I want to start this post with a few mental exercises. You’ll do them first, then I’ll try to explain their purpose.
Imagine yourself, in first person, at a place you would like to be. If you like the beach, then imagine yourself at the beach. It’s not really important where, just that you can clearly picture it in your mind. Once you have an image in your mind, try to incorporate your other senses as well. If you’re picturing a beach, then imagine the sensation of the sand beneath your feet and in between your toes. You can also try the sensation of the wind blowing. If you succeed in that, then add in the sound of seagulls squawking. You can incorporate as many new features into your world as you want. Then when you finish, continue reading.
While you were imagining whatever place you picked, where were you? Where was the place you were imagining? As you incorporated more features into your imagination, where did those new features come from? Where did they go after you finished the exercise?
Time for the second exercise. Stand up if you aren’t already. Take 2 steps forward. Where is the first step you took? Take another step. Recall the last step you just took. Where is it now? When is it? Where and when is it while you’re remembering it? You can sit back down now.
The third exercise involves paying close attention. Focus your attention on the sensation of breathing. Take a few breaths in and out, just focusing on breathing. If a thought comes careening into consciousness and it interrupts, that’s fine. Just observe it the same way you observe your breathing. Expand your awareness as wide as it can go to other sensations in the body such as tension, tiredness, or restlessness. Don’t limit yourself to bodily sensations. Emotions of happiness, enjoyment, sadness, anger, disgust and anything without a noun attached to it is also permitted. Nothing that enters consciousness can be invalid. It’s all valid and it’s all acknowledged. Just observe as much of it as you can. After you finish, continue reading.
Now that you’ve completed the third exercise, here are some questions. Where were the sensations you noticed? If you noticed any thoughts during the exercise, where were those thoughts? Were they the same place as the sensations or a different place? Since I’m asking about them, you may be recalling the thoughts and sensations. Where and when is your recollection of your thoughts and sensations?
For more exercises, you can visit headless.org. I’d highly recommend checking out the site. The experiments found there are clever. Different techniques work better for different people. You might find a technique which works better for you than the exercises I’ve written.
What’s the Point?
By now I think I’ve exhausted my allowance of strange sounding questions directed at the reader. For readers that don’t get the idea yet, I’m going to come out and say it. All these exercises are trying to get you to experience one thing: The only time and place is here and now. In objective reality, there are separate places and times. Events “happen” here, or there. They happen in the past, present or future. To say everything happens at the same time and place seems like gibberish. Who would say such a thing? The catch is, it’s meant in a very specific sense. I’m not denying that there’s a real world that persists independently of our experience. Trees that fall down in the forest do make a sound even if no one is there to hear it. I’m merely pointing out that to experience something is synonymous with it appearing in consciousness. Consciousness is the only place for anything to appear. Past events are just memories recalled in the present. Future possibilities are imagined in the present. The reality of our experience is always now. We all live in an Eternal Here and Now.
The Darth Vader of responses to this is “So what? What does it matter?”. It can be really hard to show someone why this matters if they don’t already see significance. There could be practical benefits to this kind of realization but the primary one is no longer being confused about what you are any more, and no longer suffering for it. People in the midst of this realization sometimes have a peculiar way of phrasing things. Instead of saying “I’m happy”, they say “There is happiness” as in “Happiness is present in consciousness”. You are never really happy, but there is happiness sometimes. Our usual way of talking is with subject-object form. But the sensation of being a subject in relation to a separate, external world of objects is itself a sensation appearing in consciousness. “There is a sensation of I”. As a side note, none of this entails that it’s not useful or important to have a sense of personal identity. A sense of identity is socially necessary. The contrapositive of that is that in order to lose your sense of “I”, it’s useful to undergo social isolation as many monks do.
Am I just an Observer?
You might wonder after reading all this if you’re just some passive observer to this flow of experience. I’ve written at length about this before, but it’s certain that you don’t have free will. It’s possible through meditation and other means to notice this firsthand. While it’s possible to feel either way about it, that you are doing things or that things are happening to you, we know neuroanatomically that the feeling of being the author of your actions, that you are doing things, has to be an illusion. There’s nowhere for the author to be hiding. There are only actions. And in that sense you aren’t ultimately responsible for your actions, at least not in a way that justifies punishment for the sake of it. It’s just because of the way language is that we have to talk about a “do-er” and an “action” as if you could ever really separate the two.
There’s no satisfying way I can answer the question directly because the question assumes it makes sense to talk about an observer separately from that which is being observed. My suggestion is that dualistic distinctions about the subjective nature of reality are arbitrary. In subjective reality, there is only a “happening”. Consciousness is just the word we use for the space that we imagine the happening taking place in. We imagine that experiences must occur in some place at some time, so we call that place consciousness. The phrase “consciousness and its contents” shouldn’t be understood to indicate dualism I think. It’s just a way of talking. “Consciousness and its contents” gets across the idea that experience is ever-changing. Everything is transitory because the contents are always changing. And the phrase “a happening” standing on its own better communicates the idea that experience is non-dual, that there is no experiencer in addition to the experience.
One possible answer to the question “Am I just an observer of experience?” is that the question is incoherent. But perhaps the best response is “Who’s asking?”. In truth, it’s far more rich to directly experience no-self, The Eternal Here and Now, rather than trying to nail down answers to philosophical questions about subjectivity. When it comes to non-dual experience, words fail us because they differentiate. There’s no substitute for direct experience, so go try some more exercises and see what you find.