The Essence of Self

by Peter Russell

“You have no location in space. Space is in you.”

I AM You, that part of you who is and knows . . .
that part of you who says I AM and is I AM . . .
I AM the innermost part of you that sits within,
and calmly waits and watches,
knowing neither time nor space . . .
It was I Who directed all your ways,
who inspired all your thoughts and acts….
I have been within always,
deep within your heart.
The Impersonal Life

Peter-RusselWhen the mind is devoid of all content, we not only find absolute serenity and peace; we also discover the true nature of the self.

Usually we derive our sense of self from the various things that distinguish us as individuals—our bodies and their appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us. We also derive an identity from the thoughts and feelings we have, from our beliefs and values, from our creative and intellectual abilities, from our character and personality. These, and many other aspects of our lives, contribute to our sense of who we are.

However, such an identity is forever at the mercy of events, forever vulnerable, and forever in need of protection and support. If anything on which our identity depends changes, or threatens to change, our very sense of self is threatened. If someone criticizes us, for example, we may feel far more upset than the criticism warrants, responding in ways that have more to do with defending or reinforcing our damaged self-image than with addressing the criticism itself.

In addition to deriving an identity from how we experience ourselves in the world, we also derive a sense of self from the very fact that we are experiencing. If there is experience, then there must, we assume, be an experiencer; there must be an “I” who is doing the experiencing. Whatever is going on in my mind, there is this sense that I am the subject of it all.

But what exactly is this sense of “I-ness”? I use the word “I” hundreds of times a day without hesitation. I say that I am thinking or seeing something, that I have a feeling or desire, that I know or remember something. It is the most familiar, most intimate, most obvious aspect of myself. I know exactly what I mean by “I”—until I try to describe it or define it. Then I run into trouble.

Looking for the self is rather like being in a dark room with a flashlight, shining it around trying to find the source of the light. All one would find are the various objects in the room that the light falls upon. It is the same when I try to look for the subject of all experience. All I find are the various ideas, images, and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of the experience.

What is this “I”? . . . You will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean
by “I” is the ground-stuff upon which [experiences and memories] are collected.
—Erwin Schrödinger

Although the self may never be known as an object of experience, it can be known in another, more intimate, immediate way. When the mind is silent, and the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories with which we habitually identify have fallen away, then what remains is the essence of self, the pure subject without an object. What we then find is not a sense of “I am this” or “I am that,” but just

“I am.”

In this state, you know the essence of self, and you know that essence to be pure consciousness. You know this to be what you really are. You are not a being who is conscious. You are consciousness. Period.

Even to say “I am” can be misleading; the word “I” already has so many associations with an individual self. It might be more accurate to say there is amness, or pure being.

This core identity has none of the uniqueness of the individual self. Being beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, your sense of I-ness is indistinguishable from mine. The light of consciousness shining in you, which you label as “I,” is the same light that I label as “I.” In this we are identical.

I am the light. And so are you.

Beyond Time and Space
This essential self is eternal; it never changes. It is pure consciousness, and pure consciousness is timeless.

Our normal experience of the passing of time is derived from change—the cycle of day and night, the beating of the heart, the passing of thoughts. In deep meditation, when all awareness of things has ceased and the mind is completely still, there is no experience of change, and nothing by which to mark the passing of time. I may know I have been sitting in absolute stillness, but as to how long I have been there, I may have no idea. It could have been a minute, or it could have been an hour. Time as we know it disappears. There is simply now.

Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not only is the essential self beyond time, it also is beyond space. If we are asked to locate our own consciousness, most people sense it to be somewhere in the head. Right now these words probably appear a couple of feet in front of you. You may be aware of walls around you; the ground some feet below you; and your arms, torso, legs, and feet are also out there, a short distance from the point of your perceiving self.

The feeling that our consciousness is located somewhere in the head seems to make sense. Our brains are in our heads, and the brain is somehow associated with conscious experience. We would find it strange if, for example, the brain were in the head, but our consciousness were in our knees.

However, all is not as it seems. The apparent location of consciousness does not actually have anything to do with the placement of the brain. It depends on the placement of the sense organs.

Our primary senses, our eyes and ears, happen to be situated on the head. Thus the central point of our perception, the point from which we seem to be experiencing the world, is somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears—somewhere, that is, in the middle of the head. The fact that our brains are also in our heads is just a coincidence, as the following simple thought experiment bears out.

Imagine that your eyes and ears were transplanted to your knees, so that you now observe the world from this new vantage point. Where would you now experience yourself to be—in your head or down by your knees? Your brain may still be in your head, but your head is no longer the central point of your perception. You would now be looking out onto the world from a different point, and you might well imagine your consciousness to be in your knees.

In short, the impression that your consciousness exists at a particular place in the world is an illusion. Everything we experience is a construct within consciousness. Our sense of being a unique self is merely another construct of the mind. Quite naturally, we place this image of the self at the center of our perceived world, giving us the sense of being in the world. But the truth is just the opposite: It is all within us.

You have no location in space. Space is in you.

This sheds new light on so-called “out-of-body” experiences in which we find ourselves experiencing the world from a different vantage point—looking down on ourselves from the ceiling, for example. The central point of perception is no longer in the same vicinity as the body. We think we have left the body, but the truth is we were never in our bodies in the first place.

Peter Russell has been a keynote speaker at international conferences throughout in Europe, Japan, and the United States. His multi-image shows, The Global Brain and The White Hole, have won praise and awards from around the world. In 1993 the environmental magazine Buzzworm voted Peter Russell “Eco-Philosopher Extraordinaire” of the year.

Reprinted from From Science to God, by Peter Russell. Copyright © 2003 by Peter Russell. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with New World Library, Novato, California.