On Self and Not-Self

Early on in my exploration of this field, there was something in the teaching which accidentally created a sese of three in me.

There was Self-with-a-capital-S, who was like an angel sitting on my left shoulder, offering “good” advice. There was self-with-a little-s, who was like a demon on my right shoulder, offering “bad” advice. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. And me stuck in the middle.

It felt like me, myself and I.

You’ll hear these phrases used in nondual teaching: me, I, I-I, the Self, separate self… and words from religious traditions, like Brahman and Atman. All pointing to different aspects, or non-existing ideas. All depending on the teacher and how they see their student.


In the old metaphor of John Smith the actor and King Lear (see Rupert Spira’s telling of it here), some teachers address John Smith (because he’s real and Lear is a character in a play), and others address King Lear, because they want to speak to the misunderstanding in John’s mind that he is Lear.

I’ve seen teachers getting aggressively adamant that their way is correct and the other way is wrong. And they both have great reasons.

But in being tied to one or the other, we miss the fact of the metaphor – and particularly that a metaphor is a stepping stone or a hand up, not a final truth.

Beyond the metaphor:

I, infinite awareness, am always awake. Can’t not be. Awareness is, by definition, knowingly aware. So, awareness has never forgotten that awareness. We’re not waking awareness up.

I, Sara, know myself as a person in a world. However awake I am, that experience has not disappeared, nor would it be healthy for it to do so.

I awareness, knowing myself as though this person also have the capacity to know myself as though a person who might believe themselves to be awareness, or might believe themselves to be separate. Thoughts feelings and actions will follow this (usually hidden) belief.

The belief is not a misunderstanding made by awareness, but a facet of the first person experience – just as the thoughts, feelings and actions are also facets of the first person experience.


The essence of the nondual teaching is to bring the hidden belief to light. Not for the sake of awareness, because awareness never believed awareness to be anything other than awareness. Not for the sake of the separate self, because that still doesn’t exist, even in experience. But for the sake of the person. If we dip back into the metaphor, what we’re really telling John Smith is that the truth of his being is awareness, not Lear. And that this truth is experienced through the vehicle of the first person experience of John. No wonder people prefer the simple version!

In the nondual journey, we’re exploring the Sara experience, the Helen experience, the Tom, Dick and Harry experience.

Which is why in all the confusion of both, “You don’t exist” and “You are infinite awareness”, I’ve found something more foundational:

We know ourselves as a person in the world, this is right and healthy. I call this “self-in-the-world”, purely to allow for the content of this experience. (Partly because someone once yelled at me, incorrectly, “If you see a world, you are seeing separation, and you can’t tell me different!”) Then, as this self-in-the-world, we might live in the sense of the true self (“self”) or we might live in the misplaced sense of a separate self (“not-self”).

All of which gives us the background as to how we approach our thinking, motivated by a sense of self or not-self.

Consider the sentence, “I hate your jumper.” If you are feeling great about yourself, you might well laugh at the speaker. If you are feeling insecure in yourself, you’ll probably take it more seriously.

In the same way, if you are living in a felt sense of separation (which is, by nature insecure), a thought, any thought, is likely to be taken more seriously.


Which means that judging the truth or not of any given thought might be helpful for making King Lear feel a bit better about his life, but it’s ultimately only a very early stepping stone.

The feeling we have says way more about our sense of self-or-not than it does about the actual thought. And this introduces us to a fool-proof system for navigating thoughts – and life.

This navigation depends on your recognition and articulation of your felt sense of self or not-self. Because, honestly, you’re not very likely to be wondering round saying, “I believe I am a separate self.” But you are likely to be immersed in a felt sense of that belief.

The cool thing, and also the challenge, is that no one can tell you what your articulation is. You find the words in your exploration. Whilst we use words of emotions and feelings, these are deeper versions, cutting to the core.

Your sense of self might be flow, peace, love, freedom, joy, compassion, wisdom, okayness. For me, it’s more of a sense of comfort, like my body being at peace in every cell, but in a cosy way, not an empty way. Sort of like the feeling at the end of a really good meal.

Your sense of not-self might be tightness, excitement, flatness, agitation, agony, dismay, bitterness, victimhood. Mine is urgency, like gotta do a thing now now now. Often with a side order of need to escape.

In the felt sense of self, you will respond to thought very differently to in the felt sense of not-self.

For some people, the thoughts change with the sense of “self” – they become more peaceful and loving (this tends to be a neurotypical reaction). For others (often neurodiverse) the thoughts don’t change, but how seriously the thoughts are considered does. In either case the feelings provoked by thoughts, and thence the actions will be more aligned to who we are.

Thought is, in many ways, an output or an expression. Not a cause.


All of which means if we feel “not-self”, that is a prompt to return to “self”. Like a self-correcting mechanism (sorry, not sorry). When I feel urgent, the prompt points me to do something that shifts the energy – tying my hair up, letting it down… eating, resting, moving… Yours might be meditating, yoga, talking to someone, going for a walk…

And then seeing what action (or non-action) manifest from there. Nothing is off the table. There isn’t a rule about that.


I am no longer stuck in the middle of the angel and demon I perceived at the start. I don’t assess any individual thought to allocate to the “good” bucket or the “bad” bucket. Me, myself and I turn out to all be this singular self, navigating the world through the felt sense of who I am.

With Love, Sara

Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

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