Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self

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.
— T S Eliot, East Coker

Until I retired a few years ago I lived my life focused on the external world, and ignored the internal one. This is likely because I was a very reactive person, responding, mostly anxiously and fearfully, and sometimes angrily and shamefully and full of despair, to a world that seemed arbitrary, terrifying, unpredictable and out of any control. I hid for years inside my head, without ever really exploring what was going on inside it. I developed a chronic physical stress-invoked disease (colitis) because of it.

I was never comfortable with the skin of my self. It seemed a messy, ill-fitting and unfathomable fabric. My happiness seemed dependent on others and on serendipity, and because I have always seen my self as “the world’s most blessed agnostic”, I felt guilty for not being more grateful, and for being so unable to control my self to be able to share those blessings more with others. In one sense I was so self-absorbed that I was largely oblivious to others, and in another sense I was so completely ignorant of my self (my rare moments of self-exploration seemed pretty fruitless since they did not seem to change anything) that I pretty much allowed external events and people to direct my life.

With encouragement and time, I have during this decade become modestly more knowledgeable and aware of my self, and while that has enabled me and those I love to, as Tony Parsons puts it, “make the prison of the self more comfortable” (for me and them), it has also, paradoxically, made me aware of the helplessness of the self, made me appreciate, despite my enormous skepticism, that we have no free will or control over what we do or don’t do or believe, and, finally, led to the realization (at least intellectually) that the self is an illusion. No wonder I wasn’t comfortable with it!

My study of evolutionary biology has persuaded me that the instinct for survival was the evolutionary precursor to the emergence of the self and ‘self-consciousness’ in so-called intelligent creatures, those with the brain capacity to imagine their selves as separate from everything else, and to imagine (with reinforcement from others afflicted with this sense of self) that they are their selves and that the self’s limited perception of reality is ‘real’ reality. The entrained and embodied conception and perception of the separate self as real, which is drilled into our pliable brains from birth, is an evolutionary paradox — in the short run, it allowed our intelligent and gullible species to out-survive species not so afflicted, but in the long run, our selves’ alienation seemingly lies behind all human suffering and probably our species’ characteristic violence and the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

I should have listened to and trusted my intuition, since childhood, that there was something very wrong with my self. But it has taken me all these years to figure out that what was wrong with it wasn’t something wrong with ‘me’ (since there is no ‘me’), but that my self was just a maladaptive construct of my brain and body, something not real at all. And that the natural state of being for any healthy creature (which I keep ‘remembering’ in brief glimpses in peaceful or enthralling moments when my affliction of self temporarily drops away) is self-less.

That natural state, as Tony asserts, is not accessible or attainable by any ‘one’ afflicted with a sense of self. It is only realized when the self vanishes. Nothing ‘I’ do will make that more likely to happen. So the challenge now, having come to know, be aware of, and even begrudgingly like, my self, is to accept that ‘I’ am stuck with it, and to go on with my life in a way that is, at least, comforting and helpful to other afflicted selves who I love.

But if I acknowledge that I have no free will or choice, that what I conceive and perceive as the decisions made consciously by my self are simply (immediate) after-the-fact rationalizations of what I was inevitably going to do or believe anyway, how can ‘I’ possibly do this?

The answer is that ‘I’ can’t. Whatever ‘I’ do, or don’t do, is the only thing I could possibly have done in the circumstances. That doesn’t mean my future actions are predictable or foreordained, since those circumstances will change. But ‘I’ have no control over either those circumstances or what ‘I’ will do in them.

So I can live in a state of continuous exasperation over that fact, or just accept it. That doesn’t mean behaving recklessly or nihilistically — that would entail having a choice in my behaviours, and I have none. In fact, I have no choice over whether or not to remain exasperated for the rest of my life or to accept this reality. I may, however, be irresistibly driven towards people and practices that encourage its acceptance. Or I may irresistibly be drawn to people and ideas that encourage me to disavow my realization of my lack of free will and choice and move on to some other set of beliefs. It’s not in my control.

In any case, there will always be enormous social pressure on me, from other selves and from my own self, to believe I have free will and control, and to (appear to) exercise choice and responsibility accordingly (and these selves will no doubt reprimand me when they think ‘I’ have chosen badly). And there will always be an enormous cognitive dissonance between what now makes sense to me intellectually and intuitively, and the way our self-inflicted world behaves and what it believes (and what I have been so conditioned to believe that it’s hard to stop, except when those blessed ‘glimpses’ happen).

It will have to be enough to know this. And not to wait and hope, futilely, for ‘liberation’ from my self.

And to trust my instincts, which I sometimes sense are whisperings from outside the veil, when my self isn’t blocking me from hearing them.


Here is another transcript of one of Tony Parsons’ introductions at his radical non-duality ‘meetings’. Originally entitled Longing for Wholeness, it’s no longer on YouTube and I thought it was particularly eloquent (I posted a transcript of another of his introductions, All There Is, Is This, here):

In wholeness arises separation, the idea of being a separate person. It’s a part of wholeness. It just arises. It’s a sudden shift out of everything (wholeness), a contraction of energy within the body of a (suddenly “self-conscious”) person. That moment of separation happens at a very young age. Before that, there just everything, just wholeness. Everything is complete. Suddenly the energy contracts into the idea of being an individual. The tiny child suddenly becomes something within something else. Rather than there being everything, suddenly the child feels as if it is a something, the centre of something separate. A sense of self, of ‘me’ and ‘you’ arises. Everything outside the self seems separate: I’m here, and that’s all out there.

From that moment of separation, it feels like there’s a great loss. There is no longer everything, the wonder of simply beingness, there is this thing in here and the world is out there. Something has been lost. And from that moment on there is a seeking for that which has been lost. But nothing can be done. All the time there’s a sense of being a separate something, the separate something looks for wholeness. Seeking begins. And forever after in that lifetime there is a seeking for oneness.

What we see in the world (war, greed, fear), are expressions of a longing to come home, a longing for wholeness. All desire is the longing to come home. All apparent individuals in the world are seekers, but they seek different things to comfort themselves for the loss of wholeness. They don’t necessarily know that, but they seek to comfort themselves for what they feel is missing.

As soon as the sense of being a separate individual begins (you could call it a misunderstanding or a new, limited way of seeing things “in here” and “out there”), a lot of other ideas come with it. That moment of separation isn’t right or wrong, it’s what’s apparently happening, it’s ‘this*’ happening. And as the child grows in the world, s/he meets other apparently separate people (mother, father etc). And they absolutely believe that they are separate individuals and the ‘world’ is ‘out there’ and that we ‘relate’ to others — I’m something here and you’re over there and I have to learn how to live with you (or kill you, or whatever).

Out of that idea and belief that ‘I’ am now separate come other beliefs, such as that there is such a thing as time and there is such a thing as space — space between me and others — and that there is such a thing as a journey (that ‘I’ am now 5 years old and will live another 70 years or so and am on a journey going somewhere) because there is (apparently) time.

And if ‘I’ am on a journey and feel that I’ve lost something, that journey must have a meaning and a purpose. All of these ideas (time, purpose, meaning) come out of the belief in being separate, and convince us we are on a journey to somewhere.

Most of what we do on this journey is act to feel better about ourselves. The individual seeker totally believes (because we are taught that) that we have free will, and choice, and the ability to act, and that out of the action comes consequence, and that things happen as a result of that individual’s choice to act. And also the seeker is taught that if they want to make their life better, they have to choose between this or that, and act in a certain way. And they grow up and go to school and meet other people who tell them they are individuals with free will and choice. All of that comes out from separation, and all of those ideas are born in that moment of separation.

Of course, life in this world is not easy — there’s a struggle to succeed, and if there’s a failure the seeker is convinced that it is their failure and they have to put it right. The seeker grows up in this world and it can often be unhappy. We’re also absolutely sure that what is happening in the world is happening to us. This is happening to ‘me’. Everyone here is apparently sitting on a chair and ‘you’ probably believe it’s ‘you’ sitting there and that’s what’s happening. That’s how you’ve always seen things.

When seekers are unsatisfied with money, success, popularity etc and want to go deeper, they often look outside (at religion, therapy etc) for an answer. Some also look at something called ‘enlightenment’ because when they read about it it seems it might be the answer to this deep sense of loss, this longing for wholeness.

But, because they believe they are individuals, they find a ‘teacher’ who claims to be able to teach them that it’s their free will and choice to meditate, open their chakras, kill their egos or whatever, and that from that effort there will be a result. That’s how we believe it works.

All these ideas (time, destiny, control, purpose, free will, choice) keep the seeker totally locked in to seeking. Because what the seeker is actually looking for has never been lost, and can’t be known, approached, found, attained or grasped through seeking.

And it can’t be taught. People often say to me “there are many advaita teachers”. But there is no such thing as an advaita teacher. The meaning of advaita is unteachable. Advaita (what I call ‘liberation’) just happens — it is an explosion, a “boom!”a shift out of a contracted way of living and dealing with the world, into boundlessness. But because the seeker is always trying to learn or attain something, always moving and looking for something, it can never see. It’s impossible for the separate individual to see that, already, ‘this’ is wholeness. It’s right here. This is what is sought.

So the seeker goes on and on being taught and trying to learn or attain something the seeker doesn’t and can’t understand. Neither the seeker nor the ‘teacher’ really knows what liberation is because there is no such thing as a liberated or enlightened person. Liberation cannot be attained or known because already there is only liberation.

Few are open to hear that liberation is only realizable by no one. Liberation is about loss, about death, the loss of individuality, of being separate. Suddenly separation is no more, and there is that which is always sought. ‘Liberation’ doesn’t come and fill you — there is only liberation. But (the dream of) separation prevents the seeker from knowing that. Liberation can’t be taught because there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

This is a terrible message you’ve come to hear today. It’s completely without hope. There is no process you can follow, no ‘state’ you can find. No state of awareness. Awareness is, in reality, the process that initiates separation! Awareness of ‘something different over there’ is the beginning of separation. The child lives in beingness and suddenly becomes aware of something (its mother) and then there’s the space of separation. Liberation is not ‘awareness of’ or ‘knowing of’. It’s the end of the seeker, the individual, of everything that can ‘know’ anything. In liberation there is no knowing, simply beingness, simply life full on — that’s all there is. It isn’t happening to anyone.

There never was any ‘one’ to take ownership of or responsibility for anything. Liberation is total poverty and it leaves absolutely nothing, and in that nothing is abundance. But for no one. This is about the loss of you, and your separate life.

We can talk and share concepts together here today, and there could be clarity, but clarity is not liberation. This, what is being shared here, is not about the mind, not about understanding. I know people who could write this down clearly in words, but that won’t bring liberation. Liberation is a shift out of contraction into — “bup!” — you’re walking along and it’s the same old world and same old you and suddenly “Ah!” And it’s realized that no one ever becomes liberated. And thereafter there is simply being in wonder.

There is no expectation of anyone here today, because there isn’t anyone here. The most powerful thing that can happen here is energetically meeting the source of everything (which is nothing). Then the confusion can drop away (about the idea of time, free will, journey, meaning etc) and energetically there’s the sense of this contraction opening up into boundlessness.


* ‘This’ is Tony’s replacement for ‘all there is’ and hence for all descriptions of separate people and things (non-all-encompassing nouns and pronouns). When he says “the message that ‘this’ is telling you…” he isn’t self-aggrandizing by using ‘this’ instead of ‘I’, he’s asserting there is no separate individual, no Tony Parsons person. He acknowledges there is (apparently) a character named Tony Parsons, but asserts that there is no ‘one’ there, just what is apparently happening, and that the idea of a separate Tony Parsons person with free will and self-control and choice is an illusion, an idea.

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2 Responses to Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self

  1. Benjammin says:

    I’m familiar with what is being called advaita here… very simple since it’s always “right there” and in the background, experienced as a toddler perhaps. I see this as the feminine path to unity – no objective techniques, no teachings, but quite realizeable. Meditations are not to be devalued, though, as they are extraordinarily useful over time for one;s inner peace and perhaps bringing one more in tune, on daily basis, with “ebing nothing” ;}

  2. Benjammin says:

    *Being Nothing .. or being completely open, perhaps? Where lost is the illusion of individuality and energetic boundaries in the organism’s direct experience

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