A non-mystical explanation of "no-self" (three characteristics series)

by Kaj_Sotala29 min read8th May 202059 comments

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This is the second post of the "a non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence" series. You can read the first post, explaining my general intent and approach, here.

On the three characteristics

So, just what are the three characteristics of existence?

My take is that they are a rough way of clustering the kinds of insights that you may get from insight meditation: in one way or another, most insights about the structure of your mind can be said to be about no-self, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, or some combination of them. As upcoming posts should hopefully make obvious, this is not a very clear-cut distinction: the three are deeply intertwined with each other, and you can’t fully explain one without explaining the others. I am starting with a discussion of no-self, then moving to unsatisfactoriness, then coming back to no-self, moving between the different characteristics in a way that seems most clear.

I think that what’s called “enlightenment” refers to the gradual accumulation of these kinds of insights, combined with practices aimed at exploiting an understanding of them. There are many different insights and ways of exploring them, as well as many general approaches for making use of them. Different traditions also seem to have different enlightenments [1, 2]. Thus, rather than providing any definitive explanation of “this is enlightenment”, I attempt to focus on exploring how various cognitive mechanisms behind different enlightenments work. My intent is to cover enough of different things to give a taste of what's out there and what kinds of outcomes might be possible, while acknowledging that there's also a lot that I have no clue of yet.

So this is not trying to be anything like “a definitive and complete explanation of the three characteristics”; I don’t think anyone could write such a thing, as nobody can have explored all the aspects of all the three. Rather, this is more of a sketch of those aspects of the three characteristics which I think I have some understanding of.

In particular, this explanation strongly emphasizes no-self and unsatisfactoriness, which I feel I have a better understanding of. Impermanence, which some approaches consider the very core characteristic, ends up relatively neglected. Apologies to any impermanence fans - maybe some day I’ll come back to write more about it.

But let’s get started with talking about no-self.

No-self

No-self is a confusing term, since it can easily be interpreted as the claim that, well, there is no self. But at least on one interpretation of Buddhism, the claim is much more subtle. Here’s an excerpt from the article No-self or Not-self?, by the Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. [...]
So, instead of answering "no" to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with.

Now, there are many interpretations of Buddha’s teaching, and what the Buddha even really said in the first place; other people will offer a different kind of an account. But let’s suppose that this particular interpretation is correct. What might it mean?

Well, clearly people feel that something like a “self exists”. But rather than arguing about whether or not a self exists, one should investigate the mechanisms by which the experience of having a self is constructed. Once those cognitive algorithms are understood, one knows what creates a feeling of having a self - and then there is nothing more to explain.

Of course, in Buddha’s day, they did not have cognitive science and a theory of neural networks, so he was unable to express his position in those terms. They did, however, have well-developed meditative techniques. And those techniques could be used to investigate how the experience of having a self was developed.

Now, one might reasonably ask, if the question of “does the self exist” is misleading, then why is this often phrased in the form of the claim that the self does not exist?

“The self does not exist in the way you think”

In my daily experience, it generally feels like there exists a distinct “me”. There is someone, an “I” who sees what I see, hears what I hear, feels what I feel. It feels like I can generally make choices, consider information, act according to my best judgment. It feels that there’s a meaningful sense in which the same me existed yesterday, and will continue to exist tomorrow. If you were to make a copy of me that was atom-to-atom identical, I might intuitively feel that there would exist a distinct difference between the original me and the copy. We might be exactly identical and act exactly the same, but there would still be a different experiencer.

But I also know about the scientific “multi-agent” models of mind, described briefly in my last post and more extensively in earlier ones, where different subsystems within the brain are responsible for my actions. In those models, there is no privileged subsystem in charge of making decisions. Different subsystems take charge at different times, based on a preconscious selection process which is not under the control of any particular subsystem. There is also no particular subsystem which could be singled out as the one experiencing things. Rather, anything which makes it to consciousness is broadcast into many different subsystems, each of which can do different things with that information.

So experientially, I feel like I have a self which works in a particular way. Science suggests that my mind actually works in a different way: e.g. decisions are made by a distributed collection of semi-independent subsystems, rather than by a distinct "deciding self". So some might claim that the self as I intuitively experience it does not exist, as the intuitive conception does not match reality.

For example, The Manual of Insight is a treatise on meditation by the Theravada Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw, who had a significant impact on spreading insight meditation in the West. The book quotes the Theravada scripture of Paṭisambhidāmagga as saying, in its elaboration of no-self, that:

There is no self that is able to control, to own, to feel, to give orders, to behave according to one’s will, no self that is everlasting, or that is the agent of going, seeing, and so on. [...]
[As a result of meditation practice, one comes to see the mind as] empty of self (suññato). Here “self” (atta) means an entity that is the owner of the body, permanently residing in the body, the agent of going, seeing, and so on, the agent who feels pleasant and unpleasant feelings, able to give any orders, and able to exercise mastery. Such an entity, which is [a product of one’s] speculation, belief, or obsession, may be called being, soul, ego, or self.

Likewise, Daniel Ingram, meditation teacher and author of the widely-read book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, writes that (emphasis mine):

The original Pali term, anatta, means literally “not-self”. This same term is also rendered by other authors in other ways, some of which can be extremely problematic, such as egolessness, a terribly problematic term, since ego as understood in the Western psychological sense is not the referent of the conception of “self” targeted in Buddhism. Another problematic rendering of this term is “emptiness”. Emptiness, for all its mysterious-sounding connotations, means that reality is empty of, devoid of, or lacking a permanent, separate, independent, acausal, autonomous self. It doesn’t mean that reality is not there, but that reality is not there in the way it may appear to us to be. [...]
It’s not that the constellation labeled “me”, or “you”, a grouping of physical and mental components, does not exist and function in some ordinary sense. It’s that none of those components exist independently or acausally, which is how ignorance conceives of them. Ultimate unfindability of the components of reality in no way precludes their conventional existence!

Intellectually many people do not think that their self has an acausal existence, independent of the laws of physics. But the kind of understanding one can get from meditation is different. As I will discuss, the ways that specific subsystems react to various situations is linked to their model of the self. Normally, even if you intellectually understand that you do not have an acausally acting self, your mind cannot directly see the actual causality. Many of the subconscious models driving your behavior will only update if they are forced to directly witness evidence contradicting their old assumptions. (For a previous discussion of this in the context of psychotherapy and emotional beliefs, see my review of Unlocking the Emotional Brain.)

Early insights into no-self

Recall again the model that the content of consciousness roughly corresponds to a “global workspace” which contains information submitted by different subsystems. In normal circumstances, there are some objects in the stream of experience (global workspace) which the overall system treats as being more “me” than the rest. For example, many people experience themselves as inhabiting a space somewhere behind their eyes, looking at the world from that location.

Suppose that I now do some kind of practice where I examine this experience in more detail. Here is a simple one:

  1. Look at an object in front of you. Spend a moment simply examining its features.
  2. Become aware of the sensation of being someone who is looking at this object. While letting your attention rest on the object, try to notice what this sensation of being someone who is looking at the object feels like. Does it have a location, shape, or feel?

You may wish to take a moment to do this right now, before reading about my results.

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When I do this kind of exercise, a result that I may get is that there is the sight of the object, and then a pattern of tension behind my eyes. Something about the pattern of tension feels like “me” - when I feel that “I am looking at a plant in front of me”, this could be broken down to “there is a tension in my consciousness, it feels like the tension is what’s looking at the plant, and that tension feels like me”.

Your result may be different from this. You may find yourself identifying with another sensation, or you might not be able to hone down on any particular sensation on the first try… but if you are like most people, you probably still have some kind of a feeling of looking out at the world.

My guess is that this sensation is a tag coming from some subsystem whose task is to keep track of one’s spatial location relative to their surroundings. We know that there are multiple such systems in the brain, and that these systems getting out of sync - one system indicating a particular location and another indicating a differing location - can create the feeling of an out-of-body experience. In computer terms, sensory data comes in, and then some subsystem parses that sensory data and indicates where one’s “I” is located, passing this tag for other subsystems to use. Going by the previous example of me feeling a tension around my eyes that feels like me looking at the plant, we might think that something like the following is happening:

  • Subsystem 1 sends the sight of a plant into the global workspace
  • Subsystem 2 sends the feeling of tension around the eyes into the global workspace
  • Subsystem 3 tags the tension as my current location, and binds all of these percepts together as an experience of “I am seeing the plant”, which is also sent to the global workspace

An interesting thing is that the subsystems in the brain seem to take the tag as an ontological fact. Suppose that someone hands you a map of your surroundings, and has helpfully marked your current location with a red tag saying “YOU ARE HERE”.

But suppose that you now get a little confused. Rather than taking the spot with red ink as indicating your location in your physical world, you take the red spot on the map to be your physical location. That is, you think that you are the “YOU ARE HERE” tag, looking at the rest of the map from the red ink itself.

But of course, the fact that you are seeing the above picture, means that you cannot be looking from the red ink in the picture. The map includes the red ink, meaning that the person who is looking at it is actually outside the map.

Likewise, people tend to have a sensation of looking at the world from behind their eyes; but they are actually aware of the sensation, as opposed to being aware from it. It is a computational representation of a location, rather than being the location itself. Still, once this representation is fed into other subsystems in the brain, those subsystems will treat the tagged location as the one that they are “looking at the sense data from”, as if they had been fed a physical map of their surroundings with their current location marked.

But a particular tag in the sense data is not actually where they are looking at it from; for one, the visual cortex is located in the back of the head, rather than right behind the eyes. Furthermore, any visual information is in principle just a piece of data that has been fed into a program running in the brain. If we think of cognitive programs as analogous to computer programs, then a computer program that is fed a piece of data isn't really "looking at" the data "from" any spatial direction.

In vipassana-style meditation, you train your attention to dissect components of your experience into smaller pieces. (Vipassana is commonly translated as insight meditation, but here I treat it as a particular subcategory of insight meditation.) In third-person terms, this probably trains up pattern-detectors which can monitor the content of the global workspace in extreme detail. Eventually, there’s sufficient clarity about the sense of location for low-level schemas to pick up on the inherent contradiction involved in looking at something which the system is supposedly looking out from.

The opposite strategy is commonly associated with what are so-called nondual techniques. Instead of training an analytical, attention-controlled part of the mind to examine the sense of self, the nondual route is to nudge the mind into a state where those analytical parts of the brain become less active. As those parts also produce the sense of ‘the observer’ in the first place, attenuating their activity can offer a glimpse into a state of consciousness where that sensation is lacking. Some versions of this approach seem to be tapping into some of the same machinery which causes people to experience a state of flow, as flow states also seem to involve a downregulation in both analytical thought and the sense of self.

Frequently, the sense of self being diminished in this way is a sufficiently interesting experience that the analytical subsystems kick back online to make sense of it - but over time, one can train oneself to experience more such glimpses, until there is a broader shift.

It is not clear to me to what extent these routes lead to exactly the same result. It seems to me that both eventually end up at a state where the sensations tagging one’s physical location still continue to be produced, and can be used as an aid for spatial reasoning, but the system no longer intrinsically identifies with them. Rather, the sensations are seen as being constructed by a machinery which is independent of the actual stream of sensory input.

But there seem to be some differences in how you reach that place. For the sake of analogy, let's pretend that the machinery is a hologram projector, painting a realistic image of a person in the middle of a room. The vipassana path would correspond to looking very closely at all the details of the hologram, until you noticed discrepancies in how it was created. That would give you a detailed insight into how exactly the projector used light to draw the image, but would be rather slow. In contrast, the nondual route involves just turning the projector off for a moment - making it very obvious that the hologram was in fact a hologram, but telling you much less of how it was built.

Another difference is the no-self versus all-self interpretation. Some schools say that this kind of practice leads you to realizing that there is no self; other schools, generally more associated with Hinduism than Buddhism, say that they lead you to realizing that all is self. (Western philosophy has the corresponding concepts of closed, open and empty individualism.)

Some of the end results from both paths are described in a similar way, however. For example, a common metaphor about the result of some varieties of practice is that of “being the sky rather than the clouds”. Below is one formulation of it. The outcome seems to be that rather than identifying with the sensations of the supposed observer, one’s identity shifts to the entire field of consciousness itself (in line with the thing about a program reading a file not having any location that would be defined in terms of the file):

One way of describing the experience of glimpsing in effortless mindfulness practice is to use the metaphor of a cloud. You may have felt as if you have been living in a cloud; maybe it feels like a storm cloud a lot of the time. See if you can feel the boundary and fogginess of this cloud that you call “me.” You may have been trying to feel better by cleaning up the cloud of your mind by replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts and developing good attitudes. You may have tried to calm your body and mind to make your brain as clear as possible. Within your cloud are storms, old traumas, emotional challenges, and relationships of all types. Each time you change these things and clean up one area of the cloud, it seems that another foggy issue or thunderous problem arises.
Effortless mindfulness does not begin with dissolving the cloud, calming it, or trying to transform its contents. The glimpsing method of effortless mindfulness begins with awake awareness stepping out of the cloud, shifting, dropping, or opening to discover that you are also the open sky of awake awareness! When you shift out of this cloud of the emotional or small mind and discover this spaciousness of still, quiet, alert awareness, it’s a great relief. You can realize that you are the sky, and the cloudy emotions and thoughts are everchanging weather.
[...] As we reach the fullness of effortless mindfulness, we will discover open-hearted awareness and ways to naturally embrace and welcome all emotions and parts of ourselves. [...] After all, all weather comes and goes, and no storm ever hurt the sky.
(Loch Kelly, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness)

Or this more concrete description, quoted in a paper on meditation-induced changes to the sense of self (Lindahl & Britton 2019):

So, [the retreat] was in the spring and I was doing some raking leaves, and just as I was raking, this really profound feeling of ‘this is all me’ came to me. And so the ‘this is all me’ — what that means is that my identity is literally everything that I could see through my eyes. So, the rake that I was holding in my hands was me. The ground that I was raking was me. The feet that I could see down at the bottom of my body, that was me. The steps up to the residence, that was me. The sky was me. The trees were me. And so, everything was just ‘me’. And that there wasn’t really anything else. It was all just ‘me’. […] Those experiences that I related about what I would call kenshō experiences, there was no viewer in those — it was just what was there, and there was no viewer observing it.

Here is how I would rephrase these reports in third-person terms. Normally, there is a flow of information within the global workspace: mental objects representing sensory information, thoughts, and some objects encoding a sense of there being someone who watches the senses. These kinds of experiences are a part of a process where the system reorients its assumptions to recognize that there is no homunculus sitting behind the eyes and watching everything.

From an external point of view, we can say that your conscious mind - or “you” - consists of everything that is in the global workspace, and no particular piece of mental content is more or less “you” than the others are. If you see a rake in your hands, then there is a process within your brain generating that visual experience. The experience exists as a part of your mind. Likewise, the experience of there being a someone who is having that experience, is generated by a process within your brain, and exists as a part of your mind. Everything that you ever experience is mental content generated by your brain, as opposed to you having direct access to reality.

Now, in Loch Kelly’s quote above, there is the suggestion that changing one’s identification to the entire field of consciousness will also change how one relates to negative experiences. Exactly why this would happen is an important question, and I will come back to it later. For now, let’s look a bit more at why getting such an experience can be so difficult.

The self as a tool for planning

A thing that might happen, once the above has been explained to you, is that you put a lot of effort into intellectually figuring out the contradiction between experiencing something that you also identify with, and then figuring out what must be going on instead. This kind of theorizing can be useful for purposes of writing articles such as this one. But you cannot use theorizing alone to put your brain into a no-self state by convincing your brain of the contradiction. Meditation teachers may explicitly warn you that it is impossible for your thinking mind to comprehend no-self states in such a way that would cause you to actually experience them.

I suspect that a part of this is because the subsystems in the brain used for this kind of theorizing take the sense of self as input. As a result, them being active tends to put the mind in a state where it identifies more strongly with the sensations of a self.

Going back to the map analogy, consider the route-finding algorithm included in Google Maps: you give it a starting location, an end location, some parameters of what kind of a route you prefer, and it then finds you the best route that meets those criteria.

I suggested that the sense of the observer is like a point in a map, saying “YOU ARE HERE”, and that one of the goals of practice was coming to see that the point that’s marked on the map cannot actually be “your” real location. That is, some part of your mind stops treating the red ink on the map as being identical to where you are. But a route-finding algorithm does not have the option of treating the starting point of a route as anything else than as the starting point of a route. Its entire purpose is to assume that the “YOU ARE HERE” really does correspond to your real location, and to then plot a route from there. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a route-finding algorithm anymore.

What I am calling “intellectual” parts of your brain, seem to be similar to route-finding algorithms. Their purpose is to figure out a path from where you are now, to some desired target state.

The literature on expertise suggests that people figure out novel tasks by running mental simulations of how to get from a current state to a target state, and then trying to carry out a sequence that they have successfully simulated (Klein 1999). For example, you might be faced with a truck sitting on the ground. Using a jack and concrete blocks, you want to get it up on the air on a column of blocks.

You mentally go through different options, until you figure out a sequence of steps that gets you to the end result. When you find something that seems promising enough, you give it a shot.

Now, in the example of a truck, your reasoning can happen purely in terms of what is going to happen to the truck; the same process would work exactly the same regardless of whether you or someone else was doing it. But what happens if you set the goal of “I want to get to a state where I experience no sense of self?”

This again fires up the parts of your brain that carry out mental simulations… but just as in the truck example, where they needed to track what was happening to the truck in each step of the sequence, they now need to track whether or not you are experiencing a sense of self in any given step. This makes it impossible for them to find a state where you wouldn’t experience a sense of self, as the very act of trying to plan how to get you there requires instantiating a sense of self that represents you in the simulation!

This can make for some frustrating experiences, in that if you once experience a state with a drastically weakened sense of self, it may feel pleasant and you then want to get back to it. But trying to figure out how to get back into it, is exactly the kind of a process that may prevent you from getting back. This is part of the reason why some traditions and teachers say things like “in order to get enlightened, you must stop striving for enlightenment”, as well as claiming that thinking in terms of outcomes is contrary to the spirit of the practice.

What the planning system would actually need to do to achieve its goal, is to simply turn itself off, so that it stops projecting a sense of self into the global workspace. But it cannot accurately represent this target state, as it parses it as “a state where I experience no sense of self”. Its representation of the target still includes a sense of someone who either is or is not experiencing a sense of self.

To use the map analogy, this is something like asking Google Maps to route a path to a state where the Google Maps program has been turned off. There is simply no way for it to do that, because the notion of being on or off is not explicitly represented anywhere in the program. The pathfinding routine of Google Maps only reasons in terms of where “you” are in the maps that are loaded into it.

What the route-finding algorithm in Google Maps can do, is something like take a map, find the location on it that sounds the closest to “turn yourself off”, and plot a route to that. Of course, this will not actually turn it off, but it is something that the algorithm can at least do. So upon being given the task of turning itself off, it will plot a route to that location, correctly notice that this is not actually fulfilling the task that it was given, and trash around trying to find a better target location. This corresponds to a meditator thinking something like “oh, how do I get into a no-self state again, oh wait, if I try to get into a no-self state I can’t do it, so I have to stop trying to get to it… so now I am going to stop trying to get to it… wait, that is trying again, gahhhhhh.”


Google Maps trying to figure out where "turn off" is. This location isn’t quite it, but maybe it would at least be getting close?

This runs into the contradiction between the way that we often think about our minds, and the way that our minds actually work. We often have the feeling that at least some of the content in our consciousness is something that we can actively choose. Most people don’t expect to be able to choose their emotions, but at least the act of intentionally trying to do something feels like it should be under conscious control - isn’t that what intentionally acting means?

But under a multi-agent framework, “trying to do something” simply means that a subsystem is active and pursuing a particular goal. Neither the subsystem itself, nor any other subsystem, has direct access to a command which would turn that subsystem off: the choice of which subsystem to activate or keep running, happens by means of a preconscious selection process. That means that, despite it possibly going against one’s naive intuition, it is perfectly possible to consciously intend to do something while also having no conscious control over the fact that you are intending to do so.

As I noted before, there are several approaches to dealing with this problem. For example, flow states typically involve activities that are similar to the truck task, in that they do not require a sense of self. At the same time, the task is challenging enough that it requires one’s full attention: in other words, a single planning subsystem uses up the full bandwidth of consciousness, being the only one that projects content to the global workspace. If there was any spare capacity, other planning systems could project self-related thoughts at the same time (e.g. thinking about what to do after the current task is done), thus instantiating a sense of self. Thus, getting the mind into something like a flow state is one way to reduce the sense of self.

On the other hand, some situations just trigger the self-related planning machinery very strongly. In vipassana/mindfulness-style approaches, one frequently ends up creating a sense of being an observer who is detached from their thoughts and emotions. For example, a simple set of “labeling” instructions is just:

  1. Notice something in your consciousness.
  2. Give it a label, such as “seeing”, “feeling”, or “hearing”.
  3. Go back to 1.

In these instructions, the planning machinery is given a goal that it is capable of carrying out. Following these instructions does instantiate a sense of self - the planning system needs to monitor the question of “am I still labeling my experience”. However, this task constructs an experience where the “I” is merely observing other mental content, and that mental content is happening on its own.

This can be particularly useful in situations which are experienced as important or potentially threatening, as those kinds of situations tend to make goal-oriented systems kick in very strongly to help resolve the situation. For people with trauma and ongoing anxiety, this might include even situations with no immediate external concerns; such people may almost constantly be in a state of uncertainty, activating planning systems with the goal of making those unpleasant feelings go away. If one practices dispassionately observing the contents of their mind, even when the content is unpleasant, one can in effect train up a new subsystem that competes with the other subsystems in projecting content to the global workspace. (However, it needs to be noted that training the mind to closely examine unpleasant feelings may also make trauma responses worse by bringing more attention to them and interfering with the subsystems that were previously regulating the responses.)

In this, one continues the process of identifying with a self, but the thing that is being identified with shifts to a sense of someone who is just observing everything happening in the mind - which can bring relief from various unpleasant emotions. Once one gets to this kind of a state, the subsystem trained to do this can continue to further investigate the contents of the mind in fine detail… either looking at other characteristics like impermanence or unsatisfactoriness, or turning its focus on itself, to deepen the no-self realization by seeing that the observer self that it is projecting is also something that can be dis-identified with.

The meditation teacher Michael Taft describes this kind of a turn in his article on Escaping the Observer Trap:

Many traditions—especially mindfulness meditation—encourage you to observe your sensory experience in a neutral manner. Observe your breathing, observe emotions, observe thoughts, and so on, without reacting to them. This observer technique works really well because it gives you something like an outside perspective on your own experience. You can watch your own mind, your reactions, your emotions, your behavior almost from the perspective of another person, and that is tremendously useful feedback to have. It leads to equanimity, and the tremendous personal growth that mindfulness advocates are always talking about. [...]
Taking this observer stance is so useful, in fact, that many teachers stop there and do not talk about the next important step in spiritual development. But there is a hidden problem with the observer technique, which becomes obvious once you think about it. Who is the observer? Who is this person who is behind the binoculars, watching your experience from the outside? This neutral observer you’ve created over time is actually just another—albeit smaller and less neurotic—version of the ego. It’s the sense of being a person who is doing the meditating. You could also call it a meditator ego or an observer ego. Creating this neutral observer is very useful, but the goal of meditation is not to create a new meditator ego, it’s to see through the illusion of the ego entirely.
It is quite common for even very dedicated mindfulness students in observation-based traditions to get stuck in observer mode forever. I have seen it over and over in my experience. Being the observer, a neutral meditator ego, is not such a bad place to be; certainly it is much preferable to the unconscious, robotic mode of life lived without any self-reflection. However, it impedes all deeper progress toward real awakening. So the only way forward is to let go of the observer ego; to release the sense of being a person who is doing a meditation. [...]
To release yourself from the observer trap, begin by realizing that the observer, however comfortable or habitual, is still just another version of the ego. You’ve spent endless hours watching your breath and your emotions and your thoughts. Now it’s time to watch the watcher instead. You have to observer the observer. You do this, in typical mindfulness style, by carefully deconstructing the components of the observer itself.
The observer ego is constructed out of the same components as the everyday ego, but on a smaller scale. The everyday mind has thoughts about all sorts of stuff, the observer has thoughts about how the mediation is going, or how long until this sit is over. The everyday ego has emotions about all sorts of stuff, but observer has emotions about how this sit is going, or even blissful feelings of love and joy. The everyday ego has all sorts of body sensations, but the observer has a very special set of body sensations: the sensations of where he/she imagines awareness is located. [...] So to overcome the observer problem and get unstuck in your practice, closely observe the sensations (i.e. the thoughts and feelings) associated with the observer ego.

This is the second post of the "a non-mystical explanation of insight meditation and the three characteristics of existence" series. The next post in the series is "Craving, suffering, and predictive processing".

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Wow! I had written my own piece in a very similar vein, look at this from a predictive processing perspective. It was sitting in draft form until I saw this and figured I should share, too. Some of our paragraphs are basically identical.

Yours: "In computer terms, sensory data comes in, and then some subsystem parses that sensory data and indicates where one’s “I” is located, passing this tag for other subsystems to use."

Mine: " It was as if every piece of sensory data that came into my awareness was being “tagged” with an additional piece of information: a distance, which was being computed. ... The 'this is me, this is not me' sensation is then just another tag, one that's computed heavily based upon the distance tags. "

https://apxhard.com/2020/05/08/mindfulness-as-stack-frame-exploration/

Cool! I like your images, very clear and helpful. We seem to agree on basically everything. :-) I also have a predictive processing angle in a later post.

I remain perplexed as to why someone would find "get[ting] to a state where I experience no sense of self" a desirable goal. "Experiencing no sense of self" sounds like a state indistinguishable from dreamless sleep, or the consciousness of a jellyfish, or death. For all that some say "but 'no self' doesn't really mean no self", the quotes here seem to mean exactly that.

Of course, in Buddha’s day, they did not have cognitive science and a theory of neural networks

Better off for it. I don't take the neuroscience stories as anything more than modern myths. Stories, models, are not evidence.

ETA: I decided to move the rest of this into a separate comment, as it goes in a completely different direction.

I remain perplexed as to why someone would find "get[ting] to a state where I experience no sense of self" a desirable goal.

As I noted in the previous post, my intent is to talk about the relevant mechanisms, rather than to convince anybody to meditate. That said, later posts should hopefully help make the answer to this question more clear.

Also, one aspect that I think this post already suggested, was that seeing the nature of the self as constructed is seeing reality more clearly, so many people may be interested in pursuing it just out of curiosity and wanting to get a better experimental connection to how their mind actually works. (Assuming that the model that I have outlined is correct, of course.)

And to again emphasize: the goal (in most approaches) is not to get rid of the sense of self entirely. That would make you dysfunctional and capable of acting, as you point out. The goal is to see it for what it is.

"Sounds like indistuingashble from death" seems like a proper extenson of the "there is a self" view, which is capable of being wrong.

I would guess that the claim is that if you experimentally try it out it turns not to be the case and the difference to what is expected is easy when you have direct experience to compare to. However imagining before hand doesn't really help that comparison. it might be related to how the colorscientist Alice seeing red at the first sight "that is red". The theorethical confusion or clarity migth not be strongly correlated to be able to experience "that" even if one thinks its impossible and even if it from outside hard to theorethically agree what "that" is.

I have meditated, and have not experienced any of this no-self stuff. Quite the opposite. To me, "there is a self" is capable of being wrong to about the same extent and in the same ways as "there is a Sun". That is, even when it turns out not to be what you thought it was, it still adds up to normality. I still get warmed by the Sun.

As to what it does turn out to be, I find Gurdjieff's account more convincing than neo-Buddhism, and the exercise of self-remembering more fruitful than what I might unkindly call self-forgetting.

That is, even when it turns out not to be what you thought it was, it still adds up to normality.

Lots of (neo-?)Buddhists would agree with this, FWIW. "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

Verification here is difficult as one can always use a "you didn't do it right " type of argument. I think an analogous claim would be "it would be totally dark if there were no sun" which does not hold true as there would still be starlight if the local system didn't have fusion reactions.

Also heat in the sense of caloric theory doesn't really exist and there is nothing mystical about that but the "common notion" of heat as ontological basic doesn't hold. Yes your hand gets a tingly feeling and that still happens. I would also think that if I said that Ra exists even if it added to the same picture as the sun the differences would be appriciable enough that it is not mere technical details. Some very naive conceptions of sun might say that sun raises into the sky from east and sets to the west. That is pointing to a real goins on but there are grounds to say that the sun doesn't move (sun moves earth still vs earth moves sun still). So from a certain point of view it is true that the sun never sets despite there being sunsets.

I think there is also not much claims of supranormal things, so adding up to normality doesn't do much anything. Nobody is claiming that seeing doesn't happen even if it is disputed whether there is a self that sees. A fusion reaction thoery of sun says that nuclear weapons should be possible while a earth stationary sun mobile theory might not agree, but that is a disagreement in a place that is less observed outside of "normality".

Haven't read the article fully, but I'm familiar with the general ideas presented thus far, one of the most philosophically naive is one I've also heard in various ways from loch Kelly, sam harris and douglas harding:

looking at the world from behind their eyes; but they are actually aware of the sensation, as opposed to being aware from it. It is a computational representation of a location, rather than being the location itself. Still, once this representation is fed into other subsystems in the brain, those subsystems will treat the tagged location as the one that they are “looking at the sense data from”, as if they had been fed a physical map of their surroundings with their current location marked.

Here you're basically switching phenomenological frameworks to perform a magic trick.

Either "the world" exists, truly exists outside my brain and then there is "something looking out at the world" and that representation is correct.

OR

"The world" is just "inside my brain", but that world the includes the physical representation of my body, which is part of it, and that physical representation is still "outside and looking out at the world".

Both these viewpoints can be correct, simulateneously, they are different perspectives in which you can collapse the concept of "the outside world".

But shifting between the two without taking into account that a shift between two unreconcilable perspectives has happened, is missing a VERY important point.

I think that, in having to reconcile those perspectives, a lot of truth can be found, though it may be truth that doesn't exactly confirm a Buddhist worldview.

"The world" is just "inside my brain", but that world the includes the physical representation of my body, which is part of it, and that physical representation is still "outside and looking out at the world".

I'm not sure if I understand this one. How does a representation look at anything? Do you mean that there is a representation of the representation looking at the world?

(To be clear, nothing that I've written is meant to imply that an external world wouldn't exist.)

I'm not sure how to make it more clear, I can suggest rereading your own words again and trying to see if you can spot any inconsistency.

Could you give me a paraphrase of what you think my argument is? Your expression "switching levels of solipsism" makes me think you're interpreting it in a way I didn't intend.

As for paraphrasing your argument, that's the thing, I can't, my point here is that you don't have an argument, you are abusing language without realizing it.

I'm not saying you're doing so maliciously or because you lack understanding of English, what I call "abuse" here would pass in most other essays but in this case, the abuse ends up throwing a bunch of unsolvable phenomenological issues that would normally raise to oppose your viewpoint under the rug.

 Let me try to give a few examples:

from behind their eyes; but they are actually aware of the sensation, as opposed to being aware from it

The English language lacks the concept of "being aware from a sensation", actually, the English language lacks any concept around "sensation" other than "experiencing it". 

"I am experiencing the world from behind my eyes" and "I am experiencing a pain in my foot" are the exact same in terms of "self" that is "having" a "sensation". This is very important, since in many languages, such as those that created various contemplative religion, "body" and "soul" are different things with "soul" seeing and "body" feeling and "self" being "soul" (I'm not a pali scholar, just speculating as to why the sort of expression above might have made sense to ancient hindus/budhists). In English languages (and presumably in English speakers, since otherwise, they'd feel the need for two terms) this idea is not present. The same "I" is seeing the world and experiencing pain.

Maybe you disagree, fine, but you have to use an expression that is syntactically correct in the English language, at least, instead of saying:

being aware from a sensation

This is a minimum amount of rigor necessary, it's not the most rigorous you can get (that would be using a system of formal logic), but it's the minimum amount of rigor necessary.

***

Another example, more important to your overall argument but the mistake here is less suttle:

It is a computational representation of a location, rather than being the location itself

First, very important, what is "It", the subject of this sentence, try to define "It" and you see the problem vanishes or the sentence no longer makes sense. But one way you can see this is by examining the phrase: 

"being the location itself"

A {location} can't {be}, not in the sense you are using {be} as {conscious as the}.

***

Etc, these sort of mistakes are present throughout this paragraph and neighboring ones, and I think they go unnoticed because usually, it's acceptable to break a few syntactic rules in order to be more poetic or fast in what you're communicating, but in this case, breaking the rules of syntax you end up subtly saying things that make no sense and can make no sense no matter how much you'd try to make them so. Hence why I'm trying to encourage you to try to be more explicit. 

First, just try to put the whole text into a basic syntax checker (e.g. Grammarly) and make it syntactically correct, and I'm fairly sure you will be enlightened by this exercise.

***

I'd speculate that the generator of the spelling mistakes is the fact that you are subtly shifting in your thinking from a perspective that says "An external world exists in a metaphysical way completely separated from my brain" and one that says "Everything in the external world, including my body, is an appearance in consciousness". And while both of these views are valid on their own, using both viewpoints in a unified argument is ignoring a few "hard problems of {X}".

But maybe I'm mistaken that this is what you are doing, I can't see inside your mind. However, I am fairly certain that simply try to be syntactically correct will show you that whatever you are trying to express makes no sense in our language. And if you try to go deeper, blame the language, and abstract it with a system of formal logic... then you will either run into an inconsistency or became the most famous neuroscientist (heck, scientist) in the history of mankind.  

I appreciate the extended reply!

The English language lacks the concept of "being aware from a sensation", actually, the English language lacks any concept around "sensation" other than "experiencing it".

Not sure if I'm understanding you correctly, but that sounds like it might be part of the exact issue I'm pointing at? That the concept of a sensation is something that one experiences ("being aware of"), but that in the phenomenological experience something happens to make the experience into one of something that we don't have a word for ("experiencing from") - and which doesn't even really make sense when you think about it.

I acknowledge that "being aware from a sensation" isn't an expression that exists, in standard English - exactly because the concept is incongruent. But if I am trying to suggest that the mind tends to create an experience that is logically impossible when you think about it, I'm not sure how to do that without using an expression that doesn't exist in standard English exactly because we don't usually talk about logically impossible things?

When you say that I am making mistakes that usually go unnoticed because they don't usually matter so we don't pay close attention - that's kind of similar to what I'm saying is happening in the mind. That the mind usually makes some mistaken assumptions which generally go unnoticed because one doesn't stop to closely examine them, but once one does start closely examining their own experience, one may start noticing something odd.

Often what happens is that the confusion kind of shifts around - since the mistaken assumption implies a logical impossibility, an attempt to look at it shifts the assumption to a slightly different location, that you are not currently looking at... but you can at least become aware of the fact that your experience was just modified on-the-fly to hide the logical inconsistency, and if you move your attention to where the inconsistency relocated, it moves again

Alternatively, the system can try to correct the inconsistency by flipping into a state that genuinely doesn't have it, in a way that puts you into something of an altered state of consciousness. But if you stop looking for the inconsistency, it's easy to flip back into one that does have it.

First, very important, what is "It", the subject of this sentence, try to define "It" and you see the problem vanishes or the sentence no longer makes sense.

The 'it' was defined in the immediately preceding sentence so I'm a little confused by this suggestion, but I can define it in the sentence itself too:  "The sensation of looking at the world from behind your eyes is a computational representation of your location, rather than being the location itself."

Hmm... thinking about your comment about two different levels, it occurs to me that what you could interpret me to mean by such a sentence would be something like

"The sensation of looking at the world from behind your eyes is a computational representation of your location (appearance in consciousness), rather than being the location (external world) itself"

or some similar mixing of two perspectives. If so, I don't think that I am mixing the levels; rather, this is intended to stay solely on the level of "everything in the external world is an appearance in my consciousness". Here's an attempted rewrite of the sentence to avoid the possibility for ambiguity:

"The sensation of looking at the world from behind your eyes is a computational representation of the location from which you are viewing that what you are seeing, but since the sensation is embedded in 'that which you are seeing', your actual perspective - to the extent that "perspective" is a meaningful term - must be external to the sensation of looking at the world."

Grammarly seems to clear that paragraph as syntactically correct. :)

I can't say something is right or wrong or probable unless I have a system of logic to judge those under.

Language is a good proxy for a system of logic, though sometimes (e.g. math and science) it's not rigorous enough. But for most discussion it seems to do kind of fine.

If you are introducing new concepts that can't be expressed using the grammar and syntax of the English language, I'm not sure there's a point in discussing the idea.

Using new terms or even syntax to "reduce" a longer idea is fine, but you have to be able to define the next terms or syntax using the old one first.

Doesn't that seem kind of obvious?


Just to be clear here, my stance is that you can actually describe the feeling of "being self" in a way that makes sense, but that way is bound to be somewhat unique to the individual and complicated.

Trying to reduce it to a 10 word sentence results in something nonsensical because the self is a more complex concept, but one's momentary experience needn't be invalid because it can't be explained in a few quick words.

Nor am I denying introspection as powerful, but introspection in the typical Buddhist way that you prescribe seems to simplist to me, and empirically it just leads to people contempt with being couch potatoes.

If you tried solving the problem, instead of calling paradox based on a silly formulation, if you tried rescuing the self, you might get somewhere interesting...or maybe not, but the other way seems both nonsensical (impossible to explain in a logically consistent way) and empirically leads to meh ish result unless your wish in life is to be a meditation or yoga teacher.

If you tried solving the problem, instead of calling paradox based on a silly formulation, if you tried rescuing the self, 

Why do you say that I'm not trying to solve the problem? Solving the problem is much of what this sequence is about; see this later post in particular.

Well, suppose you had never seen the color red, and I wanted us to have a discussion of what red looks like. You would tell me that in order to know what red looks like, I need to first define it in terms of the concepts you are already familiar with.

This makes sense, but if we had to do that with every concept, it wouldn't work, because then we wouldn't have any concepts to start out from. And if you've never seen anything reddish, I can't give you an explanation that would let you derive red from the concepts you are already familiar with.

So instead I might tell you "see that color that my finger is pointing at? That's red." And then you could look, and hopefully say "oh, okay, I get it now."

I'm trying to do the same thing here. Of course, the problem is, I'm trying to point at an aspect of internal experience, rather than anything in the external world.

But I've done the best I can to give you pointers towards the thing that I expect to be found within your experience if you just know where to look. To extend the color analogy, this is as if I knew there was a line of increasingly reddish objects arrayed somewhere, and I told you to go find the first object and follow along the line and watch them getting increasingly red, and then at the end, you would know what red looks like.

You said that the Kaj/Harris/Kelly/etc. thing is a rather bad philosophy. It is if you evaluate it in terms of a philosophy that is supposed to have a self-contained argument! But that's not its purpose - or at least not the starting point. The purpose is to give you a set of instructions that are hopefully good enough to point out the thing it's talking about, and then when you've looked at your experience and found it, you'll get what the rest is trying to say.

Your metaphor doesn't quite work, because you are trying really hard to show me the color red, only to then argue I'm a fool for thinking there is such a thing as red.

As in, it might be that no person on Earth has such a naive concept of subjective experience, but they are not used to expressing it in language, then when you try to make them express subjective experience in language and/or explain it to them, they say

  • Oh, that makes no sense, you're right

Instead of saying:

  • Oh yeah, I guess I can't define this concept central to everything about being human after 10 seconds of thinking in more than 1 catchphrase.

But again, what I'm saying above is subjective, please go back and consider my statement regarding language, if we disagree there, then there's not much to discuss (or the discussion is rather much longer and moves into other areas), because at the end of the day, I literally can not know what your talking about. Maybe I have a vague impression from years of meditation as to what you are referring to...or maybe not, maybe whatever you had in your experience is much more different and we are discussing two completely different things, but since we are very vague when referring to them, we think we have a disagreement in what we see, when instead we're just looking in completely different places.

Your metaphor doesn't quite work, because you are trying really hard to show me the color red, only to then argue I'm a fool for thinking there is such a thing as red.

No? I am trying to point you to something in your subjective experience, exactly because it is something that exists in your experience, and which seems like an integral part of how minds are organized. I'm definitely not going to argue that you are a fool for having it, because by default everyone has it.

As in, it might be that no person on Earth has such a naive concept of subjective experience, but they are not used to expressing it in language, then when you try to make them express subjective experience in language and/or explain it to them, they say

  • Oh, that makes no sense, you're right

Instead of saying:

  • Oh yeah, I guess I can't define this concept central to everything about being human after 10 seconds of thinking in more than 1 catchphrase.

But my claim is not "there's a concept in your experience that you can't define in words"... I defined it in words in my article! I even explained it in third-person terms, in the sense of "if a computer program made the same mistake, what would be the objectively-verifiable mistake in that."

I am just saying that while the mistake is perfectly easy to define in third-person terms, I cannot give you a definition that would directly link it up to your first-person experience. Because while words can be used to point at the experience, they cannot define the experience in a way that would create it

We can see where a computer program that committed this mistake would go wrong, but we do not see ourselves from a third-person perspective, so I cannot give you a third-person explanation that would cause the third-person explanation and the first-person experience to link up directly. But I can suggest ways in which you can examine your first-person experience, and then when you have the third-person explanation, the two can link up.

(Note that I am explicitly deviating from the Buddhist writers who say that it's intrinsically impossible to understand what's going on. I get why they are saying that: the Buddhists of old didn't know about computers or simulations, so they didn't have a third-person framework in which the thing can be explained. But we do, and that's why I've explicitly given you the third-person framework, or at least tried to.)

A person who is shown red for the first time could also say "oh, right, that's red; you're right that I couldn't have defined it in words", but unlike your comment suggests, the "I couldn't have defined it in words" isn't the important part of the "oh". The important part is "oh, now I can assign a meaning to your sentence in a way that causes its odd syntax to make sense, and now I can think more clearly about what something like 'seeing red' means".

But again, what I'm saying above is subjective, please go back and consider my statement regarding language, if we disagree there, then there's not much to discuss (or the discussion is rather much longer and moves into other areas), because at the end of the day, I literally can not know what your talking about.

If I may ask, how much time did you spend actually following the suggestions in the post and trying to find what the thing that I'm pointing at?

It's certainly not "literally impossible". Some are lucky enough to find it the moment they are pointed towards it. Others may have difficulty, and of course, given the fact that human minds vary and some people lack universal experiences, I cannot disprove the possibility that there could some people who naturally lack this experience at all. 

But I do expect that most people can find it - maybe it takes a minute, maybe ten, maybe a year, I have no idea of what the average and the median here might be. But you have to actually try looking for it.

The English language lacks the concept of “being aware from a sensation”, actually, the English language lacks any concept around “sensation” other than “experiencing it”

English isn't a programming language. It doesn't have fixed semantics, and one of the ways the envelope can be pushed us through use of metaphor.

( 'Push the envelope' is itself a fairly recent metaphor:-

To attempt to extend the current limits of performance. To innovate, or go beyond commonly accepted boundaries.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Push the envelope'? This phrase came into general use following the publication Tom Wolfe's book about the space programme - The Right Stuff, 1979:

"One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’... [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test")

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I can reduce "pushing the envelope" to other pre existing concepts. It's a shorthand not a whole new invention (which really would make little sense, new language is usually created to describe new physical phenomenon or to abstract over existing language, maybe and exception or two exist, but I assume they are few)

So how do you communicate entirely new inventions? Or should you not?

Can you give me one example of an invention that couldn't be communicated using the language of the time ?

For example, "a barrel with a fire and tiny wheel inside that spins by exploiting the gust of wind drawn towards the flame after it consumes all inside, and using an axel can be made to spin other wheels"... Is a barbaric description of a 1 chamber pressure based steam engine (and I could add more paragraphs worth of detail), but it's enough to explain it to people 2000 years before the steam engine was invented.

I don't suppose you or be able to explain a quantum computer to a caveman.

No, and a caveman would have no use for them. 

I'd instead try to explain brick making or crop selection or reaching high temperatures using clay or maybe some geometry (?)

But if your claim is "What I have here is a technique so powerful that it's akin to inventing computing in prehistoric times"

Then it begs the question: "So why aren't you emperor of the world yet?"

a caveman would have no use for them.

That was not part of the original problem.

But if your claim is “What I have here is a technique so powerful that it’s akin to inventing computing in prehistoric times

It isnt.

That was not part of the original problem.

It is part of the problem though, it's actually THE problem here.

You can use normal language to describe anything that would be of use to me, anything relevant about the world that I do not understand, in some cases (e.g. an invention) real-world examples would also be required, but in others (e.g. a theory), words, almost by definition ought to be enough.

But anyway, as far as I can see we're probably in part talking past each other, not due to ill intention, and I'm not exactly sure how, but I was recently quite immersed reading the comment chains here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/mELQFMi9egPn5EAjK/my-attempt-to-explain-looking-insight-meditation-and && https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/tMhEv28KJYWsu6Wdo/kensh, and it seems like we're probably talking past each other in very similar ways.

It is part of the problem though, it’s actually THE problem here.

Why not say so, then?

You can use normal language to describe anything that would be of use to me

Most people don't know how their phones work.

That makes more sense if I use the term "phenomenological frameworks"

Okay. When you write this,

"The world" is just "inside my brain", but that world the includes the physical representation of my body, which is part of it, and that physical representation is still "outside and looking out at the world".

do you mean something like "Imagine that you were building a robot to navigate in a world, and to have an internal 3D representation of its location relative to its surroundings. If something like manipulation of physical objects was important for the robot, then the robot's representation of the world would also include a simulated 3D body that corresponded to its real physical body, and it would be correct to represent that body as looking at the surrounding world"?

Thanks for writing! This is far clearer than most explanations and has some helpful analogies. I think it is possible to be even clearer though, which is important for topics like this which are inherently ambiguous. For example, one place where you could have been more precise is the discussions around self-reference. Like there are such things as reflection in programming languages, so we have to be careful when saying what a process can or can't observe about itself. Additionally, multiagents systems don't necessarily imply no self - it may be that we only identify with one of the agents.

Thanks for writing! This is far clearer than most explanations and has some helpful analogies.

Thanks!

However, one place where you could have been more precise is the discussions around self-reference.

Can you be more... precise about which part of the text that you are thinking of? :-)

Additionally, multiagents systems don't necessarily imply no self - it may be that we only identify with one of the agents.

That's true: in principle a multiagent system could still have a central "self" agent. But as I noted, the argument (at least as I interpret it) isn't that "absolutely nothing like some kind of a self can be found", it's rather that "the mind doesn't work like our intuitive concept of the self would suggest". (More on this in a future post.)

Hmm, the quote that demonstrates this issue the most is: "But there is a hidden problem with the observer technique, which becomes obvious once you think about it. Who is the observer? Who is this person who is behind the binoculars, watching your experience from the outside?", but that is of course a quote rather than a peice of text you wrote yourself.

I also feel it applies somewhat to the discussion of the sense of looking out at the world from behind your eye. I think you're implying that the fact that we can observe this system implies that it is a seperate sub-agent from the system observing this sense, but reflective programs seem to demonstrate that this isn't necessarily the case.

Despite all your commentary to the contrary, I find reading this quite effective at inducing some kind of altered state.

:) I do have here some "pointing out instructions" embedded in the text; they are a thing from the nondual traditions, aimed at pointing one's attention towards aspects of experience that contradict the way the mind normally conceives it. Thus turning the hologram projector a little bit off...

I would be interested in reading more of that sort of thing, especially from people who also have decent 3rd person perspectives (or at least believe such is possible).

At least this bit

  1. Look at an object in front of you. Spend a moment simply examining its features.
  2. Become aware of the sensation of being someone who is looking at this object. While letting your attention rest on the object, try to notice what this sensation of being someone who is looking at the object feels like. Does it have a location, shape, or feel?

and some of the map discussion following it was inspired by the "mindful glimpses" in The Way of Effortless Mindfulness; this page has three more examples. If they seem like some of them work for you (they probably work better if someone reads the steps aloud for you), then the book has several more. (It also discusses some theory but that theory is mostly not very great/useful; what I found valuable was actually trying the glimpse practices.)

I've found this interview with Richard Lang about the "headless" method of interrogation helpful and think Sam's discussion provides useful context to bridge the gap to the scientific skeptics as well as to other meditative techniques and traditions (some of which are touched upon in this post). It also includes a pointing out exercise.

My experience with "structural" introspection is that either I just try to look and find nothing, or I look for something specific, in which case I can almost always find it with sufficient effort. I've tried meditation a few times and quickly stopped after not finding a way to avoid this. So naturally, I'm sceptical of this.

When I do this kind of exercise, a result that I may get is that there is the sight of the object, and then a pattern of tension behind my eyes. Something about the pattern of tension feels like “me” - when I feel that “I am looking at a plant in front of me”, this could be broken down to “there is a tension in my consciousness, it feels like the tension is what’s looking at the plant, and that tension feels like me”.
But suppose that you now get a little confused. Rather than taking the spot with red ink as indicating your location in your physical world, you take the red spot on the map to be your physical location. That is, you think that you are the “YOU ARE HERE” tag, looking at the rest of the map from the red ink itself.
But a particular tag in the sense data is not actually where they are looking at it from; for one, the visual cortex is located in the back of the head, rather than right behind the eyes. Furthermore, any visual information is in principle just a piece of data that has been fed into a program running in the brain. If we think of cognitive programs as analogous to computer programs, then a computer program that is fed a piece of data isn't really "looking at" the data "from" any spatial direction.

I tried the exercise. I didn't know what you expected, but my idea of "noticing myself looking" is a model, so I found something like seeing myself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective. I think I could reproduce your result, but I'm writing this the day after, and now that Im no longer tired I have to create the tension on purpose.

I'm not sure I understand. If you thought you were at the red dot rather than at the location in the world it marks, wouldn't that be analogous to thinking you are the feeling of tension, rather than to thinking you are at the location that feeling indicates?

There is also a sense in which you are looking at the world from behind your eyes. Your visual image is a projection with the focal point behind your eyes. If you try the same exercise with holding something in your hand and feeling it rather than looking at something, how does that work out? I tried to do "the same thing" I did to reproduce the tension behind the eyes, and the sensation was just below my skin. I dont know if that's the "right" answer, but if it is, the fact that it's not in the head might suggest the previous result is an artifact.

The outcome seems to be that rather than identifying with the sensations of the supposed observer, one’s identity shifts to the entire field of consciousness itself (in line with the thing about a program reading a file not having any location that would be defined in terms of the file):

There are two quotes after that. The first seems congurent with what you said, but the second sounds like identifying with all the contents of consiousness rather than with the field they are in (or is that distinction not real?).

On the other hand, some situations just trigger the self-related planning machinery very strongly. In vipassana/mindfulness-style approaches, one frequently ends up creating a sense of being an observer who is detached from their thoughts and emotions.

This is what I understood "identifying with the field of conciousness" to mean, is that right? I think I can do that, but it seems it's not compatible with goal-directed action, which would require its own self-markers as described.

Once one gets to this kind of a state, the subsystem trained to do this can continue to further investigate the contents of the mind in fine detail… either looking at other characteristics like impermanence or unsatisfactoriness, or turning its focus on itself, to deepen the no-self realization by seeing that the observer self that it is projecting is also something that can be dis-identified with.

That's supposed to happen? Usually what happens in observer mode is that the "normal" conscious content runs out quickly, because as per above I can't do anything else meanwhile (or at least, I can't keep doing it on purpose). And then I just hear myself saying "..and I feel X in my hand". But that doesn't lead anywhere special, the observer just starts to have some more complicated thoughts until it takes over all the "space", and then I'm back to normal cognition.

(Sorry for the late response; I seem to have missed this comment earlier.)

'I'm not sure I understand. If you thought you were at the red dot rather than at the location in the world it marks, wouldn't that be analogous to thinking you are the feeling of tension, rather than to thinking you are at the location that feeling indicates?

Hmm, is there a difference? In that if you think that you are the feeling of tension, then logically you are also at the location of the tension.

I tried the exercise. I didn't know what you expected, but my idea of "noticing myself looking" is a model, so I found something like seeing myself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective. I think I could reproduce your result, but I'm writing this the day after, and now that Im no longer tired I have to create the tension on purpose. [...]

There is also a sense in which you are looking at the world from behind your eyes. Your visual image is a projection with the focal point behind your eyes. If you try the same exercise with holding something in your hand and feeling it rather than looking at something, how does that work out? I tried to do "the same thing" I did to reproduce the tension behind the eyes, and the sensation was just below my skin. I dont know if that's the "right" answer, but if it is, the fact that it's not in the head might suggest the previous result is an artifact.

Yes, subtle differences in how these kinds of exercises are framed produce different kinds of results. Noticing that is part of the point - if you examine one kind of experience, you may notice your brain telling you that you are in one place; if you examine another kind of experience, you may notice your brain telling you that you are in another place. Sometimes the "you" may be a feeling of tension, sometimes a feeling under your skin, sometimes a visual image. These kinds of inconsistencies suggest that a part of the experience of the self, is actually an interpretation that is constructed on the fly, rather than being fundamental in the sense that intuition might otherwise suggest.

(If you have the experience of seeing yourself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective, then a question that might be interesting to investigate is "where are you looking at the third-person image from?". Not trying to fit the answer into the model that I have explained here, nor going into any intellectual mode of analysis, but just paying attention to the experience and what the answer to that question might feel like...)

There are two quotes after that. The first seems congurent with what you said, but the second sounds like identifying with all the contents of consiousness rather than with the field they are in (or is that distinction not real?).

Good catch! I think it's basically the same, despite sounding different; I briefly say a few words about that at the end of a later post.

This is what I understood "identifying with the field of conciousness" to mean, is that right? I think I can do that, but it seems it's not compatible with goal-directed action, which would require its own self-markers as described.

It's possible to get into states where you have this to at least some extent, but there's also some goal-directed action going on; and you are identifying with a process which is observing that goal-directed action, rather than getting pulled into it.

That said, I don't want to say anything about what is "supposed" to happen, because that easily creates craving to experience the thing that's supposed to happen, and then craving warps the experience to make you see what it thinks that the thing will look like, which may not be the same thing. (See the next post about craving.) It's often better to not have very strong expectations, and just keep investigating what seems to happen when you do different things...

Sorry for the late response

No problem.

Hmm, is there a difference? In that if you think that you are the feeling of tension, then logically you are also at the location of the tension.

Yes, there is a difference between the location of the tension and the location of the feeling of the tension. The location of the tension is behind my eyes, the location of the feeling is... good question. Somewhere in my head; ask neuroscience. The tag (=dot) can only be added to the feeling, since only that is mental, so that would have to be the "map". By analogy: If I go put the map into my bag, the location of the red dot moves, but the location it indicates doesnt. If I turn my head, the location of the feeling (presumably) moves, but the location of the tension only coincidentally moves because its physically connected. If it's a tension on my hand instead, then it wouldnt move.

These kinds of inconsistencies suggest that a part of the experience of the self, is actually an interpretation that is constructed on the fly, rather than being fundamental in the sense that intuition might otherwise suggest.

I dont disagree with this, but more because I think almost everything is like that. Or do you mean something that wouldn't be true of e.g. detecting objects? My point was that when feeling a thing in the hand, the method would locate your "self" in the hand. But noone beliefs their self is in their hand, not even intuitively. Therefore, those sensations are not a sense of self, it only seemed that way because the visual version made sense by coincidence.

If you have the experience of seeing yourself staring at the thing from a third-person perspective, then a question that might be interesting to investigate is "where are you looking at the third-person image from?".

On my left side 1.5-2m from me at the same height as my head. But I dont think thats helpful, its again just the focal point of that visual field, and it's an imagined picture anyway, so that point isn't in regular space-time.

Good catch! I think it's basically the same, despite sounding different; I briefly say a few words about that at the end of a later post.

I think I understand. The self-tag applies to experiences, so identifying with the plane would mean tagging your model of the plane. But in the Truely Enlightened state you should be aware of the tagging, and so only identify with experiences?

It's possible to get into states where you have this to at least some extent, but there's also some goal-directed action going on; and you are identifying with a process which is observing that goal-directed action, rather than getting pulled into it.

How would that process plan without self-markers? Maybe they could be self-markers but not "yours", but there'd need to be some more explanation of that.

Thanks for writing this post! Your writing helps me a lot in tying together other's claims and my own experiences into a more coherent model.

As Richard_Kennaway points out in their comment, the goal of insight meditation and 'enlightenment' is not necessarily the same as the goal of rationality (e.g. instrumental rationality/shaping the world's future towards a desired goal seems a part of rationality but not of 'enlightenment' as far as I can tell). I would be very interested in your opinion of how instrumental rationality relates to insight meditation and enlightenment.


My knowledge around this topic is admittedly weak, but the points where my introspection differs from your description might still be interesting:

  • When I introspect on my sense of self, my results are that it does stem from a quite localised part of my mind instead of being generated by different parts at different times*
  • Exploring the self-generating part of my mind led me to think that it can be somewhat described as a consciousness-level goal-setting system. The system's decisions (of endorsement or rejection) can fuel mental processes which gives them the felt property of identity. I think that the goal-setting property fits nicely with the finding that it is not part of one's problem-solving mind, but still a central aspect of the conscious experience. [EDIT: I just noticed that the 'player' description of Player vs. Character: A Two-Level Model of Ethics seems to point at the same experience]

__

*In the sense of: The source is always in the same localised part of my mind – the feeling of self does extend to different parts of my mind in different situations.

I do think that this stuff is relevant for instrumental rationality as well; we'll get to the details of how once I start talking about unsatisfactoriness / craving in the next post.

Wonderful!

By the way, this...

So, the rake that I was holding in my hands was me.

...reminds me of the "extended phenotype" idea.

[Note: this was previously part of another comment on this post, but I decided it's more appropriate as a separate comment.]

For a different take on "self", "doing", "consciousness", "decision", etc., I suggest the works of Gurdjieff, his students, and their students. His students are all now dead; we are in the generation of his spiritual grandchildren. This may be the meaning of the title of his magnum opus, "Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandchildren", a book I would disrecommend anyone from reading as their first introduction to the material, lest they prematurely dismiss it as lunatic ravings. Only throw it at the wall after you understand why he wrote it like that.

I have some slight acquaintance with his system through these works and have had some contact with Gurdjieff groups, online and offline, but I am not currently a member of one, nor have I any wish to boom The Work (as it is known in those circles) as the answer. But I think it makes an interesting contrast and corrective to the neo-Buddhism prevalent in rationalist circles. It is at least an answer.

According to Gurdjieff, man is almost universally asleep. What he takes to be waking consciousness is a state of mechanicity, a state in which he cannot truly do, cannot truly be. He uses the image of a horse-drawn cab, where there is a horse, and a carriage, and a cabbie, but no master sitting in the carriage to direct it where it should go. That absent master is the higher self that can, in principle, be attained to. But this can only be done through arduous work upon oneself. And since one cannot do, the ordinary person has no hope of ever doing such work, unless they happen to come in contact with someone further advanced than themselves, who can help them forwards, or if not that, a group of people of a similar level, who can work with each other until such time as they can contact a higher influence.

What this work consists of, you will actually find very little of in the most primary texts (Gurdjieff's writings and those of Ouspensky and some of his other early followers). Exercises were given in his groups, but he always stressed that when he gave someone an exercise it was for the particular needs of that individual, and it would be useless for anyone else to merely imitate them, as if one were to notice a doctor prescribe someone a medicine and take the same thing oneself. There are published volumes of transcripts of some of his meetings, that include some of these instructions.

There are two initial practices for everyone, that are often mentioned but seldom described. They are called "self-remembering" and "self-observation". As best as I can determine, self-remembering means what I have called awareness of one's own presence. Always (or in as sustained a manner as one can manage) dividing one's attention between whatever one is doing and one's awareness of doing that. Self-observation is the act of observing one's own workings (brought into one's attention by self-remembering), and seeing thereby in detail one's own mechanicity. The first evidence of mechanicity one may observe is how easily one fails to maintain self-remembering. There are other more specific exercises, such as maintaining awareness of your right foot for the next ten minutes, while continuing with other things at the same time. You can try that one right now, without even pausing from reading this.

These can be practiced on a meditation cushion, but should mainly be practised in daily life. Sitting in meditation, in G's view, is useless, indeed harmful. It merely deadens the mind.

Akrasia is much spoken of in the rationalsphere: this is an example of mechanicity. For a real person, one who has developed a higher self, there is no akrasia. That person can do. The ordinary person cannot. He is pushed this way and that by every external nudge, unaware and asleep, a cab-driver who thinks he is the master of his cab but has no real direction.

The goal of Buddhism seems to be to destroy what little sense of self one has. The aim of Gurdjieff's teaching is the opposite: to acquire a real self.

For references, the Wikipedia article on the Fourth Way seems a fair place to start looking.

The way I interpret your comment, is that Gurdjieff's work involves practices associated with developing and strengthening one's self and consciousness. From this description at least, it's not obvious to me that no-self practices and Gurdjieff's teaching would necessarily be in conflict. Rather their relationship sounds more like the relationship between different Buddhist yanas:

“Yana” means “vehicle.” A yana takes you from one place to another, spiritually. Which yana you should use depends on where you are and where you want to go. A submarine is a good way to get from shore to the bottom of the ocean. It is a bad way to get from Denver to Chicago. An airplane would be better. You can use an airplane to get to the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t recommend it.
In the same way, yanas are incompatible. They are all valid, but you can only use one at a time. Each yana has a few fundamental principles, which are entirely different.
When you read a Buddhist book or web page, or hear a Buddhist talk, it is critical to know which yana is acting as the framework of the discussion. A statement based on the principles of one yana often appears false or nonsensical if you try to understand it using the principles of another yana. This leads to serious confusion, or even yana shock. [...]
The Buddhist perspective is that the contradictory statements of the various yanas are not a problem, because they are methods, not ultimate truths.

Likewise, it might very well be that deconstructing the self and strengthening and constructing a stronger self are in some sense opposite processes, so that you cannot do both at the same time. But that doesn't mean that you couldn't interleave them, or first do one and then use that as a base for doing the other better.

For the sake of analogy, suppose that I'm interested in building an engine to a car. Problem is, I don't know anything about car engines. So I start out by acquiring existing engines, taking them apart, and seeing how they work. After I have done that, I am in a better position to build an engine of my own.

I feel like self-related practices are similar. If I don't understand how my self works and how it is constructed, then that will limit my ability to change it. But if I first take it apart, examine how it works, release existing constraints, etc., then I am in a much better position to afterwards reconstruct it and create a stronger self in its place.

Certainly my experience has been that there have been many aspects of myself which I have taken to be fixed - I've thought that "this is what I'm like and must be". Later on I've done practices which made me realize that I don't have to be that way. In this respect, it feels like noticing those aspects of me which are not self, help me better choose what is my true self - because I am no longer constrained by contingent factors that I took to be essential.

While I am not terribly familiar with Buddhist tantra, David Chapman's writings about it give me the impression that the relationship between no-self practices and tantric practices has a similar relationship, with no-self -type practices being considered a prerequisite for tantric ones. First you do practices aimed at understanding the ways in which the self is constructed; then when you understand this, you are liberated from an overly narrow view of what you need to be, and can more flexibly reshape yourself and your relation to others.

> The goal of Buddhism seems to be to destroy what little sense of self one has.

very common belief, I think it is a misconception based on mixture of Buddhist memes with nondual traditions (that predate Buddhism, vedics etc.)

One of the goals is to clearly perceive what it is your mind is doing when it is 'selfing.' When clear perception is achieved some things tend to change just because it is obvious that the default way is slightly off. Believing that this then turns into a state equivalent to dreamless sleep or something like that means conflation between selfing and consciousness is happening, which seems perfectly reasonable from within the selfing frame. It's also why ego death is called ego death. Feels like dying, like oblivion is lurking just on the other side of letting go. Selves think if you aren't selfing you are dead. From the other side, it's equally obvious that this isn't true and that it is a belief which was causing suffering (for more than one reason).

One of the goals is to clearly perceive what it is your mind is doing

This is also the purpose of the Gurdjieff practice of self-observation. But what people find is strongly influenced, even determined, by what the teachers have told them that they will find. This despite that Buddhism and Gurdjieff both enjoin the student to verify these things for themselves. Neo-Buddhism seeks to free one from the illusion of self, after which, well, what? The Gurdjieff work says that after piercing the illusion that in one's ordinary state one can do or be, more is possible, that there is a higher self that one can work towards.

neo-budhism is straightforwardly wrong. In the discourses a doctrine of no-self is called out as in error. Look at the 4 noble truths, the eightfold path, the twelve links of dependent origination, the law of karma, the 7 factors of enlightenment, etc etc, examine any actual doctrine of buddhism and no-self isn't found as a tenet. Some non-dual practices (which involve the collapse of the selfing function) are advised as tools in various places.

Certainly what I have been calling neo-Buddhism (i.e. B as received in the West) differs from traditional Buddhism. (I have found David Chapman's writings on this subject very informative.) But which, if either, is right? In the absence of any way to see inside each other's minds, everyone must explore their own territory alone.

I'm still not sure what you mean by the feeling of having a self. Your exercise of being aware of looking at an object reminds of the bouba/kiki effect: The words "bouba" and "kiki" are meaningless but you ask people to label which shapes are bouba and which are kiki in spite of that. The fact they answer does mean they deep down believe that "bouba" and "kiki" are real words. In the same way, when you ask me being aware of being someone looking at an object, I may have a response -- observing that the proposition "I am looking at my phone" is true, contemplating the simpleminded self-evidence of this fact, thinking about how this relates to the points Kaj is trying to make -- and there may even be some regularities in this response I can't rationally justify. Nonetheless this response is not a feeling of a self, nor is it something I am mistakenly confusing with a self -- any conflation is only being made from my attempt to interpret an unclear instruction, and is not a mistake I would make in regular thought.

A related point is that the word "self" is so rarely used in ordinary language. The suffix "-self", like "myself" or "yourself", yes, but not "self". That's only said when people are doing philosophy.

Hmm, not sure what to say here. To check, when I write that

In my daily experience, it generally feels like there exists a distinct “me”. There is someone, an “I” who sees what I see, hears what I hear, feels what I feel. It feels like I can generally make choices, consider information, act according to my best judgment. It feels that there’s a meaningful sense in which the same me existed yesterday, and will continue to exist tomorrow. If you were to make a copy of me that was atom-to-atom identical, I might intuitively feel that there would exist a distinct difference between the original me and the copy. We might be exactly identical and act exactly the same, but there would still be a different experiencer.

Then does any of that match your experience?

My main point of disagreement is the way you characterize these judgements as feelings. With minor quibbles I agree with your paragraph after substituting "it feels" with "I think". In your article you distinguish between abstract intellectual understanding which may believe that there is no self in some sense and some sort of lower-level perception of the self which has a much harder time accepting this; I don't follow what you're pointing to in the latter.

To be clear, I do acknowledge to experience mental phenomena that are about myself in some sense, such as a proprioceptive distinction between my body and other objects in my mental spatial model, an introspective ability to track my thoughts and feelings, and a sense of the role I play in my community that I am expected to adhere to. However, the form of these pieces of mental content is wildly different, and it is only through an abstract mental categorization that I recognize them as all about the same thing. Moreover, I believe these senses are imperfect but broadly accurate, so I don't know what it is that you're saying is an illusion.

Altough buddhism does a good job showing there is no such thing as a homunculus/controler self, i don't think it succeeds at showing there is no-self at all.

The minimal-self (by philosopher Zahavi) survives to the buddhist via-negativa imho " In several books and articles, Zahavi has defended the existence and significance of pre-reflective self-consciousness, and argued in favor of the idea that our experiential life is characterized by a form of self-consciousness that is more primitive and more fundamental than the reflective form of self-consciousness that one finds in various kinds of introspection.[1][2][3] More generally speaking, Zahavi has spoken out against different reductionist approaches to consciousness, and insisted on the theoretical significance of subjectivity and the first-person perspective.[2][4] " https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Zahavi#Pre-reflective_self-consciousness_and_the_minimal_self

It's nothing but the "meeness", first-personal "experiencing" of experience itself.

And if you exclude any self, the path of buddhism itself doesn't make any sense. Why would i go to such extreme lengths engaging in practices and studies to liberate another momentary self that will rise another second from now but won't be me ? Who makes the insight that there is no-self ? Who is liberated ? Sutras like the diamond sutras make some attempt to answer those paradoxes, but the attempt is unsuccessful IMHO.

As I noted in the beginning of the article, the argument (at least as I interpret it) isn't that "absolutely nothing like some kind of a self can be found", but rather that "the mind doesn't work like our intuitive concept of the self would suggest". (More on this in a future post.)

Do you think science will soon find the answer regarding open individualism, or closed I.? regarding which one of the two is closer to reality?

Also;would open individualism imply monism? (non-duality)

I don't think that there's any fact of the matter, but we can certainly come to understand what it is that makes people feel that one of those is more correct than the others.