‘No Self, No Problem’ (discussion group)

‘No “essential self” or static ego exists’
RAW, Quantum Psychology

I recently linked to a £0.79 ($0.99) book, The No Self, No Problem Workbook. Tom Jackson mentioned this at his blog, and Doctor Richard Waterloo asked me if I planned to host a book discussion group. A few people expressed interest in this.

Everyone is welcome to participate – details below*. I’ll kick things off with a few remarks…

‘I always go through a process in which the space game comes to an end, the time game comes to an end, and then the Timothy Leary game comes to an end.’ – Tim Leary quoted in Cosmic Trigger

Niebauer’s book wouldn’t be my first choice on “no self”, but the low price and RAW-friendly themes (it has an accessible pop-psychology style, right/left brain model, head “exercises”, deconstructions of abstractions, etc) make it quite attractive as a starting point for discussion*. We can include both books in the series – Niebauer’s No Self, No Problem (2019) and his follow-up, No Self, No Problem Workbook (2023). The first book mentions Korzybski, talks of “belief systems”, of confusing map with territory, etc, and points to the “left brain” as main culprit in creating an illusory notion of self by turning its dopamine-addled pattern-recognition machine “inwards”, like an A.I. gone rogue.

(*See comments section below for my recommendations for other books.)

My reservations with the two books apply also to some other pop-science accounts of Buddhist and Advaita Vedanta notions that I’ve read – particularly those marketed on the basis of ‘nondual’ or Zen wisdom (etc), without really delivering on that premise. By definition that might seem outside the scope of popular science in any case. Niebauer admits this – after quoting the Heart Sutra of Mahāyāna Buddhism: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, and citing Nisargadatta Maharaj: “You are not in the world, but the world is in you” (which he says sounds “a whole lot like the Heart Sutra”), he writes: “While a full discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this book, it does leave us something to ponder”.

In Niebauer’s account, the over-interpretive left brain inundates us with illusory “stories” about the world/self, and brain science helps us see through this “Maya”. Does this express, capture, clarify, communicate or intimate “the radical no self, no problem awakening insight”? For me, no – it more resembles a familiar kind of New-Agey take on cognitive science (I liked his brief discussion of metaphorical conception arising in the right brain, and I found the books provided a readable/interesting account of Niebauer’s attempt to express his obvious “no self” enthusiasms within the confines of his field, “neuropsychology”).

Stories in the bank

Whether it’s RAW’s “models”, Lakoff’s “frames” or Niebauer’s left-brain “stories”, a distinction of “seeing” vs “believing” tends to arise. Models turn into convictions/dogmas, frames become synaptically instantiated through repetition (turning into “common sense”), and left-brain interpretive stories get taken “literally”. In a related metaphor, we become personally invested in a given idea – we take it to the bank, so to speak. But ideas don’t form atomically (“When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions”, to quote from Wittgenstein).

So, I develop a sincere interest in radical Eastern spiritual notions, epitomised by “no self, no problem”. I go to the bank and say: “I want to close my ‘self’ account – I don’t wish to invest in that any more”. And the bank manager replies: “You’ll first have to withdraw your brain, body, mind, space, time and physical objects savings, as they’re integrally structured under the same investment umbrella”. That might seem a weak analogy, but it suggests the difficulty of popular science books that, by definition (as pop-sci), come with a whole structure of underlying “invested” notions that don’t “sit well” with the Eastern systems/philosophies that produced the formulations they’re trying (or claiming) to “explain” or “confirm”.

I mean, book-blurb statements such as “Neuroscience confirms Buddhist tenets” tend to imply that science and Buddhism objectively agree on some aspects of the same observer-independent reality. Already we see a questionable assumption (Wilson viewed the notion of observer-independent reality as “meaningless”). If we regard science and Zen (or Advaita Vedanta or whatever) as, say, different elaborate systems of poetry, then they don’t have to agree “about” anything, least of all a pre-supposed “observer-independent reality”.

‘The non-local “self” — beyond time and space — and also beyond “mind” and “matter” — has not yet survived translation into left-brain linear verbalism. It transcends all either/ors and, as Buddhists know, we cannot even properly call it a “self”.’

RAW, Quantum Psychology

Bearing that in mind, hopefully you’ll go easy on me when I try to describe my own fragile understanding of the “no self, no problem” formulation from my not-very-learned western perspective. And hopefully you’ll be encouraged to share yours…

For me, the main recognition boils down to a sort of figure-ground reversal. And this will probably sound odd. The “self” – the vulnerable person – that we habitually took as the “subject” of experience, gets recognised as another “object” (or, rather, assembly of objects – thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions). So far, so good, for the ‘neuropsychological’ view. The most-intimate subject, “I” (so-called), meanwhile, gets recognised as “ordinary” “awareness” – not the kind of “thing” that “has” (essentially) objective attributes such as those assembling vulnerable personhood. And not having objective attributes (since those would be classed as appearing “objects” rather than “awareness”/”subject”), it “has” no time, space, number or conceptual distinctions… such as subject/object. Ergo non-dual. And nothing at stake as “person” – hence “no problem”. And that, itself, isn’t taken personally – ie no sense of accomplishment or anything “special”. It seems very “meta” in that respect. “Awareness” as “single” “subject” of all “objects”, meaning no separate “self” anywhere. “Maya” in that phrasing would, I guess, refer to all appearing “objects”, although not classed as only the “illusion” side of a dubious, archaic “reality” vs “illusion” dichotomy. Which sounds abstract and very conceptual, and probably incomprehensible – ie the opposite of the intention. But rather that than Hallmark card banalities. Simplicity “in reality”, “good news”, and a huge existential relief (to understate).

‘The Chinese, who seem to have had more experience with this system than anybody else (more than the Hindus, even) define non-local experience in negatives — “not mind”, “not self” “not doing”, “not existence”, even “not non-existence”.’

RAW, Quantum Psychology

*Discussion details

Comments: Feel free to participate using the comment facility below (these will appear immediately, as I don’t moderate. You only need to supply name and email address, and these don’t have to be real. Occasionally (rarely) comments automatically get rejected by a spam filter – let me know if this happens. Probably best to copy your comment before submitting, in any case.

Guest posts: If you want to submit a more substantial (ie longer) post – which is my hope – then email it to me at fffbriandean274fff at gmail dot com (remove the fs). I’ll acknowledge receipt of your email. Then, at some point – and depending on when, and how many, I get, I’ll include in it a new blog post in this series.

7 thoughts on “‘No Self, No Problem’ (discussion group)

Add yours

  1. Please take your time, folks – no rush to read the book(s), and I’ll leave this as open/ongoing. As I mention above, Niebauer’s books wouldn’t be my first choice on ‘no self’, and if you want to comment on different books, no problem. Although requiring a bigger investment (in time and money, but not belief), I’d strongly recommend Rob Burbea’s book, ‘Seeing That Frees’ and the excellent ‘Emptiness and Joyful Freedom’ by Greg Goode and Tomas Sander. Also, a somewhat different approach that I’ve just started on, ‘Reading Emptiness’ by Jeff Humphries.


  2. Another book you might appreciate: Mindfulfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Not exactly “no self” but useful for one-pointed focussing towards that end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that book a lot – a model of clear writing on a difficult subject. Never been too keen on the “mindfulness” label, though, especially now that it has been popularised/corporatised to such an extent.


  3. Here’s a 2-minute Youtube video summary by Niebauer of his book. Very much in the vein of “don’t think so much”, “don’t worry, be happy” popular psych directed at “ego”. And not very Zen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It took me this long to get my second hand Kindle up and running, but I’m with you all now, and have read the introduction chapter.
    Too soon too tell perhaps, but it could be promising

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m an enthusiastic convert to Kindle (although I still prefer paper books) because of the massive accessibility/availability of all kinds of textual content, much of it free or very cheap, and the easy-on-the eyes, no-distractions display. No hurry with the book, and look forward to hearing your views…


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