I’m getting started on a Dzigar Kongtrul book, It’s Up To You, that arrived here yesterday from Shambhala. I am glad to see it starts with a discussion of non-self.
Non-self is maybe my favorite understanding I’ve picked up from Buddhism. The Buddhist view of non-self, or selflessness, is something that appears to me like salvation. It’s very dangerous to be born, to be a person, to be any self. But what if there is no self here. Then there is still danger, but the danger seems diminished, and more manageable somehow. When we contact non-self, we realize that the imaginary self is much of the burden we’ve been carrying.
Our habitual way of thinking about consciousness persuades us that we have a self. I find it takes a bit of work to see how consciousness is not a self, that there is no self that’s conscious. But I have found it possible to contact this, and useful.
The “movie” of consciousness does not imply or require a self, but we sure are in the habit of thinking it does. We habitually project a self in or behind or underneath the consciousness we experience. We form this habit at so young an age that we have trouble seeing that it’s merely a habit, and has nothing much to support it.
Consciousness is part of the brain experiencing another part of the brain. It’s barely more remarkable a phenomenon than our brain responding to a “physical sensation.” There is not much more sophistication in the brain registering the brain registering a paper cut, as compared with the brain registering a paper cut. One is not drastically more difficult to conceive of than the other, I don’t think.
I’ll type out a bit of this first section of It’s Up to You:
Holding to an ordinary notion of self, or ego, is the source of all our pain and confusion. The irony is that when we look for this “self” that we’re cherishing and protecting, we can’t even find it. The self is shifty and ungraspable. When we say “I’m old,” we’re referring to our body as self. When we say “my body,” the self becomes the owner of the body. When we say “I’m tired,” the self is equated with physical or emotional feelings. The self is our perceptions when we say “I see,” and our thoughts when we say “I think.” When we we can’t find a self within or outside of these parts, we may then conclude that the self is that which is aware of all of these things — the knower or mind.
But when we look for the mind, we can’t find any shape, or color, or form. This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can’t actually be found — which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home. The house seems to be empty, but all the housework has been done. The bed has been made, our shoes have been polished, the tea has been poured, and the breakfast has been cooked.
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“Experience has itself.” — Chogyam Trungpa, responding to a student who asked what it is that has the experience if there is no self.