No Self, No Problem by Chris Niebauer

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My Rating: 6/10
Published or Updated On: 
November 9, 2022

Big Picture Thoughts

This book started off blowing my mind. It taught me a new paradigm through which to understand experience by delineating left brain and right bring functions, but got disappointingly wacky towards the end. Worth a skim.

The Main Ideas

Summary Notes

Mistaking the voice in our head for a thing and labeling it “me” brings us into conflict with the neuropsychological evidence that shows there is no such thing. This mistake—this illusory sense of self—is the primary cause of our mental suffering.

Gazzaniga determined that the left side of the brain created explanations and reasons to help make sense of what was going on.1 The left brain acted as an “interpreter” for reality. Furthermore, Gazzaniga found that this interpreter was often completely and totally wrong.

if you are like most people, you have never understood the full implications of this.

These studies strongly suggest that we live our lives under the direction of the interpreter, and for most of us the mind is a master we are not even aware of. We may become angry, offended, sexually aroused, happy, or fearful, and we do not question the authenticity of these thoughts and experiences. While it is clear that these experiences are happening to us, we somehow retain the idea that we are still in charge of it all.

We have already seen that this “I” can be wrong about so many things in the “outside” world, so is it possible then that the “I” is even wrong about the interpretation of itself?

Instead of being so identified with the “me” in our heads, we find ourselves noticing things like “that's my left-brain interpreter telling stories.” When the stories it creates don't evoke as strong a mental or emotional reaction, our suffering lessens as a result.

What's on your list? I'll bet it includes things like table, chair, tree, grass, car, computer, etc. I will also bet that the word nothing is not on your list. That's very interesting, because as we will explore in a later chapter, the vast majority of what is actually out there and connects things in a way that the left brain cannot process is nothing or empty space.

This quick exercise is designed to show you how the left side of the brain works: it focuses on objects in space, labels them, categorizes them, and tries to make sense out of them. We have become such experts at organizing our perceptions into categories and patterns that it's difficult to see reality in any other way.

As we move forward, here are some questions to consider: Because the left brain looks outward and only focuses on objects, categorizes them, and labels them, is it possible that it also looks inward and does the same thing? In other words, does the left brain see thought happening in the brain and continuously create a “thing” out of the process of thinking, which it then labels “me”?

Note: Fuck

Is it possible that the self we invest so much in is nothing more than a story to help explain our behaviors, the myriad events that go on in our lives, and our experiences in the world?

the left brain is the dominant center for language.2 Importantly, this includes the inner speech we use when we talk to ourselves.3

Given that language is controlled by the left brain, it's no coincidence that it is the interpreter's main form of expression. This is most noticeable when we communicate with others, but the interpreter also talks to itself in the form of thoughts. This internal dialogue is happening continually for almost everyone on the planet, and it plays a central role in the creation of the mirage that we call the self.

Our association of our true self with the constant voice in our head is an instance of mistaking the map (the voice) for the territory (who we really are). This error is one of the biggest reasons the illusion of self is so difficult to see.

the Stroop effect6 demonstrates how the left brain takes language literally and mistakes the symbol for the thing itself.

our left brain is so tied to the power of words that it is hard to see their effect. Think of an example in your own life when someone said something to you that you found hurtful. You may have suffered greatly, but the truth is that this person was simply sharing an opinion and expressing it via sounds emanating from their voice box. How is it possible that such a thing “hurt” you? Obviously you were hurt by your interpretation of it or the map that these sounds created in your left brain.

Next, imagine for a moment if there were no self to hurt? Would words directed at this “you” ever be seen as a problem?

Note: We are so wired for self tho? how else to live?

In my opinion, when you mistake the voice in your head for who you really are, the tool is using you. Language creates a story, and this story—combined with our memories and the sense of a command center behind our forehead—creates an illusion of self that virtually everyone on the planet identifies with. In the same way that we mistake words for what they represent, we also use our linguistics-based thoughts as the basis for a fictional self as a genuine self. Most people are familiar with Helen Keller, who lost both sight and hearing very early in life. It is particularly telling that she states that she only developed a sense of self after she learned language.

Note: Story, command center feeling

The root of the problem is that many of us do not see language as a representation of reality, but confuse it with reality itself. This mistake contributes significantly to suffering when we take words too seriously.

A Categorization Expert

Another characteristic of the left brain is its constant propensity to create categories.

For instance, imagine if you showed up at the university where I teach and asked me to show you the university. After being shown one building after another, you begin to get frustrated and say, “Yes, I've seen this building and that building but where is the university?” I would have to point to the left side of my head and say, “it is only up here,” because it exists as a category

Turning inward for a moment, let's consider how this categorization mechanism might be employed by the left brain to create a sense of self. For instance, think of all the ways in which you can answer the question “who are you?” Most people in my shoes would say things like, “I am a man, a father, a husband, a professor, an author,” etc. Sure, the physical entity of my body and my brain is there, but the “I” attached to it only exists as a thought—and only when I think it. Is it possible that you can't…

Seen in this light, “I” is simply a useful, categorical fiction, expressed through language.

Categories are created by taking something continuous and drawing the proverbial line in the sand to separate one into two.

Exactly where along the continuum of temperature does cold become hot? When do you get offended? When does good become evil? When does something become a catastrophe? A failure?

Recognizing this has immense practical benefits. Simply becoming aware of the interpreter and the endless categories it creates through judgment frees you from being tied to the inevitability of these judgments.

you might find yourself able to grasp this as “just my opinion” or “the way I see it” rather than “this is the way it is.” You begin to see your judgments as simply a different line in the sand than others. When someone approaches you with a “this is the way it is” attitude, you can appreciate that this person is dominated by the left brain, that they are a servant to its master. As a result, there is no need to take their actions or attitudes personally; it's a biological function that they have not yet recognized. This small perspective shift is enough to change how we live with each other and ourselves.

when you begin to observe the interpreter, you find that you make fewer judgments and can take your judgments less seriously.

Note: Tru

Only when we begin to see that the interpreter is creating and maintaining our beliefs can we become less attached to the idea that our own beliefs are “right.”

Notice the Power of Yes vs. No

Do you notice any difference within yourself? Does yes have a positive feeling for you while no the other? This points to the power we give words.

Observing this subtle effect on you demonstrates the emotional, mental, and even physical connection we have to certain words.

In my view, seeing this triangle is like looking at your own individual self, because both are created in the same way: by inference.

To be clear, saying the self is an illusion doesn't mean that it doesn't exist at all, but rather that it's akin to a mirage in the middle of the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but the oasis itself isn't. In this same way, the image of the self is real, but when we look at the image, we find it is simply that, an image and nothing more.

The trick is to become less identified with your thoughts, to not take them so seriously, to see them as “happenings” rather than “the way things really are.”

Note: Nice

While the inference of the triangle is gone, the space that made up the triangle did not actually go anywhere; it was always pure emptiness and it still is.

What allows us to notice this emptiness at all? Perhaps it is something we could call awareness

There is no need to cling to some and avoid others. There need be no conflict between these selves—so you can abandon the wrestling match between “sinner you” and “saint you.” This frees up an enormous amount of mental energy and fundamentally changes how we can experience the world.

Note: Good

Next I'd like you to reach out for any object near you and grab hold of it. This demonstrates your ability to accurately determine the distance between things in space—their spatial reality. Did you grab something without any problem? Or did your hand reach out and miss the item altogether? Most likely it was the former. Now, how much did you think about this as far as traditional interpretive consciousness is concerned? Can you explain to me how you grabbed it? Here again, thinking wasn't required; you just did it. Because there is no story necessary for reaching out and grabbing something, it seems as if you were not conscious of how this is done due to our bias of identifying with a language-based interpretive consciousness. However it's important to notice that these examples—either moving your arm above your head or grabbing an object in front of you—are both highly complex and conscious activities even though they are outside the language sphere. They are simply given very little importance, because the left brain enjoys playing the master.

Note: Damn

One could say that the essence of the right-brain consciousness is this: it does things without thinking about them, by which I mean without language or thought.

We need the right brain to understand the purpose of a car

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. —Albert Einstein

The advice to watch your emotions as they happen can increase your EQ because it puts space between the interpretive reaction and the emotion.

numerous studies have confirmed this—complaining leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression.12 When someone says, “This line is too long,” or “Nothing ever goes my way,” or “I wish I was someplace else,” the statement becomes a belief, and the emotions consistent with the belief follow.

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