Working with “What is Self? “


I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and didn’t publish it since it clearly came, at least partly, from being in the grips of my own shadow and beliefs. The content is maybe OK enough, but the tone is certainly from being caught up in beliefs creating a sense of I am right and she is wrong. I am smarter than she is. I get it, she doesn’t quite.

So having said that, here it is…

I have just started on What is Self by Bernadette Roberts, and see that it is going to be more challenging than The Path to No-Self.

As long as she writes about her own experience and path from unitive life to realized selflessness, it is wonderful, clear, vivid and differentiated writing. But as soon as she sees this as more than one general category of the awakening process, and starts comparing it with her understanding of other’s writing and systems, it falls apart pretty quickly.

Essentially, she seems to be in the grips of the belief somebody should have told me and even they deceived me in terms of the difference between the unitive life and realized selflessness, when what seems to be going on is that she didn’t see what was right in front of her, and clearly expressed by many. And then she sets out to find evidence and proof for her belief, which, of course, is easily done. It is the job of the mind to find proof for its beliefs.

Specifically, she overgeneralizes. She tends to present the phases of her own path as more generally true than it is. There are many more patterns than just this one.

Then, she filters and interprets what she reads by others to fit her belief that nobody else, or very few, have ever written about that distinction (!) And then sets out to prove it as best as she can, often by shooting down her own idiosyncratic interpretation of the writings (which typically seem far from what the authors and traditions themselves would agree with). She fights windmills, foes created through her own particular interpretation.

She also, for some reason, compares her experiences with realized selflessness with Jung’s ideas about the Self, which is a hopeless project from the start. Jung’s Self is the whole of the individual body-mind, and at an entirely different level than Ground awakening. It is a comparison of what was never meant to be compared, of what is on two different levels as if they were on the same.

Some things that come up for me when I read her book, and some topics for me to explore and clarify for myself…

  • When she uses the word “consciousness” she seems to refer to a combination of awareness and its content, which seems confusing (at least, it makes it confusing to me). More precisely, she seems to refer to awareness (seeing) + its content in the form of the human mind such as thoughts, emotions etc. (the seen). It seems easier and clearer to talk about it as awakeness and its content of whatever arises here now, which indeed does often include emotions, thoughts and so on.
  • The difference between unitive life (oneness) and realized selflessness is pretty basic and elementary, and described by lots of people in many different traditions. Even Bhagavan of diksha fame, who talks about these things in very simple terms, is very clear about the distinction between oneness (an I here stably One with God and all existence) and realized selflessness (void awakening to itself). And the various traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sufism, are often equally clear and explicit about this shift.
  • She talks about the shifts from ego-state to egolessness to no-self as qualitatively different, which they are, especially in the experience of it. But there is also a difference in degrees. In both the ego-state and egolessness, as she defines it, there is a belief in stories, and specifically in the story of a separate I, overlaid on what is. Although many stories are stripped away in the egoless state, the core story of an I with an Other is still there, and the two phases are the same there. When this final story falls away, and is recognized as only a story, Ground is revealed to itself. There is just this field of awake void and form, awake to itself as a field inherently absent of an I with an Other, without a center anywhere.
  • She mentions that realized selflessness must be awful for someone who does not believe in, or relate to, Christ. But Christ or not, it is just awake void noticing itself. There is an inherent neutrality here, allowing any content to come and go, including absence or presence of Christ, in whatever form that presence may be. Void awakening to itself is void awakening to itself, independent of content.
  • She mentions that Hinduism has a problem in explaining the relationship between a (false) sense of separate self and Brahman, but, to me at least, the way Hinduism talks about this is exactly its strength. There is only Brahman, which is awake void and form (my words there), and when there is a belief in any story, there is an overlay of a sense of a separate self. This field of awake void and form is filtered through a sense of I and Other, which creates the appearance of a separate self, and it seems very substantial and real for as long as it lasts. But it is all the play of the same awake void. What is here now, this awareness and its content, is Brahman, whether there is an appearance of an separate self there or void is awake to itself and there is realized selflessness. (If I knew the terminology of Hinduism better I could use that, but in absence of much scholarly knowledge I have to use my own words.)
  • more to come…

This may or may not be accurate about her (in a relative and limited sense), but it certainly describes me. As I write this, I am doing exactly what I see in her. For instance, I have a belief, and then set out to find (or produce) evidence for it.

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3 thoughts to “Working with “What is Self? “”

  1. The above essay-in-progess implicitly suggests that the truths Bernadette Roberts has come upon are essentially the same as those which nondualists are describing– but somehow Roberts is incapable of seeing these essential likenesses.

    Having attended many retreats given by Bernadette Roberts over a period of nearly twenty-five years, I know for certain that her paradigm is completely different from “nondualism”– Advaita or otherwise.

    Indeed, she calls the nondualist misconception of her paradigm “forcing the fit,” which she defines in a recent book as “redefining, clipping, pasting, twisting– to make the original fit a dissonant paradigm” (Roberts, “Forcing-the-Fit,” Foreword, 2008).

    In her essay, “Nondualism,” she writes: “It is unfortunate that those who aspire to a nondual state will never reach it– because it doesn’t exist. In truth it is just another illusion to be dispelled. With or without self, there is no state in the journey truly ‘nondual,’ neither in our earthly journey nor in heaven” (Roberts, “Essays on the Christian Contemplative Journey,” 2007, p. 71.)

    In addition, she clearly distinguishes her paradigm from that of nondualism in another work, “What Is Self? The Spiritual Journey In Terms of Consciousness.” All books cited above are available at

  2. Thanks! That is very interesting. Do you know how she differentiates the two, and can you put it in a nutshell?

    It may be a matter of difference in words, although it can certainly also be a difference in terrain. I am open to both, and think it would be exiting if there is a difference in terrain.

    A few things that come up for me right now, before I have read the books and essays you point to:

    A nondual awakening is not usually referred to as a “state” b/c it is independent of content of experience. It is just a clear seeing that any separate self is created by a mental overlay. (Of course more than just discursive thought.)

    Also, a shift into nondual awakening is not all that uncommon. I know personally – in my own life – more than a handful people where it is stable, and am familiar with shifting into it here too at times. (In my case, it is now more at the border.)

    I assume BR does not deny the awakening expressed through these people (at least I can’t, since I am familiar with it through the experience here), but that what they call nondual is not really nondual.

    Again, it could be a difference in words. Usually, nondual simply refers to the Ground of all waking up to itself, where the content of experience stays the same (or not), noticing that there is no I with an Other there, no center, no inside and outside. Since I know that from right here, I cannot discount that form of nondual awakening from happening.

    It is often pointed out that any term used to describe it is obviously just a label, and necessary inaccurate. What awakens to itself is distinct from, more than and includes all polarities, and words split, so words cannot even approach it. If you look at the label “nondual” from a nondual awakening, the label itself is obviously very inadequate, but so are any words. We just make the best out of it.

    Any statement is a question, has limited and practical value only, and there is also validity/limited value to each of its reversals… and that is what is more clearly seen when there is a nondual awakening.

    So a few possibilities:

    * She is able to discern that the awakening commonly referred to as nondual is not quite nondual, that the terrain is different.
    * She is not aware that the “nondual” label is universally recognized as just a label and very inadequate, and that what it refers to is distinct from/more than/includes all polarities. (That is emphasized so frequently that she must be familiar with it, so I assume this is not the case.)
    * She is not familiar with that form of awakening herself. (Or rather, it hasn’t happened over there yet.) And since she is not familiar with it, it can’t exist. (I think she is probably smarter than that.)
    * There is something I don’t get. (Pretty much guaranteed….!)

  3. I took a look at the website you linked to (thanks!), but am even more confused 🙁

    I see that the essay “forcing the fit” partly refers to the work of Almaas, whom I am somewhat familiar with. Almaas’ work offers a set of tools for inquiry, and some pointers and reports of what people commonly find when they engage in these forms of inquiry. To me, that seems very useful.

    It is a given that any pointer (such as those of Almaas and Bernadette Roberts), can be made into a belief, but that is exactly the beauty of it. It gives us material for inquiry, and inquiry is designed to invite beliefs to unravel and identification to be released out of stories and content of awareness in general.

    For me, at least, it makes more sense to focus on beliefs in general, independent on the content of those beliefs. And also to offer practical tools to work with beliefs directly.

    I assume that if beliefs in general were her concern, that is what she would focus on. But she is focusing on one particular approach – one aimed at investigating beliefs and inviting them to unravel – so it seems that she is concerned with something else.

    So again, there is obviously something I am not getting here….

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