable. It is what makes seeing possible, but is itself unseen. The observer is beyond observation, and so whatever is observed, perceived, is not who or what we truly are.

Another useful metaphor that can be employed here is the image of a glass sphere, or crystal ball, in which bubbles are appearing and dissolving. Awareness is like that crystal ball. All of our thoughts, feelings and sensations are the bubbles arising and disappearing spontaneously within the sphere. The crystal ball is unchanging, while these various appearances arise as transient events. There is a particular bubble that emerges, known as the sense of self or “me”. It has a complete story of identity made up of many thoughts and feelings linked with it, like a cluster of bubbles.

This “me” complex can become quite captivating and assert itself as “the main event”. It is the contracted energy of mind manifesting as the sense of being a solid and enduring person. This is the experience of limited body-mind-self in the psycho-physical realm we call “this world”. The thought-complex floating in this sphere is who and what we mistake ourselves to be. This dream-like entity dominates our entire field of consciousness. Nevertheless, at no time does this fleeting self-sense amount to a “real” person. It is just a persistent but temporary projection of mind, a dreamed self. It has a beginning and an end. Awareness alone remains.

However, any conceptual designations or intellectual inferences regarding awareness only reside at the most superficial level of recognition, and often end up impeding the vivid living realization of our own primordial nature. They do that by imprisoning us within an endless loop of contracted mental energy – the illusion of being a knower. Many a self-assured seeker falls into that trap, from which it is very difficult to extract oneself, due to the arrogant and misguided belief that there is nothing more to see.

The direct experience, on the contrary, is the liberating “open bowl head” of transparent free expansion into the vastness of an immense unknown. In the ecstasy of that spontaneous epiphany, the issue of survival is utterly moot – there is only this profound and joyous Presence without spatial boundary or temporal boundary. It is what we are, unborn and imperishable — an unspeakable Mystery beyond anything perceivable or conceivable.

It includes all of the quicksilver appearances of individual self and phenomenal world, but is never limited by them. Without beginning, it is beyond death, and thus beyond any struggle or quest for some form of invulnerability. All of our concepts about love, truth, happiness, liberation, and the very Divine are merely a pale reflection of That – our primal nature and identity – from whose perspective the whole totality of the universal manifestation is but a tiny shiny bauble in the hand of a care-free child!

 “In death only the body dies. Life does not, consciousness does not, reality does not. And the life is never so alive as after death. What was born must die. Only the unborn is deathless. Find what is it that never sleeps and never wakes, and whose pale reflection is our sense of ‘I’. Relax and watch the ‘I am’. Reality is just behind it. Keep quiet, keep silent; it will emerge, or, rather, it will take you in.”

~Sri Nisargadatta


See also:


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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7 Responses to Survival and Personal Continuity

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “There is no afterlife, just one long bardo that begins with delusion and ends with awakening.”
    ~Nyi ma ‘bum, 11th century

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “Whether you plan or don’t, life goes on. But in life itself a little whorl arises in the mind, which indulges in fantasies and imagines itself dominating and controlling life. Life itself is desireless. But the false self wants to continue — pleasantly. Therefore it is always engaged in ensuring one’s continuity. Life is unafraid and free. As long as you have the idea of influencing events, liberation is not for you: The very notion of doership, of being a cause, is bondage.

    It is because the ‘I am’ is false that it wants to continue. Reality need not continue — knowing itself indestructible, it is indifferent to the destruction of forms and expressions. To strengthen, and stabilise the ‘I am’ we do all sorts of things — all in vain, for the ‘I am’ is being rebuilt from moment to moment. It is unceasing work and the only radical solution is to dissolve the separative sense of ‘I am such-and-such person’ once and for good. Being remains, but not self-being.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    Q: To live, one must look after oneself, one must earn money for oneself.

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: You need not earn for yourself, but you may have to — for a woman and a child. You may have to keep on working for the sake of others. Even just to keep alive can be a sacrifice. There is no need whatsoever to be selfish. Discard every self-seeking motive as soon as it is seen and you need not search for truth; truth will find you.

    Q: There is a minimum of needs.

    M: Were they not supplied since you were conceived? Give up the bondage of self-concern and be what you are — intelligence and love in action.

    Q: But one must survive!

    M: You can’t help surviving! The real you is timeless and beyond birth and death. And the body will survive as long as it is needed. It is not important that it should live long. A full life is better than a long life.

    Q: Who is to say what is a full life? It depends on my cultural background.

    M: If you seek reality you must set yourself free of all backgrounds, of all cultures, of all patterns of thinking and feeling. Even the idea of being man or woman, or even human, should be discarded. The ocean of life contains all, not only humans. So, first of all abandon all self-identification, stop thinking of yourself as such-and-such, so-and-so, this or that. Abandon all self-concern, worry not about your welfare, material or spiritual, abandon every desire, gross or subtle, stop thinking of achievement of any kind. You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing.

    It does not mean that you must be brainless and foolhardy, improvident or indifferent; only the basic anxiety for oneself must go. You need some food, clothing and shelter for you and yours, but this will not create problems as long as greed is not taken for a need. Live in tune with things as they are and not as they are imagined.

    Q: What am I if not human?

    M: That which makes you think that you are a human is not human. It is but a dimensionless point of consciousness, a conscious nothing; all you can say about yourself is: ‘I am.’ You are pure being — awareness — bliss. To realise that is the end of all seeking. You come to it when you see all you think yourself to be as mere imagination and stand aloof in pure awareness of the transient as transient, imaginary as imaginary, unreal as unreal. It is not at all difficult, but detachment is needed. It is the clinging to the false that makes the true so difficult to see. Once you understand that the false needs time and what needs time is false, you are nearer the Reality, which is timeless, ever in the now. Eternity in time is mere repetitiveness, like the movement of a clock. It flows from the past into the future endlessly, an empty perpetuity. Reality is what makes the present so vital, so different from the past and future, which are merely mental. If you need time to achieve something, it must be false. The real is always with you; you need not wait to be what you are. Only you must not allow your mind to go out of yourself in search. When you want something, ask yourself: do I really need it? and if the answer is no, then just drop it.

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    Questioner: You keep on saying that I was never born and will never die. If so, how is it that I see the world as one which has been born and will surely die?

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: You believe so because you have never questioned your belief that you are the body which, obviously, is born and dies. While alive, it attracts attention and fascinates so completely that rarely does one perceive one’s real nature. It is like seeing the surface of the ocean and completely forgetting the immensity beneath. The world is but the surface of the mind and the mind is infinite. What we call thoughts are just ripples in the mind. When the mind is quiet it reflects reality. When it is motionless through and through, it dissolves and only reality remains. This reality is so concrete, so actual, so much more tangible than mind and matter, that compared to it even diamond is soft like butter. This overwhelming actuality makes the world dreamlike, misty, irrelevant.

    Q: What you say reminds me of the dharmakaya of the Buddha.

    M: Maybe. We need not run off with terminology. Just see the person you imagine yourself to be as a part of the world you perceive within your mind and look at the mind from the outside, for you are not the mind. After all, your only problem is the eager self-identification with whatever you perceive. Give up this habit, remember that you are not what you perceive, use your power of alert aloofness. See yourself in all that lives and your behaviour will express your vision. Once you realise that there is nothing in this world, which you can call your own, you look at it from the outside as you look at a play on the stage, or a picture on the screen, admiring and enjoying, but really unmoved. As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, actually existing in time and space, short-lived and vulnerable, naturally you will be anxious to survive and increase. But when you know yourself as beyond space and time — in contact with them only at the point of here and now, otherwise all-pervading and all-containing, unapproachable, unassailable, invulnerable — you will be afraid no longer. Know yourself as you are — against fear there is no other remedy.

    You have to learn to think and feel on these lines, or you will remain indefinitely on the personal level of desire and fear, gaining and losing, growing and decaying. A personal problem cannot be solved on its own level. The very desire to live is the messenger of death, as the longing to be happy is the outline of sorrow. The world is an ocean of pain and fear, of anxiety and despair. Pleasures are like the fishes, few and swift, rarely come, quickly gone. A man of low intelligence believes, against all evidence, that he is an exception and that the world owes him happiness. But the world cannot give what it does not have; unreal to the core, it is of no use for real happiness. It cannot be otherwise. We seek the real because we are unhappy with the unreal. Happiness is our real nature and we shall never rest until we find it. But rarely we know where to seek it. Once you have understood that the world is but a mistaken view of reality, and is not what it appears to be, you are free of its obsessions. Only what is compatible with your real being can make you happy and the world, as you perceive it, is its outright denial.

    Keep very quiet and watch what comes to the surface of the mind. Reject the known, welcome the so far unknown and reject it in its turn. Thus you come to a state in which there is no knowledge, only being, in which being itself is knowledge. To know by being is direct knowledge. It is based on the identity of the seer and the seen. Indirect knowledge is based on sensation and memory, on proximity of the perceiver and his percept, confined with the contrast between the two. The same with happiness. Usually you have to be sad to know gladness and glad to know sadness. True happiness is uncaused and this cannot disappear for lack of stimulation. It is not the opposite of sorrow, it includes all sorrow and suffering.

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    An interesting exploration by a mostly scientific materialist group into the technological implications of uploading the brain into a computer:

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    You want me to give you an assurance that you will live another life, but in that there is no happiness or wisdom. The search for immortality through reincarnation is essentially egotistic, and therefore not true. Your search for immortality is only another form of the desire for the continuance of self-defensive reactions against life and intelligence. Such a craving can only lead to illusion. So what matters is not whether there is reincarnation, but to realize complete fulfillment in the present. And you can do that only when your mind and heart are no longer protecting themselves against life. The mind is cunning and subtle in its self-defense, and it must discern for itself the illusory nature of self-protection. This means that you must think and act completely anew. You must liberate yourself from the net of false values which environment has imposed upon you. There must be utter nakedness. Then there is immortality, reality.”

    ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

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