I have no self. I am not a self. There is no I. There is nothing.
I chanced upon an entirely philosophical idea recently that has mind-boggling power. There is a universal notion that we all take for granted – the notion of I. Me. That is, the first person self or “unified being which is the source of consciousness”. The thing I refer to as I is separate from the whole. It is unique and we each have a special personal duty to our individual Is. It is almost impossible to dispense with oneself as the source for the individual’s thoughts and actions. Every society has the idea of accountability or personal responsibility once we become adult.
It is interesting to see what happens when we shift our understanding and start to see this I as a fictional creation. What happens? We now the world as the seamless, dynamic and discrete organism that it is. Now consider that I am a part of this thing without an enduring ego or self. Suddenly there are no static pieces of the puzzle to be removed, reassembled and replaced at will. There are no meaningful boundaries between one organism and another. There is just what is. The detail dissolves into the bigger picture. It helps if we imagine consciousness as a mistake.
Of course we need Is in order to function in society. On the whole, we avoid what is threatening and seek out that which is beneficial to our survival and personal fulfilment. I search for ego validation constantly to confirm my sense of self. We all do. Self-affirmation proves that people that matter understand me, love me, accept me, respect me or whatever it is I’m craving at any given moment.
I’m considering the idea that the I is not real in an ultimate sense. It’s a meaningless fiction that only exists in our minds in the manner of a useful collective delusion. It represents a shallow and restrictive way of being that for many people, is absorbing to the point of obsession.
I know I am quite deep and self-obsessed. I like the I that… well, I have constructed. Not only does it serve me well in my interactions with other people, but it is endlessly fascinating. But suppose for a moment I consider the alternative. The Śūnyatā is a beautiful Buddhist concept which refers to emptiness, vacuity, openness. I have been watching a lot of maths programmes lately and an interesting connection is that Śūnyatā comes from the very culture that gave us the zero (śhūnya). The scriptures of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, called the Pāli Canon, uses the Śūnyatā term in three ways. Firstly as a meditative dwelling. Secondly as an attribute of objects. And lastly as a type of awareness-release. It’s Śūnyatā as awareness-release that I’m most interested in.
One simply notes what is present without identifying those things with one’s own self. It is achieved through intense concentration and increased awareness of shifting and subtle levels of disturbance. This is an exchange between the Buddha and his attendant Ānanda:
Ānanda: It is said that the world is empty […] in what respect […] is it empty?
Buddha: Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.
I love this idea of emptiness as a huge positive affirmation of life, its interconnectedness and oneness, rather than a sadness. Tonight I went to a creativity meditation class, in which we focussed on feeling awareness in our bodies rather than minds. It was a welcome relief as my mind has been chattering incessantly since I stopped taking paroxetine a week ago. The good news is the withdrawal only lasts between 2 and 6 weeks. I’ve started a heady cocktail of herbal medication which should combat some of the side effects of the withdrawal. The remedies I’ve started are Omega 3 EFA complex (for head zaps); B-Complex 100 (to boost mood as well as supporting metabolism and nervous system); melatonin (for sleep); ‘Scullcap’ (Scutellaria lateriflora for sleep, relaxing and overcoming anxiety); and an anti-anxiety blend of kava kava, passionflower, bacopa, albizia & lavender. I took my first dose of the anti-anxiety stuff a few hours ago and feel a little better already, plus the head zaps have abated touchwood as my brain readjusts.
Last night was one of my worst experiences. I didn’t fall asleep until 11am and then only for two hours. During the night I took six herbal sleeping tablets I had lying around to no avail. By 7am I was cold, bored and at my wits’ end so decided to go for a run around the neighbourhood. It helped warm me up, but I just couldn’t feel tired. The insomnia wasn’t even the worst part. That was saved for the fog of confusion in my head, the uncontrollable crying, feeling sadness so palpably, sheer irritability, feeling nauseous, diarrhoea every few hours – and the mind zaps.
That’s one of the worst things. Mid-morning, before I fell asleep, I counted how often they came. There were between one and four zaps every five seconds on average and this is for a few hours. Coming off paroxetine it feels like my mind just does not work. It takes a long time to do very simple things, and they feel utterly pointless. Earlier all I wanted to do was curl up and shut the doors on the world, but I’m making a huge effort to go about my life in a normal way, meeting friends for coffee, going to spiritual meet ups, doing my artwork, feeding myself, writing, playing with the dogs etc. I have faith I’ll get there, even if I have to go about everything in a slow and forced way for the time being.