“The person, the ‘I am this body, this mind, this chain of memories, this bundle of desires and fears’ disappears, but something you may call identity, remains. It enables me to become a person when required. Love creates its own necessities, even of becoming a person.”
These days, it appears that there are some nondual-type teachers who claim that the “self” is merely a thought creation, a dream illusion, unreal. However, that’s actually only a fraction of it — like standing in the parlor and imagining one is seeing the whole house. Stopping there and fixating in that position would be a most premature conclusion, a perceptual error in recognition and appreciation.
In reality, the “self-sense” is an expression of something much more than a mechanical assemblage of mental events transpiring in the brain, and those who tend to conceptually write it off as that are missing its real purpose. In that regard, let’s explore the issue a bit further (elaborating on the consideration begun in the essays “The Ego Is My Friend”, and “Self-Realization”).
There is an apparent tendency of many aspirants to get fixated in concepts about emptiness. It’s true that form is empty, but if one stops there, they miss the other half of the revealed wisdom in the Buddha’s equation, and that is, emptiness is also form. For a number of reasons, clinging to the notion of the emptiness of the self or ego is even worse than clinging to its form, primarily because it paralyzes the natural functioning of the human-soul fusion. Seeing through the substantiality of the self is merely a preliminary recognition. If one follows through with the inquiry, the “self” then returns, or is revealed as, a skillful servant, rather than a tyrannical master, so to speak.
Essentially, the sense of self is a unique and ingenious “space suit” that Spirit employs to navigate and thus enjoy the human experience, and so is absolutely necessary for life and relationships. We came here specifically to enjoy the experience of manifest 3-D human existence, and all the lessons and recognitions about what we truly are (and are not) that come with the “package”, and so attempting to eliminate the very vehicle by which we would do so is functionally counter-productive.
Indeed, such efforts mainly serve to prolong an inner conflict, the war with oneself. The human-based religious fantasies of original sin, perpetual guilt, and body shaming which have plagued mankind for ages are always spawned from that false internal division, as are the sometimes bizarre lengths to which aspirants of those persuasions have gone to alleviate their own self-created dilemmas.
All that is really necessary is to understand that the “self” is not really who we are, any more than we are the automobile we drive to get from one geographical location to another. With that recognition, we are then free to create with it like a paint brush on the canvas of experience, appreciating it for what it is in the context of the play of consciousness itself.
As mentioned, there are numerous nondual teachers who focus on no-self, but the result of that emphasis often leads to an imbalanced view and conduct. It is not really comprehensive to claim that there is either absolutely no self, any more than it is to say that there is actually an independent and enduring self. It is far more nuanced than that, and additionally a lot more fun to experience the whole matter as part of the vast and glorious mystery of our appearance (as opposed to some dry and dusty dogma). The Two Truths Principle is helpful in this case. That is, on a relative level there IS a person, though on an absolute level, there IS NOT. Both are true on different levels, and being able to fully appreciate the paradox of that is what maturing in awakening is all about.
When we put on our clothes, for example, those clothes are not who we are, but they are not just a daydream either — they serve a very necessary purpose if we want to be able to get around in the world, and that is what needs to be recognized in regard to the self-sense — it is the vehicle by which Spirit operates and explores in the 3-D realm of materiality, and so it can’t just be brushed off as a delusion or daydream.
No-self-type teachings frequently become appealing intellectual positions, and consequently end up being impediments, rather than liberating, because there is not a direct experience of the reality itself, but merely the (distorted) experience of the concept. One reason for this error is that such teachings are typically encountered prematurely, without a prior foundation of spiritual practice having been established to anchor the aspirant in humility, wisdom, integrity, and compassion. In that regard, the Persian poet Rumi made an astute observation: “If you are eager to be nothing before you know who you are, you rob yourself of your true being.”
Traditionally, for example, the advanced principles of Advaita Vedanta were taught to initiates only after they completed some years of yogic endeavor, and were then deemed ripe enough, and prepared enough, to handle the implications of those teachings in an appropriate manner. For that reason, it was considered the crown jewel of the wisdom teachings — in other words, the final or ultimate teaching. The same might be said about Dzogchen, or Ati Yoga.
These days, people can find the “secret teachings” on the internet, or at a half-baked guru’s “satsang”, and end up confusing themselves for a long time as a result, especially if they are mixed in with other spiritual supermarket acquisitions. It can often be quite difficult to awaken such individuals from the smug trance of misplaced certainty which accompanies fixation at the conceptual level with emptiness and no-self positions.
Likewise, the materialist assertion that Spirit is some sort of brain epiphenomena would be tantamount to believing that the radio announcer is a little man inside the radio. Spirit is not a brain figment, but unless one has the liberating experience and consequent recognition granted via expanded consciousness, they may continue in the conceptual belief that it is so, short of the big surprise they get when the body (with its brain) drops away.
In any case, the Self, Source, Pure Presence, All That Is, the Divine — whatever name humans apply — is manifesting Itself as all beings, in order to experience Itself through an infinite number of eyes. This is the Great Delight of the Infinite, though incomprehensible to the limited human intellect’s processing capacity. All selves are shards or extensions of Source in that respect, and all return to Self.
There is a valid recognition that, at the ultimate level, nothing happens. That is not really our concern while we are here, appearing and engaged in this realm or vibrational frequency, however. Rather, our job here is to directly realize that love is all that matters, and then to embody the implications of that recognition in our conduct and relationships. In the end, none of our fine notions about emptiness, the self/no-self paradox, and the fate of our daydreams will survive. Only Love is real, and that is the “lesson” we must come to real-ize in this human incarnation. The rest will unfold naturally.
From that perspective, the “self” is merely a prop in Love’s Play, and not some delusion that must be vanquished or made to disappear, but only rightly understood. For the best theatrical production, the actor on the stage must play their role to the best of their ability, but also recognize that the role is not their true identity.
When we conflate the fictional role we play with who and what we truly are, we inevitably suffer the consequences that come with such poor judgment and discernment, and that is the value of intermediate teachings such as “annica”, or no-self, which are meant to free us from lingering in that case of mistaken identity.
Essentially, no teaching is going to fully liberate us, because we have never been bound to begin with. Again, that is Love’s Play — a game of Hide & Seek with Itself, pretending to be separate for the thrill of reunion. It is only in direct recognition of that which is and has always been the case that we can even speak of liberation, since it is liberation from the false notions of limitation and attachment to provisional identities that have obscured our native state of unconditional love.
The infinite forms and personas that Love employs to express Itself do not in any way detract from or lessen Spirit’s timeless perfection. There is only one Source, one Self, projecting Its infinite forms through the inconceivable holograms of luminosity that we call Spirit. Moreover, this magical realm we call “the world” is a wild wonder beyond human reckoning! The mere appearance of anything at all is a perpetual mystery of pure awe and ceaseless astonishment! Why retreat into frozen poses of abstruse dharma, when every molecule of light amazes itself at its own inexplicable appearance?
These ever-shifting props that provide the sense of time and change are nothing but batons we juggle in the mid-air of the here and now! How thrilling to suddenly realize that the synchronous majesty of our infinitely expansive being is the perfect expression of That which is living us now, dreaming us now as a miracle fashioned out of unimaginable Love. Yes, we are Love, and Love must love, for therein shines our perfect purpose beyond any need for ersatz redemption.
There is one Presence, one Power, of which we are all unique projections. All the myriad sentient personalities flash and frolic as dreamy thought forms dancing in the Heart/Mind of Source. Drawn deeper into this stunning recognition, all universal nature herself becomes transparent as the manifestation of the Living Womb of Light, delivering everyone and everything into pure light and more light still.
That clear light radiance of awake awareness has no before or after, nor parts that somehow come together or randomly divide. There is only This! Such recognition is not an acquisition of the mind, but rather a letting go and awakening at the Heart — our destiny and present condition — when all that would obstruct clear seeing is sacrificed at the altar of the Unconditional, for the selfless sake of Love alone.
May all beings awaken to the bliss of their own true nature, their own primordial brilliance — only Love!
Q: What is this big talk about elimination of the self? How can the self eliminate itself? What kind of metaphysical acrobatics can lead to the disappearance of the acrobat? In the end he will reappear, mightily proud of his disappearing.
Nisargadatta Maharaj: You need not chase the ‘I am’ to kill it. You cannot. All you need is a sincere longing for reality. We call it atma-bhakti, the love of the Supreme: or moksha-sankalpa, the determination to be free from the false. Without love, and will inspired by love, nothing can be done. Merely talking about Reality without doing anything about it is self-defeating. There must be love in the relation between the person who says ‘I am’ and the observer of that ‘I am’. As long as the observer, the inner self, the ‘higher’ self, considers himself apart from the observed, the ‘lower’ self, despises it and condemns it, the situation is hopeless. It is only when the observer (vyakta) accepts the person (vyakti) as a projection or manifestation of himself, and, so to say, takes the self into the Self, the duality of ‘I’ and ‘this’ goes and in the identity of the outer and the inner the Supreme Reality manifests itself.
This union of the seer and the seen happens when the seer becomes conscious of himself as the seer, he is not merely interested in the seen, which he is anyhow, but also interested in being interested, giving attention to attention, aware of being aware. Affectionate awareness is the crucial factor that brings Reality into focus.