Self-Impression

barsotti truth
cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

This past weekend I attended a get-together of about 20 enthusiastic, knowledgeable people on the subject of radical non-duality, organized around the (rare) visit of Jim Newman (Non-Duality Dude) to North America.

The message we shared was the same elegant, uncompromising, hopeless message I’ve written about ad nauseam on this blog. The gathering was a deep dive into that message and its implications (for no one), and was relatively free of the questions and assertions about spirituality, enlightenment, process, purpose and journey that (IMO) indicate a lack of understanding of the radical non-duality message, and which often arise in such meetings. Many thanks to Rita and Jim and the organizers and participants who made it so thought-provoking, and such fun.

While I have, for now at least, fully embraced this message (it just makes sense to me intellectually and intuitively, resonates in a way I can’t explain, and jibes with what science is now beginning to postulate about the nature of time, space and the self), I noticed that my self was furiously asserting itself throughout the weekend, despite my determination to just sit back and pay attention. I caught my self (but of course couldn’t stop my self from):

  • trying to impress everyone
  • seeking reassurance that my understanding and ideas about the message were ‘right’
  • feeling jealous of those who seemed somehow closer to the ‘falling away of the self’
  • being absurdly curious about others’ description of ‘glimpses’ (for me the jury’s still out on whether what I described as a ‘glimpse’ two years ago was in some sense a brief ‘falling away of my self’, or was just wishful thinking, another experience of my self)

Who was ‘I’ trying to impress? Not the (apparently) smartest and most attractive and most equanimous people in the room, not really. I was trying to impress my self, reassure my self. It was my self that was jealous and curious and reactive. None of my behaviour had anything to do with anyone else in the room. It was, sadly, all about me, scared, lost me, hopefully (if not expectantly) and impossibly seeking, to realize, or at least to more fully know and appreciate, the truth of this message. And it was me who then felt ashamed of my behaviour, disappointed in my self, angry with my self, absorbed in self-ish anxiety.

This was and is, of course, the only way I could have and can behave. No one really has any self control, or control over anything. But that didn’t make my behaviour any less discouraging to observe.

I think this is likely a universal attribute of the self, this compulsion to impress, to get attention and appreciation and reassurance, and to be reactive and absorbed with self-judgement. That is not to diminish in any way the role that trauma and abuse play in the chronic mental struggle and misery that many (most?) suffer with. Look at the most obvious public example, Der Drumpf, and you can see the acting out and reacting to some dreadful constantly re-triggered past trauma, in the desperate seeking to impress, for endless attention and appreciation and reassurance, and in the fierce, compulsive, reactive negative emotions that absolutely define him.

But even without a traumatic past, my sense is that every self, in the desperate search to be free of the unsatisfactory, terrifying sense of separation from all-that-is, is endlessly driven to impress and to get reassurance that it is on the right track, that it is really OK, and that it is not utterly alone. We can’t help our selves. We are all ceaselessly trying to heal ourselves (our selves) and others we care about.

In radical non-duality terms, this healing effort is a manifestation of the attempt to make the unescapable prison of the self more comfortable. Mine has probably always been more comfortable than most, and my appreciation of the message of radical non-duality seems to have made it more so. My anger now seems to dissipate faster; my fears, once they’re recognized as that, and seen as unfounded and unhelpful, seem to be less overwhelming.

Most notably, my self has found that it is somewhat liberating to realize, at least intellectually, that it has no choice, no free will, no control over or responsibility for anything. That no one is to blame. Despite the apparent complexity of reality and of agency, it’s actually even simpler and more hopeless than that. There ‘simply’ is no you that can do anything.

Somehow to me, everything seems a bit easier with that perspective. Each time I thought up a question to ask Jim, thinking a bit made me realize I already knew the answer, that it truly is even simpler and more hopeless than we can imagine. Obvious, even.

We are conditioned to think of our selves as ‘residing’ within a particular brain and body. So it was illuminating to hear Jim remind us that “the me (the self) arises simultaneously in everything”. Not only am ‘I’ an illusion, but the perception that ‘I’ am located in a particular place is also an illusion. Everything separate is an imagining of the self.

I find this mind-blowing. Why do we have this sense of location? Actually, for no reason, but it is conceivable that the (self-)invention of the self requires a pretty heavy-duty brain to conjure up, and requires the affirmation of its ‘reality’ through the feelings of the senses and body, and through the relentless cultural conditioning of other selves insisting that we are inextricably located in (and hence responsible for) this particular brain and body. If the self is an illusion of the human brain and body, it’s perhaps understandable that the self perceives itself as located in the brain and body that created it. It is in a sense inseparable from its creator; even before it claims ownership of that brain and body, it realizes it has nowhere else to go.

And everything the illusory self thinks is happening to it is just an experience, a story, an embodied, felt rationalization, and inherently as unreal as the self that invented it. Yet each experience is so compelling the self feels it as real, just as a powerful film makes us feel that its characters and plot are real and we are personally a part of what is happening. The film is just a clever trick, and so is the self.

Someone at the meeting used the word radiance to describe the indescribable everything that just is. I like the term because it’s less mystical, more energetic and less abstract than a lot of other terms often used to describe it. It has a gerund-like sense of amorphousness (somewhere between noun and verb, but not really either) to it, that suits a word trying to “eff the ineffable”. Quantum scientists like Carlo Rovelli and Sean Carroll are starting to describe a universe that “just is”, like an infinite, timeless field of limitless potential. Even if it’s just a metaphor, ascribing radiance to it seems helpful, and a bit poetic.

And as happened with my visit with Tony Parsons in Wales last year, we pondered, as the event drew to a close, why anyone would be compelled (since we have no free will) to come together to discuss such an absurd, hopeless, useless message.

And we wondered, as well, why there aren’t millions coming together to discuss such an awe-inspiring, liberating, elegant, curious, internally-consistent, science-supported message. The possible answers to that are manifold, and endlessly fascinating.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Self-Impression

  1. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, this post reminds me of why I favour weighing various conceptions of Self, rather than insisting on the non-existence of the ‘individualistic libertarian abstract autonomous self’. That conception probably does predominate unhelpfully in society, but hammering away at it is like hammering away at a Tar Baby – it keeps the conversation framed in terms of that Abstract Autonomous Self. But that conception is not the only game in town.

    Earlier this year I delved into Heinz Kohut’s ‘Self Psychology’. For Freud, “narcissism” was a phase we “should have” grown out of as toddlers, and those who hadn’t were basically lost causes. But Kohut saw – without erasing the distinction of true Narcissistic Disorders being a thing – that we all continue to have narcissistic or ‘selfobject’ needs throughout life. We all have needs regarding “mirroring”(recognition), “idealisation”(drawing strength from identifying with something/someone bigger than ourselves) and “twinship”(feeling that I’m ‘like’ others). These needs just express themselves in different ways, relatively mature or immature.
    I think pop-overdiagnosis of NPD, and stigma against “narcissism” gets in the way of talking about this stuff. Serena Williams to me gave a great illustration of Narcissistic Injury in her meltdown – but that doesn’t mean she’s a narcissist or a bad person. Her grandiosity, like Beethoven’s, has been (so far) mostly adaptive, i.e.it’s driven her to achievement. Jim Newman wouldn’t be “the nonduality guy” without some degree of grandiosely thinking ‘I have something to offer the world’. So I hope you’re not giving yourself too hard a time.

    I’ve found the Self Psychology approach of bringing acceptance, understanding and occasional interpretation to my grandiosity, shame, narcissistic rages and narcissistic withdrawals, to be helpful…and when I think back over recent months, the sting and feeling of compulsion around those things has greatly lessened as I’ve found the vocabulary to talk about it.
    Relational psychotherapies draw on this stuff. It’s not The Truth – I haven’t focussed on it recently – but I offer it as an example of a potentially helpful non-individualistic conception of the self.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi John: Pleased that you’ve found something that, from the radical non-duality perspective, makes the prison of your self more comfortable. That’s not to dismiss it — the self can do nothing else. Whatever works for you.

    I think the self is inherently narcissistic, though some are afflicted worse than others, and I think trauma, which is endemic in our modern society, aggravates it.

    But I don’t believe Jim has a trace of grandiosity or purposefulness in his message. He and Rita organize these meetings because people keep asking them to, and because it’s his nature to want to help people (he is trained as a therapist), and because these events are intellectually interesting and fun. There truly is no separate ‘person’ speaking there — no one could possibly fake this, and why would they want to.

    As for giving myself (my self) a hard time, I know I have absolutely no control over that. It seems that, over time, I seem to be more forgiving of myself perhaps for that very reason. But the self cannot and will not ever give up the fight — the fight is for its very existence. There is no getting one’s head around that.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Dave, I subscribed to this years of and haven’t read any of it for almost the same time… so apologies if I state anything that could have been obvious if I had

    I really enjoy your posts, content as much as form!
    Are you familiar with Stephen Wolinsky’s False Core False Self? Because I feel that’s exactly what you are describing in this post

    Well done btw for being able to observe yourself – for me that was the beginning of the end

    Cheers,

    Martijn

  4. John Graham says:

    Cheers Dave

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Martijn: Welcome (back). Stephen is a devout follower of Nisargadatta Maharaj, who is a teacher who says that there is a path to enlightenment that an individual can successfully pursue. That is not the message of Jim or Tony, who assert that there is no path, and that there is no “you”, no “I am”, no “consciousness” or “awareness” (since these things are inherently dualistic), and that there is nothing that can (or need) be done. It’s a non-spiritual, radically different message from those of teachers and disciples of various paths.

  6. Philip says:

    My parents are opposites in a few ways. My mother has a strong sense of lack and has a hypochondriac tendency to describe her list of physical (and to a lesser extent emotional and contextual) problems as she ages. My self wants to do this often- primarily with myself. My father has an intuitive sense of this observing to a point of not even being the observer, he is very capable of letting his self fall away in a multitude of ways. Self indulgence comes in many ways, but to escape a sense of self is the most rewarding indulgence that lately I can find. Inherently narcissistic alright! Have to find compassion for yourself so you can find it for the world. You can be nobody but yourself. Maybe Canada just helped millions get a shortcut and come together in a certain (& legal) way to discuss the ‘message’.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Dave.
    Yes, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who says, also according to Stephen: you are not who you think you are, nor are you who you think you are not.
    Worked for me, I asked myself who I was and found out that there is only a collection of various interactions that have made me me.
    There is no I

    So Maharaj’s path simply is questioning yourself – unless I misunderstood, I only read a few pages of his quotes :/

    We’re all mere results of the implementation of mental models from others by others. And somewhere along the way we become auto-domesticated animals (Don Miguel Ruiz) and start / continue upholding the resulting collection of mental models

    That’s my take from Wolinsky and his Maharaj, but I wanted to point out the False Core False Self construct – I find that very powerful and “correct”

    And enlightenment? I dare to say that I reached that a few years ago. I loved everything and everyone. That didn’t last long though; you and yours get screwed on a daily basis so there’s no place for enlightenment in today’s society.
    I call myself de-lighted now :)

    Cheers,

    Martijn

  8. Philip says:

    just watched Stephen Wolinsky https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=411&v=vmagVPyHeBo At 7.10 mins part 2 he clearly says there no enlightenment as there is no self- seems to be many similarities with Jim and Tony. He has many non spiritual tendencies. Maybe not such a radically different message, it appears to be an ancient message and I’m sure we have discussed there could be various paths before. For example I’m sure John Gray has presented another path- the wiping away of the nonexistent self. Maybe many are trying to get to this message at the moment. It seems the future will offer only partial material salvation and I’m sure more people are realizing a humble approach may help with coping.

  9. Brutus says:

    This is such a fertile ground for navel-gazing and semantic traps. Normally, I’d dive right in (mostly with criticisms), but I’ve no need to prove anyone wrong or myself right. That just makes me weary. However, your self-examination and refusal to take responsibility does give rise to modest consideration of my own fatalism.

    My personal sense of a profound lack of control over most outcomes tracks against an appreciation (similar to John Gray’s cynicism or indeed Pollard’s Laws — not yet lodged in the public sphere) that despite the appearance of planning and design, no one is really driving the bus when it comes to culture and history. Sure, one can design and build a bridge to spec, but the wider sweep of human endeavor, including most of the contents of consciousness, is more like water blindly seeking its lowest point. But to embrace that attitude too assiduously on a personal level, even though I recognize my total vulnerability to developments well outside my everyday experience, robs me of choice and agency in a way I simply don’t accept. It also handily absolves me of responsibility for, well, anything but principally my own behavior.

    Although I can certainly screw my thought into the pretzels needed to rationalize a conclusion of omnipresent fatalism, and even though it might on some levels be correct, I find it too easy and self-serving, not at all admirable. So while I adhere to the reality principle in most aspects of life, here is one where I’ll fly in the face of instructions from my betters, well intentioned or not, and strike out boldly in a direction I believe more salutary.

  10. Martijn says:

    Hi Brutus,

    I’d agree with you there. It is what it is

    I don’t worry about outcomes I can’t influence – most certainly not about the motives behind any; where is the ROI in that?

    Responsibility. Admirability. Choice and Agenda

    Those we all have and get, it’s just their extent that keeps us busy

    If you can’t accept something, try to change it. If you fail to change that exterior, change your perception. If you fail to do that too, walk away

  11. 1in7.6B says:

    I have a picture of an idiotic Clever Ape over my bathroom sink.
    Damn! Just realized it’s a mirror.

    One of my favorite bumper stickers: “If you are so damn smart,why aren’t you rich?” ;-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.