(The following is an excerpt from the book, Nothing Personal, Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self by Nirmala. Part 1 of the book is available as a free ebook download here, or you can purchase the entire book in our bookstore.)
We all want the same thing: we all want to be happy. We look everywhere for happiness-in experiences, in possessions, in other people, in pleasures, in success, but we come up empty-handed because they are not the source of happiness. We have to go to the source. But how? How do we find the source? All of these things we are chasing after come and go, so we must look to that which doesn't come and go-that is the source. It turns out that the source of everything is also who you are. You are the source of everything, but don't take my word for it. Let's discover this together. Since the source of everything doesn't come and go, it must be here right now, in this very moment. So, let's look into this moment and see what is present in it and what, among the many things that are present, does not come and go.
Let's start simply by noticing the sensations that are present. Just for a moment, be present to the ongoing flow of sensation. One of the things you'll notice is that sensations are always changing. Your sensory experience is never the same from one moment to the next. Nevertheless, there is a continuity to them; they flow from one to the other. So, while sensations do not qualify as something that doesn't come and go, they are woven together in a way that gives an impression of continuity.
In contrast, notice the lack of continuity in the experience of thought. Thoughts are very fluid. When you are present to your thoughts, you discover how unsubstantial, incomplete, and disjointed they are relative to the experience of sensations. Memories, which are just thoughts about the past, are a good example of this. You never have a truly complete memory of an experience because it would take as long as the experience itself. Most of our memories are like still photos or a series of photos highlighting something that was important or stood out about an experience. They are whittled-down, highly-edited versions of what happened. Like an amateur movie, they are jumbled and patched together, often without even a thread to the story line.
Notice for a moment how these highly-edited thoughts differ from sensations. Like sensations, thought is always changing, but the changes can happen much more quickly. In thought, you can move the furniture around instantly. Thoughts allow us to play outside the boundaries of space and time; however, thought is not as well constructed as sensory data or the material world.
Another difference between thought and sensory data is that thought is always either a memory about the past or a fantasy about the future, while sensory impressions happen in the present. Thoughts appear in the present, but their content is always about the past or future because there is never enough time in the present to have a thought about the present. You can't think that fast. By the time you think about an event, it is already in the past.
The difference between thought and sensory data is obvious to us, but it's not to everyone. Some people in mental hospitals can't tell the difference. Many of their thoughts are real to them. They can't distinguish between a thought and a thing. The ability to distinguish this makes it possible for us to function in the world. Some thoughts are so convincing that we scare ourselves, but we can usually tell the difference between thought and sensory data. The reason that thoughts can be very convincing is that they are often based on previous sensory experience.
It's good to notice that thoughts and memories don't have as much solidity or consistency as we'd like to think. They are always changing. I challenge you to have the same thought for even 15 seconds. Even your memory of a particular event is always changing. For example, the memory of your first date with your spouse will not be the same after 20 years of marriage as it was a week after you met and certainly not the same if you divorce. Many studies have shown how surprisingly inaccurate memory is. When ten people witness an event, you get ten versions of it, none of which match the actual event. Thoughts or memories definitely don't qualify either as that which doesn't come and go and therefore cannot be the source of happiness, peace and love.
Now, just for fun, I invite you to have a particular thought-the thought of "I" or "me." Really experience this "I." Does it have the quality of something real or is it more like a memory, something that is incomplete? What does your character look like in your internal movies and how accurate is that? Has it ever been several days since you looked in the mirror, and when you did, it surprised you because it didn't match your idea of what you look like? You'll notice that you can never get a consistent image of this "I"; you can't pin it down. You can't find it, any more than you can find the thought you had five minutes ago.
Another thing you'll notice is how the "I" fluctuates. Sometimes you have a positive self-image and sometimes not. We have all had moments of being caught in the idea of being a hopeless nobody. You're really believing that, and then an attractive person shows interest in you, and you forget all about that story of being a nobody. Or, have you ever been walking along with an upbeat "I" thought, when someone criticizes you and suddenly you're stuck with a dejected "I" thought? This "I" thought has the same fluidity and amorphous quality of every thought and memory.
Although the "I" is often associated with the body, it can't be the body because we say things like "I have bad eyesight" rather than "I am bad eyesight." Whenever we refer to the body, there is still something called "I" present as well. Clearly, the body is a part of physical reality; it's a thing that can be referred to. However, the "I" doesn't refer to any thing. You can have an elaborate story about "I," and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no thing that all of that refers to. "I" is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it-it's an image. It turns out that the "I" is just thoughts about "I."
Really notice this moment's experience of "I." No matter how hard you try, it is nothing more than a movie clip. What is even stranger is that you are usually included in the movie clip, when you rarely actually see yourself, except in a mirror. Most of us have never seen ourselves eating breakfast, for instance, but we all have images of what we look like doing that. We completely manufacture images of ourselves doing things. We manufacture memories and call them "me." Then, we work at improving our self-image, when all that that can accomplish is to improve this memory! In our culture, we focus on creating a positive self-image, as if an image has any power. No one's self-image has ever accomplished anything.
We also have a fantasy that our self-image is what people see, when what they see is their image of us. No one relates to your image of you-they can't see your internal image. Somehow, we think that our self-image will protect us or make us well-liked. The truth of this moment is that your self-image isn't doing anything. Your self-image isn't what is hearing these words or having the thoughts you are having; your self-image is itself a thought. No matter how polished your self-image is, you can't send it to work while you stay home. Hearing and thinking are present, but the mystery is: who or what is doing these things? If you are honest, you can't assign credit for that to what you call "I" or "me."
Have you also noticed that there are big gaps in this thought called "me," when you forget to be somebody? You get engrossed in something and forget to maintain your self-image. Even when people are holding a self-image of being depressed, there are moments when they forget to feel depressed because their attention is elsewhere. If we're looking for that which doesn't come and go, this "I" certainly doesn't qualify. It qualifies even less as the source of happiness than anything in sensory experience, so all the time spent trying to improve it doesn't pay off. It's not the object of our search.
So, what else is present right here, right now-besides sensations, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and "you"-that doesn't come and go? What is it that notices the sensory data? What is it that hears the internal dialogues? What is it that notices the self-images and isn't fooled by them? What is the source of all the thoughts, even the "I" thought? It's not something you can sense. You can't find it in the body or in the brain, and yet it is here, right now. And-here's where it gets even spookier-you can't even think about it. Your thoughts about who you are will never adequately represent who you are.
There is this Mystery that thinks and sees and feels and has a body. This Mystery has the fundamental quality of awareness: it is aware of thought, feeling, and sensation. So, even if you haven't been paying attention to anything I've just said, I guarantee that paying attention has still been happening. There was something mysterious that was aware of the sensations and thoughts that I asked you to be aware of. There was something checking your present experience or your memories to see if what I was saying was true for you. Even if that wasn't happening, there was something that was paying attention to something else. It turns out that it is not "you" who is noticing these sensations or noticing this poorly produced movie called "me." It's not "you" that is watching the movie called "me," and yet watching is happening.
This mysterious something is like a flashlight. I call it that because there is a quality of brightness to it. Whatever you bring your attention to becomes lit up by this Awareness. If you become aware of your hands, a brightness comes to your hands. But this brightness is not yours; it's not "you." There is something that is either hearing my words or ignoring my words. What is present even when you are distracted by some irrelevant thought? What is noticing the distracting thoughts? What is this mysterious brightness that is experiencing the endless variations of thought and sensation? What is present in all of these experiences?
If you assign a "me" to it, you create a middleman. This "me" is never the experiencer; it can only be an added layer of experience in the form of a thought about "me." The experiencer doesn't go away; it just experiences this moment with an extra layer called "me." In some ways this truth is very humbling. It's a big demotion for the "me" to discover that it is just an additional, poorly formed layer of thought, which can never be made to be consistent or reliable. No idea you have ever had about yourself has ever lasted.
No matter how elaborate your fantasy of being someone is, you have never succeeded in completely hiding that which does not come and go and you have never done any harm to it. "You" can't mess this life up because "you" aren't living it. We think that if there isn't this "me" taking care of life, it's going to fall apart, but it never has been "you" that has been taking care of your life. So, what will you trust? Will you trust this fantasy that has never accomplished anything or this Mystery that has actually been living every moment of life?