Seeing Through the Illusion of Thingness

No Separate Self


People commonly believe that they have a separate self that is fixed and unchanging, an inside core that is a me.  Despite noticing that thoughts, feelings, perceptions and body sensations change every instant, it is believed that there exists a separate self that remains the same.
So one holds on tightly to this identity of a me and therefore to the mine for fear of grave loss, leaping from one imagined cliff to another.  However, that very attachment and that very strategy, perpetuates the fear.  It is a painful feedback loop and an unnecessary one, as it is driven by the illusion of the separate self.
There is no separate existence to defend.  There is no independent self that is ever separate from what happens.  The whole mirage of subjectivity depends upon countless conditions that are not subjective.  For instance, a seer could not exist without the seen.  Therefore, there is no actual seer of things.  For a seer cannot itself see.  In other words, a subject needs an object to be a subject. Both are inseparable, mutually arisen.  This also applies to thought, emotion, perception and sensation.
This is why the separate self is an illusion, why there is no independent self to be found.  What we call a self depends upon everything that is not considered to be a self. If even air or water were removed, there would be no self-essence, nature or being left over.  Whatever exists dependently, cannot also exist independently or separately.  A mind and body are dependently arisen and therefore lack independent existence, have no essence or being of their own.  Like all phenomena, they are empty of selfhood.
It can be helpful to consider this reasoning by using the example of a house.  A house depends upon wood, cement, windows, nails, etc., which further depend upon rain clouds, air, metal, minerals and so forth.  There is nothing independent that is house, that exists as its own thing.  One assumes that these parts belong to the house.  However, if the parts did belong to the house, then the house must have already existed before the parts and therefore, there must be two houses, one with parts and one without parts.  This shows how our ordinary assumptions of the way that things are believed to inherently exist are misconceived.
A good emptiness inquiry is to see if even one aspect of what is considered to represent a self, such as a feeling, emotion or physical characteristic, exists independently and is not dependent upon something else or other conditions. Thought for instance, depends upon what does not think, because thought does not exist in and of itself, with its own independent nature.  Thoughts are always thoughts of what is not thinking, including thought objects that do not themselves think.  There no subject-object division, no thinker apart from non-thinker.
There is diversity in life, but this is not a diversity of separate things, not a diversity grounded in ultimate distinctions.  Everything is like an interreflection, just as objects in dreams lack their own substance and are not self-established. And as there are no separate phenomena existing as their own things, there is not one universal essence that is its own totality either.  Being dependently arisen and thus empty, nothing can ultimately be identified or pinned down.
Being interrelated, who can say that things are truly the same or different? There are conventional appearances and the functional naming of things, but these are not self-created, nor self-enduring entities.  As everything is interdependent, rather than self-established, a self of persons and all phenomena must be empty of their own separate thingness.
Realizing emptiness is how fear is removed from the root.


14 Responses to “No Separate Self”

  1. miriam louisa

    Dear wise wonderful Susan – thank you for this post. No fantasy of separation could ever survive the clarity of your writing.

  2. Carroll Izard

    The diversity in life includes the empirical fact that my dinner does not relieve hunger in another. When I am cut, you don’t feel it the way I do, nor do you bleed.

    Such physical experience sustains the sense of our separated individuality in a way somewhat more fundamental than our appeal to reason and logic. This is a hard obstacle to overcome psychologically and would be physically dangerous should one manage to do so. – Cal

    • Jim Mooney

      This is a mistake New Agers often make – that you should walk around like a bodiless zombie and not be bothered by anything. It’s basically silly. The body is still here – the mind is still here. Adyashanti likes tennis, and Amma watches soap operas. And if someone drops a brick on your toe and you’re too dumb to jump away because “it’s all one and there is no brick,” you deserve the pain ;’)

      Before enlightenment carry wood and chop water; after enlightenment, etc.

      Except hardly anyone carries water and chops wood these days so maybe we should update the metaphors.

      • Carroll Izard

        Not two, and not one either.

        For there is no one of which you can conceive that has no parts. And it is clear that their mutual entailment belies their autonomy.

        It is rather the necessity of maintaining a perspective that is invariably unique while absorbing the wisdom teachings that intrigues this beginner’s mind.

        Even those wise enough to no longer cherish the notion of separated individuality must honor an ego perspective in order to safely cross the street. That of the wild ducks, who have apparently flow away, will not do. I say apparently because the ducks can not fly away from their perspective, nor can we.

        As such, it is the degree of ego which we must preserve that challenges my reflection, and not the ineluctable royal reason of dependant origination. – Cal

  3. Jim Mooney

    Someone who lived in a yurt all their life, away from civilization, might look at a house and not even realize it was a dwelling. They might think it was some sort of large artwork or religious structure. So even the definition doesn’t exist.

  4. Susan Kahn

    These are great arguments for diversity that you are both making and emptiness teachings are very different from others you may have encountered. This teaching recognizes and celebrates diversity. For not one thing is identical to another. Its qualification however, is that nothing is inherently different either. it does not accept the notion that diversity is the diversity of inherently separate things, as if each is born with its own essential, fixed nature or being.

    If someone cuts you, it’s true, it is different from what someone else would be experiencing, but still your pain does not arise independently, in an autonomous, self-generated way. Could the pain be separate from the object that has cut you? Can your senses feel or sense anything apart from their interrelationship with objects that are not considered you? For the pain is not in the object that has cut you, but yet it is not separate from you, from your pain. The object and the pain arise together. Your pain is also biologically and culturally conditioned through a web of interconnection.

    Inherent sameness is refuted by your great examples, but inherent difference is also incoherent. For nothing can exist as its own separate thing, cannot exist in an of itself. If your sensation of pain depends upon an object that is not literally you, then sensation is empty of its own inherent nature.

    When things are not seen as having their own fixed nature, we can then account for the changing nature of sensation. We can account for interrelationship and cause and effect processes that allow for the diversity of experience. For nothing can create itself. If it could, why would it bother. It would be redundant.

    Instead eveerything depends upon everything else, is dependently arisen, not symetrically, but in diverse, interconnected ways.

    • Carroll Izard

      The Wonder of Diversity

      Yes certainly, “this is because that is”, and to be sure, “all causal explanation has an arbitrary beginning”. – B. Russell.

      I am not other than the fleeting sensation of the pain from the cut, a contingent and empty sensation that will soon be succeeded by another, and so goes the illusory self, seeking to appropriate each feeling as “mine”. Hume would most definitely concur.

      But that cut nevertheless sustains a visceral, pre-theoretical sense of a separate self, born of evolution and highly adaptive. Separate because your placing a hand in the fire will not compel me to act with your alacrity. This is a necessary good.

      Who is other before you are born?

      Other arises in dependence upon self. Such entails a lack of intrinsic identify for both. Though equally empty, and neither the same nor different, each has her karma and continuum, existing nominally and by convention. How else might they abide?

      So this marvelous diversity, being not two and not one, may be the clearest reminder of all that “whatever is dependently arisen is (completely) free of conceptual construction”.

  5. Susan Kahn

    Very nice Cal. Yes, it is greatly emphasized in this teaching that even though everything is empty of an independent nature, that things function. And yes, the wonder of diversity! For if everything was identical, there could be no functioning, no need or ability.

    This is not a teaching that claims that nothing exists or that says that everything is mind, taking a philosophically idealist position. There are regularities, interdependent patterns to consider, conventional practicalities. An important distinction is made between how things appear and how they exist ontologically. In fact, in emptiness teachings, transcending the conventional designations that you emphasized, is seen as impossible. The realization of emptiness is recognizing conventional existence as conventional. I think we both appreciate that.

    • Carroll Izard

      Yes, that is a shared understanding, and is perfectly expressed in your words, and in those of the Heart Sutra, “Form is exactly emptiness”. There is no transcending the conventional, only an awakening from our false, deeply held ontological beliefs.

      I am pleased to see your candid rebuttal of idealism, an insight shared by Garfield as expressed in his comment:

      “The word ‘merely’ means neither that no objects exist beside names nor that their being cognized by authoritative cognition is precluded.”
      – Ocean of Reasoning

      Shall we say that objects “from their own side” are neither refuted nor posited. Certainly objects that do not exist for a subject can never be objects of knowledge. Better not to say anything , and perhaps not unlike Kantian noumena.

      Yes indeed, while appearance can not be denied, the assumptions we derive from it can. Granted a clear understanding of the object of negation, critical analysis can do exactly that. This is one of the joys of the middle way.

    • Carroll Izard

      Susan, your comment on functionality is entirely germane.

      It is often asserted in defense of an “essence” or an intrinsic identity that an entity functions, as if functionality were a “built-in” attribute or quality of that entity. Thus perhaps proving the necessarily inherent existence of the same. A more thoughtful reflection suggests that this is not the case.

      Functionality is not an intrinsic characteristic or quality of anything; it is the assertion of a relation between the phenomenon in question and “what it is not”. Without (a mandatory) reference to something other (than itself), no meaningful discussion of an entity’s functionality can ensue. It for this reason that a knife can not cut itself. Moreover, it is “sharp” only in relation to something other, and without that other sharpness simply can not be located anywhere along the blade.

      How can we justify inherent identity by appealing to other?

      And the burden of proving the entity itself is unsustainable, much less its attributes.
      For in composing a list of the parts comprising your car, broken or not, the one thing never to be found on that list will be car. And that’s why we can call it a car.

      Conversely, absent those parts we would be unwise to assert the existence of a car.
      Car can not be found among or within its basis of designation, nor can it be asserted (cogently) in their absence. The car is there, but in what way is it there?

      (Pardon the rhetorical, Susan. Only that others may wonder, as I have.)

      We tend to see things, and not their interdependency. When we are logically forced to reference to something “other” in our assertion of an essence or self, we slip into incoherence. And our grammatical and lingustic conventions are exquisitely helpful when it comes to slipping. – Cal

  6. Susan Kahn

    This is a very important clarification that you are making here. It is so easy to attribute “entitihood,” substances and natures to both gross and (along your point) more subtle considerations such as functioning, continuum, connection, etc. But they too, are “mere” abstractions as there are no true entities to enable such processes to be singled out.


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