Awareness & the Nature of Self
We all spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. We think about whether we’re happy or sad, loved or hated. We think about what we want and don’t want, where we’ve been and where we’d like to go. We worry about how people perceive us. We stress over shit we did or didn’t do. We replay in our minds conversations we had, and think about all the words we should’ve or shouldn’t have said.
And, at the heart of all this, sits the most fascinating and mysterious thing in the world: the almighty and omniscient “I”; the subject of experience; the one on whose behalf every thought and feeling arises and on whose behalf every choice, action, and relationship is undertaken.
What, then, could be worthier of your investigation than this thing you call “I”?
Okay. So, what is it? Well, because “I” can’t be removed from you, because it’s essential to you, only you can investigate it for yourself. So, let me ask you: What is this thing you call “I”? Where is it? What’s it like? What qualities does it have? What’s its nature?
Weird questions? Yeah, I know. “What do you mean ‘What is it?’ and ‘Where is it?’ It’s me, duh. I’m right here.”
Fine. But just humor me for a moment. Try to relax. Maybe take a few deep breaths. And then take a good look at your experience – at whatever there is to be known in this moment.
Now, ask yourself: ‘What is there to be known? What is here in my experience to be noticed? Are there shapes and colors? Sounds and sensations? Thoughts and feelings?’
Okay. And what about “You”? Where are you in this picture? Where are you in experience? Are you somewhere behind your face, at the center of experience, directing attention at what there is to be known — at perceptions, thoughts, and feelings?
If you think so, what happens when you turn your attention around, when you follow your gaze or a sound or a feeling back to the place where you seem to be directing attention from? Can you find your self? Can you find the “I”?
You might have to tune-up your awareness a bit to do what I’m asking here, but it’s possible to notice something quite remarkable: that is, who or what you are, this thing you call “I”, simply doesn’t exist. When you really look for it, when you turn attention around and follow it back to the place where “you” seem to be directing attention from, you won’t find it.
Rather, what’s there to be noticed, in each moment, is the open space of experience — the continuous flow of the ever-changing contents of awareness. There’s nothing solid or permanent, no unchanging entity, no signature of the author of your thoughts. There’s just the arising and passing away of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
And, this feeling that you call “I” — that you are the author of your thoughts, choices, and intentions — is one of them. This feeling of “I” is simply what it feels like to be thinking without knowing you’re thinking; dreaming without knowing you’re dreaming. It’s what it feels like when awareness is lost in the contents of experience; when awareness identifies itself with what is arising.
No content of your experience, however, no object of your awareness, no thought, feeling, or perception, can be who or what “You” are. The dream vapors of experience vanish almost the moment they’re known. So, how can this next thought, whatever its content, be who “you” are? It can’t.
“You”, then, are no thing, though you know, encompass, and contain all things.
“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” — Alan Watts
“You live in illusion of the appearance of things. There is a Reality. You are that Reality. When you understand this, you will see that you are nothing. And in being nothing, you are everything.”
There’s no separation in existence. The world is whole — what is, is. How, then, can you be anything less than It — Being; God; Experience; Consciousness; the Brahman; Dharma; the World; or whatever else you wanna call it.
So, let me ask you again: What is this thing you call “I”? Where is it? What’s it like? What qualities does it have? What’s its nature?
Reflect on this, and you will eventually realize that there’s not much that can be said about it. Because, any thing it knows, or can possibly know, arises in it. And that which arises in it, can’t be what it is.
This selflessness or oneness or centerlessness or emptiness is always there for you to notice, right on the surface. But for most of us, finding it takes work.
After all, “I” is built into our most distinctive human feature: our infinitely creative language, which allows us to build conceptual systems — descriptions, stories, and ideas — where we hold our ‘self’ in relation to others and to the world. And it’s this which allows us to coordinate actions; to live, laugh, and love together.
In any case, as you sharpen your awareness either through a formal practice of vipassana or through some other route you’ve carved out for yourself, a couple things will become clear:
First, you’ll increasingly realize that there’s no space between you and what is known; there’s no one behind your face directing attention; no thinker apart from thought; no self. But, rather, there’s just It, whatever It ineffably is.
Second, as you become more aware of this insight into the true nature of mind, you’ll discover that the character and quality of your experience will change dramatically. And I think you’ll discover that this change – this awakening to the selfless nature of experience – is quite positive, relaxed, loving, and compassionate.
But don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself. Pay close attention to that space in which everything is appearing and being known. And ask yourself: What permanent thing is there to be known? And, in that moment when you find that there’s no unchanging entity, that there’s no center or boundaries anywhere, that there’s no separation between you and what is known, ask yourself ‘What does this experience feel like?’
Nothing, I’d argue, is worthier of your investigation than awareness. After all, worth, significance, and value all arise in it. Awareness is what gives any thing — art, music, understanding, love — any significance at all. It is the substance of knowing; it is the substance of all things.
I encourage you, then, to keep awareness close as you travel through this mysterious, beautiful, and awe-inspiring Space of Possibility that “You” are.
Now, before you go, get your ass over here, cuddle your warm face up to mine, and soak here with me for a moment in this astonishing space of existence. Feel its warmth. Its love. Its security. Feel its expansiveness. Its vastness. Its boundlessness. Now, recognize that all this is a reflection of You.