Identifying the nature of self

In the last post we looked at a couple of conventional views which aim to explain, if not who we are, then how we came to be the way we are. In this post I want to explore this concept of the ‘actual’ or ‘true’ self, and ultimately learning go of our normal, limiting self identity. This is the principle truth all spiritual traditions and paths are trying to lead us to

Superficially we make think we know who we are, for example ‘I’m Rob and I work in online marketing, I’m Buddhist, I have a partner, like going for bush walks, travelling etc’. But is this conventional view of looking at our self actually who we truly are?

The self you normally see does not exist

The reflection of self identity

My spiritual guide, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has said many times in his teachings ‘the self you normally see does not exist.’ So why would a humble Tibetan monk be trying so hard to convince us that the self we see and relate to, the basis of our current self identity, doesn’t exist and what exactly does this mean?

From our side it’s very clear that we do in fact exist…. I mean we can see ourselves, if we ask others they can see us, we feel pain, we feel love, the highs and lows of life. How could it be possible that this self doesn’t exist and if it is, then who or what are we?

It’s common for people to over think the above statement and try to look for a self over and above what or who they normally see. But it’s quite simple really, the self we normally see is simply that. Everything we observe about our self in our day to day life is the self we normally see. It is this self that does not exist. This doesn’t mean we don’t exist at all, of course we do, just not in the way we believe we do

Before jumping to any conclusions on this topic we should try to keep an open mind. Millions of people can attest to the truth of this statement, coming from their own experience. I can only briefly talk to a subject that, in truth, requires a rather detailed explanation to move towards the beginnings of any kind of solid understanding

There’s also nothing more meaningful we could come to understand than this. Realising it from our own experience will give rise to an unceasing experience of peace and happiness, and a freedom one could never have imagined possible

For anyone who is interested they can read more about this in the book Modern Buddhism, specifically in the chapter Training in Ultimate Boddhichitta. A free download of this book can be found here. I will do my best to explain this profound truth in the following paragraphs

So who does exist?

Seeing our self identity

Well the self you don’t normally see of course. Even more confused? Well I hope not, but let’s look at this some more. So if the self you normally see doesn’t exist then it stands to reason that the self you don’t normally see does. And what is this telling us or alluding to?

Well it’s alluding to a duality. It’s this duality that, I think anyway, is the main gateway to our gaining conviction in this truth into the true nature of the self. If we can, from our own experience, identify a duality within the self, then it would make sense to be open to the fact that there could actually be two selves: the one we normally see (our usual self identity) and the one we don’t normally see

The duality of self

Illusion of self identity

If we check we will see that both our language and experiences point to a duality in the self. Possibly it’s because we’re so busy in our daily life that we don’t notice this. For most people their mind tends to be very noisy, filled with an incessant dialogue and constantly consumed by wishes to escape pain and problems and find happiness and pleasure (sounds reasonable enough right?)

Have you ever had the experience when you were more or less going ok and then someone said something really rude or inappropriate? Did you ever notice what happens in these type of situations?

Well generally what happens is there’s what we might call the angel on one shoulder that says ‘don’t worry, they don’t mean it, don’t let them bother you’ and how long does that last before we hear another voice saying ‘no! how dare they speak to me like that, I’m gonna let them have it!’ This occurrence in itself points to the duality we experience from within

Furthermore we say things like ‘I can’t believe I did this to myself’, indicating an inherent duality – there’s the ‘I’ and the self’ and there’s also the ‘my’ which refers to the possessor of the ‘self’. The use of language in this context is inferring that the ‘I’ and ‘self’ refer to one aspect of the person, whilst ‘my’ refers to the other aspect

These examples may seem like semantics, but they’re not. They’re pointing to the truth that spiritual masters since the beginning of time have been teaching to anyone who would listen. They discovered this from their own experience, the duality of the self – the self we normally see in our daily life and the much more subtle, rather difficult to discern self that we don’t normally see. It is this self that actually exists. Interested to know more? Read the next article here

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