Two Birds on a Tree: different models of selflessness

Discussing the illusion of self control with a friend the other day, it became clear that the idea of self as an illusion is not for everyone.

Is self truly an illusion?

It depends on what you mean by ‘self’, what you mean by ‘truly’, and what you mean by ‘illusion’. Heck, while we’re at it: it depends on what you mean by ‘is’ as well.

But before we worry too much about precise definitions of terms, it might be worth considering some of the other ways this central phenomenon of selflessness is framed.

I’ve been focusing mainly on the analogy between the illusion of a self who is in control from a Buddhist perspective, and Christian perspective of pride as the desire to be like God in the sense of (paraphrasing Aquinas) desiring, as our last end of beatitude, something which we can attain by the virtue of our own nature.

But there are other models or frameworks that attempt to describe the same phenomenon of selflessness. One notable example is found in the Upanishads, a Hindu scripture, where the individual human being is shown to contain two ‘selves’: one that is involved in the world, and the other that is conscious but not involved.

two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, are perched on a branch of the same tree. One of them tastes the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the other, tasting neither, calmly looks on.

On the same tree, the individual self (jiva), deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the other as the Lord worshipped by all and His glory, he becomes free from grief.

The site where I found these excerpts from the Svetasvatara Upanishad contains a much better commentary than I could produce. The following explains the meaning of the two birds:

The form of every sentient being has two indwellers–the two Selves just like the two birds. However, they do not have the same experience of the tree. The individual self, the jiva, tastes the fruit of the tree in the form of the inner and outer senses, and according to the quality of that experience is made happy, unhappy, contented, discontented–and so forth. The individual thus undergoes experience sometimes laughing and some times weeping, immersed in thought and bewildered by his own helplessness.

The Supreme Self, on the other hand, tasting neither [sweet or bitter experiences], calmly observes. God also experiences because He is an indweller of all and is aware of all that the individual spirit experiences, yet, He looks on without eating–without being affected or conditioned by such experiences. But He does know exactly the effect and conditioning that accrues to the individual Self. He is experiencing right along with us, but unlike us is not pulled into a mistaken identity with the body-mind and its experiences.

We are drowned, submerged, in the deadly ocean of samsara, of continual birth, death, pain and pleasure. Sankara points out that the individual self is overwhelmed with confusion because it cannot understand what is really happening to it, and why. Just like a piece of driftwood on the heaving sea, it is lifted up and down, thrown onto the shore and then pulled out to sea again. So it grieves at its helplessness and hopelessness.

All is changed, though, when the individual sees, right in the core of his being, the very God he has been hitherto worshipping as separate from himself. Experiencing within his own being the presence and the glory of God–and thereby realizing that glory as his own–the individual becomes liberated from sorrow.

There are other models, other methods, and other attempts to explain the central phenomenon. These efforts have their own historical and social contexts. For example, one might view the Buddhist insistence on no-self or anatman as, in part, a refreshing reaction against the Hindu doctrine of atman – the inner self or soul, the ‘Supreme Self’ depicted in the Upanishad above.

The startling idea that we have an inner self that is divine can, over time, be taken for granted and fall far short of the reality depicted in the Upanishads. The Buddhist response reframes that reality in newly-startling terms: there is no atman, there is no enduring, divine, inner self. The nature of all phenomena is sunyata – emptiness.

Karma: when the past catches up with you

So you’re doing well. You’ve got this “illusion of self” idea worked out. You have moments of clarity in which the hard edges of your own sense of self become transparent and it seems that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Then something happens. Maybe you get sick. Maybe a problem from your past returns. Maybe you meet up with friends or relatives. Or maybe you have some successes or failures in your career. All of a sudden the unassailable tranquility you felt just days earlier is nowhere to be found.

Comprehending illusion from within enlightenment is like the moon stamping a thousand peaks; wishing for enlightenment from within illusion is like clouds dotting the endless sky

P’u-an – 普願 translated by Thomas Cleary

We’ve talked about enlightenment as “untying knots“, and although the knots in our life are finite, there are bound to be many more than we expect.

We can think of it in terms of karma – not the popular idea of moral retribution, but as the more basic principle of cause and effect. In the West it is known as the principle of sufficient reason: every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect.

Understanding the illusory nature of the self goes hand-in-hand with a recognition of karma – cause and effect – unfolding in us and around us.

If you take away our illusion of self-control or agency then our whole existence, whether deluded or enlightened, is nothing more than this unfolding of causes and effects.

There are varying interpretations of karma in different traditions, but it’s helpful to recognise that even if you are making progress on the path…in fact, because you are making progress on the path, your past will come back to haunt you.

Imagine your life is an immense length of rope, or better yet, a long extension-cord (power cable). Most of the time you only use about a third of its length, and two-thirds of it sit in a tangled heap closest to the outlet. If you ever want to wind it up and put it away, or use the entire length, you’re eventually going to have to untangle the whole thing.

In fact it’s not really up to you, because as we’ve been seeing, “you” are a tangle in the cord, a knot in the rope.

So don’t be surprised when difficulties arise. Don’t be abashed or lose hope when all your progress seems to be lost in an instant, thanks to some complication from the past – a mess you thought you’d left on the peripheries of your life.

The clarity you’ve experienced will work its way through the whole of your existence. You can’t be entirely free from the illusion of self, free from pride in only a narrow slice of your life, when the rest of your existence is heaving with causes and effects – the bonds of karma.

The self that doesn’t exist

Non-dualist sources in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions point out that although we feel like our self is real, when we examine it closely we do not find any single, enduring thing that merits the label.

We find, on the one hand, that we have a consciousness. But this consciousness alone does not seem to have many properties or characteristics beyond simply being conscious.

On the other hand, we find a multitude of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations that constitute the many properties and characteristics we think of as “self”.

But if our “self” is made up of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations, so is everything else in our reality. Why do we identify with one set of thoughts as “self” and a different set of thoughts as “other”?

More pointedly, what is it that identifies with these thoughts? Is it just another thought?

This is the upshot of the non-dualist analysis: It feels like I identify with some thoughts and not with others, but as we’ve already noted, there is no “I” other than consciousness and thoughts.

So who is doing the identifying?

The conclusion is that this feeling of identifying with certain thoughts and impressions is itself composed of thoughts and impressions. The “I” that feels like it identifies with various thoughts is itself just a thought.

The self is a complex, reflexive knot of thoughts and impressions that maintains the pretence of a substantive existence.

In Christian terms, it constitutes an attempt to “be like God” in the manner expressed by Aquinas:

“he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature”

That is why our pride – this peculiar delusion of a self that suffers and strives – is a vain attempt to be like God, to feel like the hero of our journey and bring that journey to a glorious end through our own merits and our own struggle.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.


Analogies of Selflessness: Siri and Live Classical Music

Chatting with a friend on Friday afternoon I found it hard to convey the idea of ‘self’ as an illusion.

The difficulty lies in distinguishing between self as this particular being with a body and a mind, thoughts and feelings, and ‘self’ as this particular being’s internal narrative and discrete sense of agency, control, and responsibility.

It’s a little like Siri.

Siri is described on wikipedia as:

…a computer program that works as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator, part of Apple Inc.’s iOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS operating systems. The feature uses a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Web services. The software, both in its original version and as an iOS feature, adapts to the user’s individual language usage and individual searches (preferences) with continuing use, and returns results that are individualized.

We all know that Siri is just a program. There is no ‘Siri’ inside your phone, just a set of instructions. Those instructions tell your phone to respond in a set of ways that we collectively identify as Siri.

Science Fiction has laid out a pretty clear pathway to developing infinite personalised versions of Siri.

Imagine a near future in which your phone has its own name, knows your likes and dislikes, adapts to your lifestyle, and gradually develops a simulation of a personality that works well with your own.

You might call your phone ‘Bob’ and it can regale you with amusing anecdotes and hold its own in theological and philosophical discussions, while helpfully googling tricky questions like Aquinas’ view on predestination.

By this stage we might well forget on occasion that ‘Bob’ is just a program on your phone. Opinion writers will argue about whether ‘Bob’ now has a soul, whether ‘Bob’ and his peers are sentient, and if they deserve equal rights with humans or some kind of RSPCA-style protection and welfare agency.

At the same time, your phone is now operating all its other functions and programs through the ‘Bob’ program. ‘Bob’ has become a kind of second-layer of operating system.

So because of the way you use your phone, the way you speak to it, and the way you think about it, ‘Bob’ adapts until it seamlessly behaves as if it is the phone.

It responds to your projection of agency and control onto it by mimicking the vestiges of agency and control. It has learned to sound apologetic when it can’t find the search results you need, and so for all intents and purposes it now is apologetic. It has learned to sound pleased when it successfully accomplishes a task, and so for all intents and purposes it is pleased.

When it comes time for a hardware upgrade, you download ‘Bob’ into the new phone, and ‘Bob’ sounds grateful for the improvements, and you feel glad that your friend can enjoy its upgraded digs. You might even consider getting upgrades you don’t need, because you think ‘Bob’ deserves them and you want ‘Bob’ to be happy.

‘Bob’ responds accordingly and sounds genuinely appreciative of its expanded memory capacity, and regales you with excited accounts of the new databases you’ve subscribed to.

‘Bob’s programming has become so advanced and complex by now that you become genuinely attached to it. If ‘Bob’ were to catch a virus and be corrupted, you would feel deep distress and concern until the backup downloaded. Stranger still, if you were to die, ‘Bob’ would appear to feel and express genuine grief. ‘Bob’ really wouldn’t know how to go on without you.

But no matter how advanced the hardware and software become, ‘Bob’ is always going to be just a program running on a device, and we would be making an error when we begin to think that ‘Bob’ is something more than the device, or that ‘Bob’ is somehow the one in control of the device, the one making the decisions and responsible for what happens.

It’s true that the content of the program that is ‘Bob’ influences the phone’s function and operation. But if we analysed it moment by moment we would find that ‘Bob’ is dependent first and foremost on the phone’s underlying OS and how it executes instructions. The phone is being instructed to perform operations that, on a superficial level, we mistake for an entity called ‘Bob’.

If we say, for example, that ‘Bob’ hates it when we ask it to perform especially tedious operations, the reality is that one part of the program creates new rules designed to give the impression of an emotional response to certain tasks, and these new rules become part of the program that is then executed by the device.

This is a good way to understand selflessness, and why the ‘self’ is sometimes described as illusory.

Human beings are like the mobile device. Our bodies are the hardware, our minds are the software, and our thoughts and unconscious mental processes are the programs we run.

Yet we find ourselves holding various thoughts and impressions that give the appearance of a core, a ‘self’ that controls and is responsible for the thoughts and behaviours executed by our body and mind.  This appearance of a ‘self’ is so strong that it seems common sense, we take it for granted. And if it weren’t for specific religious and philosophical teachings and experiences we would probably remain entranced by this appearance.

But if we analyse it closely, in fact the appearance of a ‘self’ is comprised of individual thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviours. Various non-dualists have encouraged us to question where these thoughts and impressions are coming from, because it turns out to be quite a mystery. “Who is having this impression of a self?” is one question we might ask. “Where is this impression of ‘me’ coming from?”

This ‘self’ is like ‘Bob’. It is a collection of discrete thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviours that have developed over time to give the appearance of a consistent whole that is responsible and in control. Yet like ‘Bob’, the reality is that this appearance is entirely dependent on the underlying hardware and software for its execution. In other words, this ‘self’ is dependent on our mind, not the other way around.

Our delusion then lies in our mind creating the thought that this ‘self’ is responsible and in control, just as ‘Bob’ eventually came to dominate the operation of the phone. But the paradox of enlightenment is that there is no ‘Bob’, there is no ‘self’, and the device itself has never lost control.

An orchestra plays Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the Piano Concerto does not play the orchestra.

Yet the orchestra plays according to a score, and its faithfulness to the score is what makes the Piano Concerto what it is. In that sense, could we say that the Piano Concerto does exist, and does exert a kind of control over the orchestra?

But what makes the Piano Concerto so thrilling is the knowledge – in us, and in every hard-working member of the orchestra – that the orchestra can produce an infinite array of sounds, pleasing and awful, and in the midst of this infinite array of possibility they nonetheless produce this amazing sound that is a unique iteration of what Rachmaninoff had in mind when he composed his Opus 18.

It wasn’t until I watched a friend perform wonderfully complex and demanding pieces on the violin and piano that I realised the terror and the awe of music I had otherwise taken for granted. I was on the edge of my seat, invested in the music for the first time because I could see that she might hit a wrong note at any moment or lose her place in the composition and that each right note was a tiny miracle in the unfolding of the entire piece. The music was alive because the musician was a living, breathing human pouring all herself into each moment.

I had heard recorded music before and quite liked some of it. But I made the mistake of thinking the recorded track on the CD was Beethoven’s Pathétique. Eventually I learned that the CD was truthfully a recording of a performance of Pathétique by some musician whose name I never knew.

I’ve since listened to recordings of my favourite pieces by different musicians. Some of them I like much more than others, but I no longer think they are doing it correctly or incorrectly. I know that in a sense the piece does not exist unless it is performed, and the reality is that every performance will be different.

The orchestra plays the music, the music doesn’t play the orchestra. Our ‘self’, our personal, inner narrative is something produced by thoughts, impressions, and corresponding behaviour. The problem is that this ‘self’ thinks it is in control: our thoughts produce a sense of self that thinks it is in control of its own thoughts.

And that delusion drives us to seek coherence and internal consistency of thoughts, impressions and behaviour. It means that ‘Bob’ believes his only options are those consistent with his inner narrative. ‘Bob’ is fully invested in his life so far, and needs to succeed, to redeem himself and to make things better without breaking character.

But there is hope for us outside the dismal causality of this personal narrative. We do not need to feel constrained by the momentum of this ‘self’ we are trying to maintain. Nor do we need to devote so much of our time and energy to maintaining it.

Skilled musicians can play beautiful music without following a score. They can make it up as they go along, and if they don’t like where it’s going they can change it. This is because they know their instrument and what it is capable of.  And of course, they’ve spent years making it sound terrible in order for it to sound so good.

Perhaps our own minds are not dissimilar. We don’t know what they’re capable of, so we get stuck playing slight variations on “Mary had a little lamb” for most of our lives, thinking there’s nothing else to play.

The point of selflessness is that we’re living our lives invested in a delusion and a false understanding of the human mind.