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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4. More Meditations

Chapter 4. Meditation on the self

Why (as is evident in the course of meditation) are inner and outer silence and stillness so difficult to attain? Because through our imagining visual or auditory phenomena (e.g. daydreaming or humming a tune), or indulging in emotions (such as joy and sadness, or physical feelings), or intending non-phenomenal thoughts (including attitudes, resolutions, likes and dislikes, and other postures of the will), or thinking verbal thoughts (mentally or out loud), or engaging in various bodily actions (in pursuit of sensations or other causes of mental events) – we are constantly producing mind.

This compulsive production of mental content could be considered as the main way we generate and perpetuate our ego (or false self). Without such mental furniture, the ego effectively disappears, leaving behind a gaping hole. That is, to even momentarily stop such mental production, achieving silence and stillness, is to come in contact with the underlying true self[1] sought in meditation.

All our inner and outer babbling and restlessness is, in this perspective, just a pretext to obtain and maintain the (illusory) comfort and security of having a more substantial ‘self’. The insubstantiality and elusiveness of the true self seems somewhat frightening to us, and so we work hard trying to produce a more substantial and manifest expression or substitute.

Meditation on the (true) self is daring to venture out into the empty internal space of egolessness. It is the adventure of inner space travel, more daunting perhaps than outer space travel.

Rather than dismiss the self on ideological grounds (as some people do, wishing to seem profound or fashionable), it is important to meditate on the self. This meditation consists in observing how we actually regard our self.

The sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ is perhaps first of all physiological – consisting of the inner and outer sensations I have of ‘my’ body, including touch sensations, smells, tastes, sounds and sights. At first, I naïvely associate myself fully with these sensations. I do not regard them as objects relative to some more central self; they simply are me. I cannot at first conceive of me as someone other than the person associated with this body, this face, this voice, this way of moving, and so on. It is only at a later stage, by means of intellectual reflection, that I can reject that instinctive view as inadequate. I may for instance argue that a person can lose an arm or leg, yet still remain the same person.

I may then look for my self within more psychological aspects of my experience. Most of us attach great importance to our emotions and valuations; they feel like true expressions of our deeper self. Our desires and fears, our joys and anger, and so on, all seem to intimately describe us. Yet, as we go through life, we may realize that all such self-expressions are not indispensable; we may change emotions, appetites and affections, yet still consider we are the same person somehow.

We may then seek to identify more precisely with our cognitions and volitions. By cognition, is meant the relation we have to apparent objects, whatever their status or nature seem. By volition, is meant the force through which we seem to determine physical actions (moving arms and legs, making facial expressions, etc.) and mental actions (imaginations, thoughts, valuations). But even here, if we reflect philosophically, we soon realize that although such acts may be expressions of some deeper self, they cannot be equated to it, because they noticeably vary in orientation and content.

The effective self must therefore be something more ‘abstract’. But this abstraction cannot be in the way of a concept, for a concept would not suffice to explain how I know myself to be the author of particular actions at a given time – a concept can only declare me the occasional author of kinds of actions. Therefore this abstraction must be assumed and recognized to be something non-phenomenal that is directly experienced. Hence, the idea of apperception or intuition of self.

Once this idea is philosophically understood, as here explained, one can with an effort of attention, become more conscious of one’s actual intuitions of self. These intuitions are generally present in everyday consciousness, but being very fine they require particular attentiveness. The most effective way to learn to notice the precise focus of self is in the course of sitting meditation, when one is maximally calm and contemplative.

Note well here: our knowledge of the self is direct and experiential; philosophical analysis only serves to eliminate inappropriate or incoherent views about the self, which interfere with our positive intuition of it. We intellectually disown what cannot logically be the self, so as to open the door to refined discernment of the self.

Thereafter, meditating on the self more precisely, one will at first identify it as the Subject of cognitions and the Agent of volitions (including valuations); this is an individual self. At a higher or deeper stage, if one perseveres in meditation and other virtues, one may realize and get to contemplate the universal self (or so we are taught by many traditions).

On the basis of the preceding insights, I would recommend the following as an effective meditation on the self[2]:

Turn your gaze on yourself; with eyes open, with eyes closed.

Anything phenomenal you see, hear, sense or feel is not you.

Think, without words: “this is not me”; move on from it.

What is left? Look for yourself. Do you find anything?

This meditation could be characterized as a ‘method of the residue’. It consists in eliminating from consideration sensory or mental experiences that cannot rightly be identified with the self (since it is non-phenomenal); we are then left only with the intuitive experience of it. Practice of this technique increases one’s sensitivity to apperception, teaching us to be aware of something always present in us to which we usually pay little attention because we are blinded to it by the more noticeable phenomenal percepts.

[1] This is often referred to by Buddhists as the non-self, or more paradoxically still as the non-existent self. But it would be more accurate to characterize it as the non-phenomenal self, to distinguish it from the phenomenal self (self in the sense of ego).

[2] This exercise is comparable in effect to the “original face” koan.

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