“When you believe yourself to be a person, you see persons everywhere. In reality there are no persons, only threads of memories and habits. At the moment of realization the person ceases. Identity remains, but identity is not a person, it is inherent in the reality itself.”
When asked about whether we have a self or not, the Buddha remained silent. His silence served eloquently as an indication that both views (“I have a self” and “I do not have a self”) were inaccurate ways of viewing our experience. The real issue which he was interested in pointing out in that regard was how clinging to some notion of a separate and enduring self, some fixed identification with name and form, leads inevitably to suffering. Moreover, like all the great sages, he was not suggesting that we take that proposition as a matter of mere belief, but rather taught that we needed to test it in our own lives, to see if it is true.
Certainly, with the benefit of earnest and conscious investigation, the person we take ourselves to be — the one we conventionally consider to be “our self”, or “me” — can be recognized as a fabrication, a mental creation, that almost everyone nevertheless bases their whole life around. Our dominant priority is the care and survival of this person, and such an attitude is seemingly hard-wired into the human animal at a very primal level.
In his book, “Buddha’s Brain”, Dr. Rick Hanson noted:
“Then the brain indexes across moments of subjectivity to create an apparent subject who– over the course of development, from infancy to adulthood– is elaborated and layered through the maturation of the brain, notably regions of the prefrontal cortex (Zelazo, Gao, and Todd 2007). But there is no subject inherent in subjectivity; in advanced meditation practices, one finds a bare awareness without a subject (Amaro 2003). Awareness requires subjectivity, but it does not require a subject.
In sum, from a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid “I” is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems over the course of development, with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity.”
When we characterize someone as “selfish”, all it really means is that they are identifying with and absorbed in their own sense of self, though often to the detriment of their fellow beings. However, just about everyone is selfish to one degree or another, short of true and complete awakening to the emptiness of the “me-story” and the subsequent birth of selfless compassion. In fact, without a properly operating self-sense, we would be very nearly rendered dis-functional in terms of our ability to navigate the objective world. In other words, subjectivity may be necessary, but the reification of a subject is optional (and the cause of mistaken identity, with its attendant confusion and consequent suffering).
To clarify the transparent emptiness of our true nature, the contemporary teacher Jackson Peterson offers this analogy: “Imagine the clear glass of a mirror. All the reflections can be seen within the glass, pervading the glass with no separation, but there is no actual contact between the glass and the reflections. The glass remains empty of any contents, and completely unchanged no matter what reflections pervade it’s glass transparency. You are this changeless emptiness, and only this changeless emptiness: not the body, not the ego, not the mind, not thoughts, not an individual consciousness. Only absolute emptiness. Knowing this is it’s own self-knowing: gnosis.”
In traditional spiritual terms, the direct recognition of the insubstantiality of that imaginary creation qualifies as “Realization” (unless it is merely intellectual, in which case it is just more borrowed information that must be discarded so that true realization can eventually emerge). In any case, with such an awakening to, or recognition of, the unreality of the person, liberation from the earthly vexations can eventually pertain, but not to the fictional character previously believed to represent who and what we are.
That is the paradox of self-realization — there is not now, nor has there ever been, an independently existing self to be realized. There are only conceptual fabrications that are to be seen through and thus rendered obsolete — mental superimpositions and fantasies of conditioned interpretation that have obscured our original innocence. When they end, so too does the whole weary narrative of “me and mine”.
Nevertheless, a sense of individuality will continue to persist, even beyond physical incarnation, but not in the sense of solid entification, but more like a point of transparent wakeful awareness. Ultimately, however, even that sense will be superseded by the recognition of one’s prior or absolute nature as an ineffable expression of Source Itself, indivisible from the totality of the universal manifestation.
Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it this way: “Freedom from self-identification with a set of memories and habits, the state of wonder at the infinite reaches of the being, its inexhaustible creativity and total transcendence, the absolute fearlessness born from the realization of the illusoriness and transiency of every mode of consciousness — flow from a deep and inexhaustible source. To know the source as source and appearance as appearance, and oneself as the source only is self-realization.”
What is recognized is that there has never been any actual separation, but only temporary dream-like illusions arising and dissolving in consciousness. It is not unlike a video game’s virtual reality in which the player becomes totally identified with this or that game character, literally forgetting themselves in their absorption in the game. In reality, of course, the characters are simply expressive figments, thoughts, in the mind of the player. They only possessed the sense of separated, independent individuality that was granted to them so as to make the game viable and interesting.
Again, in such realization, the game itself is seen to be an appearance in consciousness, and that includes all the phenomena associated with the game. It has no substance other than consciousness, but consciousness itself has no inherent solidity either. Indeed, what we might call “the objective world” is only another perception appearing in consciousness, and that is actually how it is experienced – as a flash of images in consciousness, to which values are subsequently attached, dependent on one’s various conditioned filters or “software programs”.
Thus, it is seen that consciousness and its contents are equally empty of any inherent existence, even though everything we can think or know or experience is appearing in that emptiness, as that emptiness itself. All of our seeking and avoiding, all of our hope and fear, all of our “selfing” stories, are only figments or shards of this empty consciousness, and therefore possess no independent existence apart from the evanescent dream-like play of consciousness. However our current energy form happens to appear, in reality it is a transient manifestation of awareness. Essentially, we are being lived.
As the contemporary teacher Adyashanti wrote: “When you’re not thinking yourself into existence, there really isn’t a self. All you have to do is try it for a moment. Just be still for five seconds. What happens to your name, your gender, and the person you imagine yourself to be? If we’re to find a way beyond suffering, we’re going to have to look at this sense of self that’s really nothing but a collection of memories projected into the present moment and then into the future. We’re going to have to begin to notice that what we think we are is just that: simply a thought. What we imagine ourselves to be, it’s just that. It’s imagination. Neither our thoughts nor our imagination can tell us who we are.”
Just so, when it is realized that there is no substantial concrete reality to the seeker or the sought, then the desperate search for self-confirmation and validation grinds to a halt. Nor is there any longer anything to protect and defend, except empty fantasies of consciousness. It’s reminiscent of the line from the famous Bob Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, which goes: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Recognizing the real nature of the play is called “Moksha” in systems such as Kashmir Shaivism, in which Shiva (the practitioner) realizes that it has been he all along, playing the game of duality in all the various multiplicity of forms, forgetting himself in order to experience the joy of remembering himself. Of course, that is all just human poetic metaphor for a process far beyond the human pay grade in terms of comprehension. This is why the sages will typically revert to silence, rather than confusing minds with more conceptions that only vaguely reflect the true situation.
For example, we might hear the phrase “entering Nirvana”, but that is again just a human characterization of something far beyond the human perceptive and descriptive capacity. Is it true “Self-Realization”? One might say so, depending on their cultural/religious conditioning, though it is not at all a matter of achieving some sort of ultimate entification. Rather, it is more like letting go of all limitation or contraction of the movement of infinite expansion.
Another way of putting it is that what we always and already ARE simply becomes evident, once we break free of the trance of identification with all that we are not. Buddhists might employ the term “Tathagatagarbha”, or Buddha Nature, to indicate the original “divinity” inherent within all sentient beings (although still dormant and unrecognized by those who are yet deluded by the amnesia accompanying the separate self-sense).
Just so, in true realization, nobody has actually entered into nor exited anywhere — nothing has happened in Reality — which is why some sages use the analogy of the dream to point to this great Mystery. In that regard, both “self” and “Self” are to be equally recognized as mere fantasies of interpretation on perception, and any such conceptual designations are not really applicable to the fundamental and ineffable Reality, the ground of Awareness, of which all manifestation is a luminous expression — an expression of unconditional Love.
“The state of Self-realization, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been. The state we call realization is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realized, one is that alone which ‘is’ and which alone has always been. One cannot describe that state. One can only be that.”
For further exploration of this subject, see: