No-Self vs. True Self
One of the terms that I have found can be the most misleading for people in spirituality, is the concept of no self. I wanted to clarify this from an embodied perspective and offer some tools for connecting with your true self.
It is true that we do not have a separate, fixed self. We are always changing and we co-arise with our environment. Our skin is only soft because most things around us in our environment are hard. We are only intelligent because most animals are dumb. We only feel happiness because the environment and conditions we are in evokes it in us. As soon as we change our environment our self changes too.
Our sense of a fixed, permanent self comes from the mind. We hold on to fixed perceptions and ideas about things because the changing nature of reality feels scary and unstable to us. As we become more present in reality and we notice how our experience can be far more impermanent and interconnected than we first realised, it can fundamentally change how we experience our sense of self.
This meditation practice, when done correctly, opens our mind to the point where we realise all of perception, awareness and consciousness is impermanent, changing and empty, in the sense that any ideas about right or wrong, better or worse, this or that, just come from our resistance and fear of certain concepts.
If people open their minds to this degree, without opening their hearts, they can get stuck in this emptiness, which is not a very satisfying or meaningful experience to be having.
However, if you open your heart either before or at the same time as opening your mind, your sense of a self shifts from the mind’s idea of being a fixed, separate self into the heart’s felt-sense of being an embodied expression of the part of the Universe that is you in this moment. This is what I mean by a true self.
When we experience the world with an open heart, we have less fixed ideas about what is right or wrong, but we still have natural preferences for things.
I love sunshine, surfing, people that make me laugh – I don’t think that these things are inherently better than other things, I just prefer them. This preference arises by letting our experience into our bodies and our hearts.
Our bodies create an experience that is separate from the rest of the Universe and is deeply personal.
Hearts will naturally filter and prioritise what feels most important in our experience and we will be drawn to these things. This shapes how we experience our environments and ourselves.
An example of this is when I was out on a walk with a fellow nature loving friend, who also has a very open mind and heart, he noticed how I was very drawn to the flowers and he was very drawn to the trees. Walking through the same terrain we probably had very different experiences of what that looked like and how it felt, because the information that we were naturally drawn to was very different.
This is different to the mind’s preference, or craving and aversion, in that it’s not based on wanting something that isn’t there or trying to make something go away. It is accepting our environment as it is, including our heart’s natural preferences for things.
This is also true of our response to the world – if we open our hearts, our natural intentions will flow out of us in each moment. I’m a creative and adventurous person at heart, so my natural response to the world is always kicking out creative ideas and finding some new boundary to push.
Other people will have different guiding values, which will take them in different directions and evoke different responses to the same environment.
Again, this doesn’t come from trying to deny or change the experiences we are having, which would come from the mind, it’s embracing our heart’s natural desire to engage with and contribute to experience.
These things – our bodies’ natural ways of being and our hearts natural preferences – start to create a certain essence that infuses all our experience.
I have a certain Rosa-ness, which shapes my entire experience. It’s different in different situations but it is based on my body and how my heart filters and prioritises all the information it is receiving and naturally responds to that information.
When people are relaxed, I find it really nice to notice their essence. What is the felt-sense of their presence. How are they different to other people. What does that evoke in me.
I noticed during the process of my awakening that one of the things I was resisting in my experience was this Rosa-ness that permeated everything. It was like there was a desire to escape my sense of the world. I’m not sure if this was rooted in personal issues around self-esteem or if it is a more Universal experience that is part of the obsession with no-self in spirituality, but accepting my unique experience of the world was one of the best things that could have come out of the awakening for me. It has allowed me to relax into my experience.
It is my belief that this is what the Universe wants us to do. We are here to experience it, take pleasure in our preferences in any given moment, enjoy engaging with life and give a shit about contributing to the world.
One of things that I have found that helps people to relax into their true self is to clearly identify some of their preferences and values. It is easier to be in our experience if we know it and validate its desires.
Just making a free-flow list of lots of things you like – people, places, things, foods, activities, nature or animals, music or art, colours, emotions, smells, sensations – will help you start to identify aspects of your true self.
It can also be useful to identify some core values. This post – on reimagining spiritual practice – includes an exercise that can help you do that.
I have done a version of this exercise with loads of people and there are a couple of things that I’ve noticed. Firstly, everyone is incredibly unique in the way they make sense of the world and the things they want. Secondly, I have never found a single person who has very selfish intentions. Everyone wants to be contributing to society in one way or another.
I believe that embracing our true selves and the preferences and desires that come naturally from our heart is fundamental to the path and building a better world.
The purpose of life and practice is to identify these things and clear everything that isn’t these things out of our experience. This will probably cause a lot of upheaval and change in your life – it is not easy to live life as your true self otherwise we’d already be doing it.
But the question I have to ask you is: if you’re not being a true expression of yourself in the world, then what is the point?