“When I look inside and see that I’m nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I’m everything, that’s love. And between these two, my life turns.” -Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Across religious traditions there are two phenomenal experiences that appear to be opposed: identification with everything, and identification with nothing. Both of these experiences are fundamentally different than the everyday-sense-of-self. The everyday-sense-of-self sees the world as fundamentally split between that which is self (be it the mind, body, or both) and that which is non-self (world, objects, etc). We can call this the restricted self-model: it is the direct extension of the dualistic self-model. The restricted self-model is concerned with the world at large, while the dualistic self-model is limited to the relationship between one’s body and mind. The restricted self sees oneself as a subject (self) in a world full of objects (not-self). When the restricted self-model ceases, other self-models can manifest. The imploded self, looks around and doesn’t see any self – there is no self-identification. The exploded self, looks around and only sees self – there is universal self-identification. Within religious traditions, these experiences can be used as evidence for different metaphysical claims. The universal self-identification of the exploded self is used within Advaita Vedanta to support brahman/atman non-duality. In Buddhism, the experience of not-self supports the doctrine that the self is an illusion (skt. anatman).
What these experiences demonstrate is that the restricted self is not as stable as it appears, it is merely a habitual disposition. The end of the restricted self can be glimpsed in meditative or drug-induced states. In the case of meditative practice, these states can be become capable of regular access. This ability to change one’s self-model at will can be called an altered trait (which controls altered states). The restricted self is a psychological framework that is not always beneficial. In The Mind Illuminated, John Yates discusses how meditative insights alter the restricted self:
Insights completely contradict the “operating model” of reality that provides the logical basis for how our sub-minds perform their specific functions. Most of these sub-minds presuppose a world of relatively enduring and self-existent “things”—objects, events, people, and places—that have their own inherent natures, which can be comprehended with some accuracy. They also make the core assumption that a Self exists as one of those enduring things. This Self may be seen as eternal, or as something that will be annihilated at death. Another core assumption of all these models of reality is that happiness and suffering come from the interactions between the Self and this world of things. Gaining certain objects in the world will make “me” happy. Losing things “I” love or having to confront people or places “I” dislike creates my suffering.
These three assumptions—that things exist, that I am a separate Self, and that happiness comes from the interaction between the two—are shared throughout this collection of unconscious reality models. They provide the foundation for our whole sense of meaning and purpose in life.
The restricted self-model appears to be the natural form of self-identification that most people are born with. The restricted self might therefore have the same origin as common-sense dualism (and also faces the same problems of self-reporting in children). The restricted self does not prioritze feelings of love or wisdom, but the attainment of certain goals in the world of objects. The restricted self frames oneself as a needy pursuer of objects – feelings of reward and gratification are dependent on an ever-changing world. The imploded and exploded selves are intrinsically rewarding, they are not directly dependent on external factors for their positive affect.
It is unclear whether profoundly altered self-identification affects one’s agency – the ability to achieve goals in the world. Overwhelming feelings of love and insight might be deeply rewarding states, but they may not be optimal for certain forms of problem-solving. This seems to be a function of monasteries, hermitages, or retreats: places for unusual states of consciousness to be cultivated and engaged in while one’s prosaic needs are taken care of.
Examining the phenomenal claims of meditative practitioners allows one to disregard philosophical differences and focus on attributes of practice. The restricted self is seen to be the default state that often leads to suffering, while other forms of self-identification can be deeply “liberating” although perhaps at the expense of agency. Even if agency remains unaffected by these alternative self-models, it appears worthwhile to cultivate flexibility so that one can move amongst these models at will.