The Emptiness of Self
The fact that the self could be realized as empty was fascinating to me from the very beginning of my spiritual search.
“What could that mean?” “What would that be like?” These are the questions I first pondered.
Then I began to explore the spiritual teachings that seemed to point to no self. I saw significantly different styles of pointing and even different definitions of what no self was actually referring to.
After a while, it became rather confusing with regard to which teaching to follow or which method to employ or whether there was no method at all involved in a “no self” realization.
I remained influenced by some of the teachings and methods that I had encountered but I had to realize what “no self” was pointing to in my own experience. Anything other than “my” own direct experience was hearsay and conjecture. I even noticed that when teachers would try to point to no self, they would always add in their perspectives about it including what it looked like. Some would say “it’s like nothing is there” and others would say “It’s like there is a self there but it’s only an appearance.” These differing perspectives were filed in the mind as references, but I knew that I needed to investigate myself.
This is what was realized (and I don’t share this to suggest that this is what you should realize – in fact, I encourage you to investigate on your own):
I experienced states in which there appeared to be nothing – more like space inside and outside, where inside and outside dissolved. This experience was a bit like one pure, undivided space. And in that state, there was no self because there was nothing at all.
I soon realized that, although that state is rather fascinating, it wasn’t “no self” because in the next moment something would arise, perhaps a subtle or not so subtle thought or emotion. If no self is a state in which nothing is there, how does one account for these thoughts and emotions? I came to see that an experience of pure, thought-free space where nothing arises is a state. It comes and goes. Perhaps there comes a time when nothing ever arises, but that was not my experience with this state of pure, thought-free space. Things were arising. And when I looked closer, I didn’t see a problem with the arisings. I could investigate them and then they would go away and that pure space experience would show up. But I couldn’t see a reason to prefer the pure space experience over the “things are arising” experience. It appeared that only a thought would prefer one over the other.
I then began to see no self as like the awareness in which things like thoughts, emotions, and sensations come and go. This is like still recognizing that pure, thought-free space as somehow my real SELF and the thoughts, emotions and sensations as an imagined appearance of self. Not a bad realization, I must say. During that time, I spoke a lot about being. But being, just like awareness, is a confusing term. It seems to set up some sort of rigid boundary line between what is real (Awareness, Being) and what is not real (thoughts, emotions, sensations). When I looked closer, Awareness and Being were unfindable. They were equally unreal. They were seen to depend on thoughts like everything else, even though there was a realization that something seems to be here all the time regardless of what came and went. When I dropped the idea that something is here (Awareness, Being) all the time, the realization that something was here all the time dropped with it. I noticed I didn’t need that realization. It didn’t feel like “no self” to me. It felt like a mental construct dividing life into two (what changes v. what doesn’t change).
At some point, I developed the Living Inquiries and began to investigate every single notion of self, other, world, being, awareness, no self – all of it. It was like nothing was findable. But it wasn’t pure space. There was no preference for pure space, being, awareness or anything. Whatever was there, was there. Whatever was not, was not. Every time I thought something existed inherently, like a self, or like awareness, when I looked, it couldn’t be found. And yet, life went on in all its diversity of pure space, thought, emotion, sensation, experiences, realizations, color, shape, relationship – all of it. They all seemed like mirages, equally.
Because of that investigation, now it doesn’t matter. The term no self has no significance to me. It is not more or less important than the notion of self. Some might say, “Well, that’s truly no self, to see that.” But it doesn’t show up for me that way. Life just happens without concern for whether there is a self or not a self. The question of whether there is a self fell away.
If I were to give any guidance at all, I would simply say “be careful.” Sometimes we are having an experience that we think is permanent and our minds want to say that this experience is no self. The mind loves to think it has found something, a realization for example. Then the experience falls away or the realization changes. Mostly, when we are influenced by what teachings say, we begin to pick up the concepts of that teaching and the concepts mold the experience or realization. But when those concepts are investigated, the teaching as well as the experience and the realization collapse.
My guidance would be land anywhere you want with any kind of teaching, pointing or guidance. But don’t be fooled. Sooner or later, if you look into your experience the right way and challenge what you think you know or what you seem to be realizing, the collapse is inevitable. The collapse, for me, was the sweetest seeing because there is no sense that I have to or even can build back up the notion of selves, no selves, awareness, being, etc. None of it can even get off the ground, not even the notion of an inherent collapse. And this is why I’m enjoying life more than ever now. Whenever something seems to get off the ground, I ride that wave for a while and then it collapses into a “I really don’t care about that anymore.” Then I just go watch TV or go to work, like everyone else.