For the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion, Waking Up is a guide to meditation as a rational practice informed by neuroscience and psychology.
What are we calling ‘I’?
One thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it.
One question immediately presents itself: Where am I that I have such a poor view of things? And what sort of thing am I that both my outside and my inside are so obscure? And outside and inside of what? My skin? If not, why should the frontier between my outside and my inside be drawn at the skin?
The pronoun I is the name that most of us put to the sense that we are thinkers of our thoughts and the experiencers of our experience. It is the sense that we have of possessing a continuum of experience.
While you are in many ways physically and psychologically continuous with the person you were at age seven, you are not the same. Your life has surely been punctuated by transitions that significantly changed you: marriage, divorce, college, military, service, parenthood, bereavement, serious illness, fame, exposure to other cultures, imprisonment, professional success, loss of a job, religious conversion. Each of us knows what it is like to develop new capacities, understandings, opinions, and tastes over the course of time. It is convenient to ascribe these changes to the self.
The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment–the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists–perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein–you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every walking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found–and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.
Consciousness without self
This is an empirical claim: Look closely enough at your own mind in the present moment, and you will discover that the self is an illusion. The problem with a claim of this kind, however, is that one can’t borrow another person’s contemplative tools to test it. To see how the feeling of ‘I’ is a product of thought–indeed, to even appreciate how distracted by thought you tend to be in the first place–you have to build your own contemplative tools.
Unfortunately this leads many people to dismiss the project out of hand: They look inside, notice nothing of interest, and conclude that introspection is a dead end. But just imagine where astronomy would be if, centuries after Galileo, a person were still obliged to build his own telescope before he could even judge whether astronomy was a legitimate field of inquary. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but astronomy’s development as a science would become immensely more difficult.