Some Reflections On The “Self”

Every once in a while I make some observations or have some ideas about what all this business of being a “self” is about.  Studying Buddhism is particularly challenging in this respect, as it’s central to Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, that there is no real self, and that clinging to a belief in such a real self is a major cause of all our suffering.

Insofar as I can grasp it, Buddhism tends to have a highly absolutist idea of what is “real.”  If something is “real,” it lasts forever and its nature is absolutely unchanging, it can’t be changed by anything outside of it.  This is a kind of absolutism beyond my grasp, for my ordinary self seems real enough even though I have no conscious beliefs that it will last forever or can’t be changed!

Here’s some thoughts that I was recently expressing to my friend and meditation teacher, Shinzen Young.

It’s obvious to me from my experience that I ordinarily experience a “self,” usually centered around my body and its experiences and thoughts, but that under some circumstances, my experience of that “self” can change radically.  I think back to psychedelic experiences decades ago, which was a pretty direct experience that everything could change drastically!  That did not convince me that there wasn’t any “self,” simply that my ordinary waking conception of it was just a specialized formulation, and if I had a real “self,” it was something much bigger and different.

When I sit in vipassana meditation on the experience of change and flow, do I experience a “self?”  Well, in retrospect, here in my ordinary state that I’m writing in right now, I assume there was a “self” there having experiences, but when I’m actually paying good attention to flow and not thinking about things like “self,” things just flow.  So, is the absence of experiencing a “self” the same as an experience of “no-self”?

I ask that because I find this whole “no-self” business very confusing.  I know I have read accounts of many altered states experiences where people said their sense of “self” was drastically changed, or that they had no individual “self,” they were just part of the universe, or perhaps the whole of the universe, or something like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of experience that I would want to get up and joyously shout “I’ve experienced no-self”!”

Although I don’t consider myself very skilled at meditating on flow, I would guess that I’m good enough that at times, if my sense of “self” was causing me suffering, I could at least partially deconstruct that “self” through observing flow.  My ordinary sense of “self” is, it seems to me, an emergent outcome of many more microscopic processes, and by shifting attention to observing those microscopic processes, they don’t interact in a way which promotes the emergence of this higher level “self.”  That would greatly cut the suffering because it would be far less a matter of “I” suffering, and I’m glad to have learned this skill.  That’s one of the reasons I’m going to make that my principal practice (unless reality changes) during our upcoming retreat, I’d like to be better at it.

We’ll just ignore for the moment the semantic problems of my saying “I” would like to be better at it…      🙂

Perhaps I will have some interesting observations or insights as a result of practicing the observation of flow on the retreat I’m going to, perhaps not…

John-Forest Bamberger
John-Forest Bamberger






    1. If we think about it from an engineering approach, how do we design an intelligent organism? First principle, it has boundaries between itself and everything else and it doesn’t confuse these. Hungry? Why not start chewing on your arm, it’s fresh meat, isn’t it?

      I am frankly confused about “egolessness,” “non-duality” and similar fashionable buzz words. Clearly it’s nutty to be overly concerned with ME, ME, ME! But I’m not going to chew on my arm, and if somebody physically attacks me I will defend myself. Those are built in biological rules, aps that come with the machinery, as it were. Balancing them with at least book knowledge, if not personal experience, that whatever/whoever we really are is something much bigger and more spiritual is helpful…

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