Episode 42: Who Am I?

Surreal image of man on a pier with a mirror infinitely reflecting himself

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Are you your body? Are you your mind? Are you a collection of thoughts, memories, and neural connections that could be uploaded into a computer to live forever? Or are you an old-fashioned soul? This episode probes the nature of the self using the Buddhist notion of emptiness, searching for the partless, independent, unchanging “I” that ordinarily appears to us, and finding a self that’s far richer and interconnected with reality and with others.

Who am I? It’s one of the most important and interesting questions you can ask yourself. We don’t usually have gaps for reflection in these discussion episodes. But before going into this episode which explores this question of who I am from the perspective of Buddhism’s ultimate view of reality, take thirty seconds yourself to think about this question without any preconceptions. Who am I?

What did you come up with for an answer? Did you identify with your body? Did you decide that you were your brain?

Maybe you decided that you’re defined by whatever mark you’ve left in the world so far: the work you’ve done, the children you’ve raised, the warm feelings toward you from friends and lovers that form your good reputation in the world.

If you are a believer in a higher power, or if you were raised as one, then you might believe in a soul, some immaterial aspect of yourself that moves from from earth to heaven or hell like many Christians or Muslims believe. Or if you were raised a Hindu, you might believe in a soul that travels from life to life through different bodies on earth.

Did you conclude that you are your thoughts or feelings or your accumulated knowledge? That you are more your “software” than your “hardware?”

A lot of technologically-minded people today not only believe this, but also believe that this sum collection of your brain’s connections and neural activity could be downloaded to a digital brain in a virtual world where you could continue to live on forever.

You can get a glimpse of this view if you watch Netflix’s Dark Mirror episode “San Junipero.”

If you believe you are the sum of your neural activity, could your mind be uploaded to a virtual 1980s beach town to live forever? Watch San Junipero, Season 3, Episode 4 of Netflix’s Black Mirror to decide for yourself.

The dependent origination of the self

This is the second-to-last episode in our series on emptiness, or the interdependent nature of reality. So far, we’ve only looked at how external objects appear to exist as solid, separate, and unchanging due to our habitual mental patterns. But we haven’t yet analyzed ourself.

We’ve mentally broken down objects into their parts. We’ve meditated on the the causes and conditions that bring these parts together. And then we’ve notice how our mind wraps a label or concept around these parts to give this coming together of so many different things the illusion of a solid, separate object.

This mind, parts, causes analysis of reality is called dependent origination in Buddhism. And there’s nothing inherently difficult to understand about it. Dependent origination fits in with the scientific view of reality as seen through the lenses of physics, chemistry, biology, and language.

By exploring the dependent origination analysis of external objects like we did in the last few episodes—of a phone or a cup or a car or our home—we are then able to apply this analysis to the one object that’s at the root of our disturbing emotions; the one object whose solid, independent, unchanging existence we cling to more than any other: ourselves.

When we meditate on the dependent origination of ourself we see how, just like our smartphone, we also project onto ourselves the illusory concept of independent, solid, unchanging self-existence. And this illusion then causes other painful emotions that stem from this feeling of separateness, separateness from people and the world around us.

Dependent origination is one of the logical ways that we come to intellectually understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness. We start to see that things exist in a more complex, interdependent, and dynamically changing way than they ordinarily appear. This is such an important analysis, that traditionally it is called “the king of reasonings” by the Dalai Lama and by others in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition who share this interdependent view of reality.

Dependent origination and emptiness are not the same thing, though. Dependent origination is a method for understanding the Buddhist concept of emptiness. The reasoning of dependent origination leads us to an understanding of emptiness.

But the term emptiness implies that we are empty of something. What is it that we are empty of? To start, we are not empty of existing altogether. Emptiness is not a nihilistic view, which makes no sense at all. Of course we exist. Our senses bring us data on the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile phenomena around us. And our mind brings us memories, plans, thoughts, and feelings.

Robert Thurman points out the utter absurdity of nihilism, of believing in nothing: whether it’s believing we are nothing right now, or believing that when we die we suddenly disappear into nothing. When I was in college, I spent a whole semester studying nihilism and existentialism and even got an A in the course! But Robert Thurman’s refutation of nothingness is far simpler than any of the reasonings I learned in college. What Thurman says is that nothingness, by definition, does not exist. Nothing, by its very definition means that which does not exist. So it’s not possible for there to be “nothing.” And it’s hard to make an argument that something can turn into nothing.

So to return from nonexistence to existence, in Buddhism we call the ordinary way of existing that we perceive with our everyday senses conventional existence. Conventional existence is the way things appear to us through our ordinary senses without deeper analysis. We do exist conventionally. Objects move, make sounds, and affect other objects.

What they are empty of is existing independently, unchangingly, and singularly, without depending on parts and causes and conditions, without changing. This illusory way that we don’t exist is called inherent existence.

Conventional existence and conventional reality are how things do exist: provisionally for some time through the coming together of causes and conditions, and through our minds labeling them. We go too far, though, and through deep habits that are imprinted even at the evolutionary level, we have this mistaken way of exaggerating to see things as permanent, partless, and independent from the continuous, changing reality they emerge from and are dependent on. That’s what we call inherent existence, the inaccurate view of things as separate, unchanging, and partless.

Emptiness is easy to understand, difficult to realize

In many ways the whole point of the Buddhist path is to eventually see reality as it truly is in all its interdependent, changing wonder. Emptiness is the most advanced topic in Buddhism, the ultimate means to end suffering. And in past times it was taught only after devoted study and practice of earlier aspects of the path. We’ve even taken a similar approach with this podcast, taking the better part of a year to go through all the earlier stages of the Tibetan Buddhist Lamrim, or Stages of the Path, before introducing emptiness.

But today this topic is openly discussed and taught by Buddhist masters like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who mentions the ultimate view of reality often, even in public teachings for non-Buddhist audiences. The Dalai Lama says that his audiences are now so highly educated in mathematical, logical, and critical reasoning, that this topic is relatively easy for us to understand.

You might ask, though, whether the point of the Buddhist path isn’t some esoteric understanding of reality, but simply to be happy, to benefit others, to cultivate altruism and compassion? And the answer is also, of course, yes. Emptiness and bodhicitta, the altruistic wish to perfect our minds for the benefit of all beings, are sometimes called “the two wings of the bird.” Just as a bird requires two wings to fly, we require these two essential wings of Buddhist practice to truly become happy and benefit others.

Emptiness and bodhicitta are the two essential points to combine in order to reach the state Buddhists call enlightenment, where you have eliminated all your deluded states of mind forever, and you have expanded your compassion to encompass all beings.

But there’s a relationship between emptiness and compassion. Because the Buddhist view is that this fundamental ignorance of seeing people and objects as solid, independent, and unchanging is the biggest obstacle—and the root cause—of the opposing delusions that get in our way like attachment and anger. Not seeing things through this more accurate sense of empty dependent origination is the substantial cause of our mind shrinking its circle of concern to only ourselves, giving up the expansive love and compassion that are essential for true happiness.

Beings like the Buddha and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who have realized emptiness, tell us that this ignorance of how things exist is the fundamental root of our suffering. If we could only see how things truly exist, it would be impossible to conjure the uncomfortable, disturbing reactions we have to people and objects and events around us, feelings like anger and jealousy and craving.

From the Buddhist perspective, all disturbing emotions trace themselves back to this “root delusion” of ignorance: ignorance as to how things truly exist.

The delusions that arise from ignorance start with the two root delusions. The first, attachment exaggerates the positive effects of things and people around us. And the second, aversion, exaggerates the negative qualities of things around us. These strong base delusions get elaborated into jealousy, pride, competitiveness, addiction, and all the other forms of disturbing emotions.

Thinking how ignorance about how things truly exist gives rise to our disturbing emotions is part of the reasoning of emptiness. Because it motivates us to want to pursue an understanding of emptiness beyond the intellectual to a point where we are not only interested and curious, but genuinely hungry for understanding reality as it is. Because this understanding will cut off the constant stream of attachment and frustration that needlessly fills our minds.

Don’t take ultimate reality on faith

You don’t need to take this idea of our ignorance about the ultimate nature of reality causing all our problems as a given truth. As you may remember from earlier episodes, the Buddha himself, and all the great Buddhist teachers that followed him have each taught that you must personally verify the Buddha’s teachings yourself using critical reasoning, logic, and your direct experience in reflection and meditation. The Buddha taught us to be critical, to test and investigate what he discovered like a scientist, and not to take his words as dogma.

The Buddha taught us to be critical, to test and investigate what he discovered like a scientist, and not to take his words as dogma.

But, at the same time, it’s also not advised to cherry-pick some aspects of Buddhism and dismiss others as unnecessary or uninteresting without first trying to understand them. If you were to study cooking or chemistry or physics or music, it’s not possible to accept only a few of the elements of its field and toss the others out. As an absurd example, you can’t dismiss the validity of algebra and still believe in geometry. These two are both inseparable parts of the coherent system of mathematics. Each component of any coherent system has been carefully discovered, verified, and continuously tested by those that master their fields.

As Venerable Robina Courtin mentioned in our interview with her, Buddhism is a complete systematic view of reality that offers the true causes of happiness to living beings. Venerable Robina suggests that a reasonable way to learn and explore any coherent system is to take the full system on as a hypothesis to personally validate, and not just pick and choose like you’re shopping or browsing episodes of a TV show. It’s wholly possible to approach the Buddhist path from a secular, skeptical point of view. But it’s not as effective to be a dilettante who just samples a few bites from the platter of Buddhism’s coherent view of reality.

In this vein, this idea of our fundamental ignorance as to the true nature of reality being the root of our suffering is one to take on as a hypothesis as the strongest, deepest way to eliminate the causes of our mental suffering and create the causes for happiness.

To prove whether it is true or not, like any system, is first through learning, and then through reflecting, and most of all through practice, in this case, meditating on the illusory way things appear conventionally and critically analyzing and taking apart that reality to see if it really exists in the way it seems.

Emptiness is searching, not finding

The profound aspect of meditating and reflecting on emptiness is that it is a continual process of searching, but not necessarily ever of finding. When we apply this analysis to ourselves, we search for the illusory, solid, unchanging, independent, annoying self that gives us so much grief. Does that person truly exist in the way they seem?

Next week we’ll go through a guided meditation on the dependent origination of the self, which is the most essential way to explore emptiness. But in this episode we go through the points of meditation as a discussion, thinking about them with our eyes open.

It might even be nice to listen to this episode as you’re out on a walk engaging with reality, becoming familiar with these points and deciding whether they make sense logically even as your senses interface with the world. As you look around you, you can consider whether it makes sense for us to accept this idea that the way we habitually see ourselves and others doesn’t come close to the rich, interdependent, vibrantly changing and alive beings that we truly are.

How the emptiness of people is different from the emptiness of objects

When we meditated on the emptiness of objects, we used a three-part analysis that broke objects down into first the object’s parts and then the parts’ parts, seeing that we can dissect an object down to the fundamental building blocks of matter and even energy itself. But even then, as we get to the boundary of current human knowledge, we can even then still ask whether it ever makes sense that those so-called fundamental particles are actually atomically indivisible, or whether even those particles and forces we now understand to be fundamental won’t also eventually come to be broken down further as our tools and understanding of physical reality grows.

In the second part of the three-part analysis, we saw that, through curiosity and thought and a little bit of research, we can become aware of the causes that brought those parts together.

Then, finally, in the third part of the three-part analysis, we notice how the mind of whoever is observing a given object wraps this accumulation of caused parts into a labeled entity like phone, car, home, or meal.

This three-part meditation on the dependent origination of objects, though, is really only a warmup for meditating on the emptiness of the self. We meditate on the emptiness of objects the way an athlete might do a series of drills to get ready for the main event. For meditating on emptiness, the main event is not meditating on objects, but meditating on the emptiness of the self.

And there’s a very serious way that objects differ from people and other living beings, which you are probably aware of. And that’s that, unlike objects, living beings have minds: a sense of an independent self and awareness, an agency that lets us not only abide for some time in the world, but to actively change it.

The analysis of the emptiness of a person is different from the emptiness of an object because we not only consider the parts and causes of our body, but also analyze the emptiness of the mind itself: how the mind itself can be empty by understanding the parts of the mind, the causes of thoughts and feelings, and, perhaps the trickiest part, how the mind wraps back around to label itself and its parts in a way that’s not wholly in accord with the way things truly exist.

Is the mind material or immaterial?

When we start to analyze the nature of our mind, in one sense it can feel like a stimulating adventure. We went on this adventure in our very first meditation, meditating on the spatial and temporal aspects of awareness or consciousness itself, to get a sense of what the space of the mind is like when we quiet ourselves enough to become aware of our subtler nature.

When we did that meditation, it might have felt profound to see that there appears to be a space or timeline in which thoughts and other mental experiences appear: a kind of meta-cognition in which we can observe thoughts and also experience that space itself in which thoughts arise. We realize that we are not our thoughts, but that thoughts appear in some greater space of mind that seems to be always there, but that we can only glimpse when we quiet our mind and apply the appropriate analytical and stabilizing techniques to reveal its conventional nature.

But in that meditation, where we found a subtler, deeper part of our mind, we let the meditation stop there. Now, with the reasoning of dependent origination, we can begin to ask how the mind itself might also be dependent upon causes, conditions, and parts.

This is where, for some of us, a small leap is required, to determine whether the mind is a material or an immaterial phenomenon. There are some hardcore materialists who assert that the mind is wholly a side effect of material causes. Some people use the more technical term epiphenomenon to describe the mind this way, as a side-effect of material neurological activity. Some even assert that our mind is merely the brain.

The Buddhist view very much disagrees with this perspective that the mind is only material. And it’s worth arguing this for a moment before we learn the steps of meditation for analyzing the dependent origination of the self.

What I’d like to emphasize here, is that when we say immaterial, we don’t necessarily mean metaphysical or supernatural or magical or anything that requires a belief in alternate planes of reality. Instead, I’d like to argue that no matter how much of a hardcore scientific skeptic you consider yourself to be, you already believe in the immaterial.

When I have this argument face-to-face with people, who argue that everything has a material cause, I often ask them, “Well, do you believe in math?” Of course they answer “Yes.” And then I ask, “Then where is math?” “Can you show me a math detector that determines where math is and where it isn’t?”

When you look for mathematics, you can’t find math as some material phenomenon in the world. But the reality of mathematics is quite possibly the strongest, truest thing that human beings have proven about the universe: the absolute reliability of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry up to Newtonian calculus and physics, Einsteinian relativity, and the probabilistic quantum equations that now govern the underpinnings of civilization in the operation of our electronics and computers.

Math is real. But it is not material. Math can’t be found among the pages of a textbook, or within any single person’s mind, or within a collection of minds. Math can’t be isolated in computer code. And, though mathematical equations seem to precisely describe how the whole universe interacts, those equations can’t be found in the material elements of the universe itself.

After math, I often follow up by asking my skeptical friend, “Do you believe in love?” And there are few that would say they don’t. We’ve all experienced love: for our parents, children, and for heroes we admire. But where is love? Is it in our brain? Our thoughts? In books and movies about love? Like math, love is also immaterial. There is no such thing as a love detector. But subjectively we each can experience love. And love is as real as mathematics.

To get even more practical, even an email is immaterial. Where is it? There are many copies of an email’s text encoded in binary ones and zeros. Is the email in all the copies? It can’t be, because some of these various copies exist for a time and then are deleted. Is the email in the one copy you’re reading at the moment? Is the email in the computer hardware itself? But which computer? The one in your hand? The ones in the cloud? Is it in the ones and zeroes that represent those L’s and O’s and V’s? Is it in the electrons zipping around according to quantum equations, momentarily captured and measured and amplified? Is the email in your mind?

Even an email is hard to find, and seemingly immaterial, or at least dependently originated between material and immaterial elements. If you ever saw Zoolander, you may remember the scene where a clueless Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson almost smash a Mac to pieces in order to steal a bunch of files until someone explains to them that the files are IN the computer!

It’s exaggerated in that movie, but that’s basically the process of searching for an email that you go through in meditating on emptiness: to see the absurdity of believing the email is in the computer’s wires or chips or screen. You can’t find it in any single part of the computer or internet, or the collection of them, or independently in the mind observing them.

In Zoolander, Owen Wilson realizes The Files are IN the Computer! But think for yourself where to find an email: Is it in the computer chips of your phone, the internet’s “cloud,” or your mind? The answer isn’t as easy as it seems and it’s another way to meditate on emptiness.

So, if you have a hard time accepting the immateriality of the mind, try and consider your mind not as something spooky and supernatural like a soul or a ghost or even a computer program that could be uploaded to The Matrix. But simply that the mind is as real as math or love or an email message.

How to meditate on the emptiness of the self

So, finally we get to the point of how to do the meditation on the dependent origination of the self. This episode is an introduction to the topic. Next week we’ll go through this process contemplatively and slowly as a guided meditation.

When we look at ourselves in an unexamined way, we tend to see ourselves as permanent, partless, and independent.

  • Permanent. First, we examine our sense of permanence. As we go about our day, we aren’t aware that we were once conceived and born, that we will one day die, and that we are, even now, continuously changing and transforming.
  • Partless. We also tend to see ourselves as partless, as a singular entity: me, Scott. We don’t tend to be aware that we are actually a bundle of countless trillions of parts and particles in continual flux and exchange: our muscles and organs, or blood flowing, neurons flashing, cells metabolizing, excreting, being born, dying, fundamental particles exchanging electrons with one another. We also remain under the illusion of a partless mental aspect to ourselves too: that despite our constantly changing thoughts and feelings somehow maintains a singular sense of “I, me, mine.”
  • Independent. And then we also ordinarily see ourselves as independent: separate from the things and the people around us. We fail to see the infinite web of causes and conditions linking us to everyone and everything around us: the social, the material, the physical, the universal; the causes and conditions that brought us into being and that will ultimately dissolve us back into the continuity of reality around us.

In earlier episodes we called the root delusion that is the cause of our problems selfishness. But that’s not entirely accurate from the analysis of ultimate reality. In fact, this root delusion of seeing ourselves inaccurately, could instead be called “self-ness”: inaccurately seeing ourselves as permanent, partless, and independent.

This inaccurate type of self, the one that strongly believes I, me, mine; the one that gets angry and attached and craves, that one that’s the root of our problems—the strongly self-existent I—is not always there.

When we are just going about our day absorbed in a task like making dinner or taking a walk, this strong I can disappear for a while, or at least greatly diminish. In Buddhism they call this mellower I the “general I.” This general I is more chill, not causing or experiencing severe delusions. This general I is not realizing emptiness, but it’s also not severely deluded, in the grips of a strong delusional sense of self and the strong deluded states of attachment and aversion that arise from it.

Now, the funny thing about meditating on the dependent origination of the self, is that you actually have to make this more annoying, insistently independent self appear in order to analyze it. You have to get a little riled up.

There are different ways to do this. One is to think of a time that you were strongly criticized. Even better is to think of a time that you were unjustly criticized or even punished for something you didn’t do. Or, more generally, to think of any moment in which you felt strong attachment or anger.

If you are more advanced, and sufficiently mindful, you can even become aware of this I, called the inherently existent I, just as it appears during the course of your day when you get into a conflict or in a moment of craving or fear. And then you can stop right there and apply this analysis of dependent origination of the self.

But you have to first let this stronger more independent self arise, which you can see actually isn’t too hard.

And then, once you’ve given rise to the inherent I that believes so strongly in I, me, mine, then you apply the three-part analysis to this inherently existing I just as we did with objects, but with this added dimension of also examining the parts and causes of our mind, turning the mind upon itself. We search for the self that we label upon the continuously changing parts of the body and our continuously changing stream of mental experiences.

The parts of the self: parts of the body

When we look at the parts of the self, we can start with its material aspects. This process is just the same as meditating on impermanence. And you can spend a lot of time here if you like, looking at the gross parts of your body, the blood and food and signals passing through it; the cells and neurotransmitters and pheromones alive and communicating at the microscopic level; the organelles, microstructures, viruses, bacteria and billions of other microorganisms living inside us in cooperation.

Then you can descend to the molecular biochemical components of your body. Then to the atomic and subatomic level. And then even beyond those too, if only with your mind, to domains that scientists haven’t yet broken through, perhaps to the boundary where matter and energy transform into one another, or where the probabilities of quantum reality collapse into observable discrete changes in the universe; or maybe to the unknown interface between dark matter and regular matter.

As you do this analysis, the key point is to keep asking the question, Is this part me? Am I my brain? My heart? My liver or spleen or blood or neurons, or electrical signals or DNA or all the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in my body?

You don’t need to come to a conclusion. But ask the question deeply and continuously as you do the analysis.

The most common obstacle is the continual habit of our mind to reify, to stop at a certain point and decide that the buck stops here, yes this is it. Instead, keep analyzing, keep dissolving, that’s the process.

The parts of the self: parts of mind

Now we get to the point where a living being is different from an object.

Unlike a material object, though we also have material parts, we also look at the immaterial parts of the mind. This is less familiar. And you may want to go back to our meditation “What is the Mind?” to delve more deeply into ways we can categorize and atomize mental experience.

There are many ways to slice and dice the mind. One way to divide the mind is into two parts: the spatiotemporal reality of the mind when it is free from thoughts and feelings; and then the various thoughts, feelings, perceptions and mental factors that arise within this mental space that label and react to the objects of our senses. In Buddhism we call these two aspects of mental experience mind and mental factors.

When we look at our mental factors, they can be subdivided further. The two strongest ones we usually call out are feeling and perception.

Feeling is the way our mind forms a response of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral about any object that passes through it. We respond to the feelings arising from sensory or mental experiences by wishing to repeat the pleasant, escape the unpleasant, and not caring so much about the neutral.

Perception is the labeling capacity of our mind that takes the diversity of continuous, multipart reality and wraps bundles of parts with a singular label identifying them as a thing or concept.

And then there are many other mental factors. In one analysis there are 51 mental factors that you can memorize to help you become aware of your mind’s parts. These mental factors are divided into ones that are always there, sometimes there, virtuous ones, harmful ones, and so on. Mental factors include positive and negative emotions like devotion or jealousy and concepts like democracy or happiness.

Again, though, you never want to stop this analysis. If you find yourself believing in a truly existent anger, or love, or democracy, examine that mental factor for a moment and see too how it is made of mental sub-components.

One way to meditate on the parts of the mind is to step back and simply observe whatever passes through your mind. You label your mental experiences using traditional Buddhist terms if you know them, or everyday terms if you don’t. The key is to retain that distance from your thoughts and feelings and observe them from a distance.

As each mental factor arises, ask, Is this where I can find “me”? Don’t let yourself stop, believing that some factor is atomically solid and final. Keep analyzing if you can. Or at least retain the general idea that even if you stop analyzing some mental component, that it does continue to break down in some way into sub-components, just like all other phenomena. And then keep asking if I can find myself in any of these parts.

At some times you may actually feel like you find yourself in one of them, strongly identifying, for example, with feeling, your reactions of pleasure or pain or indifference to sensory and mental phenomena. If this happens, just also notice it, and then also see if that experience can further be broken down by analysis.

The second aspect of our mind, in addition to the mental factors, the ever-changing stream of diverse mental experiences, is the space of the mind itself. We step back from the contents of the mind and look at the container of the mind.

Here, also, you look with openness, pointing the mind at itself. You can consider the mind’s dimensionality: Do you experience the mind as having a shape, size, color, or luminosity? We call this omnipresent aspect of the mind consciousness or awareness. In meditation, you may come to have a profound experience of the mind as a vast, clear, knowing space where thoughts and feelings arise and disappear like holograms springing from some great luminous ground.

But, sadly, we aren’t meant to stop there. If you do experience the mind as a “thing,” even a super-cool nice feeling thing, still examine it, and ask, Am I this thing? And does it have parts? If the space of awareness appears to have dimensionality and qualities, examine whether you can find yourself in any small part of that mental space, or in the qualities of that mind? If you can’t find yourself in any one of them, can you possibly be the collection of all of them?

The mind has a temporal aspect too. You may notice that your awareness, whether with or without thoughts, can be divided into smaller moments of conscious experience. If you watch closely, you may even catch a glimpse of a thought or feeling or simply the experience of mind itself at the moment it appears to arise. And then you can observe it abiding for some time. And then watch it vanish as another mental experience takes its place.

As you experience each mental moment, ask yourself if you are any one of these moments of consciousness? Or are you the collection? Where did the one that just vanished go? Where did it come from? Are you the moment that just past? Or the one that’s coming up?

Each of these moments of consciousness, whether containing mental factors, thoughts, feelings, or free from them, since it has a beginning and an end, can be subdivided into two sub-moments if we mentally split this moment of consciousness at its midpoint. When we do this, do we find ourselves in one, the other, both, or neither of the two moments, the prior and the next? If you do this ad infinitum, do you eventually find a quantum of consciousness?

Keep searching for yourself in whatever aspect of your mind you bring to focus, that is the point.

The five aggregates of body and mind where we search for the self

  1. Form

    Your body and its parts

  2. Feeling

    Your reactions of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral to sensory and mental experience, causing you to want more of the pleasant, less of the unpleasant, and feel indifferent to the neutral

  3. Perception

    Your mind’s capacity to wrap the continuity of sensory and mental experience with the label of a singular entity

  4. Volition

    All other mental factors that categorize and articulate the qualities of sensory mental experience

  5. Consciousness

    The space and timeline of the mind in which thoughts, feelings, and other mental factors appear

The causes of the body

Next, you move to reflecting on causes. First, what are the causes of your body? Small parts of your mother and father, to start with. But then the workings of cellular reproduction took food and fluids from your mother’s body and ingestion, combined them with oxygen from her blood, and gradually transformed these into your body.

Over time you kept eating and breathing and exercising. And people around you, especially your mother, cared for you, nourished you, made you stronger and healthier.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it so elegantly when he says, “You are only made of non-you elements.” Everything that is you came from outside yourself: parts of your parents, food, dirt, air, back through the history of civilization, evolution, life on earth, the formation of our solar system, stellar explosions that created all the heavy elements like carbon and nitrogen; back to the first moment of the Big Bang itself at the beginning of this universe that gave birth to not just space and matter, but even time itself.

You can be creative here and come up with many more causes of your physical body. As you do, search for yourself in any one of these causes: your teachers, the banks that print money, the moon moving the tides back and forth. We sometimes get mad at our parents, seeing them as the primary cause of our existence, putting the blame on them for bringing us into this world. But are they the first cause of our existence on earth?

“When we look into ourselves as a human being we see that the human being is made only of non-human elements.” —Thich Nhat Hanh on the dependently arising self.

The causes of the mind

The mind also has causes and these become subtler and subtler as we investigate. As you reflect on each of the causes of your mental experience, keep searching for yourself among these causes.

Every word you know someone else invented and you learned from someone else. A substantial cause of who you are are your parents and teachers who taught you most of what you know. And then you learned from the books and media and knowledge around you that were all created by others.

As you examine the mind’s experience directly, looking at mental factors, feelings, perceptions, and moments of awareness, examine these aspects of your mind. Question the causes of the mental factors. Question the stream of consciousness of moments that sometimes appear more spaciously uncolored by grosser mental factors. What are the causes of these open moments of awareness?

The Buddhist point of view is that the cause of a moment of consciousness is simply the previous one. It’s worth taking this on as a hypothesis and examining it. As you watch moments of consciousness, see if there is any way in which you can see one arising from the next. And then search for yourself in this view of mental cause and effect: Are you this moment of consciousness? The next one? Do you move from one to the other? And if you do, what is it that moves?

The mind’s role in shaping reality

Then we look at the mind in still another way, honing in on its role in forming our sense of self. Not selfishness, which is a side effect of the ignorance that grasps at an independent, partless, unchanging self, but something you might simply call self-ness, believing in that independent, partless, unchanging self.

What am I? Who am I?

I am Scott. Scott is the label I place upon the continuously changing parts of the body, this stream of subjective mental experiences, the infinite causes that brought them together here and that will ultimately dissolve them apart.

As you ask this question, you can sometimes experience a feeling where time seems to slow and you feel able to see reality from a distance almost the way Neo did in The Matrix when he was able to slow time enough to step around bullets.

Who am I? When that person was yelling at me, who was that person? And who was the me that got angry back at them? Was I the feeling of anger? My red face? My brain activity, my lips moving, my lungs pumping, the air vibrating, the sound coming out of my mouth?

Sometimes this can make you laugh and you have a feeling that, of course I’m not any of these. Who was that merely labeled me getting angry? Was there any valid basis to posit a separate me and him and engage in a fight over our mutual illusions?

You can be completely open in this analysis. If you really believe in the materiality of the mind, then meditate that way, examine how your thoughts and your sense of you could be generated from the brain’s activity. Try to find the mind wholly in the body and brain.

If you believe your mind or soul was created by God, follow that reasoning and see where it leads you.

But also investigate what thoughts are, where they are, and how they can be divided, even if you believe they stem wholly from material causes or from a God.

There isn’t necessarily a right answer in the process of meditating on emptiness of the self, dependent origination of the self. But it is important to ask the right questions, and use a method of investigation that works. Keep asking, is this me? Can I be found in this physical part, this mental moment?

Come to see the more subtle, changing, flexible, interdependent way that you exist moment-to-moment and escape the painful illusion of separateness and neediness that binds us to continued feelings of craving and anger.

Spend a little time meditating on who you are

That’s a way to meditate on the dependent origination of the self. Next week we’ll do this more slowly, more spaciously in a meditative space.

Though I practice this meditation every day, unfortunately I haven’t realized emptiness like a great master has. Yet, even if you spend a little time with this meditation like I do, I think you’ll see how an ordinary person can still have a powerful and productive experience methodically searching for this annoyingly independent self among all the various parts of your body and mind; and then coming to a richer more interdependent sense of yourself that’s slightly loosened the hard distinction between self and other at the root of our disturbing emotions.

Even with a small taste of this meditation, you can start to see how, if we were to do this meditation every day and eventually become aware of this logic of selflessness—not only on our cushion but from time-to time during many moments of my day—how this way of seeing myself as profoundly interconnected and interdependent with all of reality and all other beings might really take the edge off my feelings of separateness and neediness.

We do exist, but the way that we exist is so much more expansive and profound and inclusive than we habitually feel. This meditation on the emptiness of the self is an invitation almost to step up and become a true citizen of the world and the universe; to feel continuously interconnected and to find a more expansive sense of self that is interdependent, open, connected, and happy rather than independent, partless, solid, and miserable.

Learning more about emptiness

Thanks for joining us in this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. If you want an authoritative source of information on this topic of emptiness, we highly recommend the book How to See Yourself as you Really Are by the Dalai Lama. A few other books are also listed below that you might find helpful.

Emptiness is a tricky topic and I’m not a person who has realized emptiness, unfortunately. So all your comments and questions are welcome on our website at skepticspath.org or our social media accounts. Any questions that we can’t answer, we have authoritative sources to refer back to in both authentic Buddhist texts and living masters.

Corrections to this episode, in particular, are very welcome if you are an expert is listening to this. And we will update any mistakes or misstatements should anyone be so kind as to point them out.

I should also mention that other Buddhist traditions and even other subdivisions of Tibetan Buddhism present this topic differently, either using different terms, or more substantially, having different philosophical views about the subtler aspects of mind, reality, and its causes.

On our website at skepticspath.org you can read a transcript of this episode, join our private meditation discussion group, or offer a donation to support our podcast.

Thanks to my partner and producer Stephen Butler for so beautifully producing these episodes and helping to structure the content and correct my mistakes with valid scholarly references from the precious lineages of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.

Reading List

We highly recommend these four books on emptiness if you’d like to delve into this topic with the guidance of expert teachers in the authentic Tibetan Buddhist lineage:

How to See Yourself as You Really Are, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Emptiness (The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 5), Geshe Tashi Tsering

Introduction to Emptiness (as taught in Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path), Guy Newland

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

SHARe

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