Retreat Report #4 (RR4) - Noting Gone and Anatta - "Everything is Gone...Including the Self!"
This is the fourth and final installment of my "retreat report" series, detailing some of the more significant moments of my recent April 2020 two week retreat. You can find the first three retreat reports here, here, and here.
This retreat report details the most important experience I had during the course of this retreat. While I've had similarly powerful moments off cushion, I've never had such a strong experience on the cushion. The experience generated a very profound insight into anatta or not-self. Without further ado, here's the report:
RR#4 - Day 7 of April 2020 Two Week Retreat: Insight into Not-Self - "Everything is Gone...Including the Self!"
Prior to the sit in question, I had gone for a mindful walk. I'm not a big fan of the slow-paced walking meditation that is commonly taught in vipassana centers, so I was just out for a regular walk, but with an intention to be mindful. During the course of the walk, I spontaneously started playing with Shinzen Young's "Note Gone" technique. In a nutshell, the "note gone" technique entails making a soft mental note of "gone" whenever a sensory experience significantly changes, disappears or passes away. So, for example, if I flip a light switch in a pitch black room and light appears, then I could note the passing away of the darkness as "gone". If I were to then flip the switch and the lights go off, then I could note the passing away of the lights as "gone". The same can be done with any experience, including thoughts and emotions. You can note "gone" when mental image or mental talk (both are forms of thought) pass away, or note "gone" when your anger recedes, etc. One really cool thing about noting gone is noticing how often the "gones" are actually accompanied by new beginnings. In the case of flipping the light switch, for example, one can notice that while the darkness is now "gone", the light has just begun.
Having concluded my mindful walk, I sat for 45 minutes. Since I had enjoyed noting gone while walking, I decided to continue to note gone during the sit. However, this time I varied the technique by adding a self-inquiry component to the practice. I did so by telling myself "gone becoming known" whenever I experienced a "gone" moment, and following that up by inquiring as to who is actually knowing the "gone". In practical terms, I would note "gone becoming known", and the note would be quickly followed by the question "becoming known by whom?".
As I was tending to this practice, I noticed that there are "micro-gones" within each moment of experience. By micro-gones I mean very subtle micro-passing aways that make it feel as if each moment is dissolving as soon as it arises. For the Mahasi Sayadaw/Daniel Ingram rapid noting/progress of insight folks, I was getting a very solid taste of dissolution. It thus seemed like every moment was vanishing, disappearing or passing away in each instant, only to then reappear in the next. The following statement, taken verbatim from my notes during the retreat, illustrates what this felt like:
"Gone-gone-gone microsecond after microsecond. Everything dissolves as soon as it appears. Nothing to grab on to. Things flicker and disappear in an instant. Everything. Everything. Quite amazing. Not magical. Just the way things are (experienced). It’s not fireworks, it’s just rapid succession moment to moment awareness of the fragility and insubstantiality of all phenomena that appear. The present moment feels almost non-existent, slippery..."
While this experience was mesmerizing, something more amazing ensued. When I inquired as to who was knowing the "gone", the answer that kept surfacing was "no one" or "nothing". More specifically, it felt like whoever was there to know the experience that was now being noted as "gone" was also gone with the experience. That led to a very strong felt sense that whoever was inquiring about "gone" in this instant was not the same person, being or self that had actually experienced the "gone". That person was "gone"! In other words, "I" was gone alongside the experience.
This marks the end of the experience itself. In what follows, I'll try to explain how I've processed this experience, and what I think it may mean.
It is probably not immediately obvious what I mean by the fact that "no one" or "no thing" was knowing the "gone", let alone what I mean by the assertion that the person knowing the experience is "gone" as the experience being known passes away. I'll try to unpack this.
What became increasingly clear as I inquired into the knower of the experience that was just labeled as "gone" was that the so-called "self" reconstitutes itself with every gone. That is, the self seemed to be to passing away with every gone, only to immediately reconstitute itself after the gone in order to create an impression of continuity of self. But the practice revealed this impression of continuity of self to be illusory.
Another way of expressing this is that it was as if the self was breaking or coming apart with every momentary passing away of experience, only to immediately build itself back together in the next arising moment. It felt as if the self was being constructed moment to moment. It literally felt as if the self would arise with the present moment, only to pass away with it. The sense of self would then be perceived to arise simultaneously with the next arising moment, only to once more be perceived as vanishing and disappearing alongside the present moment.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to this experience. It felt quite profound, sacred even. Having seen the self as an illusion, I was overcome by a profound sense of okayness. Having shed the self, if only for a few moments, showed me that there really is nothing to worry about, no matter how dire one's present experience or circumstances. There is really nothing to worry about because no harm can ever really come to our-selves (our-self) for the simple reason that we are not selves to begin with.
And then that old Zen adage that "if there is no self there is no problem" came to life for me in a way that I never could've fathomed. I no longer had to agree with the adage intellectually, I actually confirmed it in my own experience. When one perceives that there is no self, there seems to be nowhere for suffering to land on. There can be pain, of course. There can be unpleasant experiences, sure. But suffering? Nope. It seemed that suffering required a self that could spin pain and unpleasantness into a web of mentally concocted Dukkha.
The experience filled me with a sense of vitality and excitement. I wanted to shout from the rooftop that there was no self here. That it was all a big mistake. That many of our problems would be solved if only we realized this. It felt as if I was high on some kind of drug, only that I wasn't. It was merely the afterglow of a deep realization of not-self. The feeling lasted for several hours after the sit, as I found myself laughing and dancing and shouting gibberish out of pure, unadulterated joy. (Note - the feeling also receded hours later, revealing that nothing escapes the grip of impermanence.)
Insights related to the not-self experience started pouring in. For example: it dawned on me that "the self is going to self". By that I mean that the sense of self arises coterminously with the arising of any experience. And it passes away with the passing away of the experience. This just seems to happen and we have little ability to control it. What's more interesting is that this is not a problem. The problem is not the sense of self arising, the problem is with us getting fooled into believing that that's who we really are. The self is going to arise with each arising moment because that's what it does. That's what blind evolution has hardwired into this organism. The problem is not its arising, the problem is getting caught up in it.
It also dawned on me that it is perfectly OK for the self to be contracted, pissed, unhappy, impatient, etc. It's not a problem. Why? Because the self doesn't wake up. It never will. It can't wake up because the self isn't "real". It's just an arising in awareness. So the self is going to self until the day the mind-body dies. And it will do that because that's what the self has been conditioned to do by evolution and by society. But if so, what's the move then? How to get out of this vicious cycle of selfing and suffering? The move is, it seems, to let the self "self". Let it run loose, but do not identify with it. Just watch it with awareness until the self wears itself out. And, if my experience is any indication, the self will always wear itself out, because it is gone with each passing moment.
In sum, what I was left with was that when things are seen from awareness, the self is transcended, if only for a moment. The self can be seen as an impression arising in awareness, and - if you look close enough - as an impression passing away in awareness. And when this is seen, relief comes. Because one no longer needs to be identified with the self. It is this severing of identification with self that can serve as a launching pad for a more fruitful exploration of the ways in which we create suffering for ourselves and others.
Another implication of this view is that the self will never see this, for the self is just another (very subtle) object of experience arising and passing away within the vast, limitless space of awareness. So the self cannot see itself in much the same way as you can never (directly) see your mouth. But when we manage to see the self from the vantage point of the awareness from whence it arises, the identification with all that's "me", "mine", or "self" momentarily ceases and a clearing opens in our heart that allows us to laugh at this thing that we so seriously and for so long mistook to be ourselves.
The experience provoked one final reflection. It must take incredible processing power/bandwidth for the mind to create a sense of self, only to have it break apart every single arising and passing away and then have to immediately reconstitute it. So why do it? I can only speculate that if we actually were to behave knowing that there is no one, continuous self, not one, continuous "I", but that the "I" dies with every passing away, then there would be little incentive for the organism to protect itself. This would lead to the species dying out. And thus evolution would not select for organisms that do not have a robust sense of self.
This marks the end of my retreat report series. I hope you found something here that can be supportive of your contemplative journey. In the meantime, mucho metta to all and may your practice continue to blossom and mature!