I Think Therefore I Am Not?

In response to my “Trusting The Rip Tide” post Trygve wrote about accepting that there is no self makes letting go easier. Intellectually I understand where he’s coming from but experientially I’m not even close. Trygve warns against seeking rational answer because it will result in chasing my own tail but since this blog is about expressing where my current mind is so I can use it to live in my present world I’m going to attempt to catch my tail.

Goenka uses the experience of feeling subtle vibrations rising and passing away throughout the body as evidence that there is no self. Since there is no solid density to identify with there is no reason to be attached to the self. I’ve experience these pleasant subtle sensations throughout the body but that doesn’t convince me that there isn’t a self. As I sweep my hand through a body of water I can feel high frequency, constantly changing fluid passing over my hand. Does this mean the water doesn’t exist? Similarly, I can experience the constantly changing composition of my body but does that mean there is no self? I’m not trying to get into a philosophical debate about anatta or “not-self.” I know there are some clever dialogs where the Buddha explain the truth of not-self but my struggle is trying to apply this in life.

If I really believed anatta at my core I would become a monk. It seems that trying to create any kind of personal life is proof that I believe in self. Spending energy building a career, having a family, making friends, and developing skill would be a waste of time if I didn’t believe in self. By investing in these things I’m investing in mySELF. It might be an attachment but I don’t know how to live without these things.

I have a much easier time with the concept of dissolving my ego. Ego to me means putting myself, my needs, and my desires ahead of everyone else. I’ve experience how greed and arrogance from ego can cause great suffering for individuals and the people around them. Learning to become less attached to myself so I can see the struggles of all of the beings around me is a worthy challenge. As I consider catch a mosquito to release it outside or just squashing it so it doesn’t bite me I learn a lot about the size of my ego and how much work I have to do.

I’m ready to give up my ego and work on appreciating the value of all beings on the planet. I’m not ready to give up my self. I’m sticking with Descartes for now.

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About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

5 thoughts on “I Think Therefore I Am Not?

  1. Oh no – I didn’t mean to imply that there is no self. I certainly don’t feel that way. What I meant was that the self isn’t necessarily equivalent to the conscious mind. When you meditate, you start to discover that “you” really aren’t the one driving the show here. This leads to the idea of freedom, liberation. Being free to follow your every whim isn’t true freedom, it’s being a slave to your desires. But the source of these desires – is this something separate from your self? I feel like this source is also me. I think meditation, through honesty, brings you closer to the source. We’re experts at denial – we deny all of our negative impulses and inconsistencies so that we may construct an acceptable “idea” of our self – neither conscious nor subconscious, this mere thought is the farthest from truth that one can get. Our denial is broad and constant, and it’s actually out of our conscious control. But this denial prevents us from getting to our true selves. Meditation is training in acceptance and honesty. When you have a thought or feeling that you don’t like, you accept it, you’re honest about the fact that this thought did come from you, and you observe it calmly. You forgive yourself. You soon understand that forgiveness isn’t even necessary, that the need to forgive arises from an invalid need to judge. Eventually you start to see that so many barriers that you thought separated your conscious from your subconscious self were merely constructions. In taming the elephant, you realize that you ARE the elephant. And once you realize that, who KNOWS what comes next?? What truths becomes visible to you?

    I’m not there yet. There’s no way I could know anything about where this path leads – I only have assumptions based on where it’s taken me so far. But so far, I feel like I’ve caught glimmers of it. I’ve had moments where I felt a union, where I felt I was able to accept a new truth, and a barrier became transparent. These labels of conscious and subconscious, the concept of free will, start to seem a lot less solid. The whole way we think about free will may be wrong, it could be one of things things where the right answer is just to unask the question. But you have to get there before you can see that it’s a question based on misconceptions.

    So what I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t arguing for no-self. Maybe the path leads there, but who knows? All I’m saying is that we don’t know what a self is, and we don’t know if concepts like praise and blame can truly apply to it. We can only seek to understand it through observation – and by observing only! Not by seeking the true definition of a mere word, “self,” a definition that’s probably based on all kinds of misconceptions. If I’m saying that self doesn’t exist, I merely suggest that the concept of self as the conscious mind is invalid – not that there isn’t something somewhere that might fit the word properly. But if I’m not in a place to know it, it’s not worth thinking about. (It IS worth thinking about why it isn’t worth thinking about. That is always important.)

    Descartes’s famous line is a muddling of the one basic truth, and this leads him in the wrong direction. The one basic truth is my experience in this moment. Truth isn’t a logical statement! When I apply concepts like thought and existence and “therefore,” I’m already making ALL KINDS of preconceived assumptions. I’m not starting from the basic truth, I’m applying a bunch of unvalidated ideas to it – the basic truth is lost immediately. Ugh. That’s why I hate philosophy.

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  2. How does the sense of self help or hinder living in the moment? Does working towards something help or hinder living in the moment? I am not following a specific path and I do not have experience with Vipassana, so these may be questions that would be answered through a more focused study, but they have arisen naturally through my personal contemplation when I consider ‘who am I and where I am going?’. I find the least resistance in life, and the greatest peace, when I put aside the ambitions of self and work on simply being in the moment. When I put aside judgement on myself and others, I am able to be open and accessible to them. I am giving them the purest expression of my ‘self’. Yet I wonder – should I be trying harder? Should I apply myself to a path? But if I’m busy trying, aren’t I reaching into the future towards ‘being’ instead of simply being at this moment? I feel like I’m chasing my own tail myself.

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    • Thanks for the comment Dreya. I wish I had some magical answers to your questions. One nice thing about meditation is that it’s not an intellectual path so instead of getting stuck in intellectual dilemmas you can step back from it, meditate for a while, and sometimes an answer just pops into your head. I think you’ll find meditation pretty fascinating.

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  3. This is the hardest, conceptually, of all, but the most important. One thing to be clear on is that Buddha and the dhamma don’t say there is no self in that absolute way. Anatta really means there is no atman, and atman is the Hindu idea of a permanent, continuing soul or self that passes from existence to existence and eventually is resolved into Brahman, or the ultimate. So the idea is that there is no independently existing, permanent self. Which is why Goenka stresses ‘impermanence’ – that’s the genius of the practice: it builds understanding of impermanence into our consciousness on a physical, experiential, undeniable level moment by moment.

    Am really enjoying reading your blog!

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