Self and No-Self

A fundamental dichotomy between subject and object, I and other, self and world characterizes all profane experience. And because the subject, self, or I seems to be a finite and ephemeral entity, existing in a world of finite and ephemeral things, it, too, appears inescapably destined for decay, suffering, and death. Such is the "human condition"—at least, so say our humanist philosophers, who counsel us to face the reality of our situation and make the best of it.

But is this our real situation? Is it our true condition? Not according to the world's great mystics. The Hindu sages called this division between 'I' and 'other' maya, an illusion. The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, insisted that "if we will see things truly, they are . . . intimates of the One that is bare of any kind of multiplicity and distinction," [1] and the Sufi master Ibn Al 'Arabi, wrote: "Know that you are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination." [2] Perhaps the Buddha summed it up most succinctly in his doctrine of anatman—literally, no-self.

According to the mystics, then, the 'I' you believe yourself to be is not who you really are. In reality, you are something else, something which strictly speaking cannot be named. Names distinguish and confine, whereas this something is "bare of any distinctions," is unconfined, unlimited, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. Nevertheless, for purposes of discourse it has been called by many names, including God, Brahman, Buddha-nature, Allah, En-sof, and Tao. Such is the testimony of the mystics. But where does the truth lie, with them or with the humanists?

This is a question of momentous import—not only because of its profound implications for a new worldview, but more intimately, because your own ultimate happiness. depends on the answer. If there really is a self, then decay, suffering, and death certainly are your destiny. But if, as the mystics claim, this 'self' does not truly exist, then there is no 'one' to be born, no 'one' to grow old, no 'one' to suffer, and no 'one' to die. The only way to find out for yourself which is the case is to make your own inquiry.

The function of inquiry is to uncover your true identity. It is a practice of self-observation which aims at isolating whatever you believe yourself to be in order to determine empirically (i.e., by direct experience) whether or not you truly are that. Consequently, a good place to begin is to make a list of some of those things you currently think of as comprising your 'self'.

Although different people hold different assumptions about themselves, a typical list (for Westerners, at least) usually includes a body, emotions, desires, thoughts, habits, gender, etc. If you feel you have a psychological or spiritual component, the list may also include such entities as an ego, psyche, or soul.

The Domain of Inquiry

The next step is to start testing these assumptions against your own actual experience. But this is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, when you try to examine experience closely it often presents itself as a disorderly stream of sights, sounds sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc. Moreover, what order you do find is usually one which you have inherited from your culture. Thus, much of your experience comes prepackaged with conceptual labels and meanings you have learned from others. To guard against such preconceptions, as well as to clarify exactly what experience is, it will be useful to try to define it in terms that are as simple and neutral as possible.

First note that all experience takes place right here—not necessarily 'here' in physical space, but 'here' in the space of your awareness. Thus, though you may be intellectually convinced that Paris exists while you are sitting in New York, it has no sensory existence within your actual experience. If you happen to be thinking of Paris, then what you are experiencing is an idea or image, which means that within your actual experience, Paris has only an imaginary existence.

Likewise, all experience always occurs right now. That is, even a memory of a past visit to Paris, or the expectation of a future visit, is always remembered or expected in the present. Thus, experience can be defined as whatever is happening in the here and now, or (as we shall call it) the total field of consciousness-awareness, and it is this field of consciousness-awareness that will constitute your domain of inquiry. By defining the domain of inquiry in this way, you can then limit your practice to a concern with only what actually arises in consciousness. All speculations about what mayor may not exist outside of consciousness can be safely ignored because they are unverifiable in your own experience.

Second, it will be useful to divide the total field of consciousness-awareness into subfields in order to establish a nomenclature for identifying its contents. A convenient way of doing this is to distinguish between sensory and non-sensory phenomena. Sensory phenomena may then be classified in terms of the five sense fields in which they appear—i.e., sight, sound, sensation, taste, and smell. All the other non-sensory phenomena—such as thoughts, memories, fantasies, images—can then be relegated to a sixth field of consciousness which may be called the imaginary field. Within the context of this classificatory scheme, then, there are only six possible kinds of objects which may be experienced: sight-objects, sound-objects, sensation-objects, taste-objects, smell-objects, and imaginary-objects.

Having thus defined the domain of inquiry and established a simple nomenclature for identifying its contents, you are ready to begin the practice of inquiry proper. Remember that the goal is to isolate and observe those objects in consciousness which you currently identify as your 'self'. Now, turn back to the list of the things you believe yourself to be, choose one—say, your body—and focus attention on it.

The Practice of Inquiry

Notice that the 'body' is not one object, but actually a series of objects, appearing in various fields of consciousness. If you look down at your torso, for instance, you will observe a sight-object in the visual field. If you listen carefully you may hear some sound-objects, like breathing noises and stomach rumblings, in the auditory field. If you focus attention on the sensate field, you will experience a variety of sensation-objects—tensions, tinglings, pulsings, aches and pains. Finally, if you focus on the imaginary field, you may observe a sequence of thoughts, such as "so this is my body. I didn't realize it was so stiff. Perhaps I should take up yoga..."—all of which being thoughts, are, of course, imaginary-objects. Now the question is which, if any, of these various objects is you?

Suppose you assume that you are all of them. The next step is to test this assumption. Look up at the ceiling. Notice that the sight-object, torso, disappears from consciousness. But have you disappeared? If not, then obviously you cannot be that sight-object. Perhaps you are the sounds your body makes? Paying close attention to these sound-objects, notice that they come and go. When they are gone, are you gone as well? If not, then you cannot be these sound-objects. Now, focus your attention on your bodily sensations. At first, these may seem to be solid and enduring objects. But, if you observe them for a while, you will realize that they, too, come and go. The ache in your elbow, the itch on your nose, the tingling of your skin are all constantly arising and passing away in the sensate-field of consciousness. What's more, if you observe these bodily sensations as you are falling asleep at night, you will find that as wakefulness vanishes they disappear altogether, even though you, the observer, are still present. Therefore, you cannot be any of these bodily sensations.

Nor can you be the idea-"I am my body"—not only because this idea also comes and goes, but because the bodily image it incorporates changes. That is, your bodily image of yourself as a two-year old baby is not the same as your bodily image of yourself as an adult. More over, while dreaming, the body you imagine yourself to be may be that of another person, or an animal, or even totally non existent (as when you witness some dream-scene from a disembodied perspective).

The point is, when you analyze what you call a 'body' into its various sensory and imaginary parts, and then observe these parts over a period of time, you discover that they are all impermanent and ephemeral while you, the one who observes them, persist. Therefore, you cannot be any of these parts, and since there is no body apart from its parts, you cannot be a 'body' at all.

Next, you must apply this inquiry to all the other items on your list. If you identify yourself with your emotions, you must watch them closely, observing how they arise and pass in consciousness. The same holds true for thoughts. All these objects-whether bodily, mental, or emotional—are transitory and impermanent while you, the one who experiences them, are not. Whoever you are, then, you are not any of these objects.

The End of Inquiry

Of course, no single session of inquiry is likely to convince you that you are not what you have been conditioned since birth to believe you are. During the course of your socialization, these assumptions about yourself have been so deeply woven into the fabric of your experience that they now dictate its moment-to moment form. Thus, to be effective, inquiry must be repeated over and over with respect to every facet of your presumed identity as you experience it under all kinds of circumstances. In other words, you must develop mindfulness—the capacity for continuous attention.

Most people find this difficult because their attention is undisciplined and readily distracted by desires for and aversions to external things. For this reason, inquiry must be augmented by other practices—such as meditation, morality, and devotion-designed to stabilize attention, liberate it from self-centered interests, and yoke it to a passion for truth. Inquiry, however, always remains the essential thread upon which these other practices are strung, for without inquiry they can easily degenerate into mechanical exercises and meaningless rites. In the end, only inquiry can awaken that Perfect Realization or Gnosis which explodes the delusion of self once and for all.

Through the relentless practice of inquiry one gradually comes to sacrifice the conviction that one could be any object arising in consciousness, even such a subtle object as an 'ego', 'psyche', or 'soul'. This sacrifice is accomplished through the attainment of non-conceptual insights—that is, insights which produce not only a new way of thinking about things, but a new way of experiencing them as well. And it is this experiential transformation that finally begins to undermine the whole edifice of maya by rendering it increasingly transparent. For as you cease to identify with any particular object arising in consciousness, it grows harder and harder to distinguish your 'self' from a separate 'world' in which these objects appear. Thus, in place of division you perceive connection. Behind multiplicity, you glimpse unity. Instead of disharmony, you observe harmony—the living Logos that embraces all being. In short, profane experience is gradually transmuted into sacred experience full of new-found beauty and joy. But despite this spiritual enrichment of your life, you have yet to uncover your true identity.

As the practice of inquiry approaches its final stage, attention naturally turns inward upon itself. Having examined and rejected the identification of self with every object arising in consciousness, it now attempts to discover its own source—i.e., the subject to consciousness. But this time, instead of finding another object to observe, attention finds nothing at all. This is the state of kenosis, or emptiness—so-called because not only have you failed to uncover any 'self', but because you have also utterly exhausted the whole practice. There is simply nothing more to do. You have entered a cul-de-sac, a dead end. Here, all passion subsides, all effort vanishes, and attention comes to a standstill. It feels like the stillness of death itself.

And yet it is here—right here—in the midst of this stillness, this death, that suddenly and spontaneously you Realize why your search for something distinguishable as your 'self' has proved fruitless: In Reality, no 'self' ever existed. In Reality, you have always been indistinguishable from all that arises in consciousness-not only bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc., but also and equally, mountains, rivers, people, and stars,—everything! What's more, all these things have themselves been indistinguishable from the total field of consciousness-awareness, or Consciousness Itself.

This Realization is Gnosis, the end of the path, the Truth that sets you free from all selves, all worlds, all destinies—indeed, all forms of distinction whatsoever—because all forms of distinction are now recognized to be only imaginary. Consciousness Alone is Absolutely Real, and Consciousness is who you really are.

Tat Tvam Asi

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1992. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart. NY: Paulist Press, 1981, 227.
2. Ibn Al 'Arabi. Ibn Al 'Arabi: The Bezels of Wisdom. NY: Paulist Press, 1980, 125.

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