Waking up and the illusion of the self
Dana asked me some questions about The Waking Up Course. Daniel asked some questions about the practice. Their questions led me to clarify my understanding.
So I’ve written this for them. But really for me, because it’s too fucking long for anyone else to read.
Sorry, anyone else. It’s long. Really long. 2300 words long.
Humans are subject to illusions that affect our thinking, our choices, and our actions.
It takes skill to see through the illusions that can affect the choices we make.
Fewer illusions mean better choices. Better choices mean better lives.
The biggest illusion, so goes the theory, is the illusion of the conventional self.
We are not what we seem to be. We are not what we think we are.
Seeing through the illusion of self is a big deal.
Meditation can help you with that.
The theory of mindfulness meditation
People meditate hoping it will lead them to “a better life,” whatever that might mean to them.
The theory says that one reason that life isn’t as good as it can be—and sometimes even sucks—is that illusions often fool us. We make bad choices based on these illusions. The choices are “bad” because they lead to unnecessary suffering and sometimes misery—for ourselves or others.
The theory says that if we better understand what’s an illusion and what’s not, we’d make better choices and have better lives.
Seems reasonable, right?
How do we tell if an appearance is an illusion?
The theory says that if we observe something carefully enough, without being distracted by other things or being taken in by illusory characteristics and if we see it in its context we can discover that something is an illusion.
The theory says that some illusions are very hard to see through.
We’re unlikely to see through the most compelling illusions unless we can control our attention so we can focus on them despite distractions and we can expand our awareness to understand them in fullest context.
How do we learn to control our attention and expand our awareness?
The theory says we can do that by doing exercises designed to help us improve attention and awareness.
But even that may not be enough.
The most difficult illusions will withstand careful, attentive scrutiny. We may look at them for a long time without seeing through them. But if someone calls our attention to a particular feature of an illusion, or explains how an illusion is created, we might see through it more quickly.
Mindfulness meditation practice also includes exercises that put our attention on common, tricky illusions. It also includes reading books or being guided by someone who can explain how some of those illusions work and how we can look in ways that have helped others reveal the illusion.
Without help, we’re unlikely to see some crucial illusions for what they are.
Like the illusion of the conventional self.
Mindfulness meditation practice is designed to increase the power of consciousness so we can see through illusions.
It’s also designed to help us understand consciousness itself.
So let’s start there.
Consciousness is the only thing we can be sure is not an illusion
There’s exactly one thing that we know cannot be an illusion: one thing, and one thing only — consciousness. We can be fooled about everything else. We can see mirages, hear ringing in our ears, be tricked by magicians. We can take drugs that cause us to see things that violate all the laws of physics. But we can’t be tricked into believing we are conscious: to be tricked we must first be conscious. We can be tricked into believing we are not conscious, but we can’t be tricked into believing that we are.
I also wrote this.
You might have some ideas about what consciousness is and what it might mean. Some of those ideas might be illusions. But the bare fact of consciousness is the one thing that cannot be an illusion.
Understanding consciousness is the foundation of mindfulness practice.
Everything must appear in consciousness
To experience something, it must appear in consciousness.
There might be such a thing as an “unconscious mind,” and there are many events of which we might be unconscious. But we don’t experience anything unless it first appears in consciousness.
Right now, I’m sitting here and typing, and my computer is part of my conscious experience. I don’t put it there. It’s just there. No conscious experience, no computer.
I might have the conscious experience of a memory of a computer. But no conscious experience no memory.
We experience parts of “reality” (whatever that is) only when those parts appear in consciousness. We experience “thoughts” (whatever that might mean) only when those thoughts appear in consciousness.
So whatever else consciousness is, it is “the place” where everything that is experienced appears.
Anything that appears in consciousness could be an illusion.
We know that some of the things that appear in consciousness are illusions. But if we are going to build on a firm foundation, we need to consider that anything in consciousness could be an illusion. We could have been hypnotized or given some drug that causes us to experience reality differently.
Consciousness itself is not an illusion.
But anything that appears in consciousness could be.
So how can you tell what’s an illusion and what’s not? And how can you know what’s behind an illusion?
How to test for an illusion
If you examine something (in consciousness) and it transforms or even disappears, then what you first observed was an illusion.
That’s the first test—but not the only one—for determining whether something is an illusion. Look at it carefully. See if it changes. Examine the nature of the change.
If examining something cause it to change radically, then what you first looked at was an illusion. If it disappears when you examine it carefully, then what had been there was an illusion.
If it transforms, then what you now experience might still be an illusion. So you need to examine a transformed illusion carefully as well.
Seeing through an illusion lets you see what’s behind it and what might be causing it. That might be an illusion, too. So keep paying attention!
You won’t find some illusions
If something does not transform or disappear, it might still be an illusion.
Stage magicians, properly called “illusionists,” don’t do magic. They create illusions. The best illusions are difficult to see as illusions and unexpected—even seemingly impossible. If you can see how the woman gets out of the box before it (and she) is cut in half, it’s not much of an illusion. But if the escape appears to defy reason, it’s a good illusion.
David Copperfield), reportedly the most successful stage magician in history, famously made the Statue of Liberty disappear and reappear on live television before a live audience in 1984. No one can do that—so it must have been an illusion. But how?
Copperfield’s secret was ultimately revealed: when the statue was hidden by a curtain, the platform on which the audience was seated rotated undetectably. When the curtain dropped the statue was hidden behind a support. If you’d been there and knew how it was done, you might have looked carefully enough to see through the illusion.
But absent that knowledge, no one was able to tell.
The risk of believing illusions
We make choices so that reality will move in the direction we want. Our illusions may influence the choices we make, but reality determines what happens.
Some illusions reflect reality. Some might be hyper-real. But some are inconsistent with reality. If you choose and act based on an illusion that does not match reality, reality is unlikely to cooperate and give you the result that you want.
When you understand what’s an illusion and what’s not, you’re likely to make choices that will lead to better outcomes.
The reality we experience is an illusion
Reality may exist, but our experience of reality must be an illusion.
How could it be otherwise?
Our experience of a chair arrives when photons bounce off its surface into our eyes. Our lenses project an upside-down image on our retinal cells. Those cells fire and produce a cascading series of neural events that result in our perception of a chair.
Where’s the chair that we experience? It can’t be the chair that’s out there.
What we experience is the two-dimensional projection of the surface of the part of the chair that entered the eye, sliced and diced, disassembled and reassembled, abstracted and consolidated with knowledge of other such objects to produce a three-dimensional illusion complete with a set of “chairlike” expectations and attributes.
That’s what appears in consciousness: an illusion—based, possibly, on reality. But not necessarily.
The illusion of a chair might be based on hypnotic suggestion, or electrical stimulation of parts of the brain, or drugs.
No matter the cause, what appears in consciousness can only be some kind of illusion.
The illusion of a chair that we are likely to experience probably matches reality. If so, it’s likely to be useful. It might lead us to the illusion of sitting an illusory body in the illusory chair and thus avoid the uncomfortable illusion of fatigue from the illusion of standing.
If an illusion is useful and matches reality it doesn’t change the fact that it is—and must be—an illusion.
We experience these illusions because they appear in consciousness—as does everything else that we experience.
The illusion of self
According to the meditative traditions, the “conventional self” is an illusion. And failing to understand the nature of the illusion is the root of bad choices and much suffering.
How can we discover whether it’s an illusion?
As with all things—by looking carefully—and by understanding a little about how the illusion is created.
When we are aware of an object across space, it seems as though there’s a location—behind our face, typically—from which we are aware. It seems that there’s a self in that location that controls our attention and from which awareness emanates.
That’s how it seems.
But that can’t be entirely correct. There might be an object out there in reality, but we know that the object that appears in consciousness is an illusion. The face we experience, behind which that self-thing seems to be, is another object in consciousness—and must be an illusion.
So is the self that seems located there is also an illusion? Perhaps there is a self, but if there is, then is what we experience an illusion of the “real self?”
How do you see through an illusion? Look closely. If it’s not there, it was an illusion.
Pay close attention to the self that you experience. Direct your attention to wherever you think the self is located and examine what’s there.
To get a strong sense of self you might do this: Look across a space at an object, and get a clear idea of the subject-object relationship—-that you are different from the object, and you are looking at it across a space from some point, perhaps behind your face.
So the object is an object, and you are what’s looking at the object. Get a clear idea of the place from which you are looking at the object.
And then briefly—it should only be briefly—turn your attention to “what’s looking.” Turn your attention to the self that’s looking.
If the self is an illusion, you’ll find that there’s nothing there.
If you have the (momentary) experience that “what was looking” was not there when you looked, then you’ve broken through the illusion of self (momentarily).
The object you’re looking at is an appearance in consciousness. The space you’re looking across is an appearance in consciousness. What’s looking is also an appearance in consciousness.
So when you look for the “looker,” you may find that there’s nothing there.
That’s because it’s all just consciousness.
To do the exercise, you need to take a quick look. This isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s just a glance.
What I experience
You might have a different experience. It’s not right or wrong. It’s probably closer to right than what you saw when you didn’t look closely.
Here’s what I experience when I glance inward toward where I think my self is located.
I find nothing.
I always find nothing.
There’s no self there.
There’s no self to find.
For an instant, when I look inward for the self, I find myself looking outward.
And in the next instant, I start thinking to myself about what I’ve just experienced. I tell myself that the self has gone and I’m looking at the universe. I ask myself questions about what just happened. The illusion of the self reappears, of course. I can’t talk to myself without a self to talk to (and one that’s talking.) But if I glance again, it disappears again.
If the self the illusion?
Or is the absence of the self the illusion?
Or are they both illusions?
If something surprising happens when you do the experiment—if you see the self as an illusion, it has important implications, but the consequences may not be obvious. They weren’t to me. I saw the illusion, and I didn’t realize the implications. Until I thought about it while writing this.
If the self is an illusion, what about all the shit that’s connected to the self? What about fears? What about frustrations? What about cravings? Seems like they would be illusions, too. If we saw that they were illusions, seems like they’d be easier to deal with.
Surprisingly, embarrassingly, I knew this and forgot it. I wrote about it.
WTAF! How could I have forgotten that?