All self-images are false. None of them match you. Any image that you’ve ever had of yourself, mental or visual, has been wrong.
That’s because an image is not a person. An image is an image, made of something totally different and vastly simpler than what people are made of. Images are made of things like pixels, or light, or even just thoughts, or all three. People are not.
At best images are crude symbols of real people, and they represent the real thing about as well as an ink-dot on a map can represent Los Angeles. Yet somehow we confuse our self-images with ourselves all the time.
Here’s an unexciting photo I took of my image, in the bathroom just now.
So where am I in this picture?
Your first impulse might be to say the figure in the mirror, pretending to act cool and disinterested. But clearly, from that perspective, I can’t be on the other side of the mirror, four feet into the wall, because that would put me in my neighbor’s apartment.
I have to be on the near side of the wall, certainly. Nearer than every one of those bathroom details. Remember, I am the one taking the picture. Closer than the mirror, closer than the shower curtain. It has to be zero distance, really. So you actually can’t see me in the picture, just as I couldn’t see me as I took it.
In fact, I am always the viewer, the picture-taker. Every moment I’ve ever lived that’s been true. So I always have to be on the near side of every object I see, closer than the closest speck of dust that floats in front of me. I’m always zero distance from myself! You are always zero distance from yourself.
Images, on the other hand, are always at a distance — either physically in the case of visual images, or chronologically in the case of mental images.
Life is lived from zero distance
The humble question of “What is the self?” can lead to long, masturbatory discourses, and I’ll try to steer clear of that here. But it’s a good question with real-life implications and I think we have a mistaken idea of the answer.
We tend to think of ourselves as our bodies, part of which is the brain and all the things it does. That, plus the story of ourselves: how we got here, what we are good at and not good at, what we own and don’t own, and how we feel about the apparent state of our life stories.
All those details change constantly though, and eventually give way to something else. Our bodies certainly do that. They grow and shrink, shed and regenerate, rot, dry up and blow away. Your body is only the same “thing” throughout life on the conceptual level.
So the figure I see in the mirror, and all the peripheral thoughts that it triggers — how I feel about that guy in the mirror, what I like about him and don’t like about him, what I expect will happen to him, what I wish had happened to him earlier — all that changes. It can be different at any given time. The impression I have of that image today is different to some degree from any one of the other thousands of impressions I’ve gotten from looking at him over the last thirty years. I find a different self-image every time I look for one, and that means none can be trusted.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is whatever is looking at that figure in the mirror.
So what’s doing the looking? The logical part of my mind — the bespectacled accountant-type who crunches the numbers tirelessly but never ponders their significance — figures the image in the mirror is the same thing that’s on this side. It thinks an object of similar proportions must be what’s doing the looking. Of course, that object has many wonderful qualities that aren’t visible from the image, but it is still just a thing, an animated stick of meat with a nice smile and big hopes, just like on the other side of the glass.
The other part of my mind, the intuitive part — the part that knows by direct experience, rather than concludes by pattern and association — understands that the figure in the mirror isn’t me. It’s an isometric mockup, an unreasonable facsimile, dumbed down a thousand-fold from my direct experience of myself as the observer of that moment.
If I suspend preconceptions about who I’m supposed to be, in that moment (and in every moment) I appear to be a clear, boundless frame that contains not just that whole figure, but the mirror and everything else it contains, along with the good half-bathroom that contains the mirror, not to mention its complement of sounds and reverberations, its unique, uh, scents, and some Radiohead playing from somewhere. And thoughts. Invisible, fleeting, chaotic, but definitely there and definitely real.
No matter what the scene, I’m what’s watching it. That’s the sole common thread in every experience I’ve ever had: that I’m experiencing it. Nothing else has stayed the same. Everything else is content. All that passing stuff is the show, I’m the stage.
None of the details are you
The beholder of all this stuff, which must be me, of course has no real details of its own. It’s empty. Details pass through it and leave it clean. Even the lanky, occasionally smelly mass that I think of as my body still can only be described as changing scenery. It’s changed over the years and I have reason to believe it will break down and begin to fall apart one day, all while I look on.
Thoughts, too, come and go, and I can watch them do that. So they can’t be me either, or I would have forgotten myself out of existence by now.
This is what it means to really experience yourself in the first person. You recognize that none of the details are you. Your body isn’t you. You can call it you, or even just yours, but you’re only going to be able to make an arbitrary claim that you wish were true — ultimately, it’s unenforceable. The universe won’t really respect your claim. It will take your body and what you believe are your possessions from you one day anyway, no matter how attached you are.
When you cut off your fingernail (perhaps to be found later on a hotel bedspread by horrified subsequent guests) is it still you? Or is it a part of the outside world? Wasn’t it always?
I know that the real me is the one who’s looking at that guy in the mirror with the Beatles shirt. The one for whom the counter is not reversed, the one who can look down and see Abbey Road upside down rather than backwards, legs pointing toward the top of the frame rather than the bottom, as they do in the mirror and (allegedly) in the eyes of others.
Where am I in this picture? Am I in that dull 4×6 print? Am I the crooken horizon of cotton garments with two black sock-obelisks rising in the distance? The hand? The Reagan-era floor tiles?
No matter what impressions I get of myself from other people, photos, and mirrors, I’m always the one doing the looking.
The sky is blue, but you knew that already
Like all talk on this particular topic, whether it’s in religious language or not, it will confuse most, mislead some, and click a light bulb for a few.
It’s hard to talk about this idea of experiential knowledge, or “intuitive knowledge,” because we tend to think of intuition as some kind of hunch — an emotional lean towards one of many possiblities. But that’s not it at all. Intuition is direct, subjective knowledge of an aspect of the present moment — knowledge by direct contact with the experience.
Knowing you plan to be awake at 9am tomorrow is conceptual knowledge, thinking-based knowledge. Recognizing that you are awake right now is intuitive knowledge.
Intuitive knowledge is experience, and conceptual knowledge is thinking that has you convinced that something is true outside your present experience. Both are useful, both can be fairly called knowledge, but they’re completely different.
Picture this: someone is dying to convince you that the sky is blue, and he’s got all kinds of proof, in charts, accounts from others, data on wavelengths of light and solar refraction, and swears he has no personal bias in the matter. He knows it’s true because the data could allow for no other possible conclusion.
But he’s never been outside.
You are outside, and the truth is plain to you, and it makes the idea of proof absurd.
Over and over again, in almost every spiritual path or philosophical venture into the matter, at the end of the day the “self” is found to be simply the awareness of experience itself. And that awareness itself appears to be nothing, with stuff happening in that nothing. You can look and look and look for some thing at the centre of your experience, some it, some indivisible billiard ball of an object that things are happening to, but you’ll never find it.
You can agree or disagree with that, and it makes no difference. Belief or disbelief in that assertion amount to the same thing, because it’s applicable only to your own first-person experience, so there’s no communicable evidence. You can’t learn if it’s true that way. Yet it’s absolutely possible to experience yourself that way — as consciousness, as capacity for detail.
Nonduality, being “one” with the universe, being God, emptiness, and all other seeming mumbo-jumbo talked up by hippy-dippy types and celebrity gurus — for all their fluffy pseudo-spiritual connotations, these phrases are perfectly reasonable attempts to describe the implications of what it’s like to realize who you really are. It’s accessible, entirely non-denominational, and entirely un-super-natural, but can’t be gotten at with logic, rhetoric or science. Those who depend on those tools alone will miss it.
I will recommend the works of the great Douglas Harding until the day I die, because I’ve never found anyone who’s better at using the english language to direct people to have that experience. Read On Having No Head. Or poke around here.
And I don’t mean to characterize it as something exclusive or even particularly spectacular. Just something refreshingly sensible, with astounding implications. Like Robert Beatty always says, “People always expect it to be like a great Tadaaaa! Like Vegas or something.”
Whether you’ve experienced yourself as emptiness (or whatever), or you haven’t but want to, or you think it’s all a bunch of bullshit, “All self-images are false” is a worthy mantra to remember. It supplies a dose of sense and perspective whenever you feel anxiety over one or more of the details of whichever self-image you happen to be preoccupied with in a given moment.
Whatever it is about your image that dissatisfies you is a transient detail within your experience, and you can come to terms with it much the same way as you come to terms with transient details of the outside world — bad weather, political strife, high gas prices. They’re the same thing, and to know that alone is a relief.
If you adopt that mantra, you’ll gradually begin to see the image in the mirror less as yourself, and more like a living scuplture that you’re pretty fond of. You’ll always want to trim it here and there, both its physical appearance and the story surrounding it. You’ll feel good when it looks good or when you add something to it, feel bad when it looks bad or when part of it breaks or withers, and it will never look or feel quite right for very long.
But the drive for perfecting it will gradually a) lose its feeling of supreme importance, and b) reveal itself as impossible anyway.
Once you really see it, the corollary to “All self-images are false” is inevitable, and now I can’t brush my teeth without thinking of it:
You are always on this side of the mirror.
All photos by David Cain. Original photo of David with brown hat taken by Bonky Rogers.