I feel like I’m in control of my thoughts, choices, actions. It’s as though I’m steering myself through life, trying to avoid obstacles and collect rewards along the way.
And right behind the steering wheel is ‘me’, a sense of self that is possessive, vulnerable to harm, and carries with it a persistent identity.
Buddhism tells us that if we observe this sense of self closely we’ll find that there is no substance to it. It’s made up of multiple thoughts, ideas, and images. Like a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion, these thoughts and impressions create the mental illusion of a substantial self where none exists.
But who is the subject of this illusion?
The mind is the subject, or in some traditions it is pure consciousness itself.
The problem for humanity then is that we think we are these possessive, vulnerable and persistent selves subject to fear and craving, when in fact we are minds, or consciousness.
Or to put it another way: we are minds that mistakenly identify with these illusory selves.
These illusory selves might be possessive, fearful, and full of craving, but our minds are not, our consciousness is not.
Asking the wrong questions
But why do our minds identify with this illusory self? Why do they try so hard to sustain the illusion? And how can we finally dispel the illusion?
These are (in my case at least) the wrong questions to ask, because I am asking them with the assumption that I can gain understanding, maybe work out where it’s all going wrong, and then fix it.
In other words, I’m treating the “illusion of a self” as just another obstacle to steer myself through.
The roots of the illusion run deep. The mind is deeply deluded. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do to free yourself, because anything “you” can do will just be part of the illusion.
All thoughts come from the same place
But even these wrong questions are not coming from “me”, because both the questions and the sense of self are coming from the same place, from mind or consciousness.
If all thoughts come from the same place, then whether we are deluded or enlightened is beyond “our” control. And whether we stay deluded or cease being deluded is likewise beyond our control.
Recognising this truth is itself a step toward enlightenment. Enlightenment being ultimately freedom from the heavy delusion of this possessive, vulnerable, fearful and desirous self that the mind believes it must maintain.
Nowhere to lay your head
Buddhists go to a subjective extreme: everything in your experience is a thought-form or impression arising out of the emptiness of pure consciousness, persisting for a moment, and then falling away back into that same emptiness – the whole time not truly other than emptiness.
Christianity goes to an objective extreme: all beings are contingent on the divine being for their nature and existence. We exist only via limited participation in God’s being, who is pure being-itself.
In either case, we can take refuge in the objective reality of God or the subjective reality of ’emptiness’ as our true home and true self.
But in the meantime, inquiry, practice and diligent effort seem to be a part of the progress toward liberation from the illusion of self, until we arrive at the point where any further effort is counter-productive.
As one famous Hindu mystic put it, it’s like using a stick to poke and stir a fire. When you’re done with it, you throw the stick in to burn as well.