We talk about the ‘illusion of self’ or ‘sense of self’ but where does it come from and how does it begin? In most cases the sense of self is created in reverse or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it arises by implication.
In childhood we are shown things and learn their names: this is a cup, that is a ball and so on. As soon as this happens, as soon as the first label, the first distinction is present there is a self and other; a subject and object. But this isn’t complete. At first it’s not really felt. The childhood experience is not one of feeling this distinction or separateness.
As we grow older, the labels mount up. Look around you right now. Is there anything around you which you can’t label? So if all of that, ALL of these are separate things, then by implication that which is seeing them and recognising them is separate as well. Thus the sense of self truly born and believed in.
In adulthood we’re more inclined to live in our heads, dwelling in thoughts rather than in the direct experience of the moment. In this perceiving and thinking mind everything is separate, that’s how it works. If we’re conditioned to believe our thoughts as real, then we live in a world where there are lots of separate forms and a me that perceives them and relates to them.
The problem with this is that on a deeper level we recognise that this idea of a me is a fragile one. The body, with which we identify is constantly changing, prone to sickness and injury and will one day cease to function as a form. The thoughts that arise, that come and go are often fleeting and brief. Even our habits and tendencies change over time. I eat far fewer sweets than I did as a child; something I couldn’t have conceived of happening back then.
So on one level we do realise that there’s really nothing fixed and unchanging in this human experience and that creates a sense of insecurity, perhaps even fear. No matter how cleverly we strategise our path through life we can’t escape old age, sickness and death. It’s going to happen, uninvited and unavoidable.
But really the problem with this begins and ends in thought. It’s only this perceiving mind that works on the level of separation. To observe this we can go back to our original example: a cup. We look at it. What do we see? Well let’s first consider how we see. Light enters the eye. Is this a cup? Not yet. That light is decoded by the mind, there is recognition of this light, it’s perceived as a cup. More than that there’s often a bit of a story there too, this is my cup, or Granny’s cup, or an antique cup and so on.
So we have this perception and this story and our story might not be the same as anyone else’s. But really it’s just light isn’t it? What actually is there we don’t know, we’ll never know. It’s light, and if we touch it it’s electrical impulses along neurones. That’s not to say there’s nothing there but what it is we never know. Cup, is only in thought. Cup is in our heads. Cup is a creation in thought, a creation of mind.
In fact what we do know about what is there is that it is an arising in this moment, and like all arisings in this moment it is subject to ceasing. In this constantly changing moment nothing is still, nothing is fixed, nothing is unchanging is it? And when we see this, when we fully realise that the labeling and separation are only an activity in thought; and that thought is a process in this form that is really a collection of processes alongside all other processes happening in this moment; when we look and see this directly, fully, truly, then we realise there is no separation. It’s all part of this now, this moment, just happening this way. There’s no self in it, no other, these are just the perceiving mind doing what it does.
But we only see this by looking. Looking right now. Looking beyond the way things appear to be. Realising how it is in this moment. This opens the door. In this moment, seeing it just is this way, making nothing from it, we walk through that door to freedom. Freedom from believing these thoughts are ultimate reality. Freedom from the ‘matrix’ of reality created in mind. Freedom from separation and a separate ‘self’.