It’s so easy to grab onto beliefs and ideas
that we hear from others and adopt them as the truth simply because they sound
logical, or because we look up to the person who said them, or because we are
desperate to find a solution to our discomfort and uncertainty. It’s also very
easy to turn something that begins
as a direct (genuine, immediate, firsthand, nonconceptual) experience into a
For example, someone we look up to tells us that there is no self and no free will, and so we adopt this as a new belief, a new ideology. Or maybe we discover this absence of self and free will directly ourselves. We look (with awareness, not with analytical thought) for the chooser or the thinker or the doer, and we discover directly in that moment of looking that we cannot find anyone behind our thoughts and actions, that our actions have no single point of origination that we can locate or pin down, that no actual boundary can be found between subject and object. We see this very clearly. In that moment of not finding any source or any separation or anyone at the helm, this “no self, no free will” is not merely an idea or a philosophy that we’ve read about or come to through analytical reasoning, but rather, it is something we see as plainly as we see the coffee cup on our desk. It is an undeniable, direct, experiential insight, something we know in a way that is absolutely beyond doubt.
But what we know beyond doubt is not actually any kind of mental formulation such as “no self, no free will” – it is something much less tangible. That experiential absence of a chooser or a thinker, that undivided boundlessness that was revealed, that is not something that we can grasp in the same way that we can grasp our coffee cup. That boundlessness is not an object.
But because we habitually want to get hold of something, and because we have a natural urge to communicate our discoveries, the temptation to formulate and conceptualize this discovery and turn it into an idea is very strong (and perhaps largely unavoidable). And there is nothing inherently wrong with formulating ideas, especially if we’re aware that any conceptualization is only an abstract and symbolic representation. But very often, we lose sight of this. And then before long an idea becomes a belief. Pretty soon we’re going around asserting that there is no self and no free will. We may even find ourselves becoming identified with this idea, so that we actually feel angry, threatened, defensive or self-righteous when someone disagrees. If we pick up a book that suggests that there is some kind of independent self or some kind of freedom of choice, we immediately toss the book aside. We think we know better. And perhaps deep down, we fear that our beliefs may not be right, which makes us all the more anxious to convince others as a way of convincing ourselves.
Is it possible to be aware of all of this as it happens?
We’re not trying to eliminate any of this, but simply to be aware of it, to see it clearly as it unfolds. In order to communicate, we need to formulate things into concepts and use words. This is functional. But can we engage in this activity and at the same time be aware of the dangers inherent in conceptualizing, formulating and verbalizing? (Can it be seen right now, for example, that the “we” in these sentences is a grammatical convenience and not something that can actually be found in reality?) Can we use the map without mistaking it for the actual territory, and without assuming that it is the One True Map?