To be or not to be


There are many in the neo-advaita and non-dualistic spiritual 'scene' who claim that 'I' do not exist, that the 'self' does not exist. Only the Absolute, Universal Consciousness exists. The "I" is an illusion, and a dangerous one at that, for it is the point from which all kinds of destructive tendencies, such as egoism and self-centeredness, come. And spirituality consists in purifying the fictitious self therefore and allowing it to merge and unite with a Higher Self, which is non-individual.

To me, such an assertion comes across as absurd. Of course I do exist! Not as something that has been fixed since birth and makes up my unchanging identity as a living being, as a person with a fixed name, etc. But as a point of view, as self-reference, as an indication of this body and personality in relation to other bodies and other aspects of the world in which I find myself.

For the rest, I experience myself as a constant stream of changing experiences. It is true that this body and the memories of this body have a certain continuity. And there are traits, perhaps recorded in the DNA of this body, that are still the same. I still detect a kind of basic reticence and hypersensitivity to all kinds of impressions. I feel more or less the same as I did yesterday, yet I am not at all like the person I was a while ago, even less like the person I was as a teenager and as a child. I have different interests, different beliefs, different values, a different taste in music, etcetera.

"When we fancy ourselves to be a particular thing with a name, we see ourselves as we would a cork in a stream. What we do not realize is that there is only stream. What we fancy as particular is, from the first, only movement, change and flow. It's not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There's only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There's only stream." Steve Hagen

There is now, in this moment, one inseparable stream of impressions - perceptions, feelings and thoughts - that is constantly changing. However, my existence as this person, here and now, is not in conflict with any possible Universal Principle, though I have never experienced such a thing. And from what I hear from others who claim to have experienced union with something like this, it is clear that such an experience is usually of a temporary nature. It is not quite possible to function normally as a human being, as a person, in nirvikalpa samahdi. There do seem to be saddhus who have found themselves in this, but they have to be fed and changed by others every day. Not something to look forward to as far as I'm concerned.

There might exist an absolute, permanent, independent principle, but daily life certainly does not take place at that level.

To feel that you are the center of your experience, that the world revolves around you, that you are "inside" and the world "outside" is, incidentally, not necessary for normal functioning either. To clarify this, here is the account of a conversation between Robert Saltzman and a few others on Facebook:

"Question: Robert, in The Ten Thousand Things you say, "Right now you seem to exist as a center of consciousness." And in that book you also say, "The observer is the observed. A dividing line between inside and outside is a feature of Fantasyland, and I don't hang out in that amusement park." So my question is: If people feel that they are the center of consciousness, wouldn't that automatically lead to the feeling that they are inside and the rest of the world is outside?

Answer: Yes, that's the point. You LIKE to exist as a "center," but is that true, or is everything just here, and is the usual idea of "myself" as an abiding presence just a kind of fantasy?

Question: All of this is just here, and there is a common feeling that each of us is at the center of our world. If we all feel that, then that is true for all practical purposes. Maybe it's a fantasy, and maybe that fantasy serves a useful evolutionary purpose.

Answer: Exactly. So can someone be emotionally, psychologically free of all that - at least relatively free of it?

Question: I am free from thinking that I cause things to happen, and I am free from thinking that I am the doer. I am not free from feeling that I am the center of my world. It's hard for me to see how that would feel.

Answer: Yes. It can't be explained. For me, it's not an absolute. The sense of myself is still there along with everything else, but not at the center. Usually what Robert wants or doesn't want seems trivial, not worth thinking about. Without that weight of self-centeredness, each moment seems comprehensive, a unique event, in a strange way captivating just like one of my photographs.

Q: Is that related to what you said about being a few inches above the ground?

Answer: Well, that was D.T. Suzuki's way of referring to his sense of freedom when asked what enlightenment is like, but unless you feel it, it's just words.

Question: OK. I get it. Again, thank you very much.

Answer: Another way is to see that "myself" is just another process in a world of countless processes, all of which continue fairly automatically until they don't.

This does not mean ignoring or belittling your personal needs. It means that you don't focus on them.

Comment from someone: "As the weight of self-centeredness diminishes, the feeling that you are inside and the rest of the world is outside also disappears."