No-Self Experiences  in Western Eyes

One of the fundamental differences between Christians and Buddhists revolves around the notion of the self. For Christians, the existence of a personal self is not only self-evident, but a vital part of their philosophy and theology. For Buddhists, there is ultimately no self either in human beings or in anything else, either. "There is no flower in the flower," the Dalai Lama once said.

Closely allied to the idea of the self, or no-self, is that of duality or non-duality. Christians appear to be dualists, believing in a supreme God and in individual souls, while Buddhists are non-dualists.

What is at the root of these differences? Irreconcilable philosophical differences? I don't think so. Rather, it is two very different approaches to the question of the existence of a self. Christians for the most part draw on venerable philosophical and theological traditions that go back to the Scriptures and the early Greek philosophers, and are rooted in common experience. I exist. I am not you. I am not God. The tree is not me. In short, we live in a world of distinct, albeit interconnected, beings. Buddhists draw on an equally venerable tradition, but it is not a philosophical or theological tradition in the Western sense of the words, but rather a reflection on experiences born out of deep meditation. There are deep and powerful experiences of the loss of self, and these experiences are much better known in the East than in the West, and it is upon these experiences that a systematic reflection has been built up over the centuries that has come to the conclusion that there is no self.

A recognition of this fundamental difference in outlook could open the way for a deeper dialogue. Christians ought to come to terms with the fact that no-self experiences exist. But a question for the Buddhists is whether their reflection on no-self experiences is identical to an ontological position which would say that the human self does not exist, or God does not exist. Such a dialogue is not going to be easy for either side, but if they persevered, it could be very fruitful.

There are two basic topics we would like to pursue in this discussion area. The first is precisely this idea of self vs. no-self, or duality vs. non-duality. The second is the existence of no-self kinds of experiences in the West. If no-self experiences have taken place more or less spontaneously in the West, or at least outside of the context of Buddhism, perhaps they can provide valuable information on the question of self vs. no-self.

Descriptions of no-self experiences are common in the East, but until recently, much less common in the West. But Western no-self experiences are particularly interesting because they have often happened spontaneously and are expressed in new ways.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

The following are some Western no-self experiences:

"All my thoughts, hopes and fears about the future have changed radically since I fell asleep one night in October 1985 and woke next morning without a self. I don't know what happened to it, but it never returned... I experience this Empty-ness as a boundless arena in which life continually manifests and plays, rising and falling, constantly changing, always transient and therefore ever-new." Ann Faraday in "Towards a No-Self Psychology."

John Wren-Lewis was deliberately poisoned by a thief on a Thailand bus in 1983, and went into a coma. "What I knew was that I'd emerged from something quite unlike any previous experience of sleep or dreaming. It was a kind of blackness, yet the absolute opposite of blankness, for it was the most alive state I've ever known - intensely happy, yet also absolutely peaceful, since it seemed to be utterly complete in itself, leaving nothing to be desired... For that dazzling darkness behind me did indeed transform my perception of the outside world, and here, too, I'm driven to religious or mystical language in trying to do the experience justice. The peeling paint on the hospital walls, the ancient sheets on the bed, the smell from the nearby toilet, the other patients chattering or coughing, the nurses and the indifferent curry they brought me for supper, my own somewhat traumatized middle-aged body, even my racing, bewildered mind - all were imbued with that sense of utter nothing-to-be-desired completeness, because "not I, but the Shining Darkness within me," was perceiving them." In "Aftereffects of Near-Death Experiences" in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1994, Vol. 26, No. 2.

Marie-Louise von Franz, a noted Jungian analyst, tried to describe a high level of individuation which she called the middle ground: "There is a complete standstill in a kind of inner centre, and the functions do not act automatically any more. You can bring them out at will, as for instance an airplane can let down the wheels in order to land and then draw them in again when it has to fly. At this stage the problem of the functions is no longer relevant; the functions have become instruments of a consciousness which is no longer rooted in them or driven by them... What does someone look like when he has detached his ego awareness, or his ego consciousness, from identification with certain functions? I think the nearest and most convincing example would be in some descriptions of the behaviour of Zen Buddhist Masters. It is said that the door of the inner house is closed, but the Master meets everybody and every situation and everything in the usual manner." In The Inferior Function.

"The best day of my life - my rebirthday, so to speak - was when I found I had no head... It was when I was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?... What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories." D.E. Harding in On Having No Head

Suzanne Segal was waiting for a bus in Paris when her self disappeared. "The personal self was gone, yet here was a body and a mind that still existed empty of anyone who occupied them. The experience of living without a personal identity, without an experience of being somebody, an "I" or a "me," is exceedingly difficult to describe, but it is absolutely unmistakable. It can't be confused with having a bad day or coming down with the flu or feeling upset or angry or spaced out... The mind, body, and emotions no longer referred to anyone - there was no one who thought, no one who felt, no one who perceived. Yet the mind, body, and emotions continued to function unimpaired; apparently they did not need an "I" to keep doing what they always did. Thinking, feeling, perceiving, speaking, all continued as before, functioning with a smoothness that gave no indication of the emptiness behind them." In Collision with the Infinite

A Response

I came across this article on your website and thought I would take you up on your offer to make comments in re: No-Self Experiences in Western Eyes.

First...I am a practicing Mystic not affiliated with any one tradition. I have discovered that all traditions and teachings are only partial representations of the Truth. All traditions also contain falsehood. There is no single tradition or philosophy that can be relied upon to convey the whole Truth.

Due to the current level of consciousness development in humanity's evolution, all religions, philosophies, and world views have been developed by and through people who were themselves not fully integrated or enlightened. In such a state of development, the modes of perception (chakras, archetypes) are closed or perhaps only partially open and obscured by complexes and cultural conditioning. As human beings, we see as through a dark lens (closed modes of perception, obscured by This is until we experience awakening...which is the evolutionary process of clearing and healing the complexes which obscure our perception. If followed to completion, this process results in the Integration of one's True Self (Soul) with one's Higher Self (Spirit). The Higher Self or Spirit nature...also called the Buddha Nature is always and always has been connected to the Source. The Higher Self can be said to be inside the Source…part of the Source.  

So it can be a confusing affair to say the least…especially when a person is centered at the egoic stage of development. Most of our psychologies and philosophies were developed by people who were not Soul realized (individuated, integrated) ...not to mention Higher Self realized. It is impossible to convey these truths if one has not experienced them directly. In my opinion, the psychologists that came the closest to developing accurate Self models were Jung and perhaps Assiogoli.

Now...back to your article. Consciousness or "human development" has been proceeding in stages throughout human history. The evolution of human consciousness and knowledge seems to be proceeding in opposite directions...East and West. In Western religions and philosophies...there is an emphasis on Ego and Soul....Ego being the perceived Individuality (yet almost entirely culturally conditioned "self") and the Soul being the True Individuality or True Self. We can see this in our Western culture...the pathology of which is narcissism. We are the culture of ME, ME, ME. This is because in actuality, all the Me's are fearful and insecure in their core...not knowing their True Self. In the East...the emphasis is on the collective. Me almost does not exist in the East. Everything is about the good of the collective..."only the collective truly exists." The pathologies of the Eastern paradigm are the human rights abuses, the de-valuing of individuals...etc. It is this very mindset that produced the ridiculous notion of "non-self" or Annata.

It is possible in meditation to "shut off" the functions of your article stated (Von Franz). This is called the "witness" state of awareness. It is awareness without thinking, feeling, emoting...etc. The Self is still is just that the normal ego chatter has been quieted. The ego loves to ruminate and think doing so...the ego falsely believes or falls into the habit of believing that its thinking is what maintains its existence. The constant thinking and ruminating of the ego are what keeps the dark energies of the unconscious shadow at bay. When this function is quieted in meditation....the person of course still is simply that the person in now in the I AM...or SOUL.

If one maintains this state with concentration and one experience of Samahdi or Illumination can be experienced. One at this point is In The Light...One is the is still an Individual. Yet the individuality is so refined in this state...that it is More like an Essence. We do not have to think at this level. We simply know. We experience. Yet ...we still exist as Individual Spiritual Beings. We do not have our usual body but what can be described as a Light Body. It is the ultimate experience of Ecstasy, Love, Beingness...etc. So no...I am not my usual "self" but neither am I a "non-self" either.

These experiences are wrongly called empty. On the contrary, they are absolutely FULL...although no objects exist at that level. People that experience "emptiness" and then spout off that the have found Truth have not found the Truth. They have experienced a different level of Reality called the Void. This is because the Universe is Multi Dimensional and we are Multi dimensional Beings. There is a void or emptiness level...but it is a relatively low level.  Our experiences in meditation mirror our level of Soul development and our belief systems. In fact, holding too rigidly to a belief system will actually limit the quality of one's experiences and one's evolution. The belief system is just another filter to obscure one's perception.

So Christians and Westerners who emphasize SOUL and Self Development are correct and partially incorrect. Easterners who teach No-Self or Annata...are only describing a narrow window of experience...not our ontological reality. So both views are right and both are partially wrong. Teaching Annata or No Self as an ontological reality is harmful to a Soul and not in accordance with the Truth of our Being. We are "like God" in our Highest Essence...but we are not "God the totality." Although we can experience vast expanses through a much higher faculty of consciousness....the Higher Self or Spirit. Since we are Divine and simultaneously part of a much Larger Divine Spirit, at this level we can share in the consciousness, love, and bliss of the Source.   Robert Rousseau,


Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

How to contribute to this discussion

Reading: Mysticism of the Self