What Motivates the Self?

palmNon-dualists talk about the hopelessness of striving for liberation from one’s self, which some call ‘enlightenment’; it will happen, or it won’t, they say, and if it happens, it will be realized (by no one) that the self never was real. In the meantime, the best that a self-inflicted separate person can do is “make the prison of the self more comfortable”.

If ‘we’ can’t control (or lose) the self, perhaps ‘we’ can at least try to understand better what makes it tick. Why do some ‘selves’ seek attention or appreciation (or even fame), and others love and affection, and others fortune, or independence, or sensual pleasures? What makes the self happy? What motivates it?

I am currently vacationing on a peaceful, warm tropical island. I know warmth and beauty are things I seek. I also know I seek sensual pleasures. And I am heavily driven by aversion to fear and to conflict.

I’ve been conducting a few experiments to explore this question What motivates the self? Here’s what (I think) I’ve learned. (If you try any of them out yourself, I’d be curious to know what you discover.)


What does the self pay attention to?  Recently, whenever I’m inclined to take along a camera, I take binoculars instead. I’ve come to realize that taking photos is mostly about future gratification: to create (and show others) a great shot later, and to remember what was. Looking through binoculars, by contrast, is a totally immediate, present experience. Also, it’s visually richer (sharper, larger, stereo image) and commands attention in a completely different way. I notice more of the details, and savour them more. It’s more synaesthetic than photography. It engages the emotions more. It quietens intellectual processing.

My self, however, is disconcerted — it wants to capture and save and analyze the image, as it can with a camera, but cannot with binoculars. Instead, it goes to work trying to memorize, which of course is impossible (too many details), so instead it starts to describe in words. It wants to make meaning of it. It appears the self is reluctant to just look, without judgement or thought about what it sees. It doesn’t see any point or purpose to doing so.


Do some sensory experiences by-pass the self’s intermediation?  T S Eliot wrote: “Midnight shakes the memory | As a madman shakes a dead geranium.”  What is it about some highly sensory events that seems more profound than anything our self can conceive of? Even more than touch, smell is to me a visceral sensation, the sense least amenable to verbal description. Smells evoke memories, not of events but rather of ambiences, moods, or tenors of experience. They evoke certain strong emotions more powerfully than visual images, and quite differently from the way music evokes emotion. So I assembled a bunch of things that I love the smell of (candles with lilac and other essences, fresh-baked bread, raspberries, coconut, etc) and just took time, eyes closed, to inhale them and pay attention to what the scent ‘did’ to ‘me’.

Some smells seem capable of transporting me. My self seems to drop completely out of the picture when this happens. This is true even when the smell evokes a memory — normally the self, when it remembers, immediately starts constructing a story about what happened and what it meant. But when the memory is “shaken” by a smell, this doesn’t happen: There is only a recalling of what was sensed, what was felt, with almost no mental energy about context or meaning. It seems that some smells can ‘short-circuit’ the intermediary role of the self and connect directly to something raw and primeval, something pre-separation.


What does the self make of sex?  Some non-dualists say that sex is the closest the self-inflicted person can get to oneness, while others suggest sex is just a distraction, an unreal escape, like alcohol, from the self’s frustration and unhappiness. For most mammals and birds, sexual arousal is a rare state that seems solely focused on reproduction. But there are some exceptions. For bonobos, sex with others is apparently a key means of calming anxiety (average frequency, even in very early childhood, is five times a day — and it’s always consensual — but the duration of each act is usually quite short). And while humans aren’t the only animals that masturbate, finding it pleasurable seems to require that there be a ‘story’ to go along with the sensation (a recent memory or fantasy). The unprecedented frequency and duration of aroused self-stimulation among humans suggests our selves, and their stories, are much more developed and complex than other animals’.

So it would seem that sex is important to the self because it calms some of the ‘helpless’ feelings (uncontrollable fear, hopeless grief, impotent anger) that the self is directly responsible for producing in the first place (only creatures with selves that feel they are in control of the situation can possibly feel such conflicted emotions). It would also seem that sex is important to our selves because it keeps ‘us’ addicted to the ‘story of me’. Once the self falls away, sex may well cease to be an imperative, a preoccupation, a needed mitigator of debilitating emotion, and may become no more or less important than any other pleasurable diversion.


How is the self involved in the creative process? I recently wrote (at the end of this post) that I wanted to practice writing every day until I had produced some small creative work meeting certain specific criteria. Just before that I had written what I thought was my best creative work in nearly a year, a short piece called Invisible. My subsequent “miniatures” haven’t nearly measured up. Why not, I wondered, when I have the criteria right in front of me?

Was Invisible produced, I pondered, in spite of my self? Did my self have anything to do with it, with the right, clever words and well-articulated phrases just coming to mind, the appropriate metaphors, alliterations, allusions, rich images, ironic observations (with a little critical editing of course)? If the conscious self/mind is not involved, where does this creativity come from: Is oneness speaking through me when my self temporarily and briefly gets out of the way? Sometimes it seems that way. I am aware that while this piece was pretty good, much better writing yet is possible, and my sense is that I’m on the cusp of producing something exceptional. That’s why I have tried to work at it (and many great writers insist that the principal necessary precondition to great writing is the disciplined practice of writing every day). But working at it, trying, seemingly makes no difference. Good writing comes, or it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s like the falling away of the self in that way. Perhaps the two are connected.


It’s a strange disease, this grasping, ubiquitous self. It wants to do its best for ‘me’, which it equates with itself. It knows it doesn’t exist, but doesn’t seem able to come to grips with this understanding, to ‘real-ize’ it. It wants ‘me’ to be happy, but not at the cost of losing itself. When it falls away, there are brief, astonishing glimpses of all-there-is, enough to persuade any self that that reality is the only real one, and is safe and whole and leaves no reason whatsoever for the self to have to hang around — but still, instead of getting out of the way for good, the self comes back, insisting it has more work to do.

When I do experiments like these, there’s a tendency to start think of the self as something separate from ‘the real me’. That’s the critical failing, I think, of non-radical (traditional) non-duality teachers — they encourage this evidently dualistic belief that ‘behind’ the self there is some real, authentic you, free of all the anxieties and negative feelings and useless thoughts that the self has. But all that does is to create yet another ego, another separation.

So while it is useful to see the self from a third person perspective, as these exercises were designed to do, I think it’s important to recognize that I am my self, and the self’s failings and delusions are mine. Denying that is just a mind game, another level of delusion.

There is no me, no mind, no self. But as long as there appears to be one, it seems only prudent to try to get to know it, not as a flawed room-mate, but as my self, the cause of ‘my’ disease.

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3 Responses to What Motivates the Self?

  1. Hi Dave, I happen to read this from another book “Be a witness to your own feelings, emotions, and reactions “and ever since I am gradually evolving myself to be a witness. Understanding “who you are”, you are not your mind (Self). I am just participating and contributing to this oneness. This moment, I am writing to you. That’s all there is. Once the oneness is realized then there is no self. You are just an unique expression in the oneness. I am slowly beginning to realize. I agree with you and so true when you say “Where is the creativity? Yes, the oneness is speaking through you and initiates the creative process through you and that is why the question “What does the Universe want from me ?” It will unfold. Nice article. Enjoyed it. I happen to bump into your site through another site and enjoyed reading some of your posts. I will visit again. Cheers, Ramkumar

  2. Wow, yes – I feel compelled to respond as this is real food for my train of thought!

    What does my “self” pay attention to? Not so much the visual, actually… I tend to tune in a lot more to how a space feels, what emotions I’m soaking up from others, what level of tension there is, and so on. This is vastly different when I’m alone, as there aren’t others directly present to influence me, and I tend to access a calm state of tranquility easily when alone. Of course, this has often led me to seek out my own company as it’s easier (despite my being a socially adept extrovert who gets a great buzz out of being around people, I still find most other people’s company draining after a while, and need solid me-time to recharge), but over the last few years I’ve been tuning in more to the observer’s wavelength, noticing my discomfort when it’s there, and choosing to ride the waves rather than avoid them. I feel it’s strengthened me a lot, enabled me to drop anchor in the midst of tension or conflict in a way that facilitates an embrace of life rather than shrinking my horizons as avoidance tends to do.

    I’m with you on the sense of smell bypassing the self’s intermediation. This is something I noticed about myself pretty young, and responded to it by trying to set a scene for myself in my haven known as home. Since I discovered how incense made me feel, I’ve had it burning in my home most of the time, and the effect doesn’t seem to wear thin – it’s always a delicious wash of calm tranquility, and an escort to comforting times and places in the past, stripped of all context and content, left only with sensation. My partner’s choice of shower gel also does it, which is great! Certain food smells also do it, particularly green papaya, ripe mango, and freshly toasted peanuts… I guess all that belies a lot of time spent in south-east Asia, and a nostalgia trip my mind likes to ride… I think that’s why I cook up a storm pretty much every night, as it allows me to wander all over the place, experiencing self as context, not content.

    I also find certain people’s voices insanely soothing – almost like a warm blanket, and they literally put me in a warm, fuzzy state. I remember noticing this as a kid, and hoping no one would notice my mind was in a different place from my body while I was tuning in to the sensory experience and not what was being said. The most delicious voice I ever heard was a young Colombian woman I once worked with, whose voice was even more beautiful in English than in Spanish… I told her how soothing and lovely I found her voice, but drew the line at explaining my perverse joy in just hearing and not listening, as I didn’t know how to explain it!

    Sex is probably a more complex phenomenon to delve into, largely because of the way our culture commodifies it, and the rules around who should want what, how much, and in what form. For me, well, I largely misunderstood it when I was younger, treating it as a proxy for the intimacy I craved, left feeling empty by the unfulfilled promise. For me now, if it’s not a part of exploring intimacy, I don’t see the point. For this reason I’m not remotely inclined to cheat on my partner, as no experience with another person could possibly top our ability to involve ourselves in one another to the exclusion of egoic concerns. If psychological intimacy and trust are absent, the experience will anxiety-riddled (or one dissociates from emotional responses, focusing only on physical pleasure, which is a hard act to maintain), whereas when those factors are present, it can be almost meditative. So, I don’t see it as a pleasurable diversion, but more an opportunity for sharing intimacy with my most trusted one, allowing myself to be my most vulnerable in safe hands.

    On a side note, I wonder whether there’s much difference between the male and female experience on this score, or whether there’s even more complexity in the experiences of same-sex couples?

    With regard to the self’s involvement in creative process, I’m unclear… I know that as a creative writer, I still do have some egoic desire to “make something of myself” regardless what I do for a day job or in my free time that may or may not fulfil me. Writing fulfils me like no other creative pursuit, as language influences us like no other human development – it’s so powerful, evocative, and expressive in a way that I can’t access by other means. But, when it comes to writing my best work, well, that’s always been a case of being in the flow, basically unaware of what is written until after the fact, writing viscerally, not intellectually, and then afterwards feeling emotionally affected by it as though it had been written by someone else and I’m experiencing the material for the first time. That comes to me through inspiration, which comes from real-world experience, and cannot be substituted by any intellectualisation or academic study (although I don’t dismiss those pursuits as having valid additional contributions to make).

    Regarding the resurgence of the self, I think there are two main causes of this:

    1. That which we resist will persist. That’s putting it facetiously, in my view, but it is true, in my experience, and apparent from those of my therapy clients, that attempts to avoid, suppress, distract from, override, or push away any experience results in a struggle that magnifies the presence of that which we wish were not there. Pretty much everyone does this on some level with a lot of things, and to an unhealthy level with something. This is the basis of all anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, complicated grief, unresolved trauma, and so on.

    2. The self has experiences that the observer is positioned to observe, notice, pay attention to. Without this, there is nothing to observe. So, instead of trying to make there be nothing to observe, to push away, suppress, avoid, distract from, etc. I think it makes more sense to just allow the observer to observe whatever comes up without getting tangled up in either buying into it or trying to make it go away. This practice, which I’ve found becomes increasingly automatic the more I put it into action (which is far from always! I certainly do get tangled up in things from time to time!), has resulted in a development of my inner trickster, who seems to not really take many things seriously, finding jokes and literal metaphors all over the place, and giggling at all sorts of things that would be next to impossible to explain to most others. Realisation of this, funnily enough, brings me to a state of equanimity I’ve never been able to access by any other means. It’s like the ultimate irony, and barely even possible to express!

    Anyhoo, cheers for the invitation to stroll through the rabbitholes of my overactive mind! :-D

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Kari — lots to think about in your response.

    I don’t know whether gender generalizations are useful, but I have learned (more out of my particular life’s experience than anything associated with gender roles) to more or less completely dissociate the physical pleasure of sex from the emotional pleasure of it. I enjoy both, but I can be completely satisfied with just the physical. If my ‘self’ were to fall away, I’d guess that would remain unchanged.

    I share your view of our best writing being something that seems to come from somewhere outside ourselves, though it fascinates me that in order to be truly excellent it then needs the objective editing by ‘myself’. It’s almost like a sequential collaboration between ‘all-there-is’ (which produces the first draft) and my ‘self’, which edits it into a final draft.

    It’s been interesting to discover that several radical non-dualists have also explored the idea that intuition is all-that-is whispering to us from outside our selves.

    I’ve been unable to achieve the same joys and satisfactions you have through any process of ‘witnessing’ or ‘observing’ (my comments about editing above notwithstanding). The idea of the witness or observer is so blatantly dualistic that seeking to release that ‘third person’ seems misguided on principal. I’m more comfortable believing intellectually (through I can’t ‘real-ize’ it) that there is no me, no self, no observer or witness. Anything that is not ‘all-there-is’, ie ‘this’, is unreal.

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