Who are we really? What is the self? Are we entirely our thoughts and nothing else or would we exist even apart from them? 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.
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.
It’s quite natural to make the mistake of trying to use the active thinking self – perhaps the only one we’ve ever really known – to access the passive experiencing one that we’ve heard about and 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 endeavor of knowing ourself is quite unlike any other we’ve encountered in life before. Experience will not help us here. It’s not one of the subject-object daily tasks that we’re so used to but one where pure observation erases any such dividing line and makes mechanical thinking and action quite useless.
The role of the personal self – which is a legitimate one – is to set the framework, to take us to the foot of the mountain but the final steps have to come about 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 attention even if not wholly inhabiting it.
The reason for the existence of a meditative lifestyle is not the elimination of personal thought which even if harmful at times has its place but to bring balance to our cerebral existence, to dust off the cobwebs of unused potential, to give light and vision to a narrow outlook.