A frequent topic in discussion groups about awakening is whether or not there is a self and if not, what does this mean or how is this known?
Who can deny self awareness? Even an amoeba seems to know it needs to survive by ingesting algae, bacteria, or other protozoans. It feeds itself at the expense of others. The sense of self seems to be implicit in living systems. In the animal kingdom, life is sustained by differentiating self and other. This seems to be a built in attribute of sentient beings necessary for survival and perpetuation of life.
How does this sense of self arise? We all have bodies, physically bound in space and time. At the most basic level, we all feel hunger, thirst, the need to sleep, live within a comfortable temperature range, have shelter from the elements. When we are hungry and out neighbor eats but we don't, we are still hungry though they appear satisfied. At the most fundamental level, we identify with the needs of the body.
Sentient awareness is fundamental. The brain governs bodily functioning as it registers sensations as communication of state. This communication and awareness of changing state is fundamental to living systems. The gestalt of all sensation and perception is conscious mind. Mind makes use of the brain's capability of abstraction, of symbols, language, memory to imagine, to reflect, plan, invent and communicate through thought.
Bodily needs are translated into feelings of attraction or aversion based on prior experience. The mind gives rise to a sense of self largely due to bodily sensation. We communicate our bodily needs to others and they to us, which reifies the sense that they have separate individual needs that may be in competition to our needs. So, there arises a survival instinct or self-preservation due to identification with bodily needs. Our mind becomes busy with strategizing for survival. We historically bonded together in tribes to collaborate on basic survival. Our sense of self may extend to the tribe, community or nation.
But, the mind is not always preoccupied with basic survival. It is also capable of creative expression in the form of art, music, literature, design, etc. So, the mind may begin to identify not just with the body, but with itself, it's creative ability, it's intellectual functioning, it's sensitivities and emotions, which are responses events, past memories, what is presently happening or imagined futures. These emotions are due to remembered past responses or empathy, the ability of the mind to imagine what others may feel due to their circumstances.
The sense of self is further reified by the apparent discreetness of thought. One person doesn't know what another person is thinking. This can be exploited through deceit, tricking others into giving up something valued under false pretenses.
In short, everything we perceive as self is made up of a sense of separateness produced by the localization of bodily sensation and perception. We are apparently discrete, separate entities, physically, mentally and emotionally. We have the sense that we are separate from the rest of the world and feel an obligation to take care of our needs, even at the expense of other living beings.
So, how can anyone propose that this sense of a separate self is an illusion? Yet, when the mind quiets down to the point that individual thoughts can be perceived arising from brain functioning, whether it be through sensory stimulation that triggers memories and associations or through the tendency to worry out of survival motivations, the thoughts are seen for what they are, just thoughts. These thoughts give rise to emotion, craving, aversion, speech, and action. Without seeing this process, consciousness becomes entangled with the mind's thinking process and misses the core, foundational essence, which is awareness itself.
When the mind is quiet, open, bright, pure, clear awareness becomes predominant. This awareness is not localized or owned by the generated self-sense. It is omnipresent. When pure awareness is predominant, the sense of separation dissolves. There are still bodily needs and intellectual interests but, they no longer overshadow this fundamental awareness which transcends identity. Thoughts come and go but without an owner. They are just natural mental functioning. There is still response to bodily need. If it is cold, we put on more clothes. If there is hunger, food is enjoyed. But, the separation of self and other fades in proportion to the depth of clarity of awareness.
As we move from entanglement with the thought process to being an observer of the thought process, our tendency to think in terms of self vs. other diminishes because from the view of awareness, there is no self or other. There is just awareness and the play of cause and effect. All things are the natural response to what came before setting the conditions for what we experience in the present. The present is just awareness itself, the natural fruition of all prior events. When we become aware that awareness is what is perceiving, "we" disappear. There is only awareness being aware. When this happens we see that it has never been any other way. The separate sense of self was also completely natural outcome of the entanglement with mental functioning, the identification with body and thought.
This transformation may be sudden or gradual. Generally, it is gradual until it is sudden. Once it is seen, there is no going back. It's like the old analogy of the rope in the dimly lit room appearing as a snake. When the room is lit, the rope is seen. Even if the room dims again, it is known that it is a rope, not a snake. So, clarity can come and go but on the whole, clarity increases until life is lived from pure awareness disentangled from the illusion of self.