8. What Makes Us Unique?


Q: What about us makes us unique, Robert? I can’t see myself as just awareness when I know there are components to “me” that seem set in stone.

I understand that “I” am not empathy, curiosity or adventurousness, but it feels as if empathy, curiosity and adventurousness are core parts of my personality without which I am not “me.” I guess I don’t understand the difference between self and personality. They seem to work in tandem. I am probably not doing a good job of explaining myself. I don’t see how we are all just pure awareness. I think our propensities create the filter through which occurrences and events pass and are interpreted. And the filter will always be there, won’t it?

Q2: Robert, I see my cup of tea and reach out to grab it. I feel the surface of the cup, and it seems as if I both own and control the limb that reaches and touches the cup. Clearly this does not always apply as in reflex action, or when one acts unconsciously, like when driving a car, but insofar as it does happen, it seems to me to be fundamental and basic, less a belief than a sensation.

I’m not trying to start a conversation about agency or the self in the ultimate sense. I want to hear instead about how normal, everyday actions, the simple sense of being here and doing things that I recall having even as a child, feels from your point of view. I’m curious how you, who seem to experience the world in a quite different way, experience that sensation and what you make of it.

You say that for you “Robert Saltzman” is not a self, but a character, just part of the contents of awareness. I know I’m oversimplifying here. You have said that awareness is not separate from its contents, and that the seer is the seen, so we’ve gone into all that before. But setting that aside, what I’m trying to get at is that you seem to have a very different fundamental sense of self than mine which is completely tied up with this sense of agency and control. I mean control over bodily movements and so on. That feeling of control shores up the sense of being a separate agent, and this sense of being the agent, owner, and controller of one’s actions isn’t just a belief or a thought. I cannot quite define it, but neither can I imagine being without it. I have heard that feeling separated from one’s own thoughts and actions is a symptom of schizophrenia. I do not imagine, of course, that you are schizophrenic, but how is this different from schizophrenia?

To be specific, do you have the feeling of being in control of your actions and behaviors, and if so, does awakening change that feeling from what it was before?

A: These questions come from a perspective that sees a “myself,” living in the world—a myself, located at the center of that world, interacting with and dealing with that world, which it calls the “outside world.”

I understand that. Even most schizophrenics understand that point of view. I am not ignorant of that general consensus, but I am not defined by it. The experience of being here at all, regardless of what “I” am or what I am said to be by others, amazes me. This immensity of universe—even the small part of it of which we humans are aware—astonishes me. The fact that there is something rather than nothing seems beyond miraculous. I cannot even begin to define myself with respect to all that, much less be defined by society’s rather naïve consensus on the subject.

So, while playing along to some extent with that consensus may be necessary, my moment to moment experience is entirely different. For me, world and Robert are not separate. They are one and the same “substance,” arising together, codependent, and entirely inseparable. Without Robert, there is no world; without the world, there is no Robert.

Suppose you see a tree: branches, leaves, and trunk. You walk right up to the tree and assess the texture of its bark which feels rough and rasping. Very likely, you view the tree as existing “out there” somewhere, and consider the roughness you perceive to be a fixed quality of its bark. That point of view is taught to us from birth, so most of us take it as a given, an indisputable fact. I am “in here,” being the way I am. The tree is “out there,” being the way it is.

Now, if you take that view as a given, I cannot possibly unravel this. So, if you are interested in these matters, do not imagine that you know anything about what “myself” is or isn’t. Start out with a clean slate, which means the conviction that you know nothing at all about “myself” or the tree.

You ask if I have any feeling of control, and if that has changed along with awakening. I’ll get to that, but frankly, no matter what I say, you will never know what it is like to be me. If you try to get a handle on my experience so that you can experience it too, you won’t. So this is not about my experience, but about yours.

When you touch the bark of that tree, and say to yourself, “That bark feels rough,” where is that roughness located? Is it located “out there?” No. It is located in the neurons of the brain, is it not? Or, if “neurons” sounds materialistic, then let’s say that the roughness is located in “mind,” whatever that is.

There may be a separate object called tree out there, but who could possibly know whether there is or isn’t such an object, or even know what such a question really means?

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? —Yeats.

But even if there is a tree “out there” in some ultimate sense—a tree, I mean, that exists separate from your perception of it — you are never actually seeing it. All you know is mind. The tree you see is an impression upon mind. So you know impressions, not trees.

The roughness you feel is a quality not of trees, but of mind, just as redness and tartness are qualities — qualia — not of apples, but of mind. Whether the tree even exists apart from mind, or what, if any, are its essential qualities, is unknown and entirely mysterious.

If you can keep from stamping your foot and insisting that “of course there is a tree out there,” this is not difficult to understand. All it really takes is an open mind — the ability to consider these matters not in terms of what you already think you know, but freshly.

So, roughness is not a quality of a perceived object called “tree,” but a quality of perception itself, which takes place in mind. If you don’t see that, please don’t keep reading. Instead, ponder the idea until you have a feeling for it.

Now, Robert is just like a tree. He seems to exist, but where? Where is Robert located? He is, I say, located in the very same place as the tree: in mind. Tree is an impression in mind, and Robert is an impression in mind. No difference.

“OK,” you may say. “I get that. Robert and the tree are not out there somewhere. Both Robert and the tree are objects in mind. But still, Robert, it is your mind — your unique mind—in which they are located, isn’t it?” No. It is not “my” mind. I don’t own it. I cannot control it. It will not mind me. It seems to flow like water all over the place. Nothing will keep it contained.

I cannot force mind to stop coming up with thoughts and images, and like a mirror, whatever is put in front of mind seems to be reflected instantly, whether “myself” likes that or not, and with no effort or intention anywhere to reflect anything. So the notion of “my mind and your mind” seems questionable. Is there a “myself” that has a mind? Or is “myself” better understood not as a possessor of mind but as a collection of impressions in mind like the tree?

For all we really know, the answer could be neither. Among tech workers, for example, a popular meme considers “myself” to be a simulation running on software in some faraway future. They really mean it. From my perspective that seems a far reach, but I am in no position to say it’s wrong. We do not know what mind is.

When a child first glimpses her image in a mirror, her mother may say, “See? That’s you!” Those words are the start of a lifelong social conditioning about what “myself” is—the supposed “entity” that comes into the world when a body is born. Awakening is a word for the moment in which that kind of conditioning melts away, leaving the concept of “myself” undefined and empty. Awakening is like a shift of focus in which self and world, body and mind, somehow merge into one inseparable happening.

Change of focus is a common occurrence in the everyday world. Think of the optical illusion that seems to switch abruptly from the face of a beautiful young girl to the visage of a hag. There is nothing particularly earthshaking in a shift like that. As long as the illusion is “out there” somewhere and I am “in here” observing it, that kind of shift presents no problem. “I” am here just as I always was, and something “out there” keeps shifting.

But what if the shift involves the disappearance of the boundaries between inside and outside? Well, that’s another kettle of fish entirely. That kind of shift demands a radical revamping of the very definition of “myself” which previously was just taken for granted. That could feel like losing one’s grip on the world, and just falling forever into emptiness or chaos. It’s not true, of course, that one must hold fast to the conventional “story of myself” or else be faced with the entire world falling to pieces, but that is the fear expressed in such phrases as, “I must be losing my mind.” No wonder so many of us cling so adamantly to the conception of “myself in here and the world out there.” Hanging on to that schema could feel a good deal more secure than going exploring without a map.

As for the question about what makes you unique, very little I’d say, and if you concentrate on that, honing in on apparent differences between “myself” and others, you miss the forest for the trees. Uniqueness of personality is like personal appearance. Underneath all that surface glamour it’s all the same blood and bone. I don’t deny that personality exists, or that people express different habitual attitudes. The same is true of my three donkeys. They are not totally identical. They exhibit run of the mill differences—differences in aggression vs. passivity, for example—but each behaves exactly like a donkey. And when I look into the eyes of a human being or a donkey, it’s not personality that stands out, but sentience.

To stay with the personal appearance metaphor, if you remain focused upon uniqueness, that’s like a teenage girl who has a zit on her cheek and sees nothing else for the rest of the day. Out comes the mirror and the Clearasil. Meanwhile the entire symphony of life plays on, but the personality that calls itself “me” stares fixedly at its unique navel, engrossed in its unique fears and desires, proud of its unique abilities, and ashamed of its unique weaknesses. I do not mean to tease. I’m just not there. This is a vast universe.

As for whether I have the feeling of being in control of actions, I really don’t find myself thinking in those terms, but I suppose the answer is no. The necessities of each moment present themselves, and actions just seem to arise choicelessly to meet them.

I pointed out earlier that you cannot know my experience, no matter how much I say about it. You can know your experience, and that is all you can know. Is that not clear as a bell? Hearing my words does, it is true, constitute part of your experience, but words themselves are not experience any more than a menu is a meal. Words relate to experience only insofar as you find something in your own conversance with which to illuminate the words or flesh them out, for the only thing a word can ever really mean is what it means to you when you hear it or read it.

Words themselves are only sounds or squiggles. They are not the things to which they point. I can write “tempeh,” but if you try to eat that, you end up with a mouthful of paper and ink, not fermented soybeans. If you have never eaten tempeh but have only heard about it, a vague image of “fermented soybeans” will be the limit of your understanding of tempeh. If you have eaten it, then “tempeh” will not be so experience-distant. You may even recall the taste of it enough to start your mouth watering. But even if you’ve eaten tempeh a thousand times, you still cannot know my experience of tempeh. Only yours.

Some who find themselves awakening from the hypnotic trance of what I called “the consensus” may be heartened or encouraged by these conversations. Some may feel that they are learning something about what it is like to be awake. However, it is important to remember that all you can know is your experience, not mine, and that words from others can mean only what is present already within your own cognizance.

So if I say that I never see myself doing anything or being anything, including presence, witnessing, observing, or being mindful, you may enjoy riffing mentally on the themes of non-doing, non-being, emptiness, and the like, but your own awakening is another matter entirely.