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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Easy, Hard and “the Self” #3

Piet: Even though I suggested a more experiential discussion here, let me step back and explain more about what it is I'm asking for. I've never discussed this with anybody before, I've only done it.

When I’m involved in research, I start by making a clean desk or blackboard. In step 2, I lay out a few elements of the problem I'm working with, it could be stars, or algorithms, or life as my practice, intuition, some theories … whatever. Then, either with myself or in joint research with somebody else, I have a dialogue around it, and in that dialogue or in that looking, there's never a question about concept. It's really a question about seeing. And putting it in conceptual form is really a later stage, not only in spiritual research, but also in science … when with somebody else I stare at a computer program or whatever, we use words or a few scribbles really as ways to trigger, individually and collectively, seeing something falling into something.

Steven: yes, but “seeing” there means something different, I think …

Piet: it could be, it may or may not.

Steven: true. But when I say “see,” I don't mean some sort of high-level thinking, but something else.

Piet: in what experience I have, spiritual seeing and falling into something, I would say they're the same.

Steven: I’m in funny position here, since I did claim earlier that they are the same in some respects, at least for the most cutting-edge scientific insight … that they might have some features in common. For more ordinary research methodologies and thinking, I don’t know. I suppose it’s a case-by-case issue.

Piet: the impression I have, I mean over the last ten days or so, you have remarked about a few points which for me were sort of like automatic or given or obvious, that you didn't know or thought were interesting, you hadn't realized about either my way of thinking or about research.

It’s true, scientific research is something specialized which takes years to learn … and it's very different from the accounts of the results. So there's no reason that you would know exactly what I mean. So now I'm beginning to wonder, with more things that you say, whether or not this may be, that you may have the wrong impression. And from what you just said about being careful with concepts and what I mean etc., I thought that might be the case.

I'm sure that if you do research in philosophy that then while you are going for a new idea, you're grappling for new concepts at the same time as you are grappling for new insights. And I think it is quite different in science. We scientists are really just happy to see how something works. It's like two thieves together picking locks, trying different things, and then they hear a click, and they look at each other and they're happy. So they do a little more and get another click, and something seems to move a bit, but it is still not completely unlocked, so then they try again … etc. That is completely nonverbal. It's really tinkering, trying to break in, and finally the lock springs open and then you rob the bank.

So that is how it feels to me how we do research, so … and I have to be careful here too, that I don't delude myself, but I often have the feeling that many of the warnings in spiritual writings, about the limitations you mention about the self etc, don't apply very much to the scientific type of research I'm talking about.

Steven: that’s very likely. I can’t say where exactly the sort of point I’m making does and doesn’t apply in “scientific” contexts. But more generally, contemplative “seeing” itself involves a range of cases, and the types involved in learning more about the “self” require a great deal of sensitivity to habits of both identification and also mind function, cognition tainted in certain ways, that are ordinarily used but not seen.

In short, to see what usually escapes scrutiny and passes for the “self” and the related cognitive maneuvers, it’s necessary to stop looking outwards at objects or through the veil of referring expressions that we normally use unconsciously … this is a deeply ingrained and heedless habit. Yesterday we were talking about this business of being “hit” by somebody, the old Ch’an master just comes along and hits us. Right in that moment, there might be a heightened awareness of what I'm calling a false and problematical “self,” specifically the embodied presupposition of one. First, of course, there is anger owned by the self, directed toward the guy doing the hitting.

Piet: I can see the anger, but I can't see the self.

Steven: Right. Okay … but where should we look for it? If someone is just looking “out” … the traditions say we usually look “out” in a way that misses a lot. So there's this emphasis placed on learning to turn awareness around and see what usually refuses to be captured by or in our awareness … that just controls or constricts the awareness but isn’t itself included in it fully and directly. Most of the time, this happens even when we are examining our thoughts or feelings, even in fact, when we are trained observers in the standard psychological or philosophical senses.

What I’m talking about here is not easy to notice. It takes fairly intensive practice before it first comes to light. So it usually goes unseen, it’s somewhere else, not where we’re looking, because our habits of inattention are strongly etched! If you get hit, it’s easy to see the anger, but what about seeing who or what owns the anger? That’s the next big step … traditionally there would be several steps before that, but we’re skipping ahead in this conversation.

So, just as we sit here together, having this chat, there’s a clear sense that I am not you. I live in a different house than you do, and have a past that's different from yours, and a body that's different from yours, etc. And right at this moment, the ideas that we are discussing are heard and then interpreted and so on and owned by something that is all bound up in my body being different than yours, my history being different than yours, my face muscles, my jaw, my tongue, things like that … so I'm saying “my” over and over here, and what does this “my” refer to? Well, it’s not “nothing,” but it’s also not as much as we think, if these traditions are right! It’s actually something more than we usually notice, but less or of a different kind than is assumed. But here we must not assume anything …

Piet: no I don't want to assume anything. That's research! You put things on the table, including traditions and working hypotheses, and don't assume anything.

Steven: Good. So every second of our interaction, there are things in my body, my face muscles, use of mind, etc., that function in such a way that they are constantly indexed into a heedlessly held sense of self … there a thousand things that are all seem to be examples of what ends up being called “me,” my face, my body, my thinking about what someone else says, etc.

Piet: yes, there is the conventional linguistic “me,” and there is the interpretation of your experience as corresponding to objects, but if I really am honest and I really want to be absolutely minimal and draw away everything in a Cartesian move, doubting everything, so … there is experience, and I don't know whether I'm awake or asleep …

It's very interesting that Descartes started that way too. There is something that I interpret as having a body, and indeed that is different from having your body, or whatever, that is all quite specific, so whether the outer world exists or not, whether this body in all its complexity exists or not, that is certainly a complex pattern which seems to be quite stable and which I can connect to which my experience, and I use the word “I” but see, again, I'm not so sure how much value to give to the linguistic fact that I have used the word “I” here.

Steven: sure, granted. That by itself wasn’t at all what I wanted to emphasize here.

Piet: so just like when you look at a piece of paper with a pattern on it, you can see that you have a blind spot if you close one eye, and you also sort of fill it in, so it seems that in my experienced picture of this world, I seem to have a three-dimensional blind spot somewhere behind my eyes or so, where … I like the Douglas Harding picture … where all the impressions seem to be … so the only thing I'm aware of is what I'm aware of. So there is awareness …

Let me say it in “is” language rather than in “I” language, it's less confusing. There is awareness, the awareness is being displayed in a three-dimensional windowsill called “this world,” so somehow this awareness is being displayed in a way, it seems to radiate in a certain way, things become less important as they are further away, but in the center where things are closest, there seems to be a fuzzy open spot, which is sort of associated with a sense of “me,” but this makes sense of me, when I put my finger on it, the notion of self or ego or my names or position etc., those are all outer things that still have little to do with this blind spot where things become fuzzy near the center. There's a coordinate singularity which is sort of regularized in a sort of fuzzy way near the center. That's the only thing I really could say this moment about what other people call self or ego.

So there is awareness and I can see all kinds of habitual patterns, and if I try to slow down I can see these things starting to run away, and I've learned over the years and especially in the last two weeks, I've learned I think in a new and somewhat more efficient way to rely less on technique and more on View in trying to switch off the background radio, to let the noise die down. And what I mean is that I am less trying to pacify myself as a process and more trying to see where the radio knob is and how I can switch it off … the radio that is so blaring around me. And I spoke yesterday about this example of trying to focus more on receptivity, etc.

So I find myself in this Grand Central terminal, with all these railroad lines going in all directions, and I'm beginning to become more skillful by trying to be less skillful in a process-oriented way and figuring more how I can drop resistance against all these things. So I can talk about these processes, about views, about switching from skill to View and dropping the “me,” but in all of that, the self doesn't particularly figure in any clear way.

Steven: well I'm not going to try to say that there is one, obviously! The point is rather that in a deep-level way, we operate based on the notion that there is … without knowing it.

Piet: how do I operate based on the notion that there is a self?

Steven: well that is what is to be seen, and not just said or thought. You're actually have to see examples of that happening, right in the moment!

Piet: there is a body, which I'm associated with, and I know full well that I will die some day and also that if I would lose an arm or leg or whatever, that I wouldn't lose part of my real self, so that is not my real self—it would be merely inconvenient, just like losing my money would be inconvenient—so there are all kinds of things which are nice to have, and which would be painful to lose, physically, but all that clearly is not the self. So I really don't know what you mean.

Steven: Of course an arm is not a self, nor is a leg, and “nothing else you can point at is the self, so there must not be a self” etc., but this is analysis, which the traditions also use very much as a starting point, is not yet direct “catching” of the issue. I'm talking about the directly perceived, existential understanding. So there, it's not that there is a self, it's that you can find lots and lots of examples every minute, of the assumption of a self or careless acceptance of felt things as alleged and unquestioned evidence of the presence of the self. And you can actually see the way this assumption is used in performing actions and even thinking thoughts.

Piet: well, is that so? If I take … a few days ago when I was briefly ill, it hit me quite forcefully that even such a very minor illness, with a very small chance that it would be anything serious, first of all there was the implication that for all I knew it could be related to a beginning or even real stroke or heart attack, so it was a clear reminder in a non-theoretical way of the finitude of everything. And it also was a reminder of how … of what you just said, the difference between analyzing … “well if you lose an arm or a leg, that's one thing” and actually being dizzy … if I wouldn't have been able to stop that and it continued, I would have felt quite miserable since there were actually no bearings … fortunately it wasn't that bad, but I could imagine as the next step that something like that could happen and how terrible it would be.

So I'm aware of the grave distinction between concepts and conceptual reasoning, and the more existential gripping reality of what something like that is. But it would be the identification with suffering and the suffering itself that would be very clear and non-theoretical. But the self? What does the self have to do with all that?

Steven: it's a cluster of related “owning” tendencies and a wanting things to be different than they are. We’re at a stage in our conversation where I have to be more specific: there’s nothing wrong with having an identity that distinguishes me from you, allows me to go home to the right house, etc. The point is rather that there’s a particular version of on-going identification that is not just “I’m me” but is “I’m a particular version of me which is lacking, unsatisfied, cut off, and therefore grasping” … not apparently in the dimension of completeness, forced to resort to actions to be satisfied, painfully aware that these actions still don’t quite work, etc.

In short, my answer to the question we started with, regarding your “complexity vertex,” is that “it’s not so easy as it seems it should be” precisely because there’s this embodied belief in a self of this narrow, depleting sort. That’s my answer.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/10/05, posted 6/30/06

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