Archives for posts with tag: buddhism

Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

Working With the Self Moment by Moment

Sitting at a coffee shop paying attention to my experience, I notice that my attention is resting behind my eyes; I am the observer. Now, a contraction in my chest and the thought “did they see me looking at them?” I don’t like being that self. Another moment passes and I am now the one listening to the conversation at the table behind me. So it goes moment by moment, “I” become a different part of my experience…

The experience described above is like seeing the individual frames of a movie. If we slow down the projector just enough we can notice that in fact we are watching a fast changing series of still images. The mind seamlessly translates those still frames into one continuous moving image. Similarly, the mind takes all those individual moments of identification with self-thoughts, with memories or with bodily sensations and translates them into one “phantom” experience. This phantom is what we imagine ourselves to be.

Mindful attention slows down the projector, allowing us to notice those individual moments as they scroll by one by one. This is a first step in piercing the illusion of an abiding self and the realization that my idea of who I am is in constant flux. It may not be easy to constantly keep up this practice. Fortunately, there is a sensation we can use as a reminder – the sensation of clinging otherwise known as the ‘self-contraction’.

The act of clinging is often accompanied by the somatic experience of a contraction around the heart center. We may cling to a story about ourselves, or to a fear of losing a part of ourselves. In my experience this clinging is common to many instances of holding onto a rigid sense of self, and supports the belief in this “phantom” core self. If we start looking at these moments of clinging, or contraction, more clearly, noticing when they arise and when they fade away, we may start to unravel this deeper layer of self and open up to a more fluid way of being.


We’ve looked at different ways that the experience of the self manifests in our lives. Starting with the personal sense of self, or the Ego, and the interpersonal sense of self, we saw how those parts of the psyche can be helpful as we interact with the world around us and also how they become a hindrance. We then moved on the Witness and looked at two ways to use the experience of witnessing to move towards greater freedom. Next, we got a taste of Eastern theories of self, or Atman. Finally we looked at working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self to see how we can find freedom in every moment.

It is important to remember that our goal is not to destroy the self or kill the ego (although the ego may feel that way sometimes). Rather, we are trying to reduce clinging, to create more space and to allow a more fluid engagement with our moment-to-moment experience.


Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

The Witness
Looking closely I can notice the experience that I am the one looking through my eyes; I am the one listening or thinking; I am the one all of this is happening to. I feel calm and comforted by this connection. In a world of continuously changing phenomenon I rest, safely held, in the solidity of the witness. What a relief!

The experience of the Observer, also called The Witness or sometimes The One Who Knows is exactly as its name implies, an experience of some entity sensing the world through my physical faculties. The Witness is ever-present; according to some traditions it continues even through dreams and deep sleep. Often the Ego identifies with the experience of witnessing and enhances it with an aura of agency. I’ll describe how to recognize this egoic clinging in a later section.

Just as Ego is neither good nor bad, there is nothing inherently wrong with the experience of witnessing. The problem begins when we identify with it. This ongoing process of identification supports the illusion of separateness. It keeps us apart from the world and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of experience, which is ever changing and empty of inherent solidity. Challenging this identification, therefore, can be liberating.

One way to begin unraveling the apparent solidity of the observer is by simply resting in the experience of witnessing itself. When embodying this experience as completely as possible we give up the illusion of solidity and see reality in its luminous, ever changing, ever present existence. We also begin to notice that those sensations we so often split off from the rest of the field of experience are an integral part of the field, just like every other sensation.

Another way of working with the witness is asking the question: “Who is having this experience?” By continually asking ourselves this question we can notice that the observer is not as solid as we imagine it to be. We see it moving around in the body, shifting between different senses, and yet the mind insistently claims that all those different experiences are the same thing. Can that be true?


No discussion of the concept of self would be complete without discussing “true-self” and “not-self”. These two views of the self originated in ancient India and are now becoming more influential in the West mainly though the influence of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In this section I will introduce these two perspectives in the hope that this will serve as a starting point for further exploration and as a background for exploring the sensations of self as described in the next section.

The sanskrit term Atman (sanskrit: self, breath) as used in several ancient traditions from India refers to the true self, the soul or the spirit that animates all life. Some Hindu traditions point to the feeling “I Am,” a realization of being, of presence, that goes beyond the body and beyond mere concepts. This experience, it is taught, is contact with Atman, one’s true self.

Non-Dual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (advaita, sanskrit: not-two) develop this teaching further to the realization that the practitioner is one with everything, that there is no separation between Atman, the true-self, and Brahman or Godhead, the essential creative force, Divine, All. Since Atman and Brahman are not two but one, it follows that our essential nature is oneness with everything.

The Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Pali: Anatta) came about in direct reference to the search for Atman that dominated the spiritual environment in India during the Buddha’s time. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains that the Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self is not to be understood as a doctrine or dogma but as a strategy to reduce suffering. Through recognizing that any phenomenon that arises in consciousness is not worthy of being clung to as self, we dis-identify with all phenomena, thereby moving beyond suffering.