Stage Three – Living with No Self
Reviewed and updated: February 2019
Just to clarify my position with respect to labels. Firstly, I live a life that still involves an element of self so although I use the ‘no–self‘ expression in this chapter it is only reflective of the greatly reduced influence of the self when compared to before and it isn’t intended to give you the impression that I have reached a final no-self destination if indeed that is a staging post on this journey. I nearly called this chapter ‘Living with Less-Self‘ but having qualified this aspect at the beginning I think we are good to go.
I say that I haven’t reached any final destination, because I believe that after what I call Stage Two and The Transition there are two further steps to the final destruction of the self in all its forms, which reveals the Truth. The first of these I know something about and it is a greatly reduced influence of the mind package on life, which is dramatically transforming but not the end game. This is where I currently reside.
There is maybe one more interim stage and this is the process to reach a complete loss of self-identity, which then maybe eventually reveals the final destination – realising or becoming the Truth. I won’t go into more detail here because since writing these words I have found some references Bernadette makes to the stages beyond the no-self, and I have some thoughts of my own and I will write about these in a separate chapter called Where to Next.
In her book Journey to Truth my mother Amy wrote:
I thought this morning that it is just as well that we have little idea of what we are asking when we start the search for Truth because it is so tremendous, so unbelievable, and the changes that have to be undergone on all levels take so much living.
Bernadette Roberts also talks about the fundamental changes that occur:
I took for granted the self was the totality of being; body and soul, mind and feelings; a being centred on God (Truth), its power-axis and still-point.
Because this was the limit of my expectations (and experiences), I was all the more surprised and bewildered when I came upon a permanent state in which there was no self, not even a higher self, a true self or anything that could be called a self.
So, what does all this no-self stuff mean? Why would we want to have the self dissolved (although this may not be a voluntary choice – it was a total surprise to me in the same way it was for Bernadette!) and what would life look like if it that happened? This poem extracted from Amy’s book quoting a Buddhist master called Shabkar writing about the no-self state provides a useful insight:
When one looks at one’s own mind (looking for a ‘me’ after the loss of self identification – Tony) – the root of all phenomena – there is nothing but vivid emptiness, nothing concrete there to be taken as real.
It is present as transparent, utter openness, without outside, without inside – an all pervasiveness without boundary and without direction.
The wide-open expanse of the view, the true condition of the mind, is like the sky, like space; without a centre, without an edge, without a goal.
By leaving whatever I experience relaxed in ease, just as it is, I have arrived at the vast plain that is the absolute expanse.
Dissolving into the expanse of emptiness that has no limits and no boundary, everything I see, everything I hear, my own mind, and the sky all merge.
Not once has the notion arisen of these being separate and distinct.
In the absolute expanse of awareness all things are blended into that single taste – but, relatively, each and every phenomenon is distinct, clearly seen.
If I listed all the attributes that are now incorporated into my Stage Three they would read as a weird bunch of changes, some of which I wouldn’t have selected to put on my life’s to-do list. They include:
- The loss of connection with my conscious historical memory and imagined future;
- A silent mind (not the type of silence you might think. I explain this later);
- A dissolving of the mind created self-identity (the Tony Eastmead package), that gave me such a strong feeling of duality and separateness while supporting the rollercoaster of emotional desires and reactions to events;
- A loss of identification with an individual physical body;
- The loss of emotional responses based solely on thought-based memory and reactive conditioning, and on the plus side:
- The dominance of a state of alert stillness – living in the now.
To understand what a huge transformation this list represents it mostly incorporates all the characteristics that caused the loss of connection and sense of terror I described happening thirty years ago and the more recent panic attacks in Thailand. Recalling that reaction to my perceived reality at the time is a recognition of the amazing changes that have occurred since, as these aspects are now permanently part of the reality I live. I no longer experience transitional swings between twilight and darkness, and there has been no return to how things were in the Transition, Stage Two or before – not even for a moment and even if I wanted to take that red pill antidote I have no idea how that might be achieved. I couldn’t even give you a clear vision of what my ‘before‘ looked or felt like the transformation has been so complete.
I saw myself as unwittingly trapped without a means of escape when I realised that once the self is gone, the resultant state is irreversible; the affective system could not be resurrected. BR
I have already explained why the anxiety attacks have dissipated using my light/darkness analogy and it is this outcome which makes life on the other side bearable and, as of this moment as I type this, perfectly normal. Once a separate me stopped being the core of who I thought I was then there just wasn’t a sense of loss or fear because there is nothing left to lose and nothing left to fear.
As the distance between the two (the self and no-self experience) increases with the acclimating, accommodating process of settling down to a new way of life, the old life-with-self grows dim and fades out altogether. BR
Previously I would have thought that someone in such a state of no-self would be like a zombie or less a person and what would be the point of living a life like that? Wasn’t the whole point of a self-development journey (if in fact you did sign up for that) to make us more of everything or more of all the good stuff anyway, resulting in an expanded life; brighter, more joyous, happier, connected, successful and so on. In Tenzin Palmo’s book Cave in the Snow she reveals the basic simplicity behind all the complications incorporated into the various spiritual disciplines, the endless books, weekend courses and YouTube clips. Tenzin writes:
It’s so simple we miss it. We think it has to be something bigger, more spectacular. What do people think spiritual development is? It is not lights and trumpets. It is very simple. It is right here and now. People have this idea that enlightenment and realisation is something in the distance – a very fantastic and magnificent happening that will transform everything once and for always. But it is not like that at all. It’s something which is sometimes so simple you hardly see it. It’s right here in front of us, so close we don’t notice it. And it’s something which can happen at any moment. And the moment we see it, there it is. It has been there all the time, but we have had our inner eye closed. When the moments of awareness all link up – then we become a Buddha.
Because we live in a mind based reality we automatically think that to reach a big life changing goal like the Truth it must involve a university degree approach with endless study, daily attendance, intellectual understanding and clearly defined milestones achieved along the way. I don’t downplay this path but as I have already written about in Stage Oe, at some point you will need to abandon the degree ‘bus’ journey’ and let the ‘divine’ guide you to the simplicity beyond the mind and self, a far harder destination to achieve.
Just as an aside, the fact that a joyous outcome the ‘lights and trumpets’ is nowhere to be seen in these final stages of this journey is one of the hardest lessons to absorb as it makes no sense when viewed through the glasses of our everyday expectations. Why would we undertake something without a positive emotional payback at the end – the fulfilment of that endless happiness objective we all crave? I will try to explain that puzzle later, based on my current understanding.
These days in Stage Three, I have acclimated to seeing the world through different eyes and having my ‘old view‘ replaced by an alternative that I had no idea even existed. As a way to start explaining this scenario I will use a quote from Bernadette:
But what sees this Oneness and knows what it sees? The eye that looks is not within, it is not of mind or body, it is not of the self…….
To show my quoting versatility I will also share this passage, which based on my actual experience nails Stage Three perfectly. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche writes in his book Rainbow Painting:
While perceiving, Buddha nature is empty of a perceiver, while being empty, there is still experience. Search for the perceiver, there is no ‘thing’ to find. There is no barrier between the two. If it were one or the other there should either be a concrete perceiver who always remains, or an absolute void. Instead, and at the same time vivid perception takes place, that which perceives is totally empty.
Both of these quotes are a bit obscure unless you directly experience the state they describe but break them down and it makes more sense. Their first shared proposition is of an observer without self-attributes – Bernadette writes: ‘the eye that looks is not within‘ and Tulku: ‘that which perceives is totally empty‘. Secondly, even though the perceiver (subject) is neutral, observation is still happening, the world doesn’t just slip into a void. Bernadette writes: ‘what sees this Oneness and knows what it sees?‘ and Tulku: ‘at the same time vivid perception takes place‘. Remember we are talking Stage Three reality here (an interim stop-over at Dubai Airport!), not the final destination, which I predict moves beyond this stage. As long as the question can still be asked ‘what sees this Oneness‘, which is an implied duality, the final destination has not been realised, which I believe is a life totally beyond the subject/object relationship even in a neutral observational role.
I was reading that the above quotation from Bernadette some time ago, whilst at my wife’s family farm in Thailand. It was a hot day so I had a fan blowing on me and it made me examine how I reacted to that physical sensation and how that related to the question ‘what sees this Oneness and knows what it sees‘. If I focussed on the now moment I was aware of air movement but I was unable to define a boundary between my skin and everything else. Although I obviously still operate within a body, which experiences all the physical sensations as before, I have very little connection with that entity as an identifiable separate me.
To take this proposition further and examine the ‘what sees’ aspect rather than the physical, when I look at myself in a mirror I cannot attach a Tony personality to the image I see. The face in the mirror and the physical me have no identity that I can identify as ‘real‘. It is as if both sides are reflections and therefore equally without definable substance. Before I had this Stage Three transformation, looking at a mirror image wouldn’t change my connection to the real me, the Tony person on my side of the mirror. The reflection was observed as literally a ‘mirror image‘, the unreal me. I knew it was me on my side because I felt separate from the reflected image. That separateness was a certainty created and supported by my self-identity, the Tony Eastmead me created by my mind. Relating this loss of separate identity to Tulku’s earlier quote, a no-self reality at this point of the journey still recognises what is observed but ‘that which perceives is totally empty‘.
I have already stated that I believe the no-self I experience is only an interim stage and debating its characteristics is pretty pointless in the bigger picture, but this chapter in the book would be short if I didn’t so I will expand on this concept!
Although there is a lack of a definable self-centre the world is still observed from a fixed point of view – my eyes. I find that there is still a centre-point around which the backdrop of the world reveals itself but I believe this too will dissolve over time (discussed in the ‘Where to Next‘ chapter). However, what my eyes see doesn’t necessarily generate all the analytical stuff that it would have before, which is a huge change and a positive one when I reflect on it.
To try and explain this can we try a small experiment, which will illustrate the way I now see the world? Close your eyes; well, please read this paragraph first and then close your eyes! Not surprisingly the internal view is one of uniform darkness. Because there is nothing that stands out individually from the void the internal ‘eye‘ remains unfocused and the total expanse of nothingness in a widescreen view. It doesn’t fix itself on one part of that blackness (the mind’s automatic search for an object) because there’s nothing identifiable standing out from everything else in view. Now look at how the mind processes this neutral state. Leaving aside its ability to create distractions in any circumstance, in this closed eyes scenario with no separate object to kick-start a corresponding thought, memory or emotion the mind is more likely to quieten or rest in stillness rather than start any analytical process. You can open your eyes now!
This is what meditation sessions used to look like for me. In my early Siddha Yoga days, the internal nothingness would most likely cause my mind to move into imagination mode creating thoughts based on memories or future projections to fill the boredom of blankness (the sort of ‘what will I have for dinner?‘ interruptions). Over time I became more proficient at meditation but the mind was still a powerful force to override the internal stillness, as any of you who have tried meditation will attest to.
One of the most unusual changes that has happened in my no-self stage is that these days I experience exactly the same meditative stillness when I look at the world with open eyes as I do with my eyes closed, except it’s more colourful. In exactly the same way as viewing the internal uniform blackness, when I observe the external world nothing stands out as an object that requires automatic analysing.
……. putting to a blessed, irrevocable end to the mind’s automatic search for an object. Thereafter the mind never made the slightest movement to ‘look‘, and in this way learned to live in the now-moment. BR
I can still see individual objects but they are like the pieces of a completed jigsaw puzzle. Each piece still retains its unique shape and attributes but once it is interlocked into the overall scene it loses its individuality and there is no analysis required by the observer to determine its potential location or relevance within the puzzle. I now observe life with every jigsaw piece in place and there is no need for the intrusion of any mind activity. Before I came across this no-self phenomenon I would be like the person who is still working on the puzzle, analysing each piece individually for its shape, and what it represented so that I could place it within the larger picture. I no longer sit in formal meditation sessions because I can realise the same state eyes open and even when I am not aware of neutrally observing, this seems mostly be my default outlook on the world.
I nowadays find that even if I do focus on a single object the associated memories or emotions that might be attached to it, in what would have been a normal mind assessment process, no longer happens. I see a red rose as a red rose but its name, shape, colour or any other attribute is not activated as an automatic thought bubble, as it would previously. Because the self is no longer involved, objects don’t require the expenditure of energy to analyse or judge, they are purely a play of shapes, colours and movement. In fact, if I focus on something and try to ‘force‘ it to become separate from its surroundings this only intensifies the experience of ‘that which perceives is totally empty‘, the internal silence strengthens and this results in the pure observational state becoming even stronger. Bernadette writes:
Gradually I notice a shift in this seeing. Where at first it had been very nebulous and general, I soon noticed that when I focused in on a flower, an animal, another person, or any particular object, slowly the particularity would recede into a nebulous Oneness, so that the object’s distinctness was lost to my mind. Visually, of course, nothing changed; the change was merely in the type of perception itself.
………….. there is no longer the perceptual ability to focus on the particular, or individual because the state of consciousness is such that whatever Is becomes the only reality seen everywhere. It’s almost like looking at the world through a veil so that objects are no longer clearly defined.
It is impossible to see the self, to remember the self, or to be self-conscious, the mind was restricted to the present moment. The more it tried to reflect back on itself, the more overpowering the silence.
Referring to the zombie outcome I wrote about earlier, you will be pleased to hear that this Hollywood scenario doesn’t apply to an altered no-self view of the world. This state of observation without analysis becomes the ‘default‘ reality of living in the now but it doesn’t remove one’s ability to function normally. I don’t look at the red rose and then find I am unable to identify what it is – the dementia factor. When an input or a reaction is required the normal responses kick in but they do so totally in the moment and focussed on that situation without any conscious reference to the past (historical memory). If you and I had a conversation about that rose I could tell you all of its characteristics, the fact that my wife planted it and she loves red roses, we have a lot more of them at home and that example was very beautiful. All of that response would be automatic without any internal structured thought, a mental reference to a time in the past or necessarily raise an attached emotion – the latter being another of the big changes resulting from this state of no-self and a separate topic in the next chapter Now Mindfulness.
The odd thing is that even as we lose those aspects that we believe make us who we are, life continues much as before. If you met me you wouldn’t find a personality that seemed disengaged or distant. From the outside, I don’t think I haven’t changed much at all. My wife Gaun doesn’t find herself living with a totally different person to the one she met six years ago, or if she does she seems to be quite happy with her new partner! This book has been written from this state of stillness , which demonstrates that on some level things are working as intended to maintain functionality. Rather, the change is my perception of the world and from my point of view, there’s no one at home – ever.
I have mentioned this before but it is worth saying again because it is such a huge milestone in the journey. This experience of no-self is the first time on my journey spanning nearly forty years that something recognisably different has happened on a permanent basis and it is this permanency that makes this such a unique situation. Previous to this I dipped into altered realities through meditation, chanting or contemplation, but I always returned to a life basically as it was. During meditation, I entered an inner world of silence and stillness, although often battling the intrusion of thoughts, and maybe touched on a sense of oneness to the exclusion of all around me. However, once I opened my eyes the world re-emerged and my mind returned to its normal role of analysing, assessing and reacting. Duality prevailed and my meditative state was quickly overwhelmed. When I compare that to now, and I have been settled into this no-self existence for over two years, there has not been one instance where I have moved out of that state. I find that the disconnect with a previous self gets deeper with passing time. To repeat Bernadette:
It is impossible to see the self, to remember the self, or to be self-conscious, the mind was restricted to the present moment. The more it tried to reflect back on itself, the more overpowering the silence.
In the next chapter, I try to give some life and reason to the way things are for me now to demonstrate how living in the now works in everyday life and why it might be beneficial.
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