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 who? Are there two different 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. So what’s up with that?
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. It is made of pieces. 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 more profound experiences a human being is capable of. It is, in fact, the essence of awakening, or at least the beginning of it. In this post I’ll show you one technique that can lead you to having that experience.
Are there two different people in your head, one that is talking and one that is listening?
The sense of self is composed or constructed out of thoughts and feelings (learn more about that). If you examine your thoughts and feelings very, very carefully over time in a systematic way using mindfulness meditation, this “constructedness” of the sense of self will become intuitively obvious.
If you continue to investigate this even more deeply over time, after a while you will notice that these thoughts and feelings change continuously and a lot. Since the self is made of thoughts and feelings, and those thoughts and feelings are always changing, the constructed self itself is always changing.
Learning What You Really Are
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. (in Buddhist terms, the first is the realization of anatta, and the second is anicca.) Both of these realizations fly in the face of our normal, everyday experience. The naive presumption is the sense of self is always the same and is permanent (at least while we’re alive). We often feel that we 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 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 the same you. Yet when you notice that your thoughts and feelings are always changing, it becomes apparent that the “you” is always changing, too.
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. You will learn what you really are, and it will be different than anything you have imagined. Let’s look next at how to actually do that in practice.
How to Deconstruct the Sense of Self
As I promised in part two of this series, I will present next one technique for noticing these important things about your 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 or enlightenment. 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) Meditate on your feelings
2) Meditate on your visual thoughts
3) Meditate on your verbal thoughts
4) Meditate on all three together
The thoughts and feelings that make up the sense of self tend to get all tangled together, and appear to be one thing. That one thing is your sense of self, the feeling of being you. This meditation technique is very effective because it works by picking apart these sensations from one another. As you learn to feel each one individually, the sense of them all adding together into a self starts to diminish. To use a different way of speaking, by making each of these aspects of you as a subject into an object, you break your identification with them. 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: Meditation on 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. For example, you can contact the “happiness” sensation within a smile, or the “worry” sensation in your belly, etc.
During this part of the meditation, simply feel the physical sensations in your body, paying close attention to any sensations that seem to have an emotional flavor to them. 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 emotional 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: Meditate on 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, i.e. the visual part of thinking.
Meditate on 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 mental images 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 pleasant 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: Meditate on your verbal thoughts. Listen to yourself talking to yourself. Who is talking to whom? Listen to the words you’re saying to yourself in your mind.
Don’t try to generate self talk on purpose. On the other hand, do not try to stop or slow down the thoughts. Instead, listen to mental talk like it’s a foreign language or the singing of birds. Like you’re listening to the sound of a creek or the ocean.
Let the verbal “stream of consciousness” just flow by without interference. Do not interfere with it at all. If visual thoughts or feelings arise during this part, just let them pass. Focus on the sound of thinking, not its content.
Four: Meditate on all three together. This is where you put it all together. The trick here is to pay attention to emotional feelings in the body, visual and verbal thinking, all at once. By “all at once” I mean to freely float between each of these elements as they arise.
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. This is the self of the moment, the you that you currently inhabit, so to speak. In the next moment it is entirely new and different. And the next moment, and the next.
You will learn what you really are, and it will be different than anything you have imagined.
Let’s say you spend five minutes on each of these steps, for a total of 20 minutes. You could then finish, or then repeat the whole process again. As you do this, you learn 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 is something entirely different than you imagined. It is not solid, or unchanging, or an essence. It is, rather, a ever-changing flow of sensory activity, with no continuity. It is, to use the old Buddhist language, a “not-self.” But even this not-self isn’t a thing; it is completely empty. It arises because of causes and conditions.
This meditation is just one way to deconstruct the self, and I’ve just given only the most basic description here. Noticing the constructed, impermanent nature of the sense of self is really not that difficult. It’s a relatively simple task, but one that takes consistent 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.”