Is the self an illusion? Do I exist?



It may help to look at what the words ‘illusion’ and ‘existence’ actually mean.



mid-14c., “act of deception,” from O.Fr. illusion “a mocking,” from L. illusionem (nom. illusio) “a mocking, jesting, irony,” from illudere “mock at,” lit. “to play with,” from in- “at” + ludere “to play” (see ludicrous). Sense of “deceptive appearance” developed in English late 14c.


‘Illusion’ simply means ‘a play’ or ‘deceptive appearance’ – not ‘non-existence’.


The self, the ‘me’, is an illusion, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it doesn’t exist in the way we imagine it to. You are not what you think you are. The ‘me’ seems to be solid and separate – a ‘thing’ at the centre of life, a separate entity running my life – in the same way that there seems to be a wave separate from the ocean – but upon investigation, those assumptions crumble. The ‘illusion’ is seen through – the wave is inseparable from the ocean.


Now, it might also help if I were a little more clear about what the word ‘existence’ actually means. In the past I used to use this without realising what it actually meant. It literally means ‘stand out’ (ex-sistere).


Does the wave ‘stand out’ of the ocean? Yes, it appears to, AND no, it doesn’t stand out in reality, because it IS the ocean. Depends on the angle from which you’re answering the question. Both are true, both are not true. The wave appears to exist, AND it does not exist – it does not exist SEPARATELY from the ocean. If it has an existence, that existence is inseperable from the whole. (And instead of the word ‘ocean’, you can use the words consciousness, beingness, aliveness, source, void, wholeness, nothing…..)



If you can’t handle paradox, time to get out of the nondual kitchen! 😉



In the same way, the ‘self’ (the story of me) only exists as a story. I never, ever found Jeff outside of a presently-arising story about Jeff. Jeff is not there ‘lurking’ in the background – the story of Jeff appears and disappears as a story.



The story of Jeff does not appear to Jeff – that would be another story! The story of Jeff simply appears.



And where does every story appear? Here, in this wide, clear open space – awareness, consciousness, Being, Life, doesn’t really matter what words you use to point here. They’re just words. Perhaps this is what some are referring to as the space of ‘no self’. You could say the story of the self arises and falls in this space pointed to by the words ‘no self’. Every story, every thought, every sensation, every form, comes and goes in this open space.


I gave up years ago believing that this could be captured in words. It’s like trying to capture water in a fishing net. The best we can do is point and know that we are only pointing.


Thoughts, sensations, sounds, do not happen to a ‘self’ – there’s no evidence for a solid central self whatsoever – they arise and fall here, as waves appear to do in an ocean. In reality, even what we call ‘forms’ are inseparable from this formless openness, this emptiness which is actually totally full. Then we cannot talk of ’emptiness’ or ‘void’ at all! The Heart Sutra says ‘Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form’. Langauge fails here, totally. It collapses.


And all language simply comes and goes in this space. All concepts of self and no self arise and fall away, leaving no trace. All concepts of duality and nonduality, choice and choicelessness, collapse. All we can do, in the end, is use words as pointers. The rest is just arguing over our favourite pointers.


Years ago, I was very certain that there was no self, and tried very hard to convince people that there was no self. I couldn’t see back then that this constant need to convince others, this sense that I was right and needed to wake others up, WAS the very self I was denying! It’s absolutely ingenious, this whole game.


Seeing the impossibility of putting this into words, the total inseparability of what I am from all that appears, the total intimacy with all impermanent forms as they arise and fall, brings much lightness and laughter. And we can still carry on debating whether or not there is a self – there’s room for that too. There’s room for everything here! So let’s play! The only question left is – what are you defending? Even the certainty that there is no self, and the need to constantly prove that to others, can simply be something else to hold onto. The ego becomes a ‘spiritualised ego’ and pretends there is no ego. “I know there is no self, and I am right, and you are wrong… and by the way, there’s no you and no me, and it really pisses me off when you think otherwise. But there’s nobody here being pissed off.” Ingenious. And totally innocent too, by the way. And it’s all available to be seen for what it is. Always.


It’s not that I believe any of this – belief doesn’t hold up for very long. This inseparability and intimacy is confirmed in every single moment, as everything appears right here, not to Jeff, but to the wide open space that holds the story of Jeff, just as the ocean ‘holds’ all of the waves that are, intimately, itself….


And the ‘play’ goes on…