At our deepest core, each of us is a blank page.
It sounds like one of those vapid aphorisms, but you can test this for yourself.
When you look out at the world, what do you see?
I was listening to the Sam Harris “Making Sense” podcast in the car last week, to Episode 181, entitled, “The Illusory Self.” After a rather long introduction it’s a conversation with a gentleman named Richard Lang, who is a colleague of the late Douglas Harding, who years ago wrote a book entitled, “On Having No Head,” the Kindle version of which is free on Amazon.
Finding your blank page
If you are interested in a provocative and deceptively simple way to discover not who you think you are, but who you actually are, I highly recommend you listen to the podcast, read the book, or go to some of the exercises on his website, headless.org.
I’ll give you just a hint, just a taste, here. When you look out at the world, you might see the blue sky, your office computer, a coworker, a spouse.
You see your world. (And if you close your eyes, you hear your world.) You have sensations, you have feelings, and those are part of your world, too.
But that world is not you. Your thoughts are not you. Your emotions are not you. They are things that are appearing in you.
Who or what is this “you” that is looking and listening and feeling? Does it have any characteristics? Any at all? And why should we care?
After doing some of the experiments that Richard Lang suggests (and getting on a Zoom call to do them with a group), I can’t find any characteristics at all in what is looking out of my eyes. I see things that are appearing in my consciousness. But I don’t see anything that I can ascribe to whatever they are appearing in. I’ll describe more below, but I encourage to you try this for yourself. Reading about it and experiencing it are completely different.
What I have found
When I saw this, I saw that I am not the story that I call “me.” I am the blank page on which that story appears.
Most of us have pages that are already close to full. Our pages consist of assumptions, of stories about people, about ourselves, about the world, about what we need to do or have in order to be worthy.
These assumptions, these stories, were for the most part told to us by other people. By parents and siblings and peers and teachers, by the media and society. And we believe them without really looking at them. Sometimes, if we are into self improvement, we try to change the stories with other stories we call “affirmations.”
But I’m not my affirmations, either.
When I look out of my own eyes I do not see myself as others see me. I can’t see my head, my eyes, my ears. If believe solely what I see, rather than what I have been told, I am just open space. I am a blurry oval space of indeterminate size in which the entire world appears. “I” have no characteristics whatsoever.
I know this is true for me and I highly suspect it is true for you, too. Again, try it, by listening to the podcast or going to the website.
We appear in the third person to others. You see me and I see you as finite. I construct stories about you based on what I see and know, and those stories are infinitely smaller than you are. But I see myself in the first person. And the space of first person is just an opening for the world.
Empty. I find that most people instinctively think this is impossible. We can’t possibly be all of this. We can’t possibly hold all of this.
Who are you, really?
So if we are not infinite, if we are not what we actually see, who are we? Someone must know who we are, even if we don’t. So we look to others to tell us what we are. We give them the power to define us. Parents, friends, teachers, coworkers. We are wired to believe that if we don’t get their approval, we will be kicked out of the tribe. So we act as we think others want us to act.
We are also wired to believe that there is some amount of money or status that will make us feel whole. That wholeness is “out there,” rather than being an intrinsic part of us.
But it isn’t true. Take a look for yourself.
What will you find? And what can you do?
What stories have you believed about yourself and the world instead of looking closely at what you actually know to be true?
It may take some time for you to see some of these stories. For some of them to bubble into your consciousness once you see that you are much bigger, and much less limited, than you ever thought.
What do you see when you see the world and yourself without those stories?
And what happens, what becomes possible, when you return to your blank page?