Part IV – Chapter 31
With or without a self.
An experience I once had: as I came out of a meditation, I felt my mind tangibly slipping back into its habitual identity, as one might sink into a comfortable, familiar old couch. This insight suggests to me that our ego-identity is a sort of ‘mental habitat’, a set of mental parameters that we attach to because we have become used to doing so. But meditation teaches us that this tendency is not inevitable – we can get off the couch, and if we must sit somewhere sit elsewhere.
What is called ‘fear of enlightenment’ may simply be the centripetal force that pulls us back into our habitual identity. The individual self feels secure in the ego-shell it has manufactured for its own protection; it restrains consciousness from leaving its usual limited view on things and flying up high into the universal perspective. Without this tendency of resistance to change, we fear our “I” might suddenly dissolve and leave us defenseless.
One should avoid basing one’s meditation on a metaphysical or other ideological prejudice. Meditation ought to be a process of free discovery, rather than of imposing some preconceived notion on oneself. The way I figure it is: if there is some important basic truth out there, then it will make its appearance to me too eventually. This is not an attitude of lack of humility or faith, but one of respect for the efficacy and universality of meditation.
This is the attitude I adopt towards the Buddhist doctrine of “no self” (anatman). If the Buddha discovered through deep meditation that there is no soul, then everyone else ought to in time be also able to (if they proceed with similar enthusiasm). From a merely discursive, philosophical point of view, I am personally (as already explained above and in previous writings) not convinced of this notion.
However, this resistance to arguments that do not strike me as entirely logical does not prevent me from agreeing that it is sometimes appropriate in meditation to behave as if one has no self. Though I believe that it is the self that so behaves, I do believe it is possible to behave in a quasi-selfless manner. Thus, the Buddhist doctrine that there is ultimately nothing behind our impression of having a self, other than passing clouds of phenomena, can be used for practical guidance without having to be accepted as a theoretical dogma.
For selflessness, in the sense intended here, is indeed meditatively, psychologically and morally valuable, if not essential. To be cognitively truly “in the present tense”, you must get to ignore all the memories and anticipations that make up your phenomenal identity or ego. Indeed, even your underlying soul, that in you which cognizes, wills and values, has to abstain from making its intuited presence felt. By becoming de facto, if not de jure, absent, you make way for pure experience.
In meditation, then, we do hope for apparent if not real self-effacement. We try to get past the cognitively imposing impression of self, and attain some transparency of being. Our ego (the superficial self), which is an aggregate of phenomena, including all our modalities of perception, bodily sensations, emotions, fantasies, our life’s motives, the people we think about, and so forth – should fade away in the course of meditation. Likewise, our soul (the deeper self), comprising our being conscious, our willing and our valuing, apperceived by intimate intuitions, should eventually disappear.
Such disappearance need not be taken to mean that the soul is really nullified. It may be (in) there, yet cease to appear. The Subject of awareness is in fact present, but its awareness is not turned upon itself (as is its wont to do). There is a surrender of subjectivity, in favor of objectivity; a self-abnegation of sorts occurs. You cease to be a person in your own mind, and focus on whatever else happens to be present.
In this state of absorption, you have no name, no accumulation of character traits, no past, no future, no history, no family, no record, no intentions, nothing to think of or to do, no loves and hates, no desires and fears, no virtues and vices. Moreover, you forget your cognitive presence, your will to be there, your value judgments – and you just are. This state of self-forgetfulness makes possible a more universal consciousness, because self-consciousness tends to limit our vision.
It may well be (allow me to suggest it, as at least conceivable) that the Buddhist dogma of “no self” is a deliberate doctrinal lie, by the religion’s founder or later authorities in it, with the best of intentions – made on the premise that, even if this doctrine is logically untenable, it is useful to meditation, because the belief in it facilitates self-effacement. The intent in proposing this doctrine was not to express some theoretical truth, but rather to generate a practical consequence in a maximum of people. The intent was to get a job done – viz. to help people get to realization.
If believing there is no self more readily advances to consciousness without self-consciousness, and thence to universal consciousness, then teachers may do people a favor by telling them there is no self. But teachers could also admit to people that there is a self, or even just that there might be a self, but tell them they should act as if there is none. Even if the former method is perhaps more efficient, the latter method may still be effective. The ultimate result may be the same, although in one case we are treated as children and in the other as adults.
There is no doubt that – not only in sitting meditation, but also in moving meditations, and indeed in everyday life – self-awareness of the wrong sort can interfere with the clarity of one’s consciousness and the smoothness of one’s actions. Granting the self is a hurdle to ultimate insight, it has to one way or the other be annulled. A simple solution to this problem is to deny the self’s existence. Another, if more demanding, approach is to recommend pretending there is no self.
Thus, even if we do not entirely accept in the Buddhist idea of emptiness (non-essence or non-identity), we might yet reap its benefits and manage anyway to render our self inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The alternative method here proposed seems logically legitimate, because it acknowledges that the seeker cannot really know in advance whether or not there is a self, except by hearsay evidence (the reports of allegedly realized predecessors).
The anatman doctrine is far from convincing on a deductive level; therefore, it can only be proved inductively, by personal observation, if at all. The issue of self versus selflessness is a hurdle, but it must not be made out to be an impasse. If realization is indeed a human potential, then this hurdle can be passed over without resorting to dogma. So, if belief in selflessness helps, quasi-belief in it is ultimately just as good.
Concerning the above comments on the issue of self, the following objection may be raised. What about the more Hindu and Jewish doctrine of universal consciousness, viz. that it is consciousness of the grand Self behind all individuated selves, i.e. consciousness (to the extent possible) of God? How can that metaphysical interpretation be rendered compatible with the Buddhist recommendation (based on denial of whatever substance to any self) to forget the self?
We can argue that even if ultimate realization is consciousness of God (the reality of Self behind all illusory little selves), it can still be considered necessary to overcome one’s habitual, insistent focus on “I, me and mine”. And indeed, if we look at the moral injunctions of Judaism – and the Christian, Islamic and Hindu religions – the emphasis on modesty, humility and altruism is evident everywhere. It means: get past egotism, egoism and selfishness, and see things more broadly and generously.
If we reflect on this, it is obvious that no consciousness of God, to whatever degree, is possible without surrender of all conceit, pride and arrogance. No one dare face his or her Creator and Judge as an equal. One has to have an attitude of deep reverence and total submission; any disrespect or defiance would be disastrous. Even in a Zen approach, the attitude is one of utter simplicity, lack of pretentiousness. “You’ll never get to heaven” while flaunting your ego as usual.
 Presuming it is in fact possible – I cannot confirm it firsthand.