Deconstructing the Self, Part 3
by Michael W. Taft
The next time you’re talking to yourself, in your mind, ask yourself this question: Who or what is talking to whom? Are there two people in your head, one that is talking and one that is listening? If not, then it’s kind of weird that you would need to have a conversation with just yourself in your head. After all, it’s you who’s doing the talking, and you’d think that you would already know what you were going to say to yourself.
This self-talk is such a normal, everyday occurrence, and yet it points to something very deep about you as a person: the self is not an entity. It is not a little person or some kind of essence within you. Instead, the ego, or sense of self, is a construction. As neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it in his book Incognito, the self is a “parliament of pieces and parts and subsystems.” Experiencing this aspect of the ego directly, for yourself, is probably one of the most profound experiences a human being is capable of. In this post I’ll show you one technique that can lead you to having that experience.
The sense of self is composed of thoughts and feelings (more about this). If you examine your thoughts and feelings very, very carefully over time in a systematic way, this will become intuitively obvious. If you continue to investigate this more deeply, after a while you will notice that these thoughts and feelings change quite a bit. Since the self is made of thoughts and feelings, and those thoughts and feelings are changing, the self itself is always changing.
That simple idea contains two of the most important things you could ever learn about yourself. One is that the self is a construction, not an entity. And two is that that construction is always changing. Both of these realizations fly in the face of our normal, everyday experience. Most people feel that they are an essence, a “soul” if you will, which inhabits the body. But when you contact the constructed nature of the self, it’s clear that (at least on that level, the level of the ego) it is definitely not an essence or a soul. It is just thoughts and feelings. The other thing we feel is that this essence is unchanging. That no matter what happens to your body, the “you” inside is always you. Yet when you notice that your thoughts and feelings are always changing, it becomes quickly apparent that the “you” is always changing, too. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have an essence or soul, but that if you do, it’s certainly not what you think it is.
As I promised in part two of this series, here is one technique for noticing these important things about the sense of self. There exist many techniques for doing this, but this is one that I have learned from meditation teacher Shinzen Young, and have used myself a great deal. It’s a very effective way to deconstruct the sense of self, which is considered to be an important aspect of awakening. Whatever you call it, it is worth doing. The results are always fascinating, and often liberating.
So here we go. This meditation is composed of four steps, which are:
1) Notice your feelings
2) Notice your visual thoughts
3) Notice your verbal thoughts
4) Notice all three together
That’s really all there is to it. The thoughts and feelings that make up the sense of self tend to get all tangled together, and appear to be one thing. This meditation technique is very effective, because it works by picking apart these sensations from one another. The trick to making this effective is to practice it diligently over a long period of time. Here’s a little more detail on how to do each step:
One: Notice your feelings. This means to meditate on the physical aspect of emotions. It may come as a surprise to notice that emotions are physical sensations, but you can track them clearly in the body (as I wrote about here). During this part of the meditation, simply feel the sensations in your body, paying close attention to any sensations that seem to have an emotional flavor to them. Really allow your awareness to stay focused right inside the feeling in the body. Let go of any mental pictures or talk that comes up about the sensation. Just feel. If you cannot find any feelings in the body, just concentrate on any physical sensation that feels the most like “you.” When you’re done with this part, completely let go of noticing feelings for now.
Two: Notice your visual thoughts. You’re going to divide up thinking into two kinds: visual and verbal. Here you’re focusing on your mind’s eye—the pictures that arise in your imagination. Any kind of mental picture, even if it’s fuzzy or indistinct, or even if it’s only light and shadow, counts as visual thinking. Pay close attention to these as they come and go. If you’re experiencing zero mental imagery, just notice the blank “screen” where the imagery would be, and enjoy the blankness. If any mental talk arises during this phase, just let go of it. When you’re done with this part, completely let go of noticing visual thinking for now.
Three: Notice your verbal thoughts. Listen to yourself talking to yourself. Who is talking to whom? In any case, listen to the words your saying to yourself in your mind. Do not try to stop or slow down the thoughts. Instead, listen to them like they’re a foreign language or the singing of birds. Like you’re listening to the sound of a creek or the ocean. If thoughts or feelings arise during this part, just let them pass. Focus on sound, not content.
Four: Notice all three together. The trick here is to pay attention to emotional feelings in the body, visual and verbal thinking, all at once. Notice that some combination of these is arising at the moment. An emotional sensation may be triggering some visuals. Some mental talk might be stirring up some emotion, and so on. Whatever’s going on, observe these three aspects of it. Don’t get too busy trying to track everything, just notice in a general way these aspects coming up and then changing.
Let’s say you spend five minutes on each of these steps. You could then finish, or then repeat the whole process again. As you do this, you are learning to untangle the sensory experience of the self. Little by little, as you do this repeatedly for weeks and months, you will begin to notice that the sense of self changes a lot more than you might think.
This meditation is just one way to deconstruct the self, and I’ve just given the most basic description here. It was created by Shinzen Young, and he calls it, “Focus in.” If you look at his materials, they contain many details about how to go much deeper with each of these steps. Noticing the constructed, impermanent nature of the sense of self is really not that difficult, it’s a simple thing that takes fortitude and effort. The effort, in this case, really pays off. The deeper your personal experience of these aspects of the sense of self, the deeper your awakening becomes. As Shinzen often puts it, “Untangle and be free.”