Why do we have a sense of self and where does it come from? It’s a common and natural question. Yet, how useful is the question itself?
In fairness, it’s healthy and natural to be curious about how things come to be. Humans have done well by asking questions and figuring out what things exist and how those things work together. So, it’s natural to ask a question like “why do we have a feeling of self?”
As someone who has studied human motivation, the brain, psychology, and meditation for years, it’s tempting to keep on diving deep into the “why” and the “how” when it comes to the mind and the brain. Let’s give ourselves a sample taste of such.
Sample Taste of Diving Into The “Why” and “How” of the Brain
The sense of a self comes from our various systems. An example serves here. It’s possible to effect the Vestibular system so that you get a sense of moving even though you’re standing still. A sense of moving or standing still contributes to the sense of self. As shown on Sensory Illusions (SKYclip), these senses of moving and being can go wrong and cause accidents such as a plane crashing into the ground.
That addresses some of the “why is this happening and how does this happen?” kind of questions.
However, let’s take a step back. In the meditation world, when we say “sensing” or “observing”, we mean there is a knowing. When I do an open awareness meditation, I am just taking it all in. There is a simple knowing of all there is to perceive. You may have noticed that I did not respond with things like:
- I perceive everything before me.
- There is a knowing of all that is around me and my body.
For day-to-day use, it’s convenient to use words like “I” or “me.” It cuts down on confusion in conversations. At the same time, those words emphasize a sense of self. The use of the “I” / “me” words highlight the illusion of the self. If you are trying to see past the illusion and into no-self, you could try a different way of thinking.
Joseph Goldstein, a meditation teacher, shared a great tip. One hour and forty eight minutes into the Sam Harris podcast episode titled The Path and the Goal, Joseph Goldstein highlights a way to recognize “the ordinariness of selflessness.” The instruction to someone would be to not say “I am moving my arm.” Instead, you can say that the motion of the arm is being known. As he puts it, you are:
Reframing the experience in the passive voice.
Instead of saying I am moving my foot, you can say “movement being known.” That’s about as deep as you need to go to get a great amount of utility out of the concept of selflessness aka no-self.
How can one recognize this no-self throughout their day? In Busy Life Meditation, Annaka Harris does a fantastic job in outlining a strategy that only takes nine minutes a day. She calls it ‘the nine-minute-a-day path to enlightenment!’ To fully use this, one needs to do this in addition to their daily meditation.
Talking About It vs Doing It
Mentioning the daily meditation practice highlights another important idea. As the saying goes, there’s a difference between talking about golf and playing golf. Until you’re really swinging that golf club in your hands, hitting the ball, and sinking it into the hole, you won’t really know golf. The same goes for meditation.
It’s important to meditate and experiment in the lab of your own mind. If you dive too deep into the why / how of experience, you can’t see the forest for the trees. A perfect example is the following video What Is Life? Is Death Real? video. It’s a fun video to watch. Does it answer any questions for you? No. As the video says, asking some questions “..makes us feel alive and gives us some comfort.” However, just asking questions is not sufficient.
“What if I take it up a notch into examining what consciousness itself is?”, you ask? At least you’re at a level higher than viruses. It is certainly fun to examine what is meant by a conscious entity. For example, there are programs that can give clever responses. As said in the What is Consciousness video below:
We wouldn’t consider it [the software program] conscious, because it doesn’t have a sense of itself.
Does intellectual exploration of consciousness help you see past the illusion of the self? Anything is possible. However, based on my own experience it feels like quite the scenic route. Meditating and diving into the resources available about meditation is a more direct approach, in my opinion.
Daylight Is Burning
Contemplating consciousness is fun yet hasn’t helped me do better at the office or help people in general. I meditate and teach meditation to help fulfill my personal mission. Also, time may be shorter than you think.
🙂 10,000th tweet. My mission: 1) Love all unconditionally 2) Live a long healthy life 3) Actualize potential 4) Help make paradise on earth
— Mike Finney (@finneycanhelp) December 26, 2015
As I said to a new friend that I met at an airport recently, there are seven billion people on earth to help. We have a limited number of years on earth. So, let’s get busy and start making a difference. One way to do that is to actually meditate and share with others meditation resources such as this blog post and awesome meditation apps like the 10% Happier meditation app.
Don’t miss the awesome opportunity of exploring your own mind and gaining a better life. Although not easy, Mindfulness meditation is simple and happiness is yours for the taking. Enjoy the journey.