Deconstructing the Self with Mindfulness Meditation
I remember as a teenager, feeling that the Monty Python joke “my brain hurts” was talking about me. It was clear to me that my biggest problem in life was my own mind. I was very anxious, sometimes experiencing paralyzing anxiety attacks. Have you ever been so afraid you couldn’t move? But most of all my mind was filled with negative self talk. It was like having a person who hated me inside my brain, criticizing, mocking, and attacking me almost constantly. By the time I was eighteen, I had heard of meditation, and felt some hope that it could help me deal with the unpleasant situation inside my skull. As soon as I tried meditating, I felt some relief, and from that point on I was hooked. Little by little (over the years since then) this negative, destructive mental self was dissolved, shown to be an imaginary (albeit actually painful) creation, and let go of. Slowly it was replaced by openness, freedom, and clarity.
As a thought experiment, ask yourself how you know that you exist.
As we saw in Part 1 of this series, meditation can be described as a kind of deconstruction, and the thing we are deconstructing is sensory experience. But there is one sensory experience that is categorically different than all other sensory experiences: the experience of being “me.” The sense of being a person, an ego. The deconstruction of the sensory experience of being an ego is one of the most powerful and meaningful things a person can do.
As a thought experiment, ask yourself how you know that you exist. The deeper you look into this, the more you realize that the answer is because you have a sensory experience of being alive.
René Descartes said that he knew he was alive because he was thinking, and thinking is experienced as a sensory event, such as the sound of talking in your head, or pictures in the mind’s eye. So he was right—you can know that you exist because you are aware of the sensory experience of thinking—but he also missed a vital component of the sense of being alive: feeling. You also know you exist because you’re experiencing the sensations in your body. These can be simple body sensations (the lungs breathing, the wind on the skin, the rumbling of the guts) or they can be emotional body sensations (the flush of anger, the racing heart of fear, the uplifted face of joy).
This felt sense of the body is a much more ancient and primary sense of being alive. Thinking in words probably on evolved in humans in the last 50,000 years, so it is very recent and a relatively superficial level of existence. Thinking in pictures (in varying degrees) probably occurs in most animals that have eyes, which means that it is a much older and somewhat deeper level of experiencing the sense of being alive. But nothing comes close, in terms of evolutionary age or depth of experience, to body sensations. Probably all animals and perhaps even bacteria and other micro-organisms have at least some rudimentary bodily sensation. (Of course, they have no conscious awareness of these sensations, but that is another story.) So the experience you have of the sensations of your own body are some of the deepest and most powerful ways of knowing that you exist. If you didn’t have all of these sensations (of thoughts and feelings, as well as external sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch), you wouldn’t have any way of knowing that you were alive. You could live for a billion years and never know it, because there would be no way to experience your existence. It is your own sensory experience that is the essence of being alive.
The Feeling of Being Me
There is a subset of sensory experience that is special, and that has more relevance to human experience than the rest. It is the sensory experience of being “me,” of being an ego. This sensory experience is centered around self-referential thinking and feeling. The narrative voice in your head, the pictures in your mind’s eye, and the emotions you’re having right now constitute almost all of it. There are sometimes other sensations, like memories of smells and so forth, but these are relatively uncommon compared to the big three (mental talk, mental pictures, and emotions).
Understanding the ego as a sensory experience is extremely useful, because it allows us to get a handle on it. We can deconstruct the sensory experience of being an ego just like we can deconstruct any other sensory experience. And yet because the experience of being “me” is different than other experiences, the results are not the same. When you deconstruct the experience of being an ego, you deconstruct your sense of self.
The Ego Is a Good Thing
Many people understand the goal of meditation to be somehow the destruction, annihilation, or vanquishing of the ego. It is common to hear meditation teachers or spiritual counselors demonizing the ego as the source of all our problems. Basically the Satan of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding. Human beings evolved to have an ego for very good reasons, and the ego is a powerful and useful thing in life. Having no ego at all would be pathological in an adult human. There would be no way for you to successfully navigate life, to doing anything useful, or to help anyone in any way. It would be a tragedy to actually destroy your ego.
Luckily, that is not what we’re trying to do in meditation. Rather, the goal is to be able to see through (the actual meaning of the word Vipassana) the illusion that the ego is really who you are, and instead to witness it as just another kind of sensory experience.
If there is anything we are trying to destroy or get rid of (and that isn’t the language I would use), it is the sense of identification with the ego. The ego as “me.” It is possible to have a high-functioning ego in perfect working condition and to simultaneously understand on a very deep level that it is not who you are. This realization is a life-changing experience; one that continues to deepen and become enriched as life continues. That is where not only the relief from mental suffering, but also the clarity, openness, and freedom really begin to enter the picture.
This experiential understanding—your ego is not who you are—is the beginning of what is called enlightenment. If you are religious and seek to know God, then this is the place to start. If you are a Buddhist and seek to know Emptiness, then this is the place to start. If you are a scientific materialist and seek to have a meaningful experience of life, then this is the place to start. Deconstructing the sense of self into its component sensory experiences will collapse the illusion that you are an ego, and allow you to breakthrough to something much deeper, more real, and more meaningful. Maybe the most meaningful experience possible.
We’ll look at how to actually do that in Part 3 of this series.
photo by Michael W. Taft