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The Self is Not an Illusion

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October 21st, 2022

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D.

Guest writer for Wake Up World

In some contemporary spiritual teachings, there is a belief that the self is illusory. To become enlightened, or “realised” means to let go of the illusion of being someone. When this happens, our sense of personal identity disappears. There’s no longer a doer who performs actions; actions are just performed through us. There’s no longer an “I” who experiences things; experience just flows through us. According to these teachings, all of our problems stem from our sense of being someone, so when we let go of this idea, then our problems cease as well.

But in my view, these teachings are based on a misunderstanding. One metaphor sometimes used to describe spiritual awakening is that of the wave and the ocean. In our normal unawakened state, we perceive ourselves as individual waves, separate to the whole ocean. But when we wake up, we realize our oneness with the ocean, that we are the ocean, that we’ve emerged from it and are always part of it. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose our identity as a wave. We can have an identity as a wave at the same time as being part of the ocean—at the same time as being the ocean. We can still function as individuals, with some degree of autonomy and identity, at the same time as being one with the whole universe.

One way to look at this is to see spiritual awakening not as a dissolution of self but as an expansion of self. In our sleep state, our identity is constricted, more or less confined to our own mind and body. But as we wake up, our identity opens up, expands outward. It incorporates and encompasses wider realities. It expands into other people, other living beings, the natural world, the earth itself, until eventually it encompasses the whole cosmos. In conceptual terms, this expresses itself as a movement beyond a narrow egocentric outlook (with a strong sense of group identity) toward a global, universal perspective, with a concern for overriding global issues and a sense of oneness with all human beings, irrespective of superficial differences of nationality or ethnicity.

Wakefulness and the “Self-System”

Perhaps one reason why wakefulness is seen as a state of no-self is because the awakened “self-system”—our mind, with the psychological structures that enable us to function in the world—is so unobtrusive and well-integrated into the rest of our being that we may not actually realize that it’s there, in the same way that if a person is sitting quietly in the corner of a dark room we may not notice that the room is occupied. The functioning of the self-system may be so subtle and quietly efficient that we may not realize that it’s actually taking place. Its structure is so soft and labile that we may not realize that it’s present.

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