Another Way to Think About Consciousness and the Lack of Self
I’ve been studying meditation—and by extension, consciousness—over the last several years. I’m still very much a novice, but I still find the practice fascinating and helpful.
One of the things I’m most interested in right now is the concept of self within the context of consciousness and mediation.
My primary teacher, Sam Harris, is constantly reminding me to look for the observer when things appear in consciousness. While the point is seldom spelled out, the lesson seems to be that there is no observer—there is only the observed.
I feel like I kind of get this.
What I’m trying to do is collapse my understanding into a couple of different metaphors.
Sitting on a Park Bench: Your eyes are closed and you can hear and smell and sense many things going on around you. You hear a child laugh far away to your left. You hear a bird chirp behind you. You hear a bicyclist ride by in front of you. And you can smell nearby flowers.
A Movie Screen Playing Someone’s Sensations in a Park: There is nothing in the world except this screen. And on this screen there is a smell of flowers, then a bird chirp, and then the sound of a bicycle. But everything, including the sense of location, all appears on the screen itself. There is nobody in the seats watching the screen. The screen is everything.
I think most people experience life as the person in the park. They are the center, and there are things happening around them, which they then pick up with their senses. This is how I am usually experiencing life.
When I meditate, and especially when I’m doing study sessions, I try to imagine the other world. I try to imagine that there is only the movie screen, and that everything I experience, from my breath, to an itch on my ankle, to a random thought about work—are all just things happening on the screen.
Sam tries to identify this by asking you to quickly look for the observer of a particular thing, like a though, or a sound. Where is the viewer, or hearer? And how are they different from the event itself?
That’s the part that is tripping me out, and leading me to the movie screen metaphor.
It seems like there isn’t an observer. There is no separate viewer or smeller or feeler. The stimulus itself is the only thing. So if something sounds far away and behind you, “far and behind” is just another stimulus.
What I don’t get is how this flattens everything. What used to be 3D or 4D (if you add time), now all becomes 2D. Or maybe 1D? Not sure about that. I suppose 1D would be the most elegant and pure.
Anyway, I’m trying to figure out how we can get more depth from something that’s flatter.
Is that not a thing that’s on offer from meditation and exploring consciousness? Richer experience? So how does flattening everything to a movie screen give things more depth?
I keep thinking of sound via headphones and speakers and such. There, a big part of the game is breaking out the “spaciousness” of sound. You hear this instrument over there, and the voice is coming from here and there. Etc.
That to me feels richer.
Flat seems, well, flat. I wouldn’t want to go from a live orchestra experience to a mono version played from a cassette, so why do I want to compress life into that with meditation?
Perhaps the answer lies in the ephemeral nature of the experience when it only exists in one dimension. Then it’s so fleeting. So temporary. And so unitary. Like it’s the only thing that matters in the world while it’s happening.
But can we not do that with 3D sounds as well, with the bird chirping to your front right about 10 feet away? That is certainly ephemeral as well, is it not?
The other thing I’m grappling with is the implication of there not being a self.
I mean, I sort of get it. It’s an illusion, just like agency in free will. And the moment you stop realizing it’s an illusion it becomes very real to you.
This is how you can stare directly at pain using your attention and have it disappear while you’re doing so. But the moment you are distracted, the pain returns in force. I think the feeling of self works that way.
Distraction = self. Attention = lack of self. Is that right?
I guess I’m left wondering what the takeaway is. Is it that there truly is no self? That there are only appearances in consciousness? And if so, what course of action should that encourage?
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I think one possibility would be the goal of hooking everyone into a shared consciousness which individual people could choose to tap into at will. That’s obviously been part of a lot of science fiction, and it’s obviously way in the future if it ever happens.
But in that case, the concept of individuality wouldn’t be something valuable that’s discarded, but rather an illusion that gets shed with appropriate evolution. At that point there is just an interface of experience, and beings—whatever they are—could decide to tap in or not.
It just feels weird to imagine a world without a self. It’s like I’m not sure which type of philosophy to even analyze this with.
With free will I use what I call General Absurdism, which is, “The disconnect between human experience and underlying reality.” And that’s the problem: what’s the underlying reality of experiencing self?
If you experience being a self, are you not a self? Is that not our best definition of being conscious? So consciousness is an illusion as well? Or at least, it’s no longer personal but now objective?
In other words, some thing experienced being some thing, therefore that thing is conscious. Seems pretty inert.
If I look from the outside at another human, say, prehistoric—what do I see? Do they have a self? I see someone gathering sticks for a fire. They’re washing in the river so they can attract a mate. They’re making funny faces to make a sister laugh.
Maybe this is exactly another case of General Absurdism. Maybe at that level of human experience they are absolutely a self, yet just as that person doesn’t have free will they also don’t have a self.
Once again, it’s all about perspective and definitions. That’s why General Absurdism is so useful. From the persective of the person, choice is real. Within the context of human experience. And maybe it’s the same with self.
But where does that leave us with mindfulness and its ability to destroy that self with attention?
Is meditation breaking through General Absurdism’s barrier that separates human experience and underlying reality?
Does observing the birth and transience of a random though dispel the illusion of that thought being “yours”? And does the flattening of experience into a movie screen with no audience dispel the illusion of self?
I’ll think more on it, and if you know of people who have answered this already, please point me to them.