A Question About No-Self

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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

A Question About No-Self

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: BradyE
Forum: Dharma Overground Discussion Forum

I'm new to this Buddhism thing, and I've decided to study it in earnest,
but I'm still having trouble with this idea of no-self.

For me, the biggest riddle seems to be:
if self is an illusion, then what force is at work trying to dispel this illusion?
Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 0 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Well, it would have to be (mostly) the same phenomena that you currently take to be a self, right? Except it would be untied in a way that makes the pieces of that self somehow no longer related to each other in a "self" way.

One of the problems that can come up here is that the "perceptual self" and the "conceptual self" are easily blurred, and so the concept of no-self tends not to make much sense in that light. In example: an enlightened person can still conceptualize the self, such as "I know what I typically prefer for dinner," but do not perceive the self, such as "why was I mean to my co-worker? That's just not me!"

Sorry for the circular & somewhat vague answer, but that's about as good as I can do on this one.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 785 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Your own realization of the self that you've created out of the five aggregates.

If you look closely at the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness) you see that each of these is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self. They form an illusion of a self, but are not "a self" in and of themselves in aggregate.

Now, most people will look at "consciousness" and think: "Isn't my consciousness my self? Isn't this where all my likes and dislikes reside?" But this would be wrong view. Consciousness is only available to us as sight-consciousness, hearing-consciousness, tasting-consciousness, odor-consciousness, tactile touch consciousness, and mental cognition of each of these events. Yet, within each event (process) there is no abiding or permanent self which is sustained.

You have to penetrate the reality of the Three Characteristics in relation to the six senses or the five aggregates in order to "get it."
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: BradyE

Thanks for the thoughtful answers.

One reason why I'm having so much difficulty with anatta is that when I was younger, I had an experience that I would describe as an "awakening" or "temporary enlightenment" maybe it's what people on this cite refer to as "stream entry" I don't know. During that time, I felt like I understood self for the first time. I did this by submitting my will to...something; God, or love, or whatever. My ego became a slave to a higher source, and ever since I've come to think of that higher sources as what really constitutes "self."

Does any of this make sense?
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 19 Join Date: 7/7/09 Recent Posts
Hello, Brady. I'm not sure you're getting the responses you were looking for here. There is no simple answer to the question you asked. This is because there is a "self" that you now perceive. You can perceive those things that make up your sense of a self if you pay close attention, which is what vipassana meditation techniques direct you toward. When you do this you will find all kinds of processes going on that have gone on for years and years in your mind but that you have taken for granted. Some occur below the level of conscious thinking, many above that level, but they all are observable if you can gain enough concentration. The fact that these processes are observable makes them "objects" in our parlance here. An object is something that is not "you" because, by definition, if you can observe it it cannot be your "self."

So you live in a complex mental "environment" that is composed of processes occurring in rapid succession, one after the other, all the time. Some of those processes help to create the sensation and the conceptual notion that there is a permanent "you." There is not, but there are clearly sensations that create a "you" as you go through your day. The Buddha was very careful not to assert the there is "no self." Rather, he made sure to state that there is a condition of existence, a characteristic, called "not self." See the difference?
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 97 Join Date: 5/6/09 Recent Posts
Hi Brady,

No-self (Pali: anatta) can be tricky to understand at the philosophical/psychological level. For starters, I would read Sayadaw U Silananda's "No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of Anatta" (http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/noinnercore.pdf). This is an excellent introduction to a Theravada understanding of No-self.

As for your question about what force is at work trying to dispel the illusion... that's a tricky question. Here's my best guess:

Volitional formations (or "intending", "will", etc.) is based on conditions. When the right conditions arise and align in the right way, volition happens. Upon hearing the dharma, the conditions are set for this kind of investigation to arise, as the appropriate volitional formations arise in response to the conditions. It sounds complicated, but it can be observed. So, there is no separate self trying to debunk an illusion. Rather, it is a complex tangle of processes working to debunk themselves.

I don't know if that helps or not. I wish you the best of luck in your search for truth.
~Jackson

EDIT: Perhaps a simpler, more satisfying answer is that the force working to debunk the illusion is Wisdom itself.
Joe Smith, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 3 Join Date: 1/6/10 Recent Posts
So there is no self. No free will. No enlightenment. Just senses rising, falling. Causes and conditions.

Sounds awesome.

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Daniel M. Ingram, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 3199 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
This forum and site are about practitioners helping each other to practice well.

Let us know how this post furthers that and what your specific interest in practical is.
Joe Smith, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 3 Join Date: 1/6/10 Recent Posts
To me it makes no sense whatsoever to practice realizing no-self when there is no one there to "do" anything in the first place.

My specific interest is in this very paradoxical view point of "no-self." How exactly does one attain enlightenment when there is no one there in "reality"?

To practice well, one should at least know what it is they practice, but more importantly, why is it they practice?
mjk 10 93, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 20 Join Date: 12/13/09 Recent Posts
I've been struggling with similar questions. I'm very interested in meditation because of the various experiences people have. I'm pretty bored with ordinary existence and want to experience something else, but I agree, the no-self doctrine makes it all seem pretty pointless (not to mention contradictory).

If anatta is true, then there's no point to doing anything but what is already being done, because there is no doer. So whatever is the momentary mental formation in the mind, this is what "I" will do, and any projects such as meditation either will happen or they won't, no point to try to set up some goal.

I know Daniel speaks against this attitude in his book, and it was his book that got me re-interested in mediation (I practiced as a teenager but never really got anywhere) due to all the freaky things he experienced as an ordinary person, not some monk living in a cave in Tibet, and that others have seemed to have the same experiences following his directions.

But, when it comes down to it, I can't help but think the experiences may be very real but the doctrine behind them is still flawed. For example, take the Three Characteristics. Do the Three Characteristics themselves have the Three Characteristics? If so, then impermanence is impermanent which would imply some permanent object (either now or in the future). If not, then they are not absolute, which would also imply a permanent object.

Also, desire is the cause of suffering in Buddhism but what about the desire to experience meditative states? Is that covered under the desires we "should" be getting rid of or not? Beyond that, one of the major motivations in traditional Buddhism is to end the cycles of rebirth, but I am a secular/scientific person and I don't believe in any life after death, even the "sort-of-karmic-continuation-but-not-really-the-same-person" sort.

Maybe this is all something that we will see beyond once we reach a higher stage of awareness. Supposedly Enlightenment is beyond all mental formations which would render logical contradictions meaningless. Even the Buddha spoke of the Dharma as a raft you use to cross a river, but that after you cross it, you don't need it. It can't help you on the other side, which we can't see from where we are now.

I feel like my intellect is already on the other side, but of course my everyday mind and emotions are very much caught up in suffering still.

My advice to you is to keep practicing because it is interesting and a challenge, not because you believe 100% in Buddhist doctrine. Because right now I don't either but that doesn't make me any less intrigued by the experiences of the more "advanced" people on this board and elsewhere.

Justification for being in this forum: Motivation. Why practice?
Joe Smith, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 3 Join Date: 1/6/10 Recent Posts
mjk 10 93:
I've been struggling with similar questions. I'm very interested in meditation because of the various experiences people have. I'm pretty bored with ordinary existence and want to experience something else, but I agree, the no-self doctrine makes it all seem pretty pointless (not to mention contradictory).

If anatta is true, then there's no point to doing anything but what is already being done, because there is no doer. So whatever is the momentary mental formation in the mind, this is what "I" will do, and any projects such as meditation either will happen or they won't, no point to try to set up some goal.

I know Daniel speaks against this attitude in his book, and it was his book that got me re-interested in mediation (I practiced as a teenager but never really got anywhere) due to all the freaky things he experienced as an ordinary person, not some monk living in a cave in Tibet, and that others have seemed to have the same experiences following his directions.

But, when it comes down to it, I can't help but think the experiences may be very real but the doctrine behind them is still flawed. For example, take the Three Characteristics. Do the Three Characteristics themselves have the Three Characteristics? If so, then impermanence is impermanent which would imply some permanent object (either now or in the future). If not, then they are not absolute, which would also imply a permanent object.

Also, desire is the cause of suffering in Buddhism but what about the desire to experience meditative states? Is that covered under the desires we "should" be getting rid of or not? Beyond that, one of the major motivations in traditional Buddhism is to end the cycles of rebirth, but I am a secular/scientific person and I don't believe in any life after death, even the "sort-of-karmic-continuation-but-not-really-the-same-person" sort.

Maybe this is all something that we will see beyond once we reach a higher stage of awareness. Supposedly Enlightenment is beyond all mental formations which would render logical contradictions meaningless. Even the Buddha spoke of the Dharma as a raft you use to cross a river, but that after you cross it, you don't need it. It can't help you on the other side, which we can't see from where we are now.

I feel like my intellect is already on the other side, but of course my everyday mind and emotions are very much caught up in suffering still.

My advice to you is to keep practicing because it is interesting and a challenge, not because you believe 100% in Buddhist doctrine. Because right now I don't either but that doesn't make me any less intrigued by the experiences of the more "advanced" people on this board and elsewhere.

Justification for being in this forum: Motivation. Why practice?


Contemplation is a valid practice.

I think that Dan says that free will is an extreme and one should avoid thinking about it, but I never thought this was a satisfactory response. What makes something an extreme? Isn't that totally subjective?

Enlightenment is simply awakening to the law of existence.

If you practice but believe the doctrine is flawed, that is a problem. However, you can practice to further your understandings of the doctrine. Yet, this doesn't mean one should throw away reasoning capabilities expanded by newer experience.

The question as to why you practice is important, so why not give it a thought before you meditate?
mjk 10 93, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 20 Join Date: 12/13/09 Recent Posts
Contemplation is a valid practice.

I think that Dan says that free will is an extreme and one should avoid thinking about it, but I never thought this was a satisfactory response...

If you practice but believe the doctrine is flawed, that is a problem.


Sounds like you have some issues with the doctrine yourself.

Enlightenment is simply awakening to the law of existence.


If the law of existence is simply the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics then I don't see how that can provide the bliss, freedom and ineffable state that is described. It seems more like just depressing realism. Again, more practice might reveal a higher truth behind these contradictions. But I am being honest in saying that I don't see it yet.

The question as to why you practice is important, so why not give it a thought before you meditate?


Right now it's pretty much curiosity. It's as if I were back in the days of Columbus and was told about the New World. Of course I want to visit. However some people who claim to have been over there write back to say, if you come here, you will cease to exist, or rather, you will realize, you never existed to begin with.

Sort of puts a damper on the enthusiasm.

Then others say, no, that's not quite right, but what does happen over here is indescribable. That whets my appetite again, until I hear that desiring is just the cause of suffering and nothing else, so it should be abandoned (by whom? my non-existent self?)

It reminds me of something Alan Watts said: "To say 'stop desiring' is a koan." But that would imply the "outer" Buddhist doctrine is just some sort of trick to get us to realize the futility of stopping desire. That might be the case but I don't think many people here would go along with that interpretation.
Susan Law, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 25 Join Date: 9/27/09 Recent Posts
Here's a thought regarding your post - you said:
But, when it comes down to it, I can't help but think the experiences may be very real but the doctrine behind them is still flawed. For example, take the Three Characteristics. Do the Three Characteristics themselves have the Three Characteristics? If so, then impermanence is impermanent which would imply some permanent object (either now or in the future). If not, then they are not absolute, which would also imply a permanent object.


In my experience, asking questions and really reflecting on things is very helpful. When understanding does arise, it can be very deep. In this particular question you stated, my own answer is simply that your logic is flawed. The three characteristics are statements about the nature of one level of reality. Daniel calls them "qualities of all experience." He quotes the Buddha as saying, just before he died, "All phenomena are impermanent," and goes on to comment, "Absolute transience is truly the fundamental nature of experiential reality. What do I mean by 'experiential reality?' I mean the universe of sensations that you actually experience." My point is that Daniel is pointing to one level of reality - and defining it clearly: experienced sensations. The characteristic of impermanence itself is not an experienced sensation. It is a member of a different level of reality - that of statements about experiential reality, and the qualities to be found there - the rules about dealing with statements or concepts - are entirely different. It's a basic logical rule that when you apply rules or facts about one level of reality to another, you create paradoxes, falacies, and other errors. 'This statement is a lie,' is a well-known example. So the problems you find are ones that you have created by misapplying one of the three characteristics to itself.

I''m pretty new on this forum, and I really appreciate it - I don't know if my own comment and participation in this discussion is within the guidelines of what is useful to post. If not, I apologize. Within the form of Buddhism I follow, we are taught to develop wisdom from first hearing, then studying (what we hear), and then meditating (based on our understanding.) The studying part is so helpful - but a balance of all three is important.
mjk 10 93, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 20 Join Date: 12/13/09 Recent Posts
Susan Law:
In this particular question you stated, my own answer is simply that your logic is flawed. The three characteristics are statements about the nature of one level of reality. Daniel calls them "qualities of all experience." He quotes the Buddha as saying, just before he died, "All phenomena are impermanent," and goes on to comment, "Absolute transience is truly the fundamental nature of experiential reality. What do I mean by 'experiential reality?' I mean the universe of sensations that you actually experience." My point is that Daniel is pointing to one level of reality - and defining it clearly: experienced sensations. The characteristic of impermanence itself is not an experienced sensation.


I'm not sure if this is true. I haven't experienced it yet, but I've head people talking about anicca as a bare sensation in its own right. Also at the end of his book Daniel talks about the Doors to Enlightenment as consisting only of two out of the three Characteristics. Presumably he sensed these Doors, right?

Anyway, even if Impermanence is not an experienced sensation, Buddha said that nothing exists besides the four elements and the five skandhas, with Nirvana presumably sort of hovering in the background, neither in existence nor out of it. So we could say that anicca is just a "concept" and not a sensation, but it would still be a mental formation and thus subject to impermanence itself. However, I guess we could say it is just the sensation of anicca is impermanent, it comes and goes like all other sensations, but the reality behind it remains.

As to what is it that requires all experienced phenomena to be impermanent, I would focus on the word "experienced." I think it is a function of our sensation, which either must sense change or itself change its own gaze in order to actually sense anything, rather than it being a property of the exterior world. Buddhists though would probably disagree.

It's a basic logical rule that when you apply rules or facts about one level of reality to another, you create paradoxes, falacies, and other errors. 'This statement is a lie,' is a well-known example. So the problems you find are ones that you have created by misapplying one of the three characteristics to itself.


Yes, this is known as the Liar Paradox but it only occurs in 2-valued logics. I'm not sure about much in Buddhism, but I know it's far beyond a 2-valued logic. Take for example the Buddha's statement about whether or not a Tathagata returns after death: "Neither returns, nor doesn't return, nor neither returns nor doesn't return, nor both returns and doesn't return." I think you'd need at least a 5-valued logic to make sense of that statement. Some people have interpreted that to mean his personal mindstream was at an end but that he would live on in his teachings, but he could have just said that. Of course the Buddha might just have been another one of those spiritual leaders who sounded mysterious for the sake of mystery, or to cover up flaws in his doctrine.

Within the form of Buddhism I follow, we are taught to develop wisdom from first hearing, then studying (what we hear), and then meditating (based on our understanding.) The studying part is so helpful - but a balance of all three is important.


Hmmm I think I'm stuck on the studying part!! But I am trying to meditate too. However I am not getting the impression of "no-self." As a result of meditation I do see "self" as much as an action now as a thing. "Self" seems to be the process of personal objectification. When I try the noting technique, the sensation "I am in pain" disappears and is simply replaced by "there is pain." But I also feel it was a "self" that did this and separated out from the pain, objectifying it. If the pain gets too intense, the self gets sucked back into identification with it. Meditation seems to be simply this process.

Daniel has said on here "sensations cannot observe other sensations." I wonder then what is doing the observing? He might say "nothing, it's an illusion." But to me it does not seem to be the case. I do accept that the observer only arises when there is something to observe, that there is no pure consciousness, which is in line with Buddhism (and yet there is a Jhana called "Pure Consciousness" - confusing!), but since this observer always seems to arise with the observed, I don't think it can be said not to exist, even though it does have a "flickering" existence. I think the word that best describes the relation between subject and object I am experiencing in meditation comes not from Buddhism (as far as I know, I haven't studied the Abhidharma too deeply), but continental philosophy, and that is extimate. It means two entities utterly dependent on one another, indeed interpenetrating one another, and yet utterly distinct qualia.

Too, I wonder, what is it that knows there is flickering?

I guess there are more mysteries to investigate in meditation. I remain where I was: Intrigued by the experiences, unconvinced by the doctrine.
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Florian Weps, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
Hi Mjk

Anicca as a "bare sensation": let me suggest an experiment, so you can gather a few data points; then you'll be more confident in sorting out the concepts about anicca and bare sensations.

It only takes a few minutes to do it once. Find a posture you can easily sustain for five minutes (I like to sit or recline). Pick a sensation from what is available - for example hearing the noises made by your computer (fan, hard disk activity...). The noises you hear keep changing: sometimes the disk wakes up for a quick access, there's a slow swelling overlay to the whirring of the fan ... the noise is not constant but changing, i.e. impermanent. Some components of the computer noise, such as the disk activity, even exhibit noticeable beginnings and endings. You could try to notice as many sensations ending as possible - the ending itself is not a sensation, but it is a symptomatic, distinctive, characteristic feature of the way sensations present themselves to us.

Sensations not able to observe other sensations: these are related, but again, I suggest you simply try the experiment. If the observer is a sensation in its own right, it should be possible to observe it. Again, with audible sensations (but try with your own favorite ones): what is hearing the sounds? Where is the place where sounds are heard? What does the "hearer" sound like? What's hearing the hearer? How do I "hear" my thoughts and memories? Is it the same "place" where I "hear" external sounds?

Noticing anatta is a bit like noticing anicca: Where anicca is most noticeable when sensations stop suddenly (though it is there in the beginning and during the evolving sensation as well), anatta is easiest to notice when crossing the border between "me/mine" and "not me/mine". Cross it repeatedly for stongest effect (this technique was explained by Tarin a few months back); for example, to stick with the sound experiment a few paragraphs back: when hearing the disk seek (outside, "not me"), what do I feel about that (inside, "me"). The "how do I feel about it" part can be tricky at first, so try looking in the "place" where strong feelings tend to present - joy, the "sinking sensation" of shock and so on. With me, these emotional sensations tend to be located broadly between the sternum and the navel, so I "look" there for "my" reactions to external sensations which are "not me". Switch back and forth between external sensations and their internal counterparts / reactions / consequences. Hey - it's a mechanism! "My" feelings about what's happening are caused by what's happening. They are not under "my" control, i.e. something I consider "mine" (my feelings), which are "inside" "me", are not under "my" control. Something belonging to me is determined not by myself! (Actually, this exercise can also be used to register the dukkha characteristic: watch for the "I'm fed up with this", for starters; and anicca as well: very strong in the sensations of shifting attention around. I hope Tarin will step in if I'm writing nonsense about his technique).

While this reply is a bit long-winded, I hope to convey how cool it is to actually do these experiments for oneself. Figuring out theory is great fun, and seeing if it flies is the best part. You write that you are unconvinced about Buddhist doctrine: that's a highly useful attitude: try to experientially debunk the Dharma. Go find those sensations which sense other sensations. Dig up something that is purely "you", with no trace of anything foreign in it. Sift out all the impermanent sensations in your actual experience, to get at the truly unchanging, eternal ones.

Buddhist teachings are pretty threadbare when taken as dogma: As a set of opinions to hold, they are not much to show for. Taken as suggestions for practice, tools for examining experience, I've found them to be very useful.

Cheers,
Florian

edit: switched "anicca" for "anatta" in 4th paragraph (in italics).
mjk 10 93, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 20 Join Date: 12/13/09 Recent Posts
Thanks - there are some really good suggestions in there - especially about noticing sensations as they pass the "border" between self and non-self. That seems like some fertile ground for practice. I've cleared a block in my schedule for a long sit tomorrow and I will be experimenting.

To address one of your other points, I doubt I will find any "self" unalloyed with the foreign. Quite the opposite: Self only seems to arise in response to some external (or extimate, as I call it) stimulus. So in that sense it is technically conditional and not absolute. However, since it always so arises, and since it seems it can then extricate itself from the initial object of arising to a "higher" plane of examining the sensation as not-self, I wouldn't call it impermanent or illusory either in the sense that I have heard those words used around here.

Well, I guess the only solution to these mysteries is more practice.
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Florian Weps, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
Hi Mjk

I'm glad you liked my post.

mjk 10 93:
To address one of your other points, I doubt I will find any "self" unalloyed with the foreign.


Me, too. But if we stop here, we're just mutually reaffirming our opinions. Like you write in your reply, this needs to be verified in practice.

mjk 10 93:
Quite the opposite: Self only seems to arise in response to some external (or extimate, as I call it) stimulus. So in that sense it is technically conditional and not absolute.


"technically" being an euphemism for "theoretically", surely?

mjk 10 93:
However, since it always so arises, and since it seems it can then extricate itself from the initial object of arising to a "higher" plane of examining the sensation as not-self, I wouldn't call it impermanent or illusory either in the sense that I have heard those words used around here.


Aren't you equating "self" with "observer" here?

In my long, rambling post I tried to point out how the "observer" isn't a sensation in its own right, but is implied by the observed sensations. But the sensations I claim as "my self / myself / mine" are simply observed, just like all the other sensations. Yet all sensations are "alloyed with the foreign", as you so aptly phrase the not-self characteristic - even the ones that imply "my self".

mjk 10 93:
Well, I guess the only solution to these mysteries is more practice.


The best possible conclusion. Looking forward to your results. emoticon

Btw, while obviously the big chunks of time are important for practice, I've also been able to make fast progress on 15-minute sits (or stands, or walks) during breaks at work, on commutes, under the shower, and so on. Walking meditation in particular is very useful (to me, at least). I just amble along in a park with the other promenaders during my lunch break, I don't do formal back-and-forth pacing there.

Cheers,
Florian
Susan Law, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 25 Join Date: 9/27/09 Recent Posts
I found your reply informative - more things I don't know about logic! Florian's responses also seem quite useful - very practical. And you replied at one point,
Well, I guess the only solution to these mysteries is more practice.
That's it.
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Wet Paint, modified 12 Years ago.

RE: A Question About No-Self

Posts: 22924 Join Date: 8/6/09 Recent Posts
Author: garyrh

There is the appearence of a doer, seeer, thinker that appears to constantly exist. In examining this thought of "I" consider a thought can take another thought as an object. From here there are three ways to examine this. The first is through logic, for example if you say I must exist because I am looking, this is a thought, not a self. The second is to notice the "I" type thoughts that validate the appearence of an I. The third, insight meditation practice will quite early in the process make this self (pun intended) evident.