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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Easy, Hard and “the Self” #4

Piet: I still don’t see what this … why do you have to tell me that there is something in order … or before …

Steven: it's not that there is some “thing,” it's that people act as though there is, on mere hints or insufficient evidence.

Piet: But I just don't know what the self is. So I don't know whether or not I am acting that way.

Steven: yes. My answer is that if you find that there is no grasping … you see different things happening in life, conditions arising, illness or whatever … if there is just the appreciation of those things, pure and simple, just what those things actually are when seen directly, no extra judgment and no extra wanting—which is where the alleged self comes in—then you are right, there's no self and there's no … what is loosely called “belief” in a self of the kind I’m saying is problematical.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that, because obviously we all want things, the problem comes when wanting is based not just on assessments of things that would be nice to have or to change, but on the feeling of a more fundamental kind of “lack” or incompleteness. Ideally we can be in touch with completeness while still noting that some things need to be done, like cleaning the floor or fixing something that’s broken.

Piet: if you were talking about what I call freedom from identification, that would mean something for me. Is it the identification that you call the self?

Steven: maybe, maybe not. I already admitted that it’s natural and necessary for us to have individual identities. The issue is a little different.

Piet: okay so then I'm totally puzzled, because …

Steven: because obviously you are Piet, and I'm not denying that, I'm just saying that there is an extra—

Piet: okay but when I say freedom from identification, I mean freedom from sticking to identification. I don't mean crossing out identification, I mean carrying identification in a free way, like a jacket—you can put it on and you can put it off, but when it sticks to your body then it's inconvenient. You can't take it off anymore easily. So freedom from sticking to identification, I've always meant that, and I realize that there was some confusion in the past.

Steven: I see. Certainly that distinction is relevant to what we’re talking about. But it's still hard for me to say if it’s the whole story or not, it depends on what is implied by that, again in a full existential sense. The problematical “self” notion is effectively a “wanter.” It's about judging and wanting in a way that denies and occludes fundamental completeness. So if there is awareness combined with a kind of judging that has an extra grasping edge to it, then—

Piet: isn't that sticking to identification?

Steven: it depends, could you say more?

Piet: well for example, when I wasn’t feeling well, and the room was like turning around and I felt miserable, I also noticed some degree of freedom there, that if I panicked, it would get worse. And I would feel water coming to my mouth and I would feel like throwing up, etc. but if I found a way to not panic, and to accept it, then immediately everything would be much easier, and interestingly the phenomenon would then change very much.

Steven: yes, but that's not so much just having an option! But basically, you’re right, it is an example of being freed a bit from the pernicious “judging and wanting” I’m referring to. So it's not the identification of yourself as Piet that's the “self” problem, it's the implicit alleged self in “I want,” or “I don't want,” in order to feel fundamentally OK that’s the warning sign. That goes beyond mere identification in the ordinary sense. The tag that indicates this attachment to the false view of a self, is this particular kind of judging and wanting.

Piet: but see, in “I am Piet,” Piet is too complex a thing. I can talk about my aspirations, my illness, or this or that, but what “Piet” means, that's too slippery. I don't have much traction on that. Regarding all these specific things, yes it strikes me that what you have been teaching and what I've read in the traditional teachings, to the extent that I understand it, seem to be summed up in this freedom from identification idea. So that is my …

Steven: I'm not sure if I should be convinced—

Piet: yeah, I have often been puzzled about that.

Steven: I would be convinced or not convinced, but it would depend on more than what we have said so far. Yes, it's all about freedom from identification, but what that means is that there is an explicit awareness of the actuality of what these traditions would call the Real or the Real Nature. The completeness in that is what is obscured by the “belief” in a grasping self. One does not lose that completeness just by taking up an identity of some kind. So in that sense yes, if you're not caught up in identification, which basically means false identification, that does sum it all up. But if freedom from identification just means more flexibility about how to see things, then I think it’s important but still not the whole story.

Piet: no no, for myself I've always tried to use the term as my authentic way for myself to try to say in one sentence what it is that I am practicing towards or practicing about.

Steven: in that case, it would be right.

Piet: the first step in research is to put things in your own terms. You can write in words what a scientific problem is, then you look at the words and say this is the problem, well what does it mean? Then you put the words aside and the elements on the table where you look at them and you try to let a new gestalt come out. And while doing so, one of the first things is that to the extent that you use language—which sometimes you don't use it all, you just look and if it's too complicated to use a little bit of language to keep things together, and the first thing is to come up with new terms. Whatever strikes you.

So then the elements start talking to you, and they start telling you—you don't give them new names, they're telling you the new names that they have. And freedom from identification is a name which came to me at some point, I don't remember whether it was gradually or in a series of steps, but at some point, a little over ten years ago, after considering various forms of contemplative practice, and just sitting, reading Husserl, etc.

Steven: yes I see. Freedom from identification by itself could mean so many things: it could mean an apparent self that has learned not to identify too heavily with an even narrower sense of self, etc. So in that case there's both a freedom and a lack of freedom. But if it's really true freedom from any of this attachment we are talking about, then it is right.

Piet: so then like Wu Wei, you can have just a little bit of it … as you said, there are so many different levels. So in that sense … see the problem is Wu Wei has become more understandable for me after I rediscovered it in my own terms about two years ago that was in August of 2003, when I was here {in Berkeley}. And it actually took me a few days to realize that this was Wu Wei that I had discovered, I had given a different name first. And that's the only way for me, in science and probably also in spirituality … to really authentically see something, is to find it on my own terms.

Steven: sure, that's absolutely crucial for everyone.

Piet: like a child learning anything. So I think the problem … freedom from identification gave me another angle on the notion of Wu Wei by … so with Wu Wei you can always say what it is not. So Wu Wei is that you are not struggling against something.

Steven: well it's a spontaneous function of what contemplative traditions call the original nature, in which there is explicitly no grasping self. So it's not that self's possession.

Piet: sure. But the emphasis literally, “not doing,” that is one thing, but when I realized a little over 10 years ago about identifying, I realize that when you seem not to do anything, you have already identified with all kinds of things.

Steven: when you seem not to do something, you are still doing something. So it can't be a mere absence of action, it has to be an absence of something else.

Piet: sure, but I'm just describing for me how I came to freedom from identification. So I think it was probably reading Husserl which helped me to make finer and finer distinctions, Manjusri-like sword cutting things, cutting the waterlogged pages from sticking together, that I realized that indeed even if you seem not to do anything, but there are all kinds of things you have been glued to through identifications which you're not aware of.

Steven: yes.

Piet: and that for me, seeing that for myself rather clearly and finding the right term for it, and seeing how I could go deeper and deeper in there, and how that would be one way to revitalize my spiritual path, so to speak, was really a deep insight for me. Deep enough to use that as the title of a book I was writing at that point. And I still think that that was by itself a good move to make. After making that move, whether I would call it Wu Wei or whether I would call it freedom from identification, sure! I wasn't claiming that I had a deeper insight, that was just my way of saying it. So I was puzzled that if I would say Wu Wei, you would be much happier with it than if I would say freedom from identification.

Steven: there is the same potential problem in both cases. Both could be owned by a subtle but entrenched notion of self, and this is very common in fact. This is not an abstract speculation. It happens all the time.

Piet: sure, what would we be talking about if we wouldn't have the problem?

Steven: so if I understand all that you have just said, it sounds like you're saying the same thing that I was talking about. Or that these traditions talk about. You agree that this attachment to a self notion is a mistake, and that freedom from identification is preferable, right?

Piet: no, no. First of all, I'm talking purely about myself. So purely about myself, I have no idea whether I have a hangup with a “self,” everybody tells me that I have, but --

Steven: but wait a minute. You just spent several minutes talking about the importance of freedom from identification.

Piet: yeah, I'm talking purely for myself, the importance of freedom from identification.

Steven: so you agree it was important for you …?

Piet: yes.

Steven: so you agree that you saw various ways in which you needed to learn it more, and practice it more …?

Piet: sure.

Steven: so that's exactly the same point, as this dealing with the belief in a self point. It's the same idea.

Piet: well, if you say so, that's fine, but—

Steven: it's not saying that there is a self and we have to get rid of it, or even that you explicitly assume or “believe” there is one! It’s much more basic than a belief in the ordinary sense, it concerns an inauthentic or encumbered way of being. It's saying that in our way of being, there is the tendency to form around traces of sensations, literally sensations, physical sensations, muscular sets, muscular “tonus,” because the way we exist in the world coalesces into habit, habitual stances, habitual ways of using the body, holding it, habitual cognitive habits, etc., and each of them feels like something!

Literally, there's a feeling in each case, and we associate … we come to think that's an instance of “me.” And this other one is an instance of “me,” etc., so we string all these feelings together and we say there is a “me” here. So this amounts to an attribution of more than is actually given, and a narrowing around that, a failure to leave it in its full dimensionality. That gets in the way of Wu Wei and it violates the principle of freedom from identification. That's the idea!

It's not that you can see the self here, it's that you can see the things, all the different pieces, that we take as evidence for a self, that in fact are not. And you can see the attachment to this notion, we literally keep using it to do things when in fact it actually obstructs powerful or fully authentic action. We're not as relaxed or opened up as we should be, cognitively or physically or emotionally or intuitively … because we are holding onto baggage and limited cognitive maneuvers and tainted assessments of life. We're trying to make it do work and it doesn't really do any work, it just constricts. So this sounds like the same point you were talking about.

Piet: you say you use it to do work?

Steven: to try to think, to try to act, to walk, or solve problems … but all that it ever really does is get in the way.

Piet: so let's take one point, let's go very slow … like trying to walk: there are habits, we are in the habit of maybe walking a little bit out of balance, and those habits we identify with us, with the self—

Steven: it's more than just walking, it's the whole thing that's actually happening there, because of our body … you know, we have this whole set of muscle sheathes, from head to toe, and we have a face, and just as a species we evolved to recognize all kinds of subtleties about what's going on in faces. We are very very sensitive to facial nuances. And emotions for instance and plans and motives and deceit, etc., all express themselves in the face. So as a species, we're much better than some other species at assessing what's going on with other people by looking at their faces and comparing that to the same proprioceptive feedback we get from similar expressions, etc.

This is a scientific observation as well as a phenomenological one. We do the same thing with ourselves! It's not just that we have a way of walking, it's a thoroughgoing pattern, it includes even things in our face that we don't normally notice consciously, things in muscles underneath the face and in many other places, there's the sense of a person and a particular person who is walking! We take individual manifestations, just like if we could freeze a moment, there is a particular muscle tonus, a particular way the muscles are set in our face and elsewhere, that is heavily constitutive of what we call the self, our particular self. And this ties in with a whole repertoire of cognitive maneuvers etc., that are actually rather clumsy with respect to higher matters … they work well enough to lump along, but not to appreciate more of what is real.

Piet: that all makes a lot of sense.

Steven: it's in the chest, the way we hold our shoulders, etc., these things feed into a sense of a “me.” We take those as an instance of a “me,” because they are familiar, we've seen them before, and we keep seeing them, so there is some kind of awareness that builds up that says “we keep running into these, so those must be ‘me’. And if they are ‘me,’ then they should (supposedly) be used as the actor, the performer of ‘my actions,' they should be reconstructed over and over again, in walking and speaking and thinking or interacting with another person or using our senses of sight and hearing etc. So we end up using them and being them, and so we seemingly should use them again, etc.!”

We use them, but what they really are is just sensations, even of using certain kinds of thoughts or perceptions, but because they are sensations that repeat so often, we take them as actual instances of a self, and then we try to actually make them do work. But this kind of identification or recognition is clumsy and ties into a way of being that can only express and satisfy itself through actions, not through direct presence. And so when we go that route, we lose Wu Wei! It obstructs it.

Piet: umm hmm. It makes absolute sense because one of the characteristics of any spiritual insight I've ever gotten, and a pretty good gauge of the intensity of it, is how much that kind of stuff drops away, the moment you have the insight. So I’m beginning to understand …

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/10/05, posted 7/1/06

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