Awakening vs. no-self

When you get right down to it all spiritual paths are about awakening; awakening to this, seeing the truth that is the present moment with clarity. I know de-mystifying it in that way may not appeal to all, but fundamentally there is no mystery to solve, no hidden truth to uncover and in fact you could say that even labels such as ‘spiritual’ are not necessary.

Awakening is not a process that needs any baggage, in fact it’s about shedding all of the mental clutter and baggage that stop us seeing things clearly. Now, arguably the biggest and most troublesome piece of mental baggage we carry around is the belief in a separate self. We can’t help it, for most people it feels like there’s a ‘me’. We don’t really remember when the feeling started, but the idea that we might reach a place of clarity were that sense of self isn’t present is quite a stretch of the imagination.

No wonder we feel compelled to travel half way round the world to sit at the feet of a guru or teacher, let alone read 50 books a year on the subject. It feels like it’s a big challenge and if it was easy then everyone would do it, right?

But there’s a problem right at the heart of this. The problem is this: we can never find ‘no self’. That’s not possible. Realising there’s no self doesn’t come about by seeing what’s not there, it comes about by seeing how it really is. You can’t find what’s not there. But you can realise a mistaken belief by finding truth; by realising reality.


That’s why most teachers and guides emphasise the path of realising truth, not seeing through the sense of self. As we awaken, tuning in more and more to the present, to the way it is, seeing through the conditioning of culture and upbringing and identification, the sense of self, the belief in a separate ‘me’ falls over. It can’t be sustained and it evaporates.

That’s the path, seeing how it is. It might be through mindfulness or meditation or loving kindness or generosity or humility or most likely a combination of a number of factors like these but they all flow the same way, realising the truth of this simple moment, just as it is.

No one knows when the sense of self will fall away, and sometimes it happens quickly with a shift or a pop and sometimes it’s a slow and gradual fading. For some they see it all of a sudden but it doesn’t quite stick so they still have some sort of sense of self but now they know it’s not real. For others the sense of self is seen through but the feeling sticks around, it still feels like there’s a ‘me’ but it’s no longer believed in. For still others, the shift stays shifted and the sense of self never returns, it stays gone.

But because this losing of the sense of self of self, in whatever way, happens at range of different points on the spectrum of awakening, we can’t ever say one person is ‘further on’ than another. So someone might have a full awakening fairly early because the sense of self became too traumatic or unbearable, but they still have a lot of conditioning and baggage to process to see clearly. For others, even when most of that has dropped away, there can still be the clinging feeling of a self in the background; once beautifully described as the aroma of a self, in the same way that clean washing, even though it’s spotless still has the aroma of washing about it.

So what is awakening then? If it’s not just about seeing there’s no self, what is it? Awakening is when we’re not simply locked into a thought created world but we are fully aware and present. Any time you say, ‘I can see myself reacting in this way but I still do it’; even then, you’re in a more awakened state than if you simply reacted. And it’s a spectrum, we move from seeing how our conditioning creates responses and reactions, to becoming more aware of the spacious presence of the ‘seeing’ in which the response tries to arise, to being grounded in the seeing as nothing; as simply the presence that isn’t identified with whatever comes up, and at that point, with no energy or belief behind them things come up rarely and faintly.

I’m not sure we ever fully awaken, I’m not sure there’s a point we reach where no response arises at all and we’re simply pure presence all of the time. It seems to me that awakening looks more like the graph they use to describe the way radioactive particles decay. The point at which they lose all their energy is too far off to calculate so instead we measure their half-life, the point at which they lose half of their energy. In the same way when we reach the point where whatever arises no longer has the potential to fool, us, to drag us into the story of how it appears to be, then that’s a very awakened state.

For everyone on this journey, and really that means all of us, we’re somewhere on that spectrum. So it’s true, there isn’t a self undertaking this journey, there never was, but the point at which the sense of self falls over isn’t the actual point of awakening. It’s much bigger than that. Being grounded in the formless, in the flow of the moment, open and naked as undefined presence of what is; that’s something worth experiencing. Accessible to all, no special gifts or talents required, just be now, bring it all back to now. As Marcus Aurelius said, ‘Confine yourself to the present.’

9 thoughts on “Awakening vs. no-self

  1. Beautiful piece. I think so too, it’s all about awakening. Awakening from the illusion that this is real and meaningful. That is freedom for me. I’m certainly still working it all out and still have a sense of self – but a peaceful and loving one. There’s certainly less ego there, but it still reels me in every now and then. Cheers, Sharon

    • I get reeled in too from time to time, we’re all recovering story addicts. Stepping back, being really present and seeing it without meaning, just what is, brings me back to the real and out of thought. It’s like a practice of remembering.

  2. Great! Beeing on the spectrum and enjoying it (it is sooo much better than living from the Ego full-time), I still can’t stop wondering how it is when everything drops off…everything…Adyashanti says “it is like everything becomes magical”, but at some point it becomes also very clear that whatever happens further is completely not up to us, if ever was…

    • I think the Buddha’s sutta on the Raft sums it up quite well. Ajahn Tiradhammo gave a talk referring to this sutta in which he suggested that we don’t have to destroy the ‘raft’. Once it has been discarded nature will do that work for us. So I agree I don’t think it is up to us, there is a gradual unfolding that happens, like all things, without control.

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