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.

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

by Kaj_Sotala 19 min read8th May 202030 comments

66


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.

.

.

.

.

.

.

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".

66