(image by Darren Hopes from NewScientist.com)
Frequent readers of my blog are likely aware that, beyond my creative works, my posts focus mainly on two subjects:
(1) how the world really works, what state our civilization is in and what we can do to prepare for its inevitable collapse, and
(2) what it means to be human, and who ‘we’ as individuals and cultures really are.
As a result of an extremely stressful situation late last year, I have been preoccupied in recent months with the second subject, and in particular with discovering some means of better coping with both chronic and acute stress. For most of my life, depression was my primary coping mechanism; more recently my body has responded with ulcerative colitis outbreaks. These are understandable but obviously maladaptive responses to stress. The epidemics of depression, attention dysfunction and autoimmune diseases in modern western societies suggest that I’m hardly alone in this. I have labeled these, collectively, “Civilization Disease”, and just about everyone I know is afflicted. “The whole earth is our hospital”, TS Eliot wrote, and his prescription for the disease (perhaps consistent with John Gray’s objective of achieving “an attitude of contemplative gratitude”), is stillness:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
One avenue I have been exploring in my search for a means of coping with this existential Dis-ease is the notion of “self-less-ness”, the idea that there is no “self”, no “I”, no autonomous separate being with free will or agency or control over what happens or doesn’t happen to the body or its contents. The idea is that if I can get my body to appreciate this viscerally, to stop furiously trying to do and be what it cannot, then the self-inflicted damage that Civilization Disease wreaks upon me might cease, or at least abate.
But though I can appreciate my self-less-ness intellectually, I seem incapable of the difficult task of feeling it, experiencing it, realizing it, seeing “through” my self, which is constantly asserting its existence and making this body (and at times others’ as well) suffer for it.
I have recently been studying three approaches to overcoming this incapacity, all of which suggest that it may not require 10,000 hours of meditation or other practice:
1. Gary Weber’s free-online book Happiness Beyond Thought. Gary outlines a series of practices, traditional and modern, that he says can lead you to what he calls “awakening”. He writes: “It is the clear recognition that we aren’t our thoughts or the stories that we tell ourselves. We aren’t the bodies that we worry about so much. We aren’t the sensations that we crave and fear. We are the already present happiness, the still awareness beyond thought within which all of this occurs. That awareness is beyond fear, beyond suffering, beyond death itself… There is a knowing of a deep ‘yes'; of acceptance that you are not in charge, in fact that you are not. Rather than seeing that deep stillness as an observer, you dissolve in that deep stillness. You realize that you are that and have always been. There is an unshakable certainty, a knowing of completeness, fullness and limitlessness beyond any doubt. ￼￼￼￼There is also the knowing that this is nothing special, nothing special at all and that no one created it or has it as an achievement. There is the wonderment that it could have been overlooked for so long as it is so clear, intimate and simple.”
2. Thomas Metzinger’s book The Ego Tunnel. Thomas argues that the illusion of self arises because the model of reality (and of self) that the evolved brain creates to function effectively is integrated, coherent and transparent (i.e. it doesn’t seem to be a model at all; it seems to be real). It is a conundrum to try to rationally appreciate that it is a model when the only tools we have to achieve that appreciation function within that model. He writes: “The Ego and the Tunnel (the way we perceive the world and our ‘selves’) are evolved representational phenomena, a result of dynamical self-organization on many levels. Ultimately, subjective experience is a biological data format, a highly specific mode of presenting information about the world by letting it appear as if it were an Ego’s knowledge. But no such things as selves exist in the world. A biological organism, as such, is not a self. An Ego is not a self, either, but merely a form of representational content—namely, the content of a transparent self-model activated in the organism’s brain… We could say that the system as a whole (the Ego Machine), or the organism using this brain-constructed conscious self-model, can be called a ‘self’. A self, then, would simply be a self-organizing and self-sustaining physical system that can represent itself. The self is not a thing but a process.”
3. Experiential Guides using the method of philosopher Ciaran Healy. Healy learned that it is possible to recognize the illusion of self by examining the reality of experience, by just really focusing on ‘looking’ at how we actually experience our ‘self’ until we see that it does not exist. Some iffy groups (like Ruthless Truth) emerged to try to beat down participants’ (perfectly understandable) resistance in order to ‘help’ them in this realization. The group I recently joined is gentler (and completely free, run by volunteers), and is called (a bit hyperbolically) Liberation Unleashed. Its sole purpose is to help others “see through the illusion of the separate self” and then deal with the meaning and consequences of that realization, which they describe (in Zen terms) as “walking through a gateless gate”.
These approaches all have their detractors, from those who warn that the consequence of this realization will be suicidal nihilism, to those who see it as a means of unhealthy detachment from genuine connection and empathy with other humans, to those who hold that such realization is a tautological impossibility and hence can only be self-delusion.
Ilona, one of the founders of, and my ‘guide’ at, Liberation Unleashed, has been helpful in getting me to the following realization, but so far no further; this is my most recent message to her:
In the book Figments of Reality, Stewart & Cohen describe us as ‘complicities’ — self-organizing collections of cells and organs. Organisms, including humans, are just another level of aggregation of this complicity for mutual benefit, up to the highest level, which we call Gaia, an apparent collective consciousness that clearly has no controlling ‘self’. Thinking back downwards from there, if these complicities have no self, is there some fundamental constituent that does? Clearly not. Again, I get this intellectually, but experiencing it as real still eludes me.
So to answer the question about what these seemingly coherent collections of memories and experiences and beliefs ‘are’, if not constituents of a ‘self’, I guess they are analogous to a ‘program’. I often tell people “you cannot be other than who you are”, which I suppose I might restate as “what you think of as you is just a program that has evolved to help your body’s complicity survive and thrive in concert with the rest of life on Earth”. Then we get into the semantic debate about whether that ‘program’ is one’s ‘self’. Hopefully I will be able to work my way through that next.
[So my concept of ‘self’ is that] it is a program (or set of programs), a set of memories, ideas, beliefs, experiences stored in neurons in my brain (and in my gut), that the constituents of my body use to decide and act (e.g. to fight a disease parasite, to run from an attacker, to console a hurt friend) in a way that is optimal for the health and survival of the collective, the complicity that comprises what I self-identify as ‘me’ and the complicity of my community and of all-life-on-Earth. The content of these memories, ideas etc. are all stories, which don’t exist; they are just ‘made up’. But these memories, ideas etc. do exist and collectively they comprise what I might choose to call my ‘self’. There is no ‘I’ in control of them or in control of the process/program that determines how they are drawn upon to produce decisions/actions. But as valid as the description of ‘self’ above seems intellectually, I cannot seem to transcend the intellectualization of it and experience or feel ‘self-less-ness’.
(The concept of ‘presence’ is similarly an illusion, an invention; in fact the entire conception of “now” and “present” and “time” is just a useful modelled representation of apparent phenomena in the ‘real’ world, much as the scenes in a film (and the pixels that display them) are useful and compelling representations of reality. As scientists (even Stephen Hawking) are now realizing, time does not exist either (and formulae about the real world become much simpler and more precise representations of reality when the concept of time is done away with). Somehow it becomes easier to believe the self does not exist when something else (time) that seems to exist is understood to be a fiction. So when I say that I want to learn to be more ‘present’ to cope better in the moment with stress, perhaps what I really want is to appreciate viscerally that there is no me to be ‘present’ and no present to be ‘present’ in. It is hard (but exciting) to imagine what that might feel like.)
One of the veterans of Healy’s experiential guides approach, who calls himself (or herself) GhostVirus2011, has become disenchanted by the high failure rate of the guides and the number of people they have alienated by their rigorous (or some might say obstinate) approach, but is still in the process of trying to formulate a better ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to personal ‘liberation’ from the perception that the self is real.
The key element in the approach that the guides lead you through is called “looking” at your direct experience. As valid as my conception of ‘self’ as a program (as I described above) may be, I am told it will not be of any use in ‘realizing’ self-less-ness. Ilona is clearly impatient with my intellectualization, and I can appreciate why. (It is the same impatience I have experienced from swimming teachers and dancing teachers and music teachers who say I am ‘overthinking’ what I have to do, that I should just let go and do it.)
Ghost has a whole post just on what this “looking” process means, but essentially it is quite similar to the process in meditation of being aware of your thoughts (conceptions) and recognizing them as such and letting them go, so you just focus all your attention on your experienced reality: what you are perceiving, what you are sensing, what you are feeling, what you are doing/moving — until you realize that these perceptions and sensations and feelings and motions (collectively “noticings”) do not require an actor, a self, a noticer, and that the imagined self and ‘its’ thoughts just get in the way of that realization.
This may not require 10,000 hours of practice, and the realization may come in only a few seconds of focused noticing/looking, but it is not an easy or explainable step-by-step process; some have compared it to the struggle you have seeing the ‘hidden’ alternate view in an image or the sense of 3-dimensionality when looking through a two-lens stereoscopic viewer or achieving balance on a bicycle for the first time. Ghost says it takes courage and honesty but perhaps what it takes most is focus, determination and perseverance; Ghost’s own breakthrough came as follows:
I think more than anything, I was tired of having the constant headache from thinking too hard, in some ways I think that the pattern of self became exhausted and when I smashed through the dishonesty to look in real life, it was actually fatigue of the patterns that reinforce self. I think that break allowed me to realise that I was not in fact being honest. That was it… two weeks of fretting and all for the requisite five seconds of honesty to look at real life. That is how long it took me, when in reality five seconds is all that is required.
I have spent many hours over the last month trying to do this, and if as the guides say frustration is an indication you’re on the right track I must be very close. I do sense that I am close. I am skeptical about all this but persuaded by the sheer volume and diversity of people who have succeeded in this realization that there is something to it.
I’ll keep you posted, though if I experience a breakthrough, that in itself will likely be of no use to anyone other than me. If it happens, judging from what others have written, I expect I will not call it enlightenment or awakening, but rather just ‘realization of self-less-ness’. What might change over time as a result, in addition to my capacity to cope with stress, are some of the ways I interact with the world, including my writing (human languages are intractably bound up in this sense of self, beginning with pronouns).
I also appreciate that this ‘realization of self-less-ness’ is probably a one-way trip and a first small step to other changes that will happen in me. After all, the neurons in our brain have self-organized all our lives to reflect and sustain our self-centred worldview, and the sudden realization that there is no self will probably require some gradual rewiring to accommodate. Ghost describes it this way (I have taken the liberty of correcting Ghost’s spelling and grammar):
Suppose I dragged you to a mirror and said ‘you are a monkey, look’. When you looked in to the mirror, you saw the reflection of a monkey. Your whole world view would shatter. You look at your body, it’s covered in hair, you were always quite short, you look at the very primitive opposing thumbs and then at this point the brain will accept that its model of reality needs updating. Of course this would be quite a shock (being turned into a monkey overnight with my genetic transmorpher ray) but this is how the brain works when it comes to accepting an updated view of reality. Once you see there is no self, then reality is updated to incorporate this new fact…
There is further to go after no-self, so it is just one step on a much larger journey. If you have seen it once, that is crossing the gate. It is like taking sunglasses off and noticing the true character of reality. We cannot unknow what we have seen. Nothing changes after the realisation except you get a new angle on suffering and you get a sense of clarity. It is a subtle psychological knowing rather than being something overtly noticeable, so don’t get caught in the trap that there is some seismic shift that happens, or some transition to instant bliss. It is waking up to life as it is, and life is what it is to be experiencing this moment right now. You are still prone to misery, ecstasy, the full range of human emotions, but they cannot consume you in the same way.
This process seems appropriate for me at this moment. Sometimes you reach a stage in your life at which you realize the way you live is not working for you, and something needs to shift. I feel as if I am girding up my strength to walk away from an abuser after many, many years of silent suffering. The only difference is that my abuser is my self.
Walking away now.