Skip to content

Self abnegation and dissing Descartes


I ain’t got no reason. I need no excuse. I am just a victim of self-abuse. – Steve Lucas, Degenerate Boy.

Cross cultural communication can be a bit vexed, but it produces some interesting syntheses.

Sometimes an idea gets mistranslated from one culture to another, then mistranslated back again to the first. Repeat as many times as you like. Who is to say if the final result is just a twisted mess with all the original nuggets of wisdom homogenised away or something novel and worthwhile that could not have originated in either culture. Like chicken tikka masala for example.

I’ve written previously about  reservations I have about notions some westerners I know seem to hold about karma. How they think it can be good or bad. How they think it’s something they have rather than something they are.

Of course I like to pretend my own idea of what ‘karma‘ means corresponds with the actual Sanskrit meaning used by sages instead of the English loan word used by hippies trying to explain away their own incompetence. But even if some sages agree with each other I have no real basis for thinking I understand what they’re saying. Even if I did, who can say my understanding is more accurate than the misunderstandings propagated by others.

Me! That’s who!
This is my blog so I get to say what’s real and true and what’s not.

So I say that karma is just the pushes you keep giving the universe when you think you’re something separate from it. And vipaka is the universe pushing back.

Karma and vipaka. Cause and effect. It’s really that simple.

There’s no moral judgement in it or some cosmic ledger in which your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ karma is toted up. The harder you push the harder you’re pushed. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ push, it all reinforces your sense of separateness and keeps you tangled up in the illusion of individuality.

But enough about karma. Today I’m taking a shot at ‘Self’.

That’s ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’. The one western wanna be advaitists use to mean that part of themselves that is the Godhead. The one they pretend is free of ego and therefore superior to the small ‘s’ self that the rest of us lug around all day.

‘Self’ is one way of translating the Sanskrit word atman (or paramatman) into English. But I think it gains something in the translation. Something unfortunate that tends to get amplified by western cultural tropes.

In Sanskrit the opposite of atman is anatman or ‘no-self’. The concept beloved of Buddhists that there is no such thing as persistent individuality. No self. No soul.

In English the opposite of self is other. The fundamental split in the phenomenological universe. The idea that everything else is somehow opposed to you.

So the English word ‘Self’ tends to create a duality right from the get-go and thereby deny the most fundamental tenet of advaitism.

It’s not unusual (for me) to meet western advaitists or run across entire ‘non-dualist’ western cults that have fetishised ‘Self’ into something above and beyond the mundane. Something superior not just to the ego-bound ‘self’, but to all ‘otherness’. All that is not Self.

But there is nothing that is not Self, so Self is superior to nothing at all.

What makes it worse is that ‘God’ in the west is almost invariably an authority figure. So to say ‘I am Self and Self is God’ will almost invariably be taken as meaning that you see yourself as some kind of boss. A feller can get himself nailed up for talking like that.

So even though I am probably more advaitist than Buddhist (and more slacker than either) I prefer the Buddhist concept of anatma (or rather the Theravadan Buddhist concept of anatta) to the advaitist concept of paramatman – especially when someone has translated it as ‘Self’. English grammar alone tends to put the ‘self’ into ‘Self’.

But when you’re talking non-dualism there is no difference between Self and non-self, the All and the Void, zero and one. Except you can’t ‘talk’ non-dualism at all, because all words divide things from each other.

So don’t think “I am Self”. Or even “I am thinking”. Certainly don’t think “I think therefore I am”.

Instead think “no self” and “thought”. After all, when you perceive light you don’t think “I am lighting” do you? Unless you think you’re some kind of almighty God.


From → ACIM, confusion, rant

  1. That was informative Cabrogal though I got my mouth watered reading about chicken tikka masala 😛 Self, you have explained it in a quite good way. Read Iqbal and your concepts will get even more clearer.


  2. Rexie permalink

    I really like your thoughts on karma. Between us, let’s call it the law of karmodynamics 😀

    As for language capturing spiritual concepts, I believe that language emanates from the psyche/soul of the civilisation/culture and not otherwise. So you cannot go to a people and explain them concepts which their soul has not experienced. If you do, you will find them calling the opposite of self as non-self, simply because none in their race has experienced these to pass it on to them. So how can they understand something they have not experienced and how they “articulate” something they have not experienced? My thinking on this matter is that experience shapes language. I mean even in ordinary life, we can look at a person’s language and understand a little how his consciousness works. By the way, is this why it is said that Truth manifests in silence, because so superior is its consciousness that it does not even need language?


    • According to the late RD Laing you can’t capture any experience with words and when you think about it he was right. Someone else can really only understand what you are saying if they already understood before you said it.

      That’s why aphorisms are so powerful. In their ambiguity they enable the receiver to project her own experience directly onto the words, so when they work they seem to speak directly to the soul. At their best they unlock the realisation of an experience the receiver never before consciously perceived having.


      • Rexie permalink

        I ‘almost’ agree with Laing. Language is meant to capture experience but it does so in a poor measure. Sometimes I believe it has lead more to misunderstanding than to understanding. At least that has been my experience being a part of the pigheaded humanity that I am. I guess I would have enjoyed being a Dolphin any day!


        • I think Laing was suggesting that language can’t capture and transmit experience because only experience can do that.

          All language can do is instruct someone on how to rearrange the experiences they’ve already had into a facsimile of the one the speaker is trying to convey.

          So, for example, I have eaten blacksnake and I assume you have not. I can tell you it tastes a bit like mutton and (pretending for a moment that you’ve eaten mutton) you can call up your experience of the flavour of mutton as a facsimile of the flavour of blacksnake. But that doesn’t equate to the flavour of blacksnake and in all probability tells you little or nothing about it. I can imagine no way at all I could explain the aspects of the flavour of blacksnake that do not equate to something you have actually tasted and there is no real reason for me to believe we would even experience the flavour of mutton in the same way.

          All experience is really like that and we are fooling ourselves when we imagine we are somehow transmitting any experience to someone else via language.

          Once in a high school English class I tried to convince my fellow students that everyone actually has the same favourite colour. I suggested that our brains may be wired to the cone cells of our eyes in different ways so, for example, what I experience as red may be the same thing you experience as green but we have been taught to call them opposite things. There would never be a way of getting at that difference in experience through language (or any other means I know of for that matter).


  3. Rexie permalink

    But isn’t rearranging a way of capturing the experience in the net? If I were to tell you ‘I sad, I am crushed, I am hurt’ you would a fair idea of what I am feeling, though not an accurate idea.

    Yeah, I have been there too…the blacksnake and ‘your red could be my green’. But because we have no way of experiencing and hence knowing others’ qualia I am afraid the answer to these issues may remain unattainable. I guess mind has its limits when it comes to knowing what hides behind, not just the language but everything. It cannot go any further than it has already come. We can only use language to help us to a certain extent to communicate, even though poorly. I remember reading in a book that one time when Wittgenstein visited one of his friends in the hospital he asked her how she was feeling to which she answered ‘I am feeling like a dog crushed by a truck.’ (Not exactly but something like that.) On hearing this apparently he got so annoyed and her asked her how could she ever “know” how a dog crushed by a truck felt. There you go! Another example of the philosopher bringing about the same limitation of language not just capturing but even transmitting the experience of an experience.


    • But isn’t rearranging a way of capturing the experience in the net? If I were to tell you ‘I sad, I am crushed, I am hurt’ you would a fair idea of what I am feeling, though not an accurate idea.

      Not at all.

      If I had not myself had the experience of being sad, crushed and hurt I would have no idea what you are talking about – even if I may have learned from observing others what the appropriate response to you should be (almost everyone, for example, believes they have experienced depression but those who are really depressed quickly learn that most people don’t know what they’re talking about). Even if I have had those experiences there is no reason to believe I really feel them in the same way as you so the fact I might used the same words is deceptive rather than revealing. That there are masochists in the world, for example, indicates to me there are people who experience pain in a completely different way to how I do, even though we use the same word for it.

      You can’t put the puzzle together if you don’t have the pieces and none of us really have all the pieces of someone else’s experience. Nor any way to be confident that the pieces we do have correspond to those held by the speaker.

      I’m not saying language can’t communicate. Just that it can’t transmit. That is a familiar idea when applied to say, satori, because there are no ‘nearby’ experiences that might be rearranged into a semblance of satori and thereby give the illusion that it ‘tastes like mutton’. But I (and I think Laing) would contend that the same thing applies to all experiences.

      Of course talking about non-dual experiences is also complicated by the fact that language itself is inherently dualistic and so immediately renders anything said about the non-dual not just meaningless and free of real content, but actually false. But it’s not just satori but life itself that is fundamentally ineffable.

      But what’s worse than using language to try to communicate experience is using it to try to communicate ideas.

      Ideas can be powerful, life changing things but there is no way to evaluate what effect one might have on you until you have got it. So you can’t get someone’s informed consent before sticking your idea into them and possibly traumatising them (excuse the metaphor I am using here).

      So using language to try to transmit a novel experience is probably a waste of time. But using it to transmit a novel idea is potentially a violation of someone else’s integrity.

      It is perhaps less than ironic that I once traumatised someone by trying to transmit the idea that communication itself is a violation.


Over to you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: