One of the things that is the most misleading for people, is the concept of non-self. The depths that the realisation of non-self can go to are profound and it’s also important that the insights are balanced with integrating the true self.
I wanted to clarify what non-selfs means from an embodied perspective and also offer some tools for connecting with your true self.
It’s true that you do not have a separate, fixed self; you co-arise with your environment and who you are is always changing.
Your skin is only soft because most things in the environment are hard. Humans are only intelligent because most animals are dumb. People only feel happiness or sadness because the environment and conditions they have lived in have evoked them. As soon as you change your environment, your concepts of self and your personal experiences change too.
A lot of people have the sense of a fixed, permanent self that lives somewhere in the middle of their head. As you become more present in reality, you start to notice how your experience can be far more impermanent and interconnected than you first realised and these insights can fundamentally change how you experience your sense of self.
One of the reasons that people hold onto fixed perceptions and ideas about things, including themself, is because the changing nature of reality can be scary, overwhelming and unstable.
Insight meditation practice allows you to investigate and notice this sense of non-self in your immediate experience. It starts to reveal how parts of experience that you previously assumed to be fixed are in fact impermanent and empty. Ideas that seemed solid can dissolve. Subjective experience is seen through as a process that takes no final form and has no essential nature.
If people do a lot of this practice, without any heart or embodiment practices, they can get stuck in this emptiness. They can lose touch with the parts of experience that do have more of an essence or permanent nature to them.
In contrast, if you open to the depths of your embodied and whole-hearted experience either before or at the same time as opening your mind into emptiness, you get a full and rich experience of the different aspects of being a being in this Universe.
It’s perhaps worth saying that you do have a literal body that is separate to the rest of the world and you will live in this from when you are born until you die. But it’s possible for your sense of self to shift from the mind’s idea of being a fixed, separate self into a more nebulous but still very distinct direct experience of being an embodied expression of the part of the Universe that is you in this moment. This is nebulous, embodied, essence is what I mean by a true self.
Your body creates an experience that is separate from the rest of the Universe and is deeply personal. While it’s possible to have a subjective experience of being one with everything, it’s not actually true that my experience and your experience would be the same. We would still be in separate and unique states of consciousness.
The way that your being filters and understands experience is unique.
When you experience the world with an open heart, there is more space for the full spectrum of experience to flow through you, but there will still naturally be some of your essence in everything except cessation experiences. Your being naturally filters and prioritises what feels most important in your experience and you will be drawn to these things. This shapes how you experience your environment and yourself.
An example of this is when I was out on a walk with a fellow nature loving friend, 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 the environment as it is, including noticing what naturally feels most prominent or important to you.
Some of things that are helpful for seeing the ways in which you filter the world differently to other people are your underlying values, your enneagram type, your attachment style, your survival style and your aesthetic preferences.
All these things and more start to create a certain ineffable essence that infuses all your experience.
I have a certain Rosa-ness, which shapes my entire experience. It’s different in different situations but it is based on the forces that have shaped my being – forces both practical and ineffable.
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 non-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.
I find it really nice to notice the essence of other people. What is the felt-sense of their presence? How are they different to other people? What do they evoke in me?
I can be in the most non-dual non-self experience, where everything is the Universe expressing itself, and it is still fascinating to see the ways in which this manifests differently through different people.
Getting in touch with your true self feels like a delicate balance of clearing out fixed ideas and societal expectations of who you should be and listening deeply to the depths of your being and what feels most alive and true.
Knowing Your True Self
One of the simplest 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 your experience if you can validate your own 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.
This is a way of dipping your toe in the pool. Discovering and being your true self usually requires a healthy dose of courage, willingness to go against societal expectations and capacity to make deep changes to yourself and your life.
If you want to go on this journey it can be useful to identify some core values. This post on reimagining spiritual practice includes an exercise that can help you do that.
The purpose of life and practice is different for different people. Understanding your true self will allow for you to embrace the depths of yourself.
Counter-intuitively it can also facilitate a deeper realisation of non-self, because you are more aligned with things like truth in the depths of your being, rather than fixated on some idea of who you need to be.
The dance between embracing the impermanent, empty dance of Universal non-self and the embodied essence of your true nature can create a positive feedback loop that allows you to deepen into truth and presence.