When you engage in zen practice and look deep enough and persist with the inquiry "Who am I?" you will find that there is nothing there.
This is not a concept. It is an experience. It is a realisation.
There is nothing there except an "operating system" of largely automatically pre-programmed thoughts and responses that runs the bag of bones that we like to think of as "me".
Ultimately there is no separate "I" in the sense of the ego as a stand alone entity that is distinct from everything and everyone else. It’s an illusion, another big lie, and it dies when we physically die.
Latest neurological research supports this perspective and suggests that the conscious mind is an emergent property of interactions between a number of modules within the brain.
Like the characters in "The Matrix" we are fooled by the illusion that what we see is how things really are.
We are perpetually fooled by the illusion of a separate self.
The reason we are fooled is because that is the way the human mind works.
We are fooled by our thoughts, we are trapped in our thoughts and we can’t think this one through. There really is no way out via the conventional functioning of the human mind.
It's my life
The way our minds work, we automatically create what we perceive to be MY life, MY job, and MY financial security and it is usually all nicely packaged up with clear boundaries defining my own personal sense of who I am and how things are.
Inner map of reality
We develop our own unique inner map of reality shaped by our own personal early influences and from this we develop our own personal beliefs based on that map [largely unconsciously] to navigate us through life and primarily to keep us safe.
Functioning, as we do, in this way - things are seen as separate and largely static, our perception and general experience is that time proceeds in a linear manner from past to future, there is "me here" and the world "out there", and there are events and things that I don't like that happen to me.
This is our default setting. So much of what we do is motivated by our deep inbuilt need to keep things as they are, to preserve the boundaries around "my life", to preserve MY survival and MY safety and MY comfort.
Think of the ego as 'Windows 11' with self awareness
When we talk of "myself" this is the conventional way of referring to our self image which is in fact the ego's construction of its sense of self.
I find it helpful to imagine the ego as our operating system and absolutely essential, in the same way "Windows 11" is essential for successful functioning of our laptops.
But as with 'Windows 11', however clever it is, it is just a piece of software. So when we say me, myself or I, metaphorically, think of the ego as 'Windows 11' with self awareness!
Beyond the content of your mind you are so much more than you think you are
One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness, is that we
find that in the spaces between our thoughts, we begin to experience
that we are far more than this limited and conventional sense of self.
When we stop thinking, and move beyond the mind, we experience that we are energetic beings, [or conscious beings] and at that level we really and truly are all interconnected and part of one all encompassing everything [for want of a better word] – and in that dimension we live for ever.
Perhaps the best way to understand the illusion of a separate self is to look at some very simple models of how it all works.
A simple way to picture the mind is to imagine a ship on the ocean.
The ship floats on the surface of the ocean and its purpose is to navigate and transport you from one location to another. Think of the ship as your conscious mind with access to many of the tools at its disposal, for example: reasoning, calculation, speech and memory.
The ocean is your subconscious mind, it is deep, dark and mysterious and generates powerful currents which move the ship in the direction of their travel.
The sky is your higher consciousness often referred to as your higher self or higher power. The sky contains the clouds, the wind, the weather, the planets, the stars... the universe.
Think of your higher self as your
conscious mind's portal to consciousness – or as I call it "The Energy Of Life".
For the ship to navigate and transport you it needs access to the ocean and the sky. The better that access the better your journey!
Contrary to the conventional view there is no singular "self". Which means that when you refer to "myself" you are not referring to one singular entity but a very complex amalgam of many different aspects of your self sometimes referred to as the 'internal family of selves' -also known as 'sub-personalities'.
So when we talk of myself or I, what we are really referring to
is the totality of all of it - of all of our unconscious aspects or
selves, our conscious self (plus all its resources) and our spiritual
self or higher self.
Where it all goes horribly wrong
If we work with the model that we are energetic beings existing in an energetic universe then it makes sense to understand, relate to and work with our higher self. It is the portal to, in the conventional sense, everything "out there".
However, our ego is not an energetic being but it thinks it is!
Its sphere of operation is defined by our sensory perceptions. For our ego seeing is believing, it loves to find and exploit minor differences between people, it is sneaky and always looking for ways to promote itself
Because its role is to control it thinks it
does [or should] control everything. This is, of course, a major
delusion. This is where the teachings in mainstream belief systems
of dying to the self or 'dropping the self' comes into play.
There is a common thread in several major belief systems and philosophical outlooks about the need for some form of inner realignment
The terminology and language is different, but if they all point in the same direction to what appears to be a universal or generic truth, then it is likely that is what it is.
For example, the Christian faith, especially in the teachings of St Paul, speaks of "dying to self" and allowing the spirit, or consciousness, of Christ to live through you.
Buddhists also refer to "dropping the ego" and allowing the bodhicitta [the mind of enlightenment] to develop within you.
Both of these two phrases are Christian and Buddhist expressions of the same fundamental truth - the need to correct the inbuilt, hardwired tendency to assume that everything revolves around "me".
To take one further example, the teachings in the Tao Te Ching also point to a major realignment of how we normally function.
This is about a 180 degree shift from living MY life to a life that is lived by the Tao.
This is difficult for the natural egoic mind to comprehend as it requires a renewal of your mind based on practices, not beliefs, that will have a profound and positive effect on your life.
In summary, dying to self & dropping the ego is all about:
 Understanding the functions of your mind and your selves and developing a good working relationship with them.
 Understanding where, and why, it all goes horribly wrong because of:
This all points to the need for some form of major inner realignment whereby a greater consciousness emerges and expresses itself through us.
If what we have discussed in this article comes anywhere near to pointing to how things really are, then what could this mean for you and me?
What if all that you know and work so hard to achieve in this life, what if all that constitutes your sense of self dies when you do?
I want to close this article by referring you to an intensely personal anecdote about my experience of my father's death and the realisation that accompanied it.
Return from "The Illusion Of A Separate Self" to: How To Change Your Life
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