Nobody There

“The tragedy and comedy of the human condition is that we spend most of our lives thinking, feeling, acting, perceiving and relating  on behalf of a non-existent self.”

~Rupert Spira


Based mostly on rumor and hearsay, spiritual seekers tend to imagine that there is a long, arduous path winding up some metaphorical spirit mountain, at the summit of which a rare lucky few might finally attain an exalted state of Cosmic Illumination. A similar prevalent myth circulating in spiritual-type venues consists of the notion that those who, despite intimidating odds, do manage to scale the sacred peak are subsequently rewarded with all sorts of wonderful perks that are traditionally claimed to accompany such a magnificent feat. These include inscrutable wisdom, exotic powers, and a generally luminous vibration that spontaneously transmits the sense of deep peace and happiness to all who come in contact with such a recently-minted transcendental character.

Aspirants are continuously encouraged by all sorts of hopeful literature and “enlightenment porn” – extraordinary tales in which legendary individuals endure imposing challenges and daunting hardships in pursuit of the sacred goal, traveling to remote places and undergoing all sorts of remarkable experiences before finally being rewarded with the grand prize of perfection and grace. What’s rarely mentioned in these fables, however, is the truth that, rather than representing the pinnacle of one’s personal story, real liberation instead marks the end of that fanciful narrative – its utter collapse.

If there is a “person” still hanging around after some sort of profound experience, then it is not true liberation. It is merely a profound experience. All experiences are modifications of consciousness, but liberation entails recognizing the emptiness inherent in both experience and the experiencer, and indeed of consciousness itself. Rather than being the crowning jewel that many seekers expect, it is actually a beheading! Far from representing the triumphant event projected in its idealism, the revelation of the utter nothingness of the self-image renders a crushing blow to the ambitions of the ego mind – the ruin of its plans.

Man with conceptual spiritual body art

Moreover, rather than being the result of some ferocious, long-term struggle with our inner demons that the traditional mystical literature depicts, the emptiness of the self-idea can be recognized immediately. Reality is not far off, but present and obvious. All that is required is paying attention. We need to simply turn the light around, turn our attention back on its source, to notice that there is nobody there, there is no self that can be found, no solid and enduring entity. All along, we have been going on the assumption that there is some inner person, a matrix of perception, an organizing principle that is running the show – a “me” that must be asserted and even defended – but when we try to find that one, we cannot. It has all been a fantasy of interpretation on perception, and nothing more. How amazing!

Of course, when most of us encounter the absence of any center of consciousness, it can be quite disorienting, and so we quickly fall back to the default position composed of the safety and security of the known. It is after all very threatening for the seeker to find at the core, “vast emptiness, with nothing holy in it”, as the Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma once pointed out. It wreaks havoc with our personal narrative, the carefully constructed story of “me and mine” which we have been telling ourselves and others since we first learned how to talk.

empty mirror

Nevertheless, there are those of us who may become intrigued by the discovery of that space between our thoughts, and so return to that recognition again and again, until that space gradually becomes more of the dominant home for attention, rather than the fleeting parade of thought energy that normally occupies it. In the process, a silent, sky-like, selfless awareness emerges from the background, unbound by previous patterns of habitual and obsessive thinking and self-referencing, of identity games and masquerades.

Moreover, we recognize that this state is not something new which we had to acquire, some reward for passing through fire, but on the contrary has been our natural and native condition all along. Before the first movement of effort, we have already been free. The only problem has ever been the fixation of identity on the unreal, the impermanent, the masks and costumes which we were told and gradually came to believe amounted to a self.

Of course, merely seeing through the charade is a fine first step, but upon reflection, we can notice that we have picked up and indulged in some questionable patterns of behavior along the way, conflicts that have infected our lives and relationships. Consequently, we are now called by the power of that clear seeing to root out the chronic fixations of selfishness, such as greed, envy, hatred, ignorance, and pride which have contributed to the lack of authentic integrity and compassion that has previously characterized our life.

Before we jump ahead with all of that, however, let’s be clear on the initial glimpse that precedes the collapse of the house of cards which we have mistaken as our actual address. Although there may have been a lot of preparatory practices, the glimpse of recognition is sudden and unmistakable. Paradoxically, it is nothing special, because the inherent selflessness of consciousness has never been hidden. Rather, our true nature has always been obvious – right before our eyes. Indeed, a good part of the hindrance in its realization entails the stubborn belief that it can only be obtained as the result of some tremendous spiritual effort.

Again, the key is in paying attention. Do we need to jump through hoops to simply pay attention? Perhaps in these days of mental, emotional, and sensory overload, it does take a bit of effort to just sit down and shut up. However, it doesn’t have to constitute some big deal to stop and turn attention around on itself in order to discover who’s who and what’s what.

All we really need do is simply relax and take a moment to sense the clear knowing space in which everything is appearing. Allow the focus of attention to rest in and as that empty awake awareness instead of being distracted by the parade of appearances. Repeat as often as possible. That’s it!

The great contemporary Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu simplifies the matter when he asks: “If we look at an object to our right and then shift our gaze to an object on the left, in the moment in which our first thought vanishes and before the second one arises, don’t you sense a fresh awareness of the instant, untarnished by the mind, clear, limpid, naked, free?”

The whole process of recognition need not be any more complicated than that. It is just such noticing that becomes the basis for our ongoing liberating practice – that clear realization of the absence of any limiting self-idea in the first moment attention is revolved back on itself. Paradoxically, that recognition of the absence of the conditional self occurs simultaneously with the intuition of what he calls the “authentic condition of instantaneous presence”.

This transparent presence is awareness itself – our actual nature and true identity, prior to the convincing hallucinations we assume to be “self” and “world”. It can’t be attained by determined will, guided discipline, eating right, or proper oral hygiene. There are no pathways nor obstructions to awareness. Nothing needs to be removed or improved for it to suddenly appear – it’s never been absent at all, except in our amnesia. Nor has anyone has ever attained some state called “Awareness”. Seeking for it is like water searching for wetness. It’s what we truly are, not an object of acquisition, nor something which we can somehow strategically become.

Because of our shift in attention based on direct recognition, all thoughts can now be recognized as soon as they arise as simply the uninterrupted energy of emptiness. They need not be accepted or rejected, manipulated, blocked, or invited. We need only persist in non-dwelling on any object of consciousness, clinging to none of them. That is all. In this way, all thought is left to dissolve on its own, and is thus self-liberated. Remaining relaxed as that pure, instantaneous presence, free from grasping or aversion, analysis or conceptuality, is what is known as “the fundamental union of view and meditation”, and begins with the recognition that there is “nobody there”—no solid and enduring self or person — only a fictional character in a virtual reality, or play of consciousness.


nobody there but shadow

Furthermore, what applies to thinking can also be applied to emotions, memories, and perceptions of any kind. In the midst of all of our ordinary activities, we can embody this instantaneous, spacious presence. In fact, to do otherwise is an artifice and superimposition, and serves as the main cause of our stress and dissatisfaction in life and relations. We have driven ourselves crazy by investing our energy and attention in the unreal, maintaining the story of a fictional character we mistook ourselves to be. Really, the only sane thing now is to stop doing that. That is the gift of true, unconditional love – a refusal to be anything other than what we really are: nothing and everything.


“The everyday practice . . . is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some “amazing goal” or “advanced state”. To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons – we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.”

~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

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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54 Responses to Nobody There

  1. marcel says:

    Perfectly balanced post, thank you Brother!

  2. Joe Haase says:

    Wonderful, Excellent!

  3. Rex Boaden says:

    Beautifully & clearly expressed – Thank You Bob!

  4. Francina Richardson says:

    Dzogchen well distilled and delivered to the western orientation. Thank you, I’ll share your beautiful words with others.

  5. Ken Talbert says:

    Thanks, Bob. From my collection of journal entries, I hear the calling over and over.
    It seems it has been said before, in many wonderful ways.
    Yours is another voice, and for that I am grateful.
    Be well.

    “I am not I
    I am this one, walking beside me
    whom I do not see,
    whom at times I manage to visit,
    and whom at other times I forget;

    the one who remains silent while I talk,
    the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
    the one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
    the one who will remain standing when I die.” – Juan Ramon Jimenez

    I was drawn by the photo of the shadow’s reflection.

    “A thousand times I have ascertained and found it to be true:
    The affairs of this world are really nothing into nothing.
    Still though, we should dance.” – Hafiz

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Thank you, Ken, for sharing those poetic reflections, much appreciated!

      Your Hafiz reminds me of one from the Zen poet Bankei:

      “Thinking back over the past,
      you find it was an evening’s dream.

      Realize that, and you’ll see
      everything is just a lie.

      Since, after all, this floating world is unreal,
      instead of holding onto things in your mind,

      go and sing!”


  6. Bob OHearn says:

    Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
    Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”
    Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
    “If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”


    • Ken says:

      I like what Tolle referred to as a gate. Gates are simple. They present themselves. Either one goes through the gate or one doesn’t. No five year plan, no steps or half-measures. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

  7. marcel says:

    “Desiring to show his attainment” lol

    There is no question of others. “You” and “me” is in reference to the bodies. So keep quiet, for nobody is there. ~Sri Niz

  8. A. Reader says:

    > Although there may have been a lot of preparatory practices, the glimpse of recognition is sudden and unmistakable.

    I must admit: I’ve been investigating reality deeply for as long as I can remember, and have even received formal Dzogchen introduction and instruction from a few Rinpoches. It’s clear that there’s no solidity to any of these transient modifications of consciousness. And yet, I’ve never noticed the sudden, unmistakable glimpse that you and others talk about. It typically seems like “something” is still experiencing them, though there’s clearly no place from which this could be happening. It feels like a “here”, much in the same way it feels like it’s always “now.”

    No doubt this is not something to “worry” about, but it has been niggling at me for a long time. After all, without a glimpse of rigpa, it’s not really Dzogchen, is it?

    Maybe you have something to share?

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Greetings, Friend!

      I am reminded of a quote from Sri Nisargadatta: “With some, realization comes imperceptibly, but somehow they need convincing. They have changed, but they do not notice it. Such non-spectacular cases are often the most reliable.” He also noted: “It is like a frayed rope snapping. Yours is the work at the strands. The break is bound to happen. It can be delayed, but not prevented.” In other words, keep to your practice, and try to steer clear of any expectations. Your faith in your own true nature will greatly serve in the preparation. Often times, it is our programmed anticipation that stands in the way of clear seeing. Just letting go of any gaining idea, any demand from life that it be different than it is, and soon you may find yourself with no armor any longer. It is then that the arrow can pierce all the way through. Remember, rigpa is an idea, Dzogchen is an idea, and all ideas are only going to take you so far. At a certain point, they all must be discarded, no matter how wonderful they appear. Remember Tilopa’s advice about not trying to figure anything out or attempting to make things happen. In that light, we become very humble, and it is only in the genuine humility of such utter surrender, of true resting, that awakening emerges.


      • A. Reader says:

        Thanks :). The SNM quote reminds me of a quote from Thrangu Rinpoche (my first Mahamudra teacher):

        “In short, I think it is of far more importance that people receive this kind of complete and systematic instruction so that they can gradually develop experience on their own, than that some kind of dramatic pointing-out procedure be done. Of course, it is possible to give dramatic pointing-out instruction, and when you do so, some people do recognize their mind’s nature. But, if I may say so, I question the stability and, therefore, ultimately the value of that. It certainly is a dramatic experience for those people who achieve it, but I see no evidence of their kleshas diminishing as a result.”

        Anyway, back to Tilopa’s words for me I suppose! I seem to frequently get trapped by this “unmistakable glimpse” idea, and perhaps I could be more careful about not letting it stick too much in my mind. There’s nothing to be done about it, after all!

        Thanks for the reminders.

      • Bob OHearn says:

        Thrangu Rinpoche is a very good teacher! As far as the trap you mention, I understand it well, having spent a good deal of time involved in Rinzai Zen. When I interviewed with my first Rinzai Master, he told me I would have Satori within 9 months if I entered his monastery. Looking back at all of that now — the chase for the prize — I have to smile. It’s all much ado about nothing, and in fact is actually a mis-direction that obscures rather than clarifies what we are truly here for.


  9. marcel says:

    Thanks for the Song, Brother! 🙂

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “One of the qualities of recognizing emptiness is that the thought ‘I’ or ‘me’ has no longer any basis, and thus it dissolves. There is no self-identity present.”
    ~ Tsoknyi Rinpoche

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    When you have actually seen that you are not, there is no necessity of a means and an end. You have seen that you are not existent. There is a confirmed realization that from top to bottom in the whole body, that ‘you’ are not there.”

    ~ Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    Never forget the purpose of why you’re here. It is true in the absolute reality there is no purpose. The universe has no purpose for existing. You have no purpose for existing, in the absolute reality. But as long as you believe you are a body or a mind, then your purpose is to become no purpose. You spend your energy becoming nothing. But do not believe you’re nothing, when you haven’t become nothing yet.

    ~ Robert Adams

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: The discovery of truth is in the discernment of the false. You can know what is not. What is — you can only be. Knowledge is relative to the known. In a way it is the counterpart of ignorance. Where ignorance is not, where is the need of knowledge? By themselves neither ignorance nor knowledge have being. They are only states of mind, which again is but an appearance of movement in consciousness which is in its essence immutable.

    Q: Even if I dismiss this body of bones, flesh and blood as not-me, still I remain with the subtle body made up of thoughts and feelings, memories and imaginations. If I dismiss these also as not-me, I still remain with consciousness, which also is a kind of body.

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: You are quite right, but you need not stop there. Go beyond. Neither consciousness, nor the ‘I am’ at the centre of it are you. Your true being is entirely un-self-conscious, completely free from all self-identification with whatever it may be, gross, subtle or transcendental.

    Q: I can imagine myself to be beyond. But what proof have l? To be, I must be somebody.

    Nisargadatta Maharaj: It is the other way round. To be, you must be nobody. To think yourself to be something, or somebody, is death and hell.

  14. Ken Talbert says:

    The greater the paradox the more likely I am dealing with a spiritual lesson. With respect, I take pause and gratefully attend to what is before me.
    “The discovery of truth is in the discernment of the false.”
    This compelling statement considers “truth” to be ineffable. Of course, the ineffable cannot be discovered, conceptualized, or understood. The “false” is not so hidden. The false is a conjured concept, never ineffable. It arises nowhere in the universe except in the craniums of humans. As such, “untruths” are creations of thought. Thoughts are discoverable within the world of form.
    In a time of despair, I once asked my wife if she believed in “God”. She said “yes”. I asked her what she thought “God” was. She replied: “I don’t know, but I’m content to live with the mystery.” That led to a cascade of self-permission. I no longer had to have the answers. There was no longer a drive towards a unifying concept of my life. The search was over, but the journey had commenced.
    “The Tao cannot be understood, but it can be known.”

  15. Ken Talbert says:

    The joy of unknowing. Yes.
    Are all our writings and responses all “strivings” of merit, no merit or demerit? Somehow I think they matter, at least to us. Is it just us trying to convince our minds to stand down? I am interested in your reply, Bob, but is that interest a simple bit of my continued overthinking and counterproductive?
    I appreciate your presence.

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Hello again,Ken!

      I do not approach these communications in terms of merit, but more in the sense of expressing that which wants to be expressed. A painter faces a blank canvas, and life pours itself out in colors, shapes, and textures. And yes, we often tend to rely too heavily on the intellect, which can be an impediment and hamper the free flow of life, by trying to control and pin it down, when all it really wants to do is dance and sing!


      • Ken Talbert says:

        I was a bit taken aback when I read my note to you. You kindly took my inquiry without defensiveness, and I am grateful for your timely response. Yes – let’s continue to dance and sing.
        Grateful for your candor and openness to teach. Be well –

      • Bob OHearn says:

        Thank you, Ken, and best wishes!


  16. Bob OHearn says:

    “It is for these reasons that in An Authentic Portrait of the Middle Way, the Jetsun Milarepa sang: No meditator and no meditated, No paths and levels traveled and no signs, And no fruition bodies and no wisdoms, And therefore there is no nirvana there, Just designations using names and statements.

    This whole passage is a logical reasoning that progresses in stages. First, Milarepa sang that there is no meditator. There is no meditator because there is no self. If there is no meditator, there cannot be any object of meditation, and if there is no object of meditation, there cannot be any path or any signs of progress on the path. If there is no path, there cannot be any fruition at the end of the path in the form of the fruition bodies and wisdoms. If there are no fruition bodies or wisdoms, there is no such thing as nirvana. All of these terms then are just designations, mere names and imputations.”

    ~Gyamtso, Khenpo Tsultrim

  17. Bob OHearn says:

    “Arising without the mark of arising,
    Arising and illumination are the same.

    Desiring to purify the mind,
    There is no mind for effort.

    Throughout time and space nothing is illuminated;
    This is most profound.

    Knowing dharmas is not knowing;
    Not knowing is knowing the essential.

    Using the mind to maintain quietude,
    You still fail to leave the sickness.

    Birth and death forgotten
    This is Original Nature.”

    ~from Song of Mind, Niu Tou Fa jong

  18. Bob OHearn says:

    In the Heart Sutra, the Buddha noted that form is empty, but emptiness is also form. Here is a humorous take on the imbalance that can result from fixating on emptiness alone:

  19. Bob OHearn says:

    “When we just remain in that present awareness and observe, then the self dissolves too. When the self dissolves there is just pure awareness. When the self completely collapses, there is this inexpressible, simple yet profound and ecstatic, compassionate awareness. Nobody is there. “I” is completely nonexistent in that place.”

    ~Anam Thubten

  20. Bob OHearn says:

    Thomas Metzinger’s book, “The Ego Tunnel,” makes a stunning contribution to the theory that a self does not inherently exist. Metzinger’s work now brings neurology into what has largely been a spiritual conversation. The “nuts and bolts” examples that are woven into his theories, deepen our understanding of the myth of the self. The following is an attempt at a brief summary introduction to “The Ego Tunnel,” ending with a video lecture by Thomas Metzinger

  21. Bob OHearn says:

    “Before you can accept God, you must accept yourself,
    which is even more frightening.
    The first steps in self acceptance are not at all pleasant,
    for what one sees is not a happy sight.
    One needs all the courage to go further.
    What helps is silence.
    Look at yourself in total silence,
    do not describe yourself.
    Look at the being you believe you are and remember — you are
    not what you see.
    ‘This I am not — what am l?’
    is the movement of self-enquiry.
    There are no other means to liberation, all means delay.
    Resolutely reject what you are not,
    till the real Self emerges in its glorious nothingness,
    its ‘not-a-thingness.'”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

    • Kenneth Talbert says:

      Thanks, Bob – An idea offered to me by Eckhart Tolle states, and I paraphrase: There is no arduous pathway to awareness (spirituality). It is more a gate. In this model, simplicity reigns. Either one goes through the gate, or one doesn’t. Just because it is simple does not necessarily make it easy. But the simplicity is a gift of life. Overthink it, diagram it, indoctrinate intentions, and the gate is buried with the overburden of my thinking and my ego. I paraphrase – It has taken a great deal of time to deceive you. It takes not time at all to be what you are. – Course in Miracles Be well, my friend. Ken

    • Kenneth Talbert says:

      It is with only the a speck of embarrassment that I look through the posting from 2014, and see that I offered much the same reply to you then. Oh, well. It is a deep current that runs in me. At least I am consistent…. Aren’t people interesting? Ken

  22. Bob OHearn says:

    Because we don’t recognize our essential nature, we don’t realize that although appearances arise unceasingly, nothing is really there.

    We invest with solidity and reality the seeming truth of self, other, and actions between self and others.

    This intellectual obscuration gives rise to attachment and aversion, followed by actions and reactions that create karma, solidify into habit, and perpetuate the cycles of suffering. This entire process needs to be purified.

    ~ Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

  23. Casaluna Henry says:

    Hi Bob,
    Wondering what is the force driving us forward upon realizing ther is no Self. After all this is just a first step, who is proceeding ?
    Thanks for all.

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