The Two Sides of the Self

Who are we really? What is the self? One view is we’re not our thoughts but exist apart from them while another is we are entirely our thoughts and nothing else. Which if either is right?

It’s possible for both to be true. It’s not the descriptions that are confused – each is self-consistent and accurate – but the terminology. There are two different selves that have to be dis-entangled.

It’s quite natural to make the mistake of using the active thinking self – perhaps the only one we’ve ever really known – to access the passive experiencing one that we aspire to. This is soon found to be self-defeating and many will not get beyond this block and instead try out hypnotic techniques like chants and mantras or even just give up entirely.

The personal self is only transient short-lived thoughts while the experiencing self watches and exists without the necessity of thinking at all. Through mindfulness meditation and awareness the experiencing self emerges as the personal self dissolves and vanishes – at least at times. By flickering between such modes of being it’s discovered that what’s commonly called “self-consciousness” is actually a lack of consciousness.

The role of the personal self – which has a legitimate purpose – is to set the framework, to take us to the foot of the mountain but the final steps have to emerge independently. Many times – particularly at times of stress and disturbance – these steps will falter and we have to be content with merely reinforcing an empty framework, forming ourselves around the shape of pure observation.

Understanding as art and science