Images of Selflessness

Self is, ultimately, a mask, — no more than the mental concept we have of who and what we believe ourselves to be. Selflessness, in its mystical sense, is the label we give to the experience that arises when we no longer take the concept at face value. Once we recognize that we are not what we think we are—that we do not, in any conventional sense, exist—the world is transformed. The walls of separation come down, and the elaborate stratagems we once needed for self-defense are no longer necessary: there is no longer a self to defend. In the faces of others we see a reflection of our own being, and we begin to recognize a profound oneness with the rest of life. As this truth takes root in our awareness, the fear of death itself begins to fade, and nothing in our world remains the same. We see with new eyes.

Our daily experience as individuals is so concrete and seemingly undeniable in its reality that the idea of selflessness is very difficult to grasp or hold. It can seem unfathomable, even absurd, from the perspective of the everyday. Perhaps the metaphors offered below will reveal new ways to imagine this timeless conundrum.

Ticking Watch Listen to your watch tick for a moment. Now imagine trying to isolate the tick that you hear. If you took the watch apart one piece at a time, you would never find it, because the tick by itself does not exist. It is created by the interaction between the different elements of the watch. When the mechanism is disassembled, the tick disappears. Something similar happens when scientists look for the illusory self in the body or mind. Neuroscientists, biologists, physiologists, and psychologists have systematically examined and dissected the psychophysical organism for over a hundred years and have never been able to locate a self or a quantifiable source of consciousness. There is no scientific evidence to refute the mystical realization that the body and mind operate without any apparent direction. As the tick in the watch disappears when the timepiece is disassembled, the self cannot be found when the non-self parts are scrutinized one by one.

Hurricanes At certain times of the year, the hurricane and typhoon seasons begin in the oceans of the world. Weather forecasters watch for disturbances in water and air; when a storm system gains enough size and strength and definition, the forecasters give it a name, chart its progress, predict its path, and issue warnings. Then, just as quickly, the storm fades from the radar. Like the self, storms are processes devoid of any fixed or inherent entity. When the elements necessary for their arising coalesce, they appear to exist, and as those same causes and conditions drop away, the appearance dissolves.

Wavicle New Physicists coined the term wavicle to convey the fact that subatomic objects exhibit two very different properties, that of a “wave” and that of a “particle.” Since it was impossible to observe both properties at the same time, the off-and-on existence of an object proved to be dependent on the apparatus chosen for the experiment. In other words, it was the way the observer chose to measure it that determined what he or she saw. If the observer used one instrument to determine its location, the object appeared as a particle; if the observer chose a different instrument to calculate its speed, it behaved like a wave. This wave/particle phenomenon offers an interesting analogy for the nature of selflessness: the particle is like the self that exists in duality, while the wave represents nonduality, where no separate entity is “seen.” Just as the apparatus of observation determined whether an observer saw the wave or the particle, it is our apparatus of perception—our use of concepts to package what we experience—that reveals a world filled with “particles,” or separate entities, and most importantly the self. When we use intuition and insight to replace our dependence on thought, we can see the wave: we can awaken to an extraordinarily different reality, a world without boundaries. And in both cases, consciousness is key in determining what we experience. There is no preexisting reality “out there,” independent of the participant observer.

The Validity of Mystical Insight

The understanding we gain by mystical intuition transcends the dualistic mindset and goes straight to the heart of the mystery that characterizes human existence. And those who have true spiritual insights say that they require no proof, no verification. This has been true across millennia: they simply know. For the rest of us, though, there is ample reason to question. If knowledge based on others’ testimony alone cannot be proved or disproved, how can we distinguish it from dogma or the sort of unsubstantiated claims that proliferate in the New Age marketplace?

For those who as yet have no personal experience with the revelations of spiritual insight, perhaps the most convincing confirmation is the extraordinary consistency with which they have appeared in every culture and epoch. As Huston Smith maintains, these spiritual truths “are not the exclusive possession of any school or individual; were it otherwise they would not be truths, for these cannot be invented, but must necessarily be known in every integral traditional civilization.” Joseph Campbell recognizes the same universality, drawing the distinction between the historical nature of culture-specific religious belief and the nonhistorical nature of the mystical experience, which is “to such a degree constant for mankind that we may jump from Hudson Bay to Australia, Tierra del Fuego to Lake Baikal, and find ourselves well at home.” William James is no less convinced. He notes that throughout all mysticism “we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.” These three authorities, arguably among the world’s most renowned in the area of comparative religion and human spirituality, individually reached the identical conclusion: there is a form of knowing that transcends the bounds of time and cultures and the dictates of sectarian dogma.

In a modern world that is mesmerized by the wonders of modern science and so often looks to its proclamations for guidance, the unchallenged longevity of esoteric wisdom stands in stark contrast to the relatively brief shelf life of scientific “truth.” Repeatedly over the last five centuries, the models of reality proffered by science’s leading experts as absolute, and widely accepted by the rest of us as such, have been discarded in favor of new constructs. One needs only a superficial grasp of the revolutions precipitated by Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein to realize that in the frame of human history the laws of science have held for no more than a few generations before being turned upside down. All the while, one and only one truth has reigned supreme in the esoteric realm.

Take a moment to just be

The functioning of modern society is predicated on an obsessive relationship with time. Driven by our desires for a better life and the promise of fulfillment on the temporal horizon, we are stuck on fast-forward, in an unending rush hour that creates havoc in our lives. Losing touch with the natural rhythms of life, we race through our lives with an ever-diminishing chance of experiencing what is real. Below, you will find two exercises that I have suggested to my meditation classes for years. They are designed to help you at least occasionally slow down, catch your breath, and turn your attention to the only thing that is real: the present moment.

Exercise One: We have all heard the expression of “doing time.” It usually relates to the experience of being in prison, and the slow, painful passage of time. The fact is we all “do time” almost every day. We are forced to wait in line at the grocery, wait on hold on the phone, wait in traffic on the way to or from work, wait for a train, etc.  I encourage you to use this time to be right where you are. This is an opportunity to create a rich and sacred moment of mindful living. When you find yourself waiting, tune in to your environment. First, listen attentively to hear how many different sounds you can hear. Then, look carefully around you to find things you have never noticed before. Feel your breath enter your body, blink your eyes, feel the pressure of your feet on the floor or the seat against your legs and back. The point is to come back to the moment. Be alive, and not in lost in thought. Feel the moment. Don’t think it.

Exercise Two: If you don’t have time to meditate each day, choose a repetitive chore and do it mindfully. Don’t multi-task; only do that one particular task. For example, putting the dishes away: pay attention to the details, the textures, the precision of life. Pick up each dish out of the dishwasher delicately. Avoid knocking into other dishes. Gently lay it in the cabinet where it is kept. Don’t think about what you are doing. Feel the temperature and texture of each item. Feel the water left on some of the dishes. Listen to the sounds of each piece as you pick it up and put it away. Feel yourself breath. Return to the moment. This is meditation.