Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist

Phrenology head

On the difficulty of getting our heads around “non-self”

A lot of people have trouble understanding the Buddhist teaching of anatta (non-self). That’s understandable, because understanding non-self is difficult. It’s a concept that it’s hard to get the head around.

People assume that “someone” has to be in control. They assume that they have a self that they somehow have to lose. And the thought of losing this self brings up problems: sometimes they fear that if they lose this self, then there will be no control (because someone has to be running the show). Sometimes they think that if there were not this “someone” in control, there would be no possibility of making choices: they assume there has to be “someone” who chooses. They wonder how anyone can live without a self.

The Buddha didn’t actually teach that there is no self. I, and other teachers, often say that there’s no self, but this is just shorthand for saying that the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist. The self you don’t have — the illusory self — is usually thought of as a unitary entity that sits inside you, pulling all your disparate experiences and actions into a single whole. It’s also in charge. And it’s conscious. You don’t have this kind of self — or in short-hand, you don’t have a self. Therefore you don’t have a self to lose, and those problems of “how to live without a self” don’t arise. You already don’t have a self, and you already do just fine. What you do have is an illusion of having a self, and that illusion makes you do less fine than if you got rid of it. The trouble is that once you believe you have a self, and you recognize that your self isn’t happy a lot of the time, you have to start wondering what kind of self you have. It’s obviously lacking! Maybe it’s broken! Maybe it’s not as good as other people’s selves! The illusory self becomes a real burden and gets in the way of our being happy.

See also

An important aspect of this illusory self is that we assume it acts consciously. It seems natural to think that there are decisions we make consciously (I decide to lift my arm and it lifts), and decisions that we make unconsciously (I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand rather than that brand of cereal, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed). But this is incorrect. Even our so-called conscious decisions are made unconsciously. Ben Libet showed back in the 1980s that there’s a burst of activity happening outside of conscious awareness when we make a “conscious” decision to do something, like press a button, and that this activity occurs prior to conscious awareness that a decision has been made. More recently, the ability to look inside the brain in real time, through fMRI, has allowed researchers to know what a person is going to decide a full six seconds before the person themselves. Decisions are made outside of conscious awareness, and although we think that we make decisions consciously, we don’t.

Here’s a video showing some of that research (I’m afraid you’ll have to manually skip to 47m 53s to see the relevant portion, although if you have the time it’s worth watching the whole video). [The original video was taken down, but this is the portion I was referring to.]

BBC Horizon The Secret You on Vimeo.

Many people think that this is a real problem because they assume that consciousness is the self, or that the self is consciousness. But neither of those things is true. This is all easy to accept once we’ve seen through the delusion of self, but if we’re still caught up in that delusion then it’s hard to process. There’s a sense of bafflement, or the whole question is dismissed as unimportant, or the problems with the self-view are acknowledged, but there’s a “Yes, but…”

Even if you’ve seen through that delusion, it’s hard to describe what’s actually going on, but it’s worth trying. One way of doing this is the form of teaching known as “direct pointing.” Direct pointing (as I understand it) encourages practitioners to look beyond their delusions to see what’s really going on, and to look at the delusions and to realize their inadequacy. The evidence for non-self is omnipresent and should be obvious, but we choose to ignore it. However we don’t all have access to that kind of guidance.

It’s also useful, I think, to try to give people models that better help them to understand conceptually what’s going on. I’ve struggled to come up with metaphors that help people understand non-self, and I think I’ve finally come up with one that is accurate and (I hope) helpful.

The Boys in the Basement

phren1Let’s start with the “boys in the basement.” This is a term that the novelist Stephen King uses to describe the unconscious creative forces that actually write his novels. (Feel free to refer to the “Girls” or even the “Beings” in the basement.) Any writer knows that the words we write emerge, mysteriously, from “down there” in some part of the mind which is intelligent and creative, and to which there is no conscious access. There is a conscious awareness of what “the boys” produce, but we never see them at work. Those of us who write are very grateful for the work that the boys do, down there in the basement. We know that “we” (the conscious parts of us) don’t write anything.

While most of us recognize the operation of an unconscious intelligence, we naturally assume that there is also a “conscious self” that is “up here” and that makes some, perhaps most, of our decisions, and that it relates in some way to “the boys” — that other part of us that’s unconscious. We assume there is a conscious self and an unconscious self: conscious decisions and unconscious decisions. But there is in fact no conscious self. There’s just an illusion of a conscious self. And therefore there are no conscious actions, in the sense that the conscious part of us does not act; it merely is conscious of actions as they take place.

The basement and the empty room

phren2Here’s a model to help you see how this works. It’s a model representing your brain, or your mind.

Imagine a building with a central atrium, from which several other rooms branch. The atrium itself is empty. The other rooms contain various members of “the boys” — think of them as subcommittees with voting powers. To maintain the metaphor of the boys in the basement, imagine that all the rooms connected to the atrium are actually downstairs. The boys in the basement inhabit separate rooms, and so are not a coherent group. There may be several of them in one room, and the group members can have discussions amongst themselves. Even within one room they are not united. And each room has a different “culture” as you would expect to see in separate groups of people. Some are more emotional, some more rational. Some take a long-term view, some are very short-sighted. Some are selfish, some consider the needs of others.

Some of the basement rooms have connecting doors, so that discussion between different sub-groups of the boys can take place, entirely outside of awareness. But in other cases the rooms are entirely separate, apart from the fact that they all open into the atrium, upstairs. Therefore the groups in the different rooms are not all in direct contact with each other.

The communications channels are actually a bit more complicated than this, because we are not simply minds. We are embodied, and bodily sensations and movements also act as means of communication between otherwise separate rooms in the basement. And when we act in the world, we perceive our own actions, and this is itself a form of communication — information flowing from one room in the basement, to the world, back to other rooms in the basement. Speaking, for example, is not only an action that we take, but data that we receive, and so verbal communication with others includes communication between different parts of ourselves as well.

This model attempts to reflect something odd about the brain. It’s based on the fact that the brain was not designed from the ground up, but evolved in fits and starts, ad hoc, and by adding new “modules.” The brain is modular, and some modules cannot communicate directly with some other parts. That’s why I see the “boys” as being in separate rooms. Now the boys may be split up, but they have to communicate, somehow. And that’s where the central atrium comes in. This room represents our conscious awareness. There is no one in this room. The atrium is an empty space. It’s merely a conduit for communications. Therefore, there is no “conscious decision-making.” There is no “conscious mind” that can make decisions. What happens is that there are some decisions — but only some — that pass through the atrium and that various parts of the mind are aware of. We call this conscious awareness.

There are also decision-making processes that take place entirely outside of consciousness. This is like the “boys” having discussions amongst themselves — sometimes just the boys in one room, and sometimes the boys in different rooms having discussions though their connecting doors. This direct mode of communication of course bypasses the atrium, so that some decisions are made entirely outside of conscious awareness.

In this model, there is no central “self.” What we are is a kind of community. None of the members of this community is in charge of the whole show. There isn’t even one part of this community that knows everything that’s going on. Decisions don’t come from one internal source, but from debate amongst many different aspects of ourselves. None of the “boys” is fixed or permanent, either. They’re all in a state of flux.

How this works

phren3To give an example of how this works, imagine a typical situation where there’s emotional conflict. Say someone has said something, and we’ve felt hurt, and we want to say something cutting back to them, but we are also aware that doing so may well lead to further conflict. I see it working like this:

We hear the cutting words. In one particularly deep and dark room in the basement, the message is taken as a threat. From this room, signals are sent down into the body, activating pain receptors in the abdomen. This is what we call “hurt feelings.” The parts of the brain that give rise to hurt feelings are ancient and not well connected to other parts of the brain. The creation of an internal painful stimulus is a form of communication among various rooms in the basement. In this peculiar, round-about way, one part of the brain communicates to others that there is a situation needing their attention.

Having received this embodied message, some of the boys who are more emotional may start clamoring for us to retaliate. Those messages pass through the atrium, and so we’re conscious of them. Some of the boys who take a cooler, longer-term view of our life suggest restraint. And those messages too pass through the atrium. Which will prevail? That depends on many factors, including past habits: are the boys in the emotional room stronger than those in the more rational room? Have they had more opportunity to be exercised in the past? But there is in effect a kind of debate going on. The atrium becomes a conduit for debate, although it’s not a debating chamber as such; the boys stay firmly in the basement, and only their messages travel through the atrium.

There is a debate, but there is at some point a resolution of the conflict. Let’s be optimistic and say that in this case the cooler parts of us make the stronger case and drown out the voices from the more emotional and retaliatory parts. The words, “I felt hurt when you said that,” emerge from one of the verbal parts of the basement. These words are not said by the “conscious mind” since there is no conscious mind that is capable of taking action. Instead, some of the boys send messages to the vocal apparatus and the words appear, straight from the unconscious. We may think we acted consciously (that’s a phenomenon we’ll look at in the next section), but that is a delusion.

The other person hears the words that have been uttered, has their own internal debate, involving their own “boys,” and they have their own response. Perhaps they are apologetic, and harmony between us is restored.

Acting and receiving feedback from our environment leads to changes within us. Our having acted, lessons are learned. Some of the boys are responsible for keeping track of patterns (in the past, this happened and that painful or pleasurable result ensued). The pattern “I did not retaliate and instead expressed that I was hurt” led to the result “I avoided further conflict and instead experienced harmony with the other person.” This correlation is logged, and will affect, in some small way, our future actions. This is how emotional intelligence arises.

In looking at brain activity, we see something very similar to the above. We see the deliberation of the boys in the basement represented as electrical and metabolic activity, which takes place before any conscious awareness of a decision arises. But the one thing I haven’t described is how we come to think that we consciously make decisions. Because there is a persistent and convincing delusion that when we say something like “I felt hurt when you said that,” we initiated the action consciously. We believe there is a conscious mind that makes things happen, even though no such thing takes place.

The “plagiarist,” and the illusion of self

phren4Imagine, if you will, another room branching off of the atrium. This room hasn’t so far been mentioned. It contains another of the boys, and this one is a control-freak. He observes thoughts and impulses passing through the atrium, and he thinks “I did that.” I call him “The Plagiarist.” He doesn’t act, but he thinks he’s responsible for everything he sees going on. He sees a thought going by in the atrium, and he thinks he did it. He’s aware of a decision being made as it arises in consciousness, and he thinks it’s his decision, even though he wasn’t aware the decision had been made elsewhere, in a part of the basement that’s inaccessible to him. He’s like a student who sees a classmate handing in an essay, and he says, “I did that.” The weird thing is that he genuinely believes his own story, much as, in some Buddhist accounts of Brahma, the god genuinely believes that he is the creator of the universe, although he was merely a passive observer of the latest version of the universe as it condensed.

The plagiarist, although he is nothing more than another of the boys in the basement, gives us the sense that we have a self that is conscious and in charge, that responds to incoming stimuli, deliberates, and makes decisions. The plagiarist is absolutely not a self. The plagiarist does nothing. He knows nothing except what passes through conscious awareness. He has no access to the true decision-making parts of the mind, and is unable to initiate any action. He is a mere observer. All he does is claim responsibility for actions taken by others of the boys in the basement, and he attaches the label “I” to them. “I” did this. “I thought that.” Even when those actions change and contradict each other, he still thinks they are his thoughts and actions. One moment “I” believe “I” want to get out of bed. The next moment “I” want to stay snug under the covers. The contradictions do not faze the plagiarist. He is convinced that he is in control. Buddhism calls him ahamkara, the “I-maker” and mamankara, the “mine-maker.”

I mentioned before, in passing, two examples in which we assume there are some decisions made by the conscious mind and other decisions made unconsciously. The examples are: 1) I decide to lift my arm and it lifts (a “conscious decision”), and 2) I’m swayed by advertising to buy this brand of cereal rather than another brand, but am unaware of how my choices have been swayed (an unconscious decision). Let’s look at each in turn.

1. I decide to lift my arm and it lifts. We assume that this is a conscious act: that the conscious mind made a decision to act, and an action followed. Actually, the decision to act was made unconsciously. We know this from neuroscience, where the activity that represents the decision to lift the arm takes place up to six seconds before we’re consciously aware that the decision has taken place. Say we’ve been asked, as part of a neuroscience study, to lift our arm randomly. The boys in the basement decide when a good time is, initiate the decision to act, the decision passes through conscious awareness, and the plagiarist, more or less instantaneously, says “I did that.” There is no conscious awareness of the decision until it emerges from the basement and passes through the atrium. There is still choosing going on. It’s just an illusion that it happens as a result of conscious choice.

2. In choosing one cereal brand over another, exactly the same process happens. In the basement, the boys take into account a number of factors regarding cereal — cost, familiarity, and the promises of excitement and healthiness (for example) communicated by the advertising we’ve been exposed to. The choice to buy the new cereal erupts into consciousness and the plagiarist once again says “I did that.” And so we feel we’ve made a conscious choice. When a scientist comes along and tells us that it’s likely we’ve been swayed by advertising, we may choose not to believe them, because we think we made our decision consciously.

Both situations are identical. Our problem is that we assume that the second case is an anomaly: that normally we make decisions consciously, and that that usual mechanism has been altered. In fact, all our decisions are made unconsciously, by the boys in the basement. The notion of conscious choice is an illusion.

Three experiments

phren5The evidence for non-self (that is, that the kind of self we think we have doesn’t exist) is omnipresent, but we ignore it as an inconvenient truth. We’re very much invested in the notion that we choose consciously. So here are three experiments you can do that will help you to see through the delusion of conscious choice. These experiments are forms of the “direct pointing” that I mentioned earlier.

Experiment 1: Seeing thoughts appear

Our thoughts should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to think before the thought appears. So just sit quietly, think “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?” and watch. A thought will appear at some point. Did you know what that thought was going to be before it arose? Can you see how your own thoughts are a mystery to you? Can you notice how, even though you didn’t know what your next thought was going to be, there was an instant sense of “I did that; that’s my thought”? Can you slip deeper into observing your thoughts appearing, and let go of that clinging and identification — let go of that activity of claiming thoughts as your own? Can you let the origin of your thoughts be a mystery to you?

Now you might think, Yes but … I consciously generated the thought, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” Well, certainly that thought arose in consciousness, and you (or your plagiarist) took the credit for it when it appeared. But how did you create that thought? Are you aware of any process by which the words were assembled, and presented to conscious awareness? That thought was just another product of the boys in the basement. It was not a thought generated by the conscious mind, because the conscious mind doesn’t do anything.

Experiment 2: Hearing words appear

Our words should be generated consciously. We should be aware of what we’re going to say before the words appear, fully formed. Now, we sometimes do have thoughts that arise (“I’m going to say this…”), rattle around in the mind, and then appear as speech. Those thoughts, of course, come from the basement. Although the plagiarist takes credit for them, they weren’t created in consciousness, but only passed through it.

Most of the time, though, when we’re in the flow of conversation, our words go straight from the basement to our speech apparatus. It’s interesting to notice this. So the experiment here is to notice how, in the flow of conversation, you hear your own words at the same time as the person you’re conversing with hears them. Become an audience for your own words, and pay as much attention to hearing your speech as if you were listening to someone else.

You’ll notice that you rely on hearing your own speech to know what you’re saying! You have no special insight into what you’re going to say before you hear the words spoken aloud.

Experiment 3: Observing actions

Switching from hearing to seeing, start to notice your hands, and other parts of your body, in action. Become an observer of your own body. Typing is a great way to do this, because your hands are in front of you and easy to see, and because they’re moving automatically. You don’t have to instruct your hands where to go — they just type on their own. Or observe your hands on the steering wheel as you drive. Notice that you’re not having to consciously instruct them how to move. They’re moving on their own. Your conscious mind is not in control. The most it does is to take the credit for bodily movements that are controlled by your unconscious.

Once again, you may think, Yes, but … I can consciously instruct my arm to move.” Well, it appears so. But when you think “I’m going to move my arm” this thought comes from the boys in the basement. If you observe such a thought appearing, you’ll notice that you don’t really know where it’s coming from. And the action that follows that thought also comes from the basement. There are times when you try to move your arm and you can’t — for example if you’ve been hypnotized, or if you’re paralyzed by fear.

Free will

phren6I hope can see from the above how free will and non-self aren’t incompatible. Actually, none of our decisions are made by a “conscious mind.” The best that happens is that some of our decisions become known in conscious awareness. But there is still choice happening. It’s just that it happens as a result of thinking processes that go on outside of conscious awareness, and which only later (if at all) pass into the “atrium” of conscious awareness.

It must be said, though, that “free will” is an inappropriate term to describe the kind of freedom to choose that is open to us. The term “free will” is hyperbolic, because our ability to choose is always constrained. We can decide that we’re going to be happy from now on, or that we’re going to stop thinking in meditation, but those things aren’t going to happen. It’s not that these things aren’t under our conscious control: nothing is under our conscious control. The problem is that our unconscious is not a unified thing: it’s composed of varying “basement rooms” containing different groups of “boys” with different agendas. One group of boys may say “Now we’re going to stop thinking” but there’s no reason that other groups should listen to them. Some of the boys are really very short-sighted and primitive, and are inclined to generate thoughts and actions that lead to unhappiness. We just don’t have the kind of unified self that we like to think we have.

But we can and do make choices, even if they’re selected from a limited menu of options. We have a relatively free will. In fact the more mindfulness we develop, the more free our will is.

Non-self and training

phren7Many Buddhist scriptures compare training the mind to training wild animals — especially to training wild elephants. We tend to assume, because we assume that there is a conscious self, that this represents the conscious self training the unconscious mind. But there is no conscious self, in the sense of a conscious entity that is able to act. What these metaphors represent is one part of the unconscious (some of the boys in the basement) training other parts of the unconscious (others of the boys in the basement).

Some parts of the mind are “wiser” than others, and are better able to predict what actions will lead, in the long term, to our happiness and well-being. Our problem at first is that the less wise, more short-sighted, more reactive parts of the mind are powerful and vocal. We may know, on some level, that yelling at people isn’t helpful or that resentment makes us unhappy, but it’s hard to resist, because the “boys” in charge of such actions are strong, and the other boys’ voices are weak in comparison. In fact for a long time we probably didn’t realize that these actions were unhelpful. Our evolutionary history tells us they are. But at some point some of the boys figure out that there are more helpful ways of behaving. From time to time they manage to “outvote” the other inhabitants of the basement, and we begin to associate those actions with pleasant consequences.

I gave an example of this above, where very ancient parts of the brain that keep track of patterns (this event in the past led to unpleasant consequences, while this other event led to a pleasant outcome) can be retrained.

In the elephant-training metaphor, the elephant trainer doesn’t represent a “conscious mind” or “self” training our unconscious forces, but a wiser unconscious part of us training less wise unconscious parts of us.

Where does the illusion of self arise from?

Phrenology Head diagramI don’t think anyone knows. I have a hunch, though, that it’s to do with how we create, in our minds, models of the world.

At some point in our early development we start to predict the future. We start to think in terms of “last time I wrote on the wall, mommy was angry; I’ve just written on the wall, and mommy will be angry again.” This is first of all done visually. We remember (see, hear) mommy yelling in the past, and remember how upset we were, and we imagine mommy in the future yelling again, and we feel upset. In this kind of mental activity, we have constructed not only a model of mommy, but a model of ourselves. We run this model of ourselves in various mentally simulated environments in order to predict the outcomes of various actions we take, and to predict how various future events might affect us. We end up with a model of ourselves in the substrate of our own mind. We create a kind of “mini-me,” or homunculus, in our imagination, and refer to it constantly in order to plan the future. Even when we recall the past, we are evoking this homunculus. Notice how, when you recall an event from the past, you see yourself as if from the outside, as one of the characters. You don’t see past events from an internal perspective, through the eyes of your past self, but from an external perspective, looking at a model of yourself in a reconstructed simulation of the past.

Could this homunculus be the origin of our sense of self? Do we in some way take this simulated character representing ourselves to actually be ourselves? I suspect we do. Just for clarity, I’m positing this homunculus as being at least part of the illusion of self. I suspect that we imagine this homunculus as inhabiting the “atrium” — as inhabiting the conscious space that exists in part of the mind — and as being the part of us that generates our actions.

If this is what’s going on, it’s a convincing illusion, but also a burdensome one: this imagined self, as I’ve suggested, is always found to be inadequate. It is dukkha, unsatisfactory. It is always being compared to other imagined selves, and this comparison leads to an inevitable sense of insecurity. That insecurity leads to aversion and craving, which lead in turn to increased, and unnecessary, suffering. And so to reduce our aversion we need first to train the mind to act less from aversion and craving, and more from mindfulness and compassion, and second to lose the belief we have in this illusory self, which we imagine to exist inside us, pulling the strings, and acting consciously.

I hope the model I’ve offered here will help you to dispel that illusion of a self, and to lay down the burden that accompanies it.

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140 Comments. Leave new

  • No self vs. no permanent self of Stoics, similar but different. The stoic system, it is more like “have you learned nothing? If you have learned, you are not the same as you were. Change is the only constant. We have no permanent self if we are in a state of change. When we identify with consciousness, the “I” does not include the body, and those thing we have no control over. We have only choice, desire, and impulse, and the inverse.”

    “the self does not know until the body, and six senses have formed an adequate impression.” (the mind and/or memory is considered a sense.)

  • I’ve often questioned the ultimate value of trying to “explain” the teachings of anicca, dukkha, and especially, anatta. Yes, an intellectual understanding is helpful but until one gains true insight into these factors it’s just something else to which we nod our heads in agreement. And, if these teachings are the core of reality, won’t we naturally come to embody them if we reach that point on the path? And if we don’t embody them by the way we act and live, then they’ just intellectual exercises, aren’t they?

    Your explanation is very good – in fact, I’m nodding my head in agreement right now.

    • To be honest, I think most “explanations” of anatta are pointless. Until you’ve had the experience of seeing through the delusion of self, you’re just playing with words, in a noble sort of a way, but in a rather futile one, too. Once you have had that kind of experience, though, you’re in a position to help people have the same insight.

      I’d say, no, we’re not necessarily “naturally” going to have insight arising. Much of our practice, or our attitude toward our practice, actually gets in the way of insight arising, and we need guidance. But yes, we do also, as you say, have to be doing other practice which “unselfs” us and reduces the amount of clinging and aversion that’s going on, to make it easier for insight to arise.

      The point of my article is to try to point people toward an experience of non-self, rather than just to understand it intellectually. The two — the model and the direct pointing — are, I hope, complementary.

  • so if we have a very limited control of our thoughts and actions then what’s the point of change efforts if we don’t control anything – how can we respond intelligently top anything and what’s the point of Buddhism if not to improve something or somebody………..doesn’t make sense

    • Are you assuming that because I said we have a limited option of choices when we use our free will, that the possibility of change is also limited? That wouldn’t follow. Here’s an analogy concerning walking: our ability to move when we take a step is limited — we can generally move less than a yard/meter with each pace. But small changes mount up, and there’s no limit to how far you can walk in one lifetime.

  • yes I it sounds like we have no control so why bother and then that idea is further compounded with the idea of no self ie – who observes responds and changes and takes the small steps if there is no one there to do the observation, response and change – there is no hope here with this theory – sorry but it doesn’t make much sense to me (I am interested to try and understand it better)

    • Well, I made it clear that there is (some) control. But you know that anyway, right? You know you can’t, for example, sit down to meditate and decide to stop thinking for 40 minutes. (OK, you can’t decide that, but it’s not going to happen because you don’t have that kind of control.) But you can notice yourself caught up in a thought that’s causing you suffering, and decide to let go of it. You do have that kind of control. And by exercising that kind of control repeatedly, you change yourself in ways that make you happier.

      You say there’s no hope. But why? Observation, response, and change happen already, even though there isn’t “anyone” there to do those things. So what’s the problem? Why is the illusory self so important to you?

      I’d suggest leaving this for a couple of days, and then coming back and reading the article again. I don’t think it says what you think it says…

  • You mentioned the word “yourself” at the beginning of the a I’ve response but then say there is no self – that seems a contradiction to me

    Who is the “yourself ” or myself if it’s an illusion?

    • We have to communicate, and avoiding the use of personal pronouns is impossible. There’s no contradiction between using the words “yourself” or “myself” and the reality that there is no self. Since the self doesn’t exist, the word “yourself” doesn’t refer to it, but to something else. What is that something else? Explaining that is part of the point of the article.

  • Hi Thanks – I think where I am struggling with this is trying to understand who is or what is the “entity” who observes the flow of thoughts and reactions whilst meditating – I understood this to be the self but apparently its not………..self is the same as ego and is the one who reacts to all the thoughts coming through…is that correct? So my question is what or who is observing these thoughts and reactions and thinking how crazy this is reacting to all that noise – this is me separate from the ego or self – or I am getting it wrong again?

    • There is no “entity” that observes. “Entity” implies one thing, while the brain is a conglomeration of modules, all of which are involved in one way or another observing different aspects of what’s going on at any one time, including when we’re meditating. There’s a fragmented committee observing and responding to your experience, not an “entity.” The notion of an entity seems compelling and natural only because there is one rather deluded part of the mind (the plagiarist) that believes that it observes and responds to our experiences.

  • You have me chuckling and I am only at the plagiarist. I can just picture someone saying “That’s me that is. I did that.” I think there is value in you talking about this prior to the practitioner having the experience if only to allay fears and put to bed unhelpful misapprehensions. I can picture myself in meditation though saying something like “Have I dissolved yet? No, I am still here.”

    • Thanks for the typo-spotting! Thoughts like “Have I dissolved yet” are fine — we can just notice them arising from nowhere and allow ourselves to be surprised by them.

  • In meditation I somebody stumble upon a stream of thoughts that are essentially an excerpt from a “fiction novel” regarding people and events that have nothing to do with me at all. I usually think “Where the hell is this stuff coming from?”. That’s where it becomes clear that writers are just tapping into this faculty but that we all have it and that writer’s block is losing the connection. Clearly, writer’s have craft, the ability to take story from their unconscious and put it on the page, structure the narrative etc, but we all have the creativity.


    Regarding speech, I am sure everybody must have blurted something out and then afterwards realized how terribly clever, witty or right what they said was, or just laughed at their own words as hard as anyone else because they just got the joke at the same time. Reminds me of the time I took my elderly dog to the office even though it wasn’t the done thing. I mused as I walked in that if he were called “Thor” I could tell everybody it was “Take your dog Thor to work day”. He crapped at the office door as we went in. At 3am the following morning, I woke up with the thought “Take your dog turd to work day!” and laughed so hard the wife thought I was having a heart attack. Of course, I couldn’t get to sleep after that. All that to concur that we have no idea about thoughts until they spring up into consciousness.


    As you know, I have been going through a very fraught week with some real emotional storms. During this time, I have been sat in meditation and my body has started to rhythmically rock back and forth with absolutely no intention on the part of my illusory self. I sat there and observed these very controlled muscle contractions. Clearly some part of me knows how to rock and doesn’t need any help from the conscious mind. What is interesting is that it demonstrates your point so clearly that the movement was completely unconnected with any kind of conscious intent. I could have made it stop but that didn’t seem like a good idea.

  • I think this is a brilliant analogy and really helps those of the boys down there in my basement who have a long term view on what’s best for the world. It helps because it makes clear how meaningless those judgements that ‘I’ am not good enough are, which can be such a waste of energy.

  • Thanks you! I really enjoyed the article. In listening to “The Power Of Now,” by Eckhart Tolie. This article – Boys In The Basement helped me fully understand what Eckhart Tolie was talking about being in the moment to seeing your thoughts to understanding the ” I Am.”

    • One key difference between Tolle and the Buddha’s teachings is that the former encourages us to see something (awareness) as being our true selves, while the Buddha said we should regard nothing as our selves. At least I think that’s what Tolle is saying — I’ve only read one of his books and it was a long time ago!

  • Adélaïde
    October 6, 2014 2:59 am

    Thank you Bodhipaksa for this mind-blowing article, which is very clear and totally makes sense to me – at least on an intellectual level (getting rid of this false belief may take much more time…)
    But now I’d like to put this article in a broader perspective, that of evolution, and share a few questions with you. From an evolutionary point of view, a modular type of brain sounds perfectly logical. Primitive brains must have only beeen made up of a few basic modules, the “primitive boys in the basement”, which work quickly to provide an quasi-instantaneous emotional response such as fight or flight. Very useful in natural dangerous situations which require urgent reactions. But in some other situations, it is rather a burden… The brain of some animals slightly evolved by the development or the addition of new modules, one after the other, whose responses may be more sane and reasoned, but slower too.
    And here come my questions: which kind of advantage did the atrium (consciousness) and the plagiarist (false self) modules gave to our ancestors and still give to their offsprings, including us? Why did these modules survive to natural selection? If consciousness doesn’t take any decision, what is its usefulness? And what is the point of the illusion of a self, which advantage does it give us for survival and reproduction?

    • Thank you, Adélaīde. I have to say that I’m not a neuroscientist, or a evolutionary biologist, or whatever the specialty is that would study these things. So all I can do is make some guesses.

      I’d imagine that as the brain gets larger, communication becomes a problem, as often happens when organizations grow. The ideal would be a global communications system, where any part of the brain could communicate either directly with any other part, as with direct messaging or telephones in a large business, or with the whole system, as with group emails. But you can’t retro-fit systems like that into an evolved organism. So what you end up with is something more like I’ve suggested, which is similar to a communal bulletin board (basically, the atrium). Now two parts of the brain that don’t connect directly can communicate indirectly. That’s important when an organism needs to be able to draw on all the internal resources available to it.

      The survival advantage lies in being able to consider more factors when making decisions. For example without some form of self-awareness we would simply have competing instincts, with the strongest instinct winning. So where there’s danger and opportunity in our environment (for example going into a cave is dangerous, but may lead to us having a better shelter) the bravest individuals will be the ones that go into the cave. They’ll be more likely to gain the rewards, but also more likely to be killed. An individual who is more reflective can consider lots more factors because she or he can draw on more learning drawn from past experiences.

      As for the plagiarist, I think that’s just an accident. In formulating scenarios about the future (if I say this thing, then that person might respond in this way, but on the other hand if I say that thing, then they might give me another response) we’re building up models of others (which is handy for predictions) and of ourselves. And I think we end up believing that the “mini-me” inside is really us. It’s not unlike how primitive people would imagine gods everywhere. The problems of having a false view of ourselves mainly come into play in terms of how we thrive as human beings once our basic survival has been taken care of, so I don’t think that those problems seriously conflict with our survival, while having an inner model of ourselves is obviously a useful thing.

  • Since it’s been brought up, and while I don’t think it in any way diminishes the analogy, it’s definitely simplified from what’s actually happening in the brain.

    The communication benefits of the empty room, for instance, are necessary for the sequential processing of information and other more complicated cognitive activities, so it’s of extreme evolutionary significance. Higher order abstract reasoning or planning would probably be impossible without it.

    As an example, if you try to do a math problem in your head, unless you happen to be a human calculator, you will find that not only do you have to remain consciously aware of the numbers that you want to manipulate in order to actually do anything – the numbers have to be in the empty room to be worked on – but that as each step is completed by the boys in the basement, you’ll become consciously aware of the resolution of that step – it resurfaces to the empty room – and you cannot jump to the next step without that awareness having first arisen.

    This pattern exists for anything that requires the sequential processing of information. No empty room, no planning, among other things.

  • Very interesting and well written analogies and article Bodhipaksa. I will admit one thing, while reading the article, I found myself constantly thinking “he’s going to explain just WHO the boys are any minute!”, I found that this key consideration went unanswered. :) I did not find out who the boys are, how they got there, how they form their decisions that they communicate around the ‘building’ and sometimes through the Atrium. Perhaps you can offer some words here, about the boys, Bodhipaksa? I’d love to know more about them. :)

    • The “boys” are just different modules that have evolved in the brain. When people talk about us having a “reptile brain,” “mammalian brain,” and “human brain” that’s part of it. We also have a left brain and right brain that barely connect. Some parts of the brain are verbal and some aren’t. Some parts of the brain are very emotion-driven, and some are more rational. We have important parts of the brain, like the basal ganglia, that keep track of “rules” and correspondences (“this happened in the past and a bad thing happened, so be afraid”) that can’t communicate directly with the neocortex, which makes more informed decisions about how we act. The brain is a kludge :)

  • Ah ok, that makes a lot of sense. It does feel a little like the not-self here is actually the self reduced to mere biological machinery? …… an evolving kludged brain that is actually behaving like many disparate and non-collaborative, individual pieces, and an empty atrium. I wonder how this, as Buddhism, differs from pure materialistic explanations of the universe and life; that it’s purely mechanistic? I just wonder where the mysticism has gone, where Buddhism seems to be reduced to the not-self meaning simple no self whatsoever, and the illusion of existance, against a lanscape of biological robotics. What have I missed? Thanks.

    • There’s nothing materialist about this explanation, and consciousness is not being dismissed or reduced to “biological machinery.” In fact nothing is being said here about the origins of consciousness or its relation to matter.

      The point is not that consciousness is involved with the brain (which it obviously is, although I’m not qualified to say anything about the nature of that relationship), but that consciousness is not one single entity, and is more like a committee.

      We assume that there is this “thing” called a self, but consciousness is not a unitary entity.

  • Wow! Like ringing a bell. I have struggled with some of these concepts for a long time. You really have brought it to the surface for me to look at. I have definitely experienced that sense that “I” am not doing that. “I” did not think that. I have also struggled with the whole pronoun thing. Thank you so much for this. It has given me a lot to “not” think about:)

  • Great conceptual analysis but isn’t Realization non-conceptual. “Who is still searching for what”
    Anum Thubten. Where does Buddha-mind fit in?

    • Realization is non-conceptual, Joe, but we can only communicate our experience conceptually. That’s what I’m doing here — trying to communicate my experience so that others will have a better understanding of how it is that we function day-to-day despite not having selves. Part of what holds people back from realization is that they simply can’t imagine how it can all work. Post–stream entry this is much easier, because we have the “factor of the clarification of view,” which is simply another way of saying that now we’ve “arrived” it’s easier to see which paths lead here and which don’t: something that it’s not possible to be clear on pre–stream entry.

      I hadn’t thought about exactly where “Buddha mind” would fit in, because it’s not a teaching that I’ve explored in a long time (I assume you mean “Tathāgatagarbha,” or Buddha-Nature). These days I focus mainly on the Pāli suttas, because I want to get as close as I can to the Buddha’s original expression of his insight, and the Buddha said nothing about Buddha-Nature.

      If by Buddha-Nature is meant just “the potential for awakening that all beings have” then I guess it would point to the non-self nature (or emptiness) of our being. Everything we experience is a clue pointing at the fact that we lack a self, and yet we habitually ignore or misread all of those clues.

      If by Buddha-Nature is meant something like a “true self,” then I’d say that that’s not a useful teaching, since the Buddha was encouraging us to go beyond identifying anything as our selves.

      If by Buddha-Nature is meant that there’s some part of us that’s already awakened, then that part of us (if it exists) would be one of the boys in the basement — one that’s not able to communicate verbally to other parts of the mind. I think it’s quite possible that this could be the case, since we often find that we have knowledge or insight that we’re not aware of consciously. In that case what needs to happen is that the conditions need to be set up so that the awakened part of ourselves can somehow “educate” the other “boys” so that there’s a gradual transformation of the mind. Awakening in fact progresses in this step-by-step process, as shown by the model of the ten fetters, where there’s a progressing realization of non-self or emptiness.

  • Thanks for your patience Bodhipaksa. So help me out, where is the good news amongst this truth? …. Where is the liberation that is spoken off. I appreciate that clinging and attachment cause suffering but aside from them, where is the hope? I’m not challenging here, more I am sure I am missing something. I’m trying to understand the root of all this dismantled stuff. I can wholly accept that separateness is an illusion, and that there’s no individual self. But what then is the ‘whole’ that we’re not separate from? Is someing ‘being’? If not, then once again I am (perhaps misguidedly) left with nothing but a universe of pointless mechanics. That may be the truth but how then is Buddhism a path of liberation?

    • The good news is that we go around thinking that we have a “self.” But we’re not happy. We try to find happiness, but it’s elusive. Why is this? We assume it’s because the kind of self we have is broken, faulty, deficient. We hear about awakening, but we suspect, deep down, that it’s for other people only.

      Once we realize that we don’t have a static and fixed self, we lose the idea that our self is broken (the self is fluid, like water — water can’t be broken), and so we see that the way to full awakening is completely open to us.

      The loss of the idea of having a self is good news! It’s as if your doctor had diagnosed you as having terminal cancer, and so you’re upset and depressed. And then he calls you up and says that the diagnosis was based on a misreading of the x-ray. Now you feel something more like elation! Where before you looked ahead in fear, now you look forward with hope and excitement.

      The idea of the self is something we drag around like a heavy burden. It’s a huge relief to set it down.

  • I read the article and it was very interesting. It did clear some of the confusion in my head but it also created some new ones as well.

    Without going to deep (until I know I am on the right track), is it safe to say that our consciousness, the “self”, the “I”, or whatever people refer to, is nothing more than an awareness that comes into existence as a result of bringing all the organs together and functioning with one another harmoniously? Just the same way when it has to snow when certain atmospheric conditions arise all at the same time giving rise to snow.

    Assuming the above statement is correct, could I further assume that every thought that arises in this body, such as, walking, reading, making decisions, etc. are originating outside of this consciousness in the subconscious mind, also known as the higher-self, spirit, super consciousness, etc. which enter the “atrium” (per the above article) and the human mind perceives this as its own thought process, thus, believing it was the self who actually came up with all those decisions?
    As a comparison, I look at it as if I created a robot with artificial intelligence that matches that of a human being. I program it based on my own personal behavior and past experiences and send command to accomplish certain tasks, but the robot being so smart, starts to believe it is an entity of its own and all the commands received were actually originating in itself; therefore, making it believe it has a “self” and is totally independent.

    You see, there is no way for me to actually verify 100% there is no self. At least not at this stage of the path to enlightenment. I have to accept the Buddha’s teaching until I can see it for myself. The one fact that is stuck in my mind and does not let go is that if there is no self, there has to be a command center that effects our actions, thought, motivation, etc. and that has to reside somewhere. It seems it is not in this body and that is acceptable to me. So I assume it is in the subconscious mind which resides outside of this realm where all past and future memories, karma, etc. are stored and are responsible for the cause and effect principle that Buddha kept mentioning.

    • “Is it safe to say that our consciousness, the “self”, the “I”, or whatever people refer to, is nothing more than an awareness that comes into existence as a result of bringing all the organs together and functioning with one another harmoniously?”

      No, the “self” is an idea we have about (for want of a better word) ourselves. And although I aim to dispel the illusion of self, I wouldn’t try to take a reductivist approach to consciousness itself.

      What you’re trying to do is to hold onto the idea that you have some kind of “self,” but you’re moving it into abstraction as a “higher-self, spirit, super consciousness.” There is nothing that constitutes a self.

      The robot analogy is an interesting one, but again I suspect that you’re trying to say that the robot’s “self” is actually outside of it, sending signals in to the robot’s consciousness that “you” are the robot’s real self. I think it’s problematic to try to split the “self” into two beings in order to illustrate its workings.

      What I’d suggest you do is to read the article again in order to understand the analogy on its own terms, rather than trying to create a new analogy. Your new analogy is based on your current way of seeing the self, and so it doesn’t work. The analogy I’ve used is based on my having seen through the illusion of self, and if you try to understand it rather than generate new ones, then you’ll open the way to a new understanding arising. If you try to understand my analogy and bear it in mind while observing your experience, noticing thoughts, words, and actions “just happening,” then it all might click into place on a deeper level.

  • I totally see your proof. I get it. But I am still stuggeling with something. I understand that the decisions come from the “boys in the basement” and actions too. But there are times when the action or behaviour is inappropriate and “something” stops it. For example one of the boys sees something he wants in a store and makes to take it without paying. But “something” steps in an veto’s the action. Is that just another of the “boys”? Is there some other, over riding, function that has veto power?

    Secondly, if I run with your model, who is responsible for wrong actions? Actions that harm other people? Can a criminal say, “it wasn’t me, it was the boys in my basement”.

    Thirdly, I can see from your analogy that “I” don’t make decisions, they are made by the “boys in the basement”. How then to explain those times when I feel like I need to make a decsion or when I am torn between two actions and can’t decide?

    • Based on your questions, I don’t think you have got it yet. Sorry!

      “There are times when the action or behaviour is inappropriate and “something” stops it.”

      Yes, you’re correct. The “something” is just another voice from the basement.

      “If I run with your model, who is responsible for wrong actions? Actions that harm other people? Can a criminal say, ‘it wasn’t me, it was the boys in my basement.'”

      We all have to be held responsible for our actions. We all are responsible for our actions. We all say things like “I don’t know what came over me” or “I wasn’t myself,” but that doesn’t let us off the hook morally or legally. It’s just that there’s no self that’s responsible for our actions.

      “How then to explain those times when I feel like I need to make a decision or when I am torn between two actions and can’t decide?” At such a time there are two (at least) different groups of voices in the basement, equally balanced.

  • Thank you for the response given on October 23, 2014, 11:33 am. I just wanted to make sure I understood everything. You see, I may think I understood the concept but deep inside I may have not. I am not sure how to truly check that.

    So after reading the article and your post again, am I correctly understanding that the “self” is nothing more than an observer. If the arm moves to scratch the head, it was already planned and was about to be forwarded to the muscles in the arm subconsciously. “I” only realized this command after it entered the “atrium” believing it was actually me who decided to do so. Correct?

    I further assume this is the reason why the Buddha mentioned to perceive mental conditions but to let go rather than making it agitate the mind. For example, anger arises. If we realize there is no “self”, we automatically find it quite easy to note the condition, let it go, and watch it disappear. After all, “I” am just an observer in the “atrium”. Just the same way 2 individuals get into an argument and get really angry. That will not make me get angry because I know I am just the observer and there is no reason to stir up my mind over that.
    Is my thought process correct?

    I was wondering, when one has an out of body experience, what exactly is that? An extension of “self” on a different consciousness level?

    • Hi, Sam.

      We can’t really understand the concept of anatta until we’ve seen and accepted its reality. But it’s helpful to try to understand it intellectually, since this challenges our presuppositions of the self’s reality.

      If the arm moves to scratch the head, it was already planned and was about to be forwarded to the muscles in the arm subconsciously. ‘I’ only realized this command after it entered the ‘atrium’ believing it was actually me who decided to do so. Correct?

      I agree 100% with the first sentence. If by “I” in the second sentence you mean “the part of your being that believes it is in charge” (also known as the “sense of self,” or “the plagiarist”) then I agree 100% with the second sentence as well. The problem is that it’s hard to know sometimes what people mean by terms like “I,” even when they’re put in scare-quotes!

      For example, anger arises. If we realize there is no ‘self,’ we automatically find it quite easy to note the condition, let it go, and watch it disappear.

      Very much so. When we believe in a self, we’ll either judge that self for being faulty (after all it’s an angry self that hurts others) or we’ll blame others for “making us angry” because we want to preserve the idea that the self is actually good. It’s other selves that are at fault.

      After all, “I” am just an observer in the “atrium”.

      I’d replace the word “I” here with something like “My sense of self” — just for clarity, and not because I think there’s a problem with saying the word “I.”

      I think you’ve correctly identified one of the benefits of losing the belief in a self: there’s less blame goes on. It’s not that it’s then OK to go around being angry, just that there’s less “pride” at stake and so it’s easier to deal with anger. It does still have to be dealt with; the more spiritually educated boys (or girls) in the basement have to train their more volatile brethren (or sisters) to respond less dramatically to perceived threats.

      As for out-of-body experiences, I’ve never had such a thing happen to me. If these things happen it’s a great puzzle: how can one see or smell in the absence of physical sense organs. Can one also taste, touch, and smell? (I don’t recall anyone mentioning those senses, although that may be a fault of my memory.) But leaving that aside, assuming that in some way one can extend perception outside of the body, in a way analogous to having an audio-visually equipped flying drone at one’s disposal, that doesn’t change the basic mechanism I’m describing. It’s just that the sensory inputs are coming from a different source.

  • Okay, I haven’t got it yet. So what am I missing?

    • I can’t really say, because there are many reasons why someone might not “get it,” Larry. The most common reason, though, is that the belief that there is a self is very powerful, and can prevent us from seeing the obvious for quite some time. It can take years of preparation before we’re ready to see the reality of anatta: something I’ve written about here. On the other hand it can sometimes happen very quickly.

  • The teaching is very rational and experiential. But I wonder how we can reach a conclusion that ‘stuff just happens’; that there is doing (action, verb), but no doer (noun). When we have realized that there is no self as we understood self to be (which I am 100% convinced by), no central ‘controller’ of actions (other than the delluded plagiarist) and that actions such as breathing, speaking, but also thoughts and volitions are actually not being instigated by the deluded self, how can we therefore no that *nothing* is controlling them? ….. How can we rationalize that stuff is therefore just ‘happening’ with no ‘thing’ holding the real volition, the real control? ……. Hindu Advaitans would agree with the same ‘no self as we think of it’ teaching but would differ in that the stuff that we now know ‘just happens’ (that we’re not controlling), must therefore be controlled by *something*. They’d call that something ‘Brahman’; but would not define it further. They’d just acknowledge that as there is no separation, as reality is actually non-dual, then the ‘one’ thing that has all this activity ‘just happening’ is Brahman. To be fair, yes this hypothesis cannot be proven scientifically, or even rationally. But is the Buddhist conclusion to ‘no self’ (that the actions have no central overseer) and less hypothetical? We can categorically see that the ‘individual self’ cannot be pointed at, and is not real, but beyond that, whether we then follow that ‘there is no doer, only action’ or that ‘we are not the doer, but Brahman / God / An controller that we cannot know is in charge, surely both are assumptions?

    • Hi, David.

      “How can we therefore no that *nothing* is controlling them?”

      I don’t say that nothing controls our actions, just that there is no one thing that is in control. Rather there is a loose bundle of interacting control centers, which can’t function in the way we assume a singular and defining self does.

      “…no central ‘controller’ of actions (other than the deluded plagiarist)”

      Just to be clear, I’m suggesting that the plagiarist actually does nothing but plagiarize, so it’s not a controller. I think you get that, but I just want to make sure there’s not a misunderstanding.

      “But is the Buddhist conclusion to ‘no self’ (that the actions have no central overseer) any less hypothetical?”

      It’s not a hypothesis, but the lose of one, that takes place when we surrender our already existing idea of a self. We all start off with the idea that we have a self, and then, at stream entry, we lose that belief. Of course in trying to explain how the illusion of the self arises, I have to present myself in words, which makes it sound like I’m presenting a hypothesis.

      The form of your argument here is similar to those where theists say that atheism is a belief, and therefore the absence of a belief in something is of the same nature as the presence of a belief. But as a long-term atheist I’d reject that equivalence. My atheism is “not having a belief in God,” not “believing that there is no god.” Similarly my “anatta-ism” is the lack of a belief in a self, not a belief that there is no self.

  • Thank you Bodhipaksa for the lengthy reply.

    I was reading a section from Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso regarding what happens to mind after death (https://meditationinfortlauderdale.info/reincarnation/). Isn’t the mind and the “self” same thing?

    The more I read the more confused I get lol. I suppose that is normal at the beginning until I can sort out everything.

    • Hi, Sam.

      Mind and “the self” are not the same thing, for reasons I’ve pointed out in the article: the mind is not one thing, but a collection of interacting sub-processes.

  • Sam, Tibetin Buddhism has some specific beliefs of it’s own (standing alone from Theravadan and some Mahayanan schools) concerning the ‘self’, rebirth etc. Tibeten Buddhism tends to favour belief in a permanent sub-statum of consciousness that moves from life to life, per the laws of cause and effect, and Karma. To some Buddhists there is some form of ‘self’. All would agree not the self of the ‘ego perspective’ as we tend to believe, but some other form of ‘massed’ self that moves between experiences and/or lives.

  • Thanks David,
    Being new to Buddhism, I read a lot about it and I am making sure I do so from reputable sources. Still when I try to connect the dots, not all do. As you said, there are different interpretation from each school of thought.

    The whole idea of no self does make sense when I am mindful. So many activities that go on their own that I am not even trying to control. It is very obvious the self is certainly not a unified entity under my control. Honestly, the concept of self never really intrigued me until recently, only because of what I read. In the past, what really mattered to me was how our accumulating experiences and actions are transferred from one life to another. To me this was the “self” and I never gave it any thought if it was a changing or fixed entity, because I knew it was learning, changing , and adapting by going from one life to another. But now I am being told the whole concept is not valid. So where does karma reside? Maybe it truly does not matter. Knowing it will probably won’t help along the path of enlightenment. All we should know is there is karma that sets the conditions for the next life.

    Then I come across the article (link is in above post) that talks about the mind being the storage of all experiences and karma that is passed on from one life to another. To make things even more complicated, having out of body experiences, it makes me think even more what it is that can separate itself from the body? An extension of “self” maybe?! Or is it the mind? OBE feels as real as when you are awake. You have access to all of your thought processes and current memory. You just have no body, thus, no senses. Interestingly enough, you do have visual. I wonder if it is a true visual sensation or just a visual imagination present in the mind. If you need to communicate, you just think and it is done. If you need to go somewhere, you think about it and it is done. You can even see your body lying there. It is a very interesting experience and certainly life changing. It is a long story, but if it wasn’t for all of this spontaneous OBE, I would have never been so intensely attracted to Buddhism. Whether it was pure hallucination or not, I am glad I experienced it because I learned about Buddhism. Now you see what makes all of this very confusing in my head.

    I suppose continuous meditation and mindfulness will shed some light into all of this at some point. Many facts that made no sense to me whatsoever couple of years ago, are a lot more clearer today; beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not being able to comprehend everything will certainly not extinguish my desire to continue.

    • I’d suggest caution in reading Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s article, some of which flies in the face of the Buddha’s teaching. For example the Buddha would have been rather scathing (he had a sharp tongue!) in response to “our body and mind are separate entities,” or “the mind simply leaves the present body and goes to the next life.” GKG’s viewpoint is highly dualistic, in the Cartesian sense, and completely incompatible with early Buddhist teachings.

  • Thanks for the comment. I realize I should not accept everything I read for granted. I suppose it is wise to only concentrate at what is truly important to follow the path of enlightenment. Where karma is stored and how exactly it is passed on from one life to another is not important. All that matters is realizing there is karma and we should do our best to create good karma.

    • Karma isn’t actually “stored” anywhere. If you put a match to gasoline in the presence of oxygen, you’ll end up with an explosion. It’s pointless asking where the explosion is stored before it happens. There’s simply an action that has consequences dependent on the nature of the materials involved.

      If you perform actions (karma) based on hatred or craving, you’ll end up experiencing suffering. If you perform actions based on mindfulness and compassion, your suffering will be reduced and your happiness will increase. Karma is not some mystical “thing” that is connected with your actions. Your actions are your karma. The consequences follow from the actions just like chemical reactions arise in dependence upon chemicals.

  • Hi Sam, this is my view (and I’m no scholar of Buddhism) and Bodhipaksa may not agree, but Buddhism is a “Via Negativa”. By that I mean that it is a path of negation; the Buddha taught almost exclusively what reality is not, what the self (as we perceive it) is not, even impermanence is a notion of all things being ‘not permanent’. The Buddha believed that enlightenment and the end to suffering, could be attained by breaking through delusions and illusions. In other words seeing things for what they are not. Early Buddhist texts like the Majjhima Nikaya talk of “Anatma” or “not self” and the Buddha’s teachings on these point to the truth that it is not possible to find any self within the substancial body. It is not possible to find any self, as we think of a self, or as we can conprehend a self. However there are also references to “Atman” (the Self) in the Majjhima Nikaya and other texts. Buddha did use the word Atman but always in a context that is hard to nail down. He usually said things such as that the ‘mind is not the Atman’, or the ‘feelings are not the Atman’. So again, Via Negative; saying what it is not. There were many examples however, where the Buddha did not answer questions such as whether there is an absolute creator, or whether there is a self that is beyond the material and mind based notions of self that we can contemplate. He stated that these questions could not be answered within our realm of the senses and and such, contemplating these questions was not part of the path that he taught. When one Monk approached the Buddha asking “Oh great one, I have spent my life doing good, with absolutel faith and conviction that there is a supreme god. Please tell me oh wise one that there is?”, the Buddha replied “There is no god”. When another monk approached the Buddha and asked “Oh great one, I have followed a path of goodness, and I know there is no supreme god, and therefore I am not attached to the idea of a supreme god, please tell me Lord Buddha, am I right?”, the Buddha replied “There is a supreme god”.

    The point here is that Buddha saw that the first monk was attached and clinging to the belief that there was a supreme god. The Buddha was being ‘cruel to be kind’ in crushing this belief, in order to help the monk cease his attachment to a god notion. But in the second case, the Buddha saw that the monk was attached to the idea that there is no supreme creator, and he took a similar action to help defeat that clinging and attachment.

    Above all, the Buddha told his followers to use their experience to form their view. This is why meditation is so important. Some people meditate and can thus see that there is absolutely no self or ‘soul’ behind their movements, thoughts and body. Other people meditate and experience what they perceive to be ‘something’ (we won’t call it a self!) that is observing the ‘activities’ of their reality. But just as a pair of binoculars can see the world in magnified detail – but can never turn and see themselves, thus *IF* there is a self, it is not possible to ‘see’ it, and everything that we can see is, as the Buddha said *not self*.

    The Buddha did say (also in the Majjhima Nikaya), “I do not, and I have never, taught the annihilation of the person. I have taught the means to become enlightened and cease suffering”. Many people and traditions like to “nail down” what Buddhism definitely is, and what Buddhism definitely is not. To some (particularly in the West), Buddhism is a rational, logical, philosophical path, free of any supernatural or spiritual notions. To others, the Buddha was mystical in not answering some questions about what is ‘beyond reality’. Without a time machine to go back 2,580 years, who is to say who is correct. The scriptures are there to be *interpreted*, and interpreted is the key word.

    • I agree very much that the Buddha taught a via negativa. He only said what is not the self, and never said anything about what is the self (contrary to some modern Buddhist teachers). His aim seems to have been that we have a complete lack of clinging to anything as the self — not the body, the mind, any part of the mind, or any mystical “atman.”

      I think it’s misleading, though, to say that the Buddha taught about “the Atman,” even negatively. When we hear the word “Atman” we think of the Hindu metaphysical “real self,” which is equated with the universal principle of Brahman. The word the Buddha used was simply “atta” which means “oneself, my self, your self” without necessarily having those connotations. The “self” that we need to lose our belief in is something more concrete than a “soul,” to use that term. It’s the belief in a coherent and conscious entity that is in control (or partial control) of us that we need to see through.

      Just a couple of things: I’m quite sure your story about the Buddha and God is fake. I believe it may have been invented by Osho (aka the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh) who was fond of making up stories about the Buddha. Since this event never happened, you’d have to look for another basis in scripture to support the lesson you draw from it. I’m not sure you’re going to find one.

      “Above all, the Buddha told his followers to use their experience to form their view … Other people meditate and experience what they perceive to be ‘something’ (we won’t call it a self!) that is observing the ‘activities’ of their reality.” This is potentially misleading. The Buddha never validated any view of the self being anything, let alone “the witness,” which is a very Hindu concept and one that’s alien to Buddhism. He was uncompromisingly radical on this point. I realize that you get to saying that if there is a self we can never know it, but on the way there you might leave people with the impression that if you think “the witness” is the self then that’s somehow a valid goal in Buddhist meditative practice.

      “I do not, and I have never, taught the annihilation of the person. I have taught the means to become enlightened and cease suffering.” Do you have a reference for that? I’m not quibbling with the quote, I just don’t immediately recognize it.

  • Nemanja Stefanovic
    October 29, 2014 9:10 am

    Hello Bodhipaksa,venerable sir. When we do vipassana meditation and get an insight into the nature of things,that is actually mind getting insight on itself,realising itself,thus insight into three characteristics comes to be. Seeing that there is “no owner” of psycho-physical phenomena,breaking the self illusion,actually somehow gives more sense of “I” like “Freed I” in terms like : “I” don’t have to act in this way no more,”I” don’t have to “react to reactions”… I realise that that “I” cannot be,because it’s conditioned,but the sense of freedom feels like i can do anything. Whole life is just a big role,rolling itself,but now mind well trained in compassion and understanding,which was always there,”sleeping” and not educated in the right way,”intervenes” and makes it all much easier. Somehow there is a feeling that it is not hard even when it is hard,don’t know how to explain it. Is there something wrong with this view?

    • Hi, Nemanja.

      Life definitely gets easier. Emotions don’t “stick” in the same way, so that anger may flare up, only to pass away very quickly. Apologizing seems easy and natural. So what you say here rings true with my experience.

  • Thanks for your response Bodhipaksa. I am sure you would agree, in spirit, that there are as many interpretations and ‘versions’ of Buddhism as there are Buddhists, and one person can not claim to hold the subjective truth and knowledge about a man that lives over 2,500 years ago. I appreciate that you teach what appears to be for all intents and purposes a Buddhism heavily inspired by the Triratna approach and arguably by Theravadan interpretations but even Theravad today, in 2014 CE cannot be the same as Theravadan principles of 2,500 years ago. Also, outside of the traditions that you are teaching, it is valid to point out that there are some quite radical differences in belief across Buddhism. Tibeten Buddhists certainly believe is a continuity of the mind that by implication is very comparable with the Hindu notion of the enduring self. My point is not at all to pur down or devalue your teachings or viewpoints but to politely suggest that when people new to Buddhism per se ask questions, we should perhaps make it clear that our answers for our interpretation of Buddhism. And where a significant number of Buddhists would hold an opposing view, it’s is “Right view” and “Right speech” to point this out. Your teachings on the self, by my reading, are inseparable from a notion of annihilation of the ‘personal identity’. This is inline with Theravadan teachers that I’ve known. If I am incorrect in this view, please point out how your teaching on self is not annhihilistic; but in direct terms, rather than metaphors such as “realizing there is no self, is like finding out that a terminal diagnosis was wrong”. That makes no rational sense because finding out that there is no self would surely be more the case of “living with a terminal diagnosis, then finding out you’re already dead”. How can the discovery that there is no self leave any ‘thing’ to experience the freedom and liberation. This is where annihilistic Buddhism just does not follow; the logic seems circular. If there is no self (of any concept; even outside what we can comprehend, or even a self that is part of a unified, whole self), who is striving for freedom and liberation? Who is meditating?

    • I don’t follow Theravadin teachings much at all, actually. I think you’re confusing the Pali canon with the Theravada. They’re different things. The Theravada have the Pali canon as their scripture, but they tend to rely much more on the later commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga, even when it conflicts with the suttas. I find the commentaries interesting and sometimes informative, but they’re not where my interests lie.

      What I am interested in is how the Buddha saw things, and the closest we can get to his expression of that are the early scriptures — not just the Pali canon but other Nikaya canons as well, although of course the Pali texts are the most easily available.

      So where later teachers disagree with major emphases of the early teachings — for example that there is nothing we should identify as being the self — then I note their opinions with interest and (for the most part) quietly ignore them. I think they’ve missed the point.

      …please point out how your teaching on self is not annihilistic; but in direct terms, rather than metaphors such as “realizing there is no self, is like finding out that a terminal diagnosis was wrong”. That makes no rational sense because finding out that there is no self would surely be more the case of “living with a terminal diagnosis, then finding out you’re already dead”.

      If you don’t mind, I’ll deal with the metaphor in attempting to answer your question. The “self” I say doesn’t exist is an idea we have that there is some unified “thing” inside us that is really us, that perceives, and that (usually consciously) makes decisions. (I thought I’d pointed that out in the article.) That kind of self doesn’t exist, and as long as we believe in it we’ll experience unnecessary suffering because we believe that there is something inadequate about this self. It’s a delusion we hold that causes us pain, like a mistaken notion that we have a disease when actually we’re healthy. Losing such a delusion is a relief because you are, after all, healthy. Likewise, losing the delusion of the self is a relief, because we discover that there’s nothing holding us back. You’re more alive having lost the delusion of self, not less. There’s no question of anything being “dead.” Presumably you think that there would be “death” because you identify with this self and think it is going to die. But nothing dies, except for a false belief in an entity that has never existed.

      How can the discovery that there is no self leave any ‘thing’ to experience the freedom and liberation.

      One might as well ask, “How can the discovery that you don’t have cancer leave any “thing” to experience relief at being healthy?” It’s not a question that makes any sense. There is no “thing.” The word “thing” is far too crude to embrace the nature of your being. There’s a lot of stuff happening (including the experience of liberation) but there is no “thing” doing the experiencing.

      This isn’t annihilationist. It may sound it, because you have to understand “not having a self” as meaning “you don’t have the kind of self you thought you had.” “What kind of self do you have then?” you might reasonably ask. A self that’s indefinable, which is a no-self. As soon as you try to pin it down you’ve missed the point.

      Who is striving for freedom and liberation? Who is meditating?

      These are good questions. Keep asking them of yourself, and see what you come up with. But they have to be existential questions that bring you up against not-knowing, not excuses to grab hold of an idea about the self and then cling to it.

      This all becomes clearer after stream entry.

      I think it’s good you’re questioning, but you’re trying to argue yourself into remaining unenlightened! Really look at yourself, and see if you can find where this “self” is.

  • If you reduce Buddhism to mere psychotherapy and dismiss the mysticism that the Buddha pointed to, when all illusion was removed, you throw the baby out with the bath water. It seems here that the not-self teaching has been tied to some sort of scenario where the universe is non-dual (fair enough there), but essentially dead of any spirit aside the automata actions of lumps of developing organic material. Fair enough this type of Buddhism can be useful to stressed out western minds but it really does, in my opinion, miss a great deal of what the Buddha pointed to. If I point to the sky when it is filled with beautiful sunlight, and I then point to a closed vessel, and then remove the top and bottom from the closed vessel, revealing the absense of anything inside it; apart from the beautiful streaming sunlight, am I revealing a truth that there is “nothing in the vessel” …. well yes, I am. But is the spirit, the intent of my demonstration solely to point out the emptiness and nothiness inside the vessel? … Or is it to show the beauty of the sunlight that can only be seen because the vessel is empty. The teaching in this article is great; it’s an excellent analogy for how the self that we tend to think we have, does not exist. But some of the subsequent comments by Bodhipaksa here, in my opinion are dangerously closed minded and could put a lot of people off from the Dharma. It is not to say that Bodhipaksa is “wrong” but that his interpretation here is being presented as ‘objective truth’, rather than a personal interpretation. I hope this comment will be published, as I mean no ill-intent and the last comment that I wrote to another article, with an element of criticism was disappointingly not published. With Metta, Craig

    • Hi, Craig.

      I don’t mind your comment at all. I’m absolutely not advocating a reductionist or scientific-materialist viewpoint. And I’m certainly not trying to reduce Buddhism to psychotherapy (which I know next to nothing about). My intent with this article is just to show how — there isn’t a word for it — “we” work, despite not having the kinds of selves we think we have, so that people can lose that notion of “how could I live if I lost my self.”

      I also want to suggest how the illusion of self might come about.

      What consciousness is is a complete mystery to me. I discuss it in relation to the brain not because I believe that consciousness is reducible to the brain but because it’s obviously involved with the brain in some way, and because the modular nature of the brain, and its peculiar inner wiring, affect the expression of consciousness.

      It’s certainly not my intention to be dogmatic. I’ve seen the reality of non-self, and what I’m describing is from experience. In the light of that experience (which is quite common, by the way) the early teachings of the Buddha, as opposed to later commentarial interpretations, become much clearer.

      I don’t know what your previous comment was, I’m afraid! I’ve looked through all the trashed comments in the blog and can’t find anything from you. Was it a comment on this post?

      All the best,

  • A sincere thanks for your patience in responding to my questions, thoughts and concerns. This is a difficult topic to get one’s head fully around. I know my old teacher (at FWBO Newcastle UK, back in the late ’90s), Dharmagosha used to say that understanding the ‘no-self’ and ’emptiness’ were the two most difficult points to really understand in Buddhism. Sorry if it sounded like I was putting your teachings “in a box” (eg. Theravada). That wasn’t my attention; I did actually mean just as you perceived; based around the Pali Cannon (as opposed to later Mahayana teachings such as the Lotus, Diamond and Pure Land Sutras). Thanks again.

    • Not a problem. Your questions are very sincere and I appreciate that you’re trying not to fall into one set of traps (nihilism). The other trap to avoid is eternalism, though, which embraces the idea that there is some “thing” that is permanent and constitutes the self. Some Buddhists have gone down that route, which I think is unfortunate since it clouds what the Buddha seems to have taught (although “seems” is overly tentative since the early scriptures are quite consistent).

      The Mahayana teachings are actually often great at picking up on things the Theravadins have for the most part skipped over in their own canon and probably stopped understanding a couple of centuries after the Buddha. I’m referring mainly to the perfection of wisdom teachings on shunyata, of course. I’m a fan of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, although I haven’t studied them for a long time.

  • Hi, Oh no don’t worry it was some time ago – I probably pressed the wrong button or something! Interesting response; you have clarified a lot of the points that I was concerned about there to be honest. Especially on the fact that there is something going on – but it’s undefinable. I do agree that trying to cling to it is counter-useful too. Thanks, Craig.

  • This sure turned out to be one interesting forum. I have 3 questions:

    1) since the “self” in nothing more than an observer of the “atrium” without any control and incapable of going from one life to another, then what function does it have?

    2) It seems, or at least I believe, that all the confusion arises because not having a “self”, repeats the same question as to what survives from one life to another, who mediates, and etc. Would it be wrong of me to completely ignore what and how if anything transfers over from one life to another and just try to see the concept of no-self?
    Buddhism gets so complicated that our analyzing mind could never be satisfied with every answer, because there will always be another unanswered question. Should we not only focus on those that truly matter along the path?

    3) How does one knows he/she has crossed into the stream entry?

    • Hey, Sam.

      1. I think the bit of us that thinks it’s the self is a kind of accident. I don’t know why it arises, but it does seem compelled to take responsibility for things it’s clearly not responsible for. I haven’t said anything about continuity from one life to another, but if anything carries over (a matter of profound agnosticism for me!) but early Buddhism didn’t see rebirth in terms of a “thing” carrying over, but as a process in one life giving rise to a process in another. There’s Nagasena’s image of one candle lighting another — it’s not that some “essence” of the flame literally gets transferred to the second candle.

      2. The question of rebirth seems to me to be a total distraction from the project of gaining insight. I think we’re interested in rebirth (or at least some people are) because we’re concerned about our personal continuity, which would make that interest an expression of self-grasping. Whether rebirth even exists is of no relevance to my own day-to-day practice.

      The truth of non-self isn’t, in one sense, hard to see, in that it’s right there, all the time. So just keep looking at your experience. Is there anything that’s unchanging? Can you see how actions, words, and thoughts arise from some mysterious depths and are in some way “other”?

      3. When stream entry arises, there’s a shocked realization that you’re not who you thought you were — that there was previously a belief in a kind of self you now no longer believe in. In fact, until you lose that belief you can never fully know how much you believed in it. There’s a tremendous surge of joy and confidence. And there’s a kind of clarity that comes as well — that sense of the obvious that you get when you’ve solved a puzzle. It’s like “why didn’t I see this before?”

  • Okay, I read all the comments, and I re-rear the article. I’ve given a lot of thought to this. I have one question, how do I get the wiser more reasonable elements of my “boys in the basement” to train the other aspects?

    • Hi, Larry.

      All spiritual practice involves this kind of training.

      With ethics we’re pausing and giving ourselves time to consider the consequences of our actions, seeing that some actions (advocated by the more deluded boys) will cause suffering while others (put forward by the more enlightened boys) will bring long-term happiness. In time the balance of power changes, and making wiser choices becomes more automatic. Our choices change us.

      In meditation we’re quieting the mind down, training the more vociferous voices that it’s OK to be still. We’re training some parts of us — the more compassionate and mindful parts — to become stronger.

  • Wow, this has been a staggeringly enlightening discussion thread. I am looking back at some of my earlier comments, and Bodhipaksa’s replies and rather than ‘defending’ or clinging my position, I’m thinking “wow, I have been so grasping and clinging to my sense of self”. The attractiveness of Hindu-orientated views of the Self / Atman were seeming much more ‘comfortable’ to me (and my ego); regardless of how empirical they seem when we introspect. Enlightenment must require our absolute letting go, non-attachment, and rejection of notions of our ‘Self’. I can absolutely see that now. To believe in an alternative notion of ‘Self’ just because we *prefer* it, is facing away from the light of liberation and freedom. What really brings it in for me though, is the later content that you have added Bodhipaksa, clarifying my incorrect view that your outlook was nihilistic. I guess it is nihilistic to the sort of self we thought we had, although then again, that self never existed to annihilate!

    Can you see how actions, words, and thoughts arise from some mysterious depths and are in some way “other”?

    I love this quote. I think the undefinable “other” here is what I was also wrongly identifying as a supreme self. Perhaps it is something supreme but it is certainly not my self. And whilst it is empty, there is no sense in my clinging to it.

    I feel a new fresh breeze has come in to my Buddhism from what I have learnt in this discussion, and I am very grateful for that.

  • Has anyone heard of Edgar Casey? I am only interested in his comments about reincarnation, karma,etc, and not so much about prophecies. He had very interesting insights about all of this, including the “self” which I must say matches quite well with what the Buddha taught. Casey provided more explanation, something the Buddha didn’t since he only wanted us to know what is truly important to be liberated, no more no less. I still tinker with what Casey said and it does make sense.

  • Thank you for the article and the discussion! I had a feeling of this “way of working” of the mind many years ago, before meditation and buddhism studies. I called it “pandemonium” (all the demons in a huge parlament).
    I consider myself more linked with a scientific approach then a religious one so please consider my notes as a different point of view, not a critic. (And please apologize my English).
    You cited Libet experiment. One interesting point is that the consciuosness of an action comes some time before the action (and after the unconscious decision). This can be the origin of the illusion that the conscious part does the decision. The “conscious boy” sees “the command to the body” and then sees the body that performs the command so “he thinks” that he rules the body.

    Immagine this experiment. A device is able to create a number in your mind and to control the final output of a dice throw. You “see” in your mind 3 and, some seconds later, the dice in front of you stops with a 3. And immagine that it appens for infinite times. At the end you will think that your mind control the dice. But the reality is that both your mental vision and the dice are controlled by the experimental device. This is the Libet experiment and this is a explanation of our feeling of beeing in control of the body.

    I agree with you that this “function” of the mind is a sort of by-product of human brain evolution.

    The part of the article that does not work to me is the free will description. If there is not a self, there is not an agent that can choose. Everything, in our mind, simply appens as others biological actions of our body: there is not free will in digestion and there is not free will in “superior” actions.
    Saying that “some mental algorithms” decide to act in a certain way is not a free will definition, is a description that we act as we have to act: due to a specific, local, combination of modules activities on the brain.
    I can not not see free will also in the karma description of acting or the buddhism text that i have read.
    Meditating is, according to this view, not only to see that there is no self, but also that everything just appens without free will. For me the illusion of self and free will is strongly linked.
    You have to sit to meditate as you have to sit to the toilette: is what your DNA and your personal and cultural history decide you have to do.
    Meditating is a way to train the “boy that observes” to understand that everything will appens without him, to accept and to enjoy the beauty of the universe without judge anything.
    I don’t mean that “the boy that observes” is a self, is just a part of the universe (a by-product of the human brain evolution) that is observing the rest of univers.

    With metta

    • Hi, Roberto.

      I’m sure a lot has been written about the concept of “free will” and whether it’s compatible with Buddhism. Unfortunately I’m not very familiar with that. The Buddha simply seems to have assumed that “we” (the collective we) are not only capable of making choices, but it’s imperative for us to do so. I don’t much care how choice comes about. All I know is that I’m aware of the possibility of choice — in any moment, as when I’m writing right now — I sense alternative ways of expressing myself. I’m aware of what those alternatives are, and I’m aware of a choice being settled upon. It could be argued that this choice is purely illusory, but I’m not sure that such as argument could be proven. I know there is no “self” doing the choosing, but I don’t have any sense from my own experience that choice is not in fact happening.

  • What an absolutely fascinating discussion.

    So let me get this straight, there is no self making the choices yet choices are being made. Are they being made by the “boys in the basement”?

    We’ve discussed quite a bit about free will, but nothing about responsibility. Could you please say more about that?

    • Hi Larry.

      I’m glad you’re finding the discussion interesting. “There is no self making the choices yet choices are being made.” Correct! and yes, they’re being made by the boys in the basement. There’s no one “self” making choices. Choices happen because of the relative balance of power of different competing aspects of a very fragmented mind.

      The question of responsibility is a very important one, but the reality of non-self doesn’t in any way undermine the need for, or the possibility of, taking personal responsibility. It’s simply that personal responsibility is a collective endeavor. Actions initiated by any one part of us will affect the whole. Some parts of us are able to take a lead in educating the rest of us about the potential consequences of our actions. This doesn’t always work, of course, which is why we often know what it’s wisest to do and yet end up doing something foolish instead!

  • Thank you for the clarification. That makes sense to me now.

  • Joining a bit late to the party.
    Amazing article and discussion!! Great job!

    Could you refer me to a specific technique I can use now to not only understand the no-self intellectually but also to “see it”?

    regardless free will, like others I feel like you stoped too soon. I do believe that there is no free will what so ever from the same reasons you articulated so well.

  • Is our consciousness, the “I”, purely an awareness with absolutely no capability of making any decision or contemplate about anything?

    • I do think that the bit of us that claims responsibility for our thoughts/actions isn’t actually capable of doing anything, but your sentence identifies “the I” with “our consciousness,” which is not how things actually are. The identification of “the I” with “our consciousness” is more like the Hindu idea that there is a “true self,” which of course is rather different from the Buddhist view.

  • I suspect your deduction that the self is created to facilitate our model of reality is accurate. I read an article recently about a man who had no human contact for years at a time “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit”. He had no sense of self except on those rare occasions when he had to interact with others. I have also heard of this, to a lesser degree, occurring in folks who live “off the grid “. In those cases they have great difficulty interacting with people.

    I am glad for this recent post as it prompted me to reread the article.

  • Thanks for answering back!

    I just assumed that there is more to it. People report those amazing experiences. Being one with the universe etc’… :)
    Very far from what I’m experiencing with those experiments.

    • Those experiences of oneness are quite different from the realization that there is no self. You can have those oneness experiences but still be convinced there is an “I” who is having them. Experiences of non-duality are useful in that they shake up our sense of self, but they’re temporary and don’t lead directly to the loss of the delusion that there is a self.

  • It is a common theme in my journey. I experience a lot of insights and discoveries, but very little reducing in my “suffering×´ or feeling of bliss…

    Not sure if I’m doing it wrong or if im wired differently or it just a matter of more practice.

    Regardless, I think your article was top notch. Well done explaining so clearly a topic most try to avoid.

    • It can be hard to gauge our level of suffering. For one thing, we can’t run controlled trials on our lives, so we can’t know how much we would be suffering if we hadn’t done that practice and had those insights. And for another, we may have less suffering but be focusing on it more closely, so that it looms larger in our experience.

      Regarding bliss, I don’t know if you’re doing much brahma vihara practice, but that makes a huge difference in my level of happiness. So does spending time on retreat, although I haven’t been able do that very often these past few years.

  • I have a question regarding emptiness.

    I have been reading about the emptiness of objects and phenomena. From an intellectual standpoint, I can certainly understand that everything is empty of inherent existence, not findable as they appear, and not findable when searched in their basis of designation. It all makes perfect sense.

    So it was my understanding that if we truly understood this concept, we could, for example, lose everything we own and not get upset or angry.

    Now, if someone stole all my belongings I would have a hard time not to get upset. Am I correct to assume that it is the result of not truly understanding and applying the concept of emptiness? Or is it because of affliction of ignorance? If so, how can I proceed to understand it on a deeper level?

    Having said all this, if I applied the cause and effect principle, I have a much easier time to remain calm because I know that every negative outcome in this life is a direct result of my current or previous actions from a previous life.

    • So it was my understanding that if we truly understood this concept, we could, for example, lose everything we own and not get upset or angry.

      It’s not a question of understanding the concept, but of seeing the emptiness of our experiences. So, for example, when you looked at painful feelings that arose after losing something you’d notice a process of incredibly rapid change, and the pain would lose its “painyness.” I wrote about that in a recent article.

      Now, if someone stole all my belongings I would have a hard time not to get upset. Am I correct to assume that it is the result of not truly understanding and applying the concept of emptiness? Or is it because of affliction of ignorance?

      Those two things — ignorance and not truly understanding — are the same (if we take “truly understanding” to mean “seeing” or “experiencing”). But as far as I can see you’d probably still feel upset, but you’d be able to let go of the upset very quickly because you’d see through it, and would be able to see its illusory nature. Even the Buddha got upset!

      If so, how can I proceed to understand it on a deeper level?

      I can only talk about my own experience. For me the start was seeing the emptiness of the self. That included an experience of the body’s solidity dissolving away, leaving a constellation of twinkling, ever-changing sensations floating in space. Then I started to realize that I could look at feelings and emotions the same way.

      And that all starts with observing the impermanence (ever-changing nature) of our experience, including the experience of experiencing. I include that last part because a lot of people are going “Ooh! Look, everything’s changing (except this bit of me that’s watching the change taking place).” Of course your consciousness is constantly changing as well, but if you don’t become aware of that you give your sense of self somewhere to “hide” and you assume, Hindu-style or Ekhart Tolle–style, that there’s some kind of “Observer” that is your Real Self.

      I found the six element practice very useful as well, along with an intellectual struggle to understand what the Buddha was on about with this “anatta” stuff. Some people diss intellectual inquiry, but it’s one way to expose and challenge your views, especially if you keep testing your understanding against the teachings in the Pali canon. But intellectual inquiry has to be combined with observation, otherwise it’s just a bunch of ideas…

  • Very interesting discussion! “a constellation of twinkling, ever-changing sensations floating in space” That must have been quite a sit. But you have conveyed the idea such that I can see what you mean.

    Your last paragraph really strikes home for me, and I suspect most westerners. Have you had an opportunity to look at what Byron Katie has been doing? I have found her methods extremely helpful.


    • Hi, Larry.

      That experience of the body as transparent and “twinkling” is more of an ongoing experience. It’s more prominent in meditation, but any time I bring my awareness more fully into the body, or any internal event, like a feeling or emotion, it’s like that.

      I only recently became aware of Byron Katie, because of a contributor to this blog writing about having attended one of her events. It sounded interesting, although I haven’t had an opportunity (or haven’t made one!) to look more fully into what she does.

  • In my experience, during dreaming everything appears as real as when I’m awake. For example, if I am eating a meal, I can feel all the sensations that are associated with it, even though none of it is real. I suppose you could say that the dream consciousness is not aware that it is a dream. Later on, when I reflect on that dream, I realize how every experience, object, etc. was empty of true existence, yet the dream consciousness was so self grasping and not realizing it.

    Can the same be said about our consciousness when we are awake? In this similar to what the subconscious experiences and realizes the emptiness of everything in our daily life but our awake consciousness does not, hence, developing the false sense of existence?

    I am not saying that nothing exists and I’m certainly not heading toward nihilism. This is just what I came up with after contemplating. I just wanted to make sure I am not going down the wrong path of thoughts.

    And on a last note, there are times during a dream when I do realize I am dreaming. That has a tremendous effect on how decisions are made because I realize what the dream consciousness does not ( that it is empty of true existence), and as a result, I am able to make the correct decision, something that the dream consciousness would have failed to do so had I not been aware of the emptiness. Could this also be applied to our daily life that appears so real?

    I found this to be interesting experience because the dream state allows me to encounter specific situations to test my decisions and actions rather waiting to encounter a similar situation in real life.

    • These are interesting thoughts, Sam. I’m feeling under the weather and not really up to reflecting on your words in depth at the moment, but there is something dream-like about ordinary waking existence. Just as in a dream we believe the reality of what we’re experiencing, even if our experience is in some way delusional. We believe the plagiarist’s story about it being a “self” who is in charge. We have skewed values (what the Buddha called “viparyasa/vipallasa,” or cognitive distortions). Those distortions include seeing that which is empty of a self as having a self, and seeing what it always changing as being permanent and unchanging.

  • @Sam.
    Rodolfo Llinas a Neuroscientist said that we are always dreaming. During sleep our dream is driven by memories, during wakes our dream is driven by sensations.

  • How do you meditate on emptiness? What is the better way?

    • “Meditating on emptiness” is the same thing as meditating on non-self, although I’d clarify that it’s more useful to make a gentle effort to observe emptiness/non-self rather than to reflect on it intellectually. I’m a proponent of the Six Element Practice, which is a way to appreciate non-self, but the direct practice of observing the impermanence of your experiences is a powerful technique too. Basically, establish mindfulness and then become aware that everything you’re experiencing is changing — even the mind that is experiencing is changing all the time. The exercises I’ve suggested in this article are also ways to directly see the absence of a permanent and unitary self.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    To make sure I understood correctly, in order to have a direct experience with emptiness rather than just an intellectual one, mindfulness should point me toward that direction. Basically, over time as I keep applying the intellectual aspect of it through mindfulness, eventually it all will make sense and a direct experience is realized.
    Did I apprehend it correctly? :-)

    • Hi Sam. Just keep looking at your experience directly. Where is there any permanence? Can you find anything that isn’t changing. Really look. If you find that everything in your experience (including the part of you that’s looking) is constantly changing, then where can a “self” hide? Once you see there’s no self, you’ve directly experienced emptiness.


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