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Transcending the Self

The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part Six

written by Rick Hanson February 21, 2020
Transcending the Self

Part Six: Transcending the Self

Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of ‘self’ is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent. — The Dalai Lama


To soften the grip of the self, even to the point of complete release, it helps to replace the conditions which activate it with conditions that promote its absence.

So let’s explore what some of those liberating conditions might be and how to encourage their presence in your mind and your life.

Understanding of “Not-Self”

Having a basic understanding of “not-self” – anatta in Buddhism – and perhaps even some penetrating insight into it, is foundational. This includes a personal conviction, based on reason and experiential “seeing for oneself,” of the truth of this clarity about the nature of self and its problems.

Many, many traditions offer very clear and persuasive analyses of the groundlessness of the individual self, and of the benefits of opening up into the larger, even universal, ground – Ground? – of being. For example, in Buddhism, clinging to self is one of the four main objects of attachment that lead to suffering.

The importance of understanding – conceptual, experiential, and embodied – should not be underestimated amidst legitimate concerns about getting too heady or lost in thought. As an illustration of this point from Buddhism, Wise View is placed first in the discussion of the Noble Eightfold Path since it is foundational for what follows.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

Since a sense of threat triggers the self strongly, it is very helpful to activate the “rest-and-digest,” parasympathetic wing of the autonomic nervous system, which dampens the “fight-or-flight,” sympathetic wing. The PNS brings feelings of safety, calm, and contented well-being. If you flop down on the couch after a long day of work and breathe out and feel at peace, your PNS is lighting up all over your body.

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