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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Easy, Hard and “the Self” #5

Steven: {still talking about the belief in a self} ... you can even see it physically. The face relaxes, something changes in the eyes, they cease to be owned by some fantasy thing that's constricting our perception and ties it to a day dream rather than a real direct engagement. There are actually muscular changes involved here, and related changes in who what where we think we are. What is experienced.

Piet: if I tell other people something about this, I immediately know whether they get it or not.

Steven: yes, I understand what you mean. And so coming back to your example, walking changes too. You can find whole disciplines like tai chi or internal martial arts, where they are not really trying to teach you a technique, they're trying to show you the fixity of the habits that you already have for performing movements and engaging with the world.

Piet: yeah yeah, I see that.

Steven: like walking, or picking up your arm to ward off a blow, or something. And when you can see that there is attention and habit-ridden rigidity, a kind of heedlessness, about the way we make these movements that is in fact all indexed into the notion that “I am raising my arm,” “I am walking,” etc., that's just a carryover from the stringing together of various sensations that we've had before, that we take as evidence for a self.

When we relax those things, we spontaneously have a better way of operating, and then the tradition say that's the Way! But did we learn that? No, we just exposed and relaxed something else, that we usually keep adding on top of that! The thing that's most important is not a learned thing, it's an uncovered thing. And so just like when we started this conversation, I was saying that there is a puzzle and we have to try to solve it, how are we going to get that solution? And in a sense the answer is that we don't need to, and we aren't going to! What's the alternative? It's something that can only be uncovered, not acquired, but at that very high level, even the “uncovering” notion turns out to actually be an overly-crude sense of what's really at issue. For the middle-level notion, where you're talking about things like martial arts etc., it actually is something that can come out and then you can say “oh, I see now!” That's a slightly simpler case.

But the basic point is not mysterious here, and I think that what you're saying and what I'm saying are actually the same thing, it's just looking at them from a slightly different angle. Spiritual teachings are actually very concrete. These matters are extremely concrete for me … even muscularly and physically concrete. The actual specificity and precision of what is actually given, is very important. And it's in that existential specificity, that one finds the problem and the answer. Because the problem is the answer. Dropping a mistake just means seeing it fully! As in the martial arts case, if you fully find “extra baggage” that you're bringing in to something like just picking up your arm, and the extraness is clearly perceived, and in the context of the authentic alternative as already present, that is the answer! It's not like oh now I have to learn something different.

Piet: yeah. All these things I'm familiar with to some degree, and I've heard them before and it makes absolute sense, but what is really very interesting in this conversation for me, is the connection of the self with this habitual patterning of the body-mind.

Steven: perhaps this doesn’t yet apply to an infant, like a six-week old baby. It builds up, by association. There's one muscular set, involving thousands of muscle groups, and precise alignments of body and physical sensations, and that creates a memory, then you get a different memory of a different thing, etc., but then you come back to the first one again. And gradually they string together, and they in effect say “this is me and that must be me, too” etc., so that you have this sense of “me,” and then you try to use that, a superordinate sensation implying an entity … that yields a full-blown form of the problem again. That then wants things and has preferences etc. It's not an abstraction. Again, the problem is not identity per se, it’s that something wonderful is sometimes obscured by identity.

Piet: so that connection between the notion of the self and habitual tendencies in general—that is not so new, but the rest of what you’re saying … okay, that was never clear to me. It’s not clearly stated in the traditional texts.

Steven: I think those texts or their contemporary counterparts on more popular levels don’t put the pieces together, linking the philosophy, yogic experience, contemplative practice, ordinary applications, etc. And some texts are simply pitched at too high a level to get into this, of course …

Piet: well …

Steven: I agree, it should made more clear. This is one reason why I teach at lots of different levels and via different training methods, from the “philosophical” and yogic … technical stuff, to very simple ordinary life analogues.

Piet: yeah. If I were teaching, I would now add more on the self. Okay, so now the question is, you walk on the street and you are aware … you try to notice how your way of walking has some sort of tension, etc., and I know … it has been part of my practice for quite a while to try in a sort of Vipassana-like way to become aware, and when you do that you relax … that part I know. But I also know that if you make it a program or project to try to relax, there are far too many things to relax, it's impossible!

Steven: and it's the same problem … because it's not just the things that we can be aware of, that have this false significance or addition. It's that the very kinds of awareness we bring to bear are themselves more of the same kind of thing that built up over time. So we are actually using this same mistake with reference to other aspects of it … body and mind are two angles on the same thing in many respects. Different traditions have different opinions about that, but I think I can still make that claim and back it up in ways that would satisfy them all.

Anyway, for now … the mind is very physical, and physicality is very mental. Each is everything. So even our mental events, and our attempts to be aware, are part of the same kind of carryover or unwarranted extrapolation beyond what is actually given. So here we’re making a scientific kind of point, in a way. And it takes a thoroughgoing divestment or reconsideration in order to purge these unwarranted imports. But it is, as you say, all just freedom from identification in a certain sense.

Identification is very deep, though. Even just performing a perceptual act, involves carryover which amounts to a kind of identification, or use of an alleged or assumed identity. So we have to learn to at least see and relax that in some ways. If we do, then Suchness is what is present there. The joker in the deck is the time issue, which is why you could say this is all something that we don’t need to worry about, don’t need to happen. Because “happening” involves an ordinary notion of time, and the Real Nature that is present, involves a different kind of time, not based on making new things “occur” … so that changes the logic of cultivation in a very difficult-to-understand way. But the basic picture is simpler than that, and not so mysterious. That’s why we have to start with this “self” issue. And I find your questions about it very helpful.

Piet: so just to sum up … if this is a central problem, and if this is what people mean with the problem of seemingly having a self and seemingly trying to get rid of it and all the problems that entails … then obviously trying to consciously see all of that with the ordinary mind is impossible. There's just too much.

Steven: yeah that's right.

Piet: so this is why you have to jump beyond time, to see it?

Steven: well … you need something more direct, let's just say that. “Jumping” is tricky, because who is jumping? And is that an event?

Piet: so … I'm trying to see the simplicity of the situation. I'm certainly becoming more and more aware of this whole cluster of habitual patterns. So would it be that when I recognize them more and more and more, at some point I fall off the cliff and I see all of them?

Steven: no because there's no “I” to fall off a cliff or to see more. What there is, is just these individual things, impressions, in moments … an assumption of “me” based on sensations that the mind interprets in an unwarranted way. These are seen, but not “by someone,” not to have left the so-called Real Nature. And then, still on a rather ordinary level that is subject to the same critique, there's another set of sensations, that would normally be taken as evidence for the self, are also seen, in some sense, to have not left, etc. But there's nobody who has jumped off …

Piet: I don't see any evidence for the self, still. So that still doesn't work for me.

Steven: “evidence for the self"?

Piet: I don't worry about self or no self. The way I would phrase it for me is that I'm beginning to see more and more clearly and sharply how I am defined by my behavior, my thinking … is to find by habitual things. I know from the past that it is a wonderful thing to drop that, I think it is closely related to the spiritual aspiration I have anyway, so … why not just drop it? All this identification or habitual stuff …

Steven: well … dropping it isn't the issue, it's seeing it!

Piet: okay, “seeing” better, yeah.

Steven: and “seeing” means two things: it means it's not what we usually think, and it is something that we usually don’t know about. But the basic point is that there's a run-on character over time, from one thing to the next. The apparent continuity or run-on is based on the assumption of something being present there that in fact isn't. It's assuming there is more there than there really is. Now you apparently are already not making that assumption, if I take you literally.

Piet: no, really … the image of a dream I find beautiful, and the reason that I've spent quite a bit of time at some point in my life trying to do lucid dreaming was that I was very much enamored by that. So consciously that is not a problem, I mean … like with everything else, the fact that we are not “enlightened” presumably means that on all levels we are stuck in some way or other. But that doesn't feel like the hangup for me.

Steven: if there are all these things arising in each moment and each is just seen to be its original nature (assuming there is an “each), then that's it. So there's no run-on character. Life continues, but in a way that doesn't have this heedless on-rushing character.

Piet: so I have this intuition that I am actually quite close to seeing what you just described. I have the intuition that what seems to prevent me from that, is something that on the one hand which can feel very thick and heavy, and on the other hand can be just like a very thin veil. And I also have the feeling that I can move between them. These are a combination of intuition and experience of what the Scriptures say …

Steven: yeah. But the self that has the intuition that it's almost there, and that it will soon be able to see more, is the very thing I'm talking about.

Piet: but I don't know about the self! What is the self?

Steven: you're clearly using it.

Piet: do I?

Steven: yeah, clearly. “Almost there but not quite,” “something's preventing you but you're getting closer,” this is the self-oriented logic. What else could it be?

(Long pause)

Piet: sooo … it is the bundle of tendencies which is talking, you're saying?

Steven: and an unwarranted assumption that keeps being used. It's in the notions I was just quoting, the way of being. I’m not saying it’s an assumption that “you” have, but rather one that “you” are. And these presuppositions need to be seen, but usually aren’t. And I don’t mean “you” should see them either!

Piet: well I don't see it clearly. So, there is awareness …

Steven: we may not be able to find this “self” mistake in the typical study of phenomenology … it's in sensations and impressions and habits that we take for granted—"heedlessness.”

Piet: yeah, but there is awareness, yes? I'm trying to say where is the self, which is supposed to be this big enemy.

Steven: I'm not saying there is one, there is only the tacit belief that one is present.

Piet: but I don't consciously … I don't consciously …

Steven: right, “you only” unconsciously—that's what I'm trying to say …

Piet: yeah but that sounds very much like … (laughter) like some Freudian analyst … if we translate it into habitual tendencies, okay. I'm beginning to be more and more aware of tendencies and identifications and habitual patterns, and identification with habitual patterns. But that is a lot of glue … making everything slow and difficult in our lives. So we are tarred by all of that. So consciously when I'm sitting here, there is an awareness, consciousness, within which I can say “this is my body, my computer, my whatever.” Within this, I don't know what the self could mean, but I begin to know what these tendencies would mean …

Steven: yeah but that's all that it does mean, if these are really seen in terms of what they are, and aren’t … and regarding their compromising influence and the authentic alternative.

Piet: so … so when I see that … when I have an intuition that there is only a thin veil which is separating what you talked about, about this freely arising, or whatever it was, the holy Grail we are talking about, so if I put it in non-self terms, what are the most direct terms I can put it in? There's the awareness of the world around me now, there are memories of times when things dropped away, there is intuition of what it would be, what it could possibly be like, roughly in the direction of … there is an intuition of there being a thin veil seeming to prevent that, or at least whatever it is which is distinct … because there is a distinction between the way experiences seem to arise now, and this more fluid way we are talking about, see in all of that I don't see a self.

Steven: of course not. I didn't say it was truly existing in any of those things.

Piet: so there are patterns, stubborn patterns, which are playing out defining the way I am right now looking at the world. And those patterns are the … if I drop those, then everything else would be taken care of?

Steven: maybe.

Piet: so if I then say that there is the addition of a thin veil between not dropping it and dropping it, that is still a way of saying it?

Steven: again, real dropping just means seeing. And even that doesn’t need to be the ordinary kind of operation of cognition as an event. So it depends on what sort of edge is added to that. Talking about the self is not talking about something that's there, it's talking about what we're assuming and adding to what is in fact there. This can be seen—you can see our own assumptions and additions and expectations. Just look at the things that are actually present. You're never going to see a real self there, that's the whole point! You're just going to see things that we take as the evidence of the presence of a self. There's no self in any bit of knowing. But there are sensations and impressions that are familiar, and those suffice to make us act as though there is such a thing present there.

Piet: but you see, this way of talking … I mean, I have of course an intuition about what you are talking about, because we've been working on this for a long time. But I'm still in my search mode, putting things on the table. I still have very big question marks about all of this … it reminds me completely of the Freudian idea, the psychotherapy scam, of saying “well, you have a something-or-other complex, and part of the complex is that you don't know you have it, so let me first convince you that you have it, and then let us get rid of it and then you'll feel much happier, and in the beginning you didn't know you had it, and the end you didn't know you have it, but you have to go through this process.”

Steven: but you can see “wanting.” If you can see that with respect to these spiritual issues, there is a fairly strong wanting for some result, which you think you have not yet had, then this is an instance, which is visible, of the assumption that there is a self. You can just see it!

Piet: what does wanting have to do with the self?

Steven: (laughter) it has everything to do with it! That's how you see the self, is through the grasping, the reaching beyond the present completeness.

Piet: I see it of course in a theoretical picture, but—

Steven: now you have to see it directly! In operation! I'm not trying to give you something you don't have, we all have this mistake—

Piet: yeah but you also say that it's not true, so there's something very fishy about it.

Steven: is there a self? No! Is there someone who believes in one? No, that’s not the point either. But is there, in effect, the “belief” in a self … living in a way that couples basic identity with more pernicious notions of incompleteness? Yes!

Piet: but you're saying there is an … you're literally saying that “Piet, you have a problem. Your way of thinking is such that although you're not aware of your belief in the self, there is something that is not a self and that is not a belief in a self—because I deny that I believe in a self— ….”.. you are imputing to me a problem which is so many levels removed … so you're saying the problem is the belief, first you say the problem is the self, then you say the problem is the belief in the self, and then I say “well I don't see a self.”

Steven: we operate in a way that amounts to a commitment to or belief in a self, but it's true that the self does not really exist.

Piet: yeah, but now my problem is that I don't see that I have this belief.

Steven: OK, from my point of view, you don't really have a problem. And I’m not saying you do. And if you agree, then everything is fine. But if there is “wanting”  … then the discussion is being motivated from your side, not from something I’m trying to impose or assert.

Piet: sorry, you say the problem is the belief in a self. I'm not aware of a belief in a self. So how can something I am not aware of be a problem? Is the problem that I don't believe that I do believe in the self? I mean, we are going one step further every time!

Steven: I already granted that it’s not that “you” explicitly believe in something, a self or whatever. Of course not. It’s more to do with a way of living or being, and what the character of that is, and the effective or lived presuppositions, used but not seen. There are implicit things, actively shaping an approach to life and to knowing.  This approach compromises other ways of knowing that are vital for living fully, and for appreciatiing some facets of reality … easily, directly.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/10/05, posted 7/2/06

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