Subtler Levels of a False "Me"


We have been discussing the qualities of the false “me,” which are quite specific. The level of false “me” that we’ve been dealing with is the one that derives from the concept of the “me,” or the atman, the soul, that is held by the classical non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy. There are three qualities here, but we have to realize that these are three qualities of one object, this false “me.” Although we are trying to understand them one by one, we need to understand that this false “me” has all three qualities. We shouldn’t think that there might be something with only the first quality, but not the second. I think this is why there is a little bit of confusion in trying to completely isolate what each term is referring to.

We spoke about this false “me” as being “static,” which is its first quality. Being static means that it doesn’t change; it is not affected by anything; and it doesn’t affect anything else. It’s a “me” that can be isolated, in a sense, from participating in any cause and effect relation. “One,” the second quality, means “monolithic,” a unitary type of thing with no parts and always identical to itself. The third aspect of this false “me” is that it is separate from the aggregates.

We don’t have a lot of time to spend on this third point, but this is obviously something that we could spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to recognize in ourselves. Do we think that there is a “me,” separate from the aggregates, that flies out of a body and mind after death and then flies into another body and mind, or flies off to heaven or hell? Do we think that there is a separate “me” that leaves the body and mind when we die and becomes just nothing? Have you ever wished that you could be someone else, like that movie star or that athlete – as if you could leave your body and mind and become someone else, or had their build or good looks?

When we work with voidness, the lack of a true identity or true self, we try to see that our misconceptions about ourselves do not refer to anything real, despite the fact that we believe they are true and they feel as if they are true. We’re always trying to protect this special “me” inside, but it is not referring to anything real: there is nothing to protect. Or, we’re trying to prove ourselves, we’re trying to get ourselves accepted by everybody; but there’s nothing to prove. We’re just here; we don’t have to prove ourselves. Many consequences follow from understanding this, not just intellectually but also in terms of really making it a part of the way that we interact in the world.

A False “Me” as a Controller

What do we have when we have refuted this level of a false “me”? What are we left with? We now think of ourselves as a “me” that is not static. It’s not monolithic, so it can be different things in different situations and even lose some parts. And it is not separate from the aggregates: it cannot be separate from a body and a mind.

But, we might still think that this nonstatic “me” is a boss or controller – a little “me” in our heads pressing buttons and controlling what’s happening. In other words, not merely might we think there is a controller “me” inside that is static, monolithic, and completely separate from our body and mind, we might even think there is a “me” at the control panel in our heads that is nonstatic, has parts, and is imputed on the body and mind. But, such a false “me” is also not referring to anything real.

We need to try to identify this in ourselves. We think, “What should I do now? Everybody is looking at me! What should I say now? I think I should do this, I think I should do that,” as though there were a “me” that was making a plan and then pressing the buttons and making the body do something. We are making plans for our “self” – that’s really weird, if you think about it. Such thinking almost implies there are two “me’s” inside us. That’s where the experience of alienation comes from. There is nothing unhealthy about planning, but this concept of a separate “me” at the controls making everything happen is false.

If what you say is the case, then we would be free to make decisions to do this or that at our will, which is certainly not true. But we are not free. We are forced by karma and by the twelve links of dependent arising.

Yes. In a sense that is correct, but let’s leave aside the discussion of karma, free will, and predetermination, and the relation of that issue with voidness. It’s very complicated. When we understand karma, we understand that both determinism and free will are extremes that need to be refuted. The decision-making process is a “middle path.”

That idea of a controller “me” in our heads could lead to the fantasy of human beings as sovereign beings, even controlling nature and things like that.

Exactly. That’s when we imagine that this controller “me” is like an omnipotent God. Also, with that concept of a God-like controller “me,” we judge people and think to punish them: “You did that to me. You’re guilty. Now what should I do back to you?”

Are the examples always negative?

No. It’s the same thing if I think, “I will give you such a wonderful course on voidness, because I want to be nice to you since I like you.” Behind that, I’m thinking that I’m the controller and I can create something nice for you just by my own independent power.

So, the controller can also do positive things.

Yes, but be careful how you formulate that. The conventional “me” can do constructive things, while incorrectly imagining that it exists as a controller. But whether, on the basis of this misconception, we do something constructive, destructive, or just ethically neutral, what we’re trying to get rid of is our belief that we exist as this controller: “I want to control my home and my family so that everybody does what I want, which I think is good for them.” And whether we think of this controller “me” as being static or even as being nonstatic and changing all the time, we still think it is in control – or that it should be in control.

This misconception of a “me” that is a controller or boss is what we need to work with on the second level. We need to understand that this is not referring to anything real. There is no little “me” inside, sitting back and experiencing things, or sitting at the control panel and making things happen. It appears to us that we exist in this false way, and it feels like that, but we don’t exist like that. Our unawareness is based on the fact that our minds are making things appear to exist in a way in which they do not exist, and we are fooled and believe that these appearances are true.

A False “Me” That Can Be Known Self-Sufficiently, All by Itself

Even if we understand that the “me” does not exist as a controller in our heads, still our minds automatically make it appear as though the “me” can be known self-sufficiently, all by itself, without simultaneously seeing, hearing, thinking, or knowing the basis on which it is imputed. We think, “I know myself,” as if we could know a self that is “me,” independently of knowing our body, our mind, our relationships, our possessions, and so on. Or we want someone to love me for “myself,” not for my body, my brain, my money, or whatever. Such a self-sufficiently knowable “me” also does not refer to anything real. How can I see myself in the mirror in the morning without also seeing the face on which that “me” is labeled?

A False “Me” with a Findable Defining Characteristic Mark

What are we left with when we refute even that more subtle level of a false “me”? What is the conventional “me”? We understand that the existence of the conventional “me” is established in terms of mental labeling. There are three things involved with mental labeling: (1) the mental label “me,” (2) the basis for labeling it, namely the aggregate factors of our body and mind, and (3) what the label refers to: the conventional “me.”

But, we might still think that there is some special, individual defining characteristic mark findable on the side of our body and mind that allows for a correct labeling of them as “me.” It is as if there is something findable in me that makes me “me” – a special quality, some defining characteristic, that makes me “me” and not “you,” and which allows for that word “Alex” to be correctly labeled on me and not on the table or the dog. If you have two identical twins, it appears that there is some definable characteristic in this one twin that makes it this one and not the other. We might understand that the “me” it is not a controller, it is changing all the time, not monolithic, it is not separable from the aggregates and cannot be known on its own, but still we might think there’s something in there that makes me “me” – something special. That is also a misconception. Although we are all individuals, there is nothing findable inside that makes us individual. That’s not very easy to realize.

In meditation, we need to look to see if there is something that makes me “me.” What makes me “me”? Is it my genetic make-up or what? If you write the genetic code up on the blackboard is that “me?” It becomes very interesting. What am I? What makes me “me”? It’s hard to come up with an answer. On this level, we’re not yet identifying with the aggregates. On this level, the idea is just that there has to be something! But we can’t say what it is exactly. What makes me “me”? My big nose? If, like Michael Jackson, I have half of my nose cut off, am I still “me”?

It is the flow of my life that makes me “me”; the way that my life develops.

The direction itself? How can you have a direction separate from anything else? If we have a list of every place that I have gone and every bit of food I have ever eaten in my whole life, does that make me “me”?

It’s all of my experience, all of the thoughts that occur to me.

That’s who I am? Just my thoughts? If I write down all my thoughts, is that “me”? That is like saying Shakespeare was his plays. My mother now has Alzheimer’s. I don’t think she thinks anything. Is she still there?

It’s quite interesting because we have this misconception not only about ourselves, but about other people too. We say, “There is something special about you that makes you ‘you.’ You’re so special.” We can’t quite say what it is, but we can almost taste it, we can almost feel the other person. I experience people like that. I experience myself like that. But is there really something that makes a person “me” or “you”?

The form of spiritual energy. If I look at somebody, they give out a form of energy and this is what I realize from them. That’s what makes them who they are.

Even from a picture of them? Even if you listen to them on the telephone? What about when they are asleep?

It’s just not active then. A person’s spiritual energy has two poles: an active one and a passive one.

When they’re asleep, how do you know that this spiritual energy is still there? How do you know that it’s there but passive, as opposed to there not being anything? To still be able to label this person correctly as “you,” even when they’re asleep, don’t we need to perceive that special characteristic mark: that special spiritual energy?

It simply doesn’t act then.

How do you know that? If that is who that person is, and we don’t perceive it when they’re asleep, then are they no longer that person when they are asleep? And when they’re not with anybody and nobody else experiences their spiritual energy, are they still that person?

All of this is certainly not dependent on the state of the person’s body. Whether a person is awake or asleep, the spiritual energy is still there, independent of the bodily state.

Where is it, then? We can get into the standard search. Is it in the nose? Is it in the hands? Is it in the mind? Where is it?

Maybe the characteristic feature that makes me “me” is a special, individual collection of habits that change in a special individual way, according to karma.

The texts use the example of a chariot, but we can use a car. A car is not a collection of all its parts. If we put all the parts of the car on the floor here, is that the car? The body is seventy-eight percent water and the rest is various other chemicals. So, if we put them each in a collection of bottles on the floor, is that who we are? We’re not just the sum of our parts, even if we acknowledge that those parts are changing all the time according to the forces of karma.

Part of what makes each of us “me” certainly is that we make, in a very neutral sense, a special impression upon our environment and upon ourselves.

And that impression is who we are?

Not who we are, but it proves that we are.

Well, it is true, we do affect things. But we’re talking here about whether there is some defining characteristic, some “thing” inside me that makes me “me.” Your point, however, gets us into the whole discussion of voidness and behavioral cause and effect, which is very crucial to understand. Do we establish our existence by producing something? Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” So is it, “I work and produce this effect, therefore I am?”

I think that a lot of that type of thinking comes from the Protestant work ethic. We think that if we produce a true effect, then it proves that I truly exist and it makes me a worthwhile person. “I exist; I produced something.” That thinking is also based on the false “me.” We think, “If I don’t produce anything, I’m no good – I don’t even exist.”

Do we really need to find an individual characteristic mark in us in order to prove our own existence? Isn’t that very typical for human beings to want to prove something?

Yes, wanting to prove our existence with some findable thing inside us that makes me “me” is part of our ignorance. But, there is no such thing. A “me” whose existence is established or proven by a findable characteristic mark on the side of the body or mind doesn’t refer to anything real either. That’s the next level of what we are refuting, a subtler level of the fantasy of an impossible way of existing.

What We Are Left With after Refuting the False “Me”

So, now what are we left with when we refute and eliminate the misconception of a findable defining characteristic mark? We are left with just mental labeling. This “me” is merely what the word or concept “me” refers to on the basis of the aggregates, but there is nothing in the aggregates – in the body or mind – that we can find as “me” or as an individual defining characteristic mark making me “me.”

How about great artists or scientists? All of them say that their creative powers result from intuition, not from an intellectual process of mental labeling.

Certainly, being creative may come spontaneously and not be intellectual or deliberate. However, being intellectual and deliberate is not the same as mental labeling. Mental labeling is what is involved in the question of whether the person is considered talented or not; it has nothing to do with their creative process itself. One society would say, “This is a very talented person.” To another society, the same person could be an eccentric lunatic making complete garbage. Whether the person exists as “talented” or not arises dependently on a label that is relative to the group that does the labeling. A baby, when it looks at the drawing, is not going to think, “Oh, this is really beautiful!” It will just crumple it up and try to put it in its mouth.

But we can learn from a child.

True; and what we learn here is that it is a value judgment to say that a person is “talented.” Some person makes a completely black canvas and a group of art critics say, “Oh! This is a great work of art!” and other people look at it and say, “This is garbage!”

But isn’t beauty dependent, not just on mental labeling, but on various experiences and many other things?

You’re confusing two things. The reason a society considers something beautiful has to do with its history, its religions and philosophies, its environment, and many other factors. Here, we’re not talking about why one society labels someone talented and another does not. We’re just talking about the fact that for one society someone exists as talented and for another society they do not. We are not talking about “why.” We are saying that there is nothing inherent and findable in someone that makes them “talented,” and there’s nothing inherent and findable in a painting that makes it “a beautiful painting.” If there were, then everybody would have to see that person as talented and that painting as beautiful. And if they didn’t see them as such, they would be wrong or blind.

Most people, if they watch a sunrise, experience becoming one with this happening.

That’s a perfect example. When I first started living in India, every evening I went to watch the sunset and my Western friends would come with me. A Tibetan monk also lived in my house. One day he asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “We’re looking at the sunset.” He asked why and I said, “Because it’s very beautiful.” He could not understand that at all. He thought that was the craziest thing in the world. Considering a colorful sunset beautiful is culturally specific. And of course, not everybody in each culture has the same values. Not everybody in France likes smelly cheeses. Not everybody in India likes chili pepper.

The main question, then, is: “Is there something findable within us or somebody else that makes us either ‘this’ or ‘that’?” First, we need to try to understand all of this in terms of ourselves if our aim is to overcome our problems in life and gain liberation and enlightenment. We need to understand this in terms of ourselves, then in terms of other people, and then with all phenomena, such as paintings.


Let me try to summarize our discussion. The source of our problems in life is our lack of understanding or our ignorance, our unawareness. This unawareness is about behavioral cause and effect and about the nature of reality, how persons – ourselves and others – exist, and how all phenomena exist around us. With respect to ourselves, we have a misconception, with which we imagine that we exist as a false “me.” But, we are not asserting a nihilistic viewpoint here. We’re not saying that I don’t exist and nothing exists. You could say that this hand is just atoms and elements – chemicals. But if we cut it, we experience pain; so conventionally it exists and conventionally “I” exist.

We then saw that this conventional “me” is like an abstraction that we use to refer to the aggregates, the everchanging factors that make up our experience from moment to moment.

We’ve also seen that voidness is referring to an absence of fantasized, impossible ways of existing. We project and think that this conventional “me” exists in all sorts of strange impossible ways, which do not refer to reality. We do not project this because we are stupid or bad people, but because our minds make us appear to exist that way. And then we believe that our projection about ourselves is true, because it feels true.

We’ve also seen that there are more and more subtle levels of this misconception of the self and it’s necessary to work through them step by step. We first refute the grossest level and then work with what is left. If we just start with the last one, it becomes very trivial. If we just say, “I can’t find any ‘me’ because I’m not up my nose, I’m not in my mouth, I’m not in my ear...” It doesn’t help. Maybe it helps a little bit. I shouldn’t be so sarcastic. But it is not so profound.

What the Buddhist teachings are saying is that there is no static, monolithic “me” existing separately from an individual continuity of aggregate factors of body and mind. So, there’s a changing, non-monolithic “me” that is part of the aggregates.

Is such a “me” a controller of the aggregates? No, there’s no such thing. So, there is a changing “me” that is not a controller inside the aggregates. Can that changing, non-controller “me” be known by itself? No, it can’t. But, if it can only be known by knowing, at the same time, the aggregates on which it is labeled, is there something inside those aggregates, some inherent, findable characteristic mark that enables those aggregates – that individual continuity of body and mind – to be correctly labeled as “me” and not as “you”? No.

So, who am I? “I” am merely what the label “me” refers to on the basis of these aggregates as its basis for labeling. That “me” changes all the time, has parts, can never be separate from its basis for labeling, is not the controller of that basis, and cannot be known separately from simultaneously also knowing some aspect of that basis. And there is no findable defining characteristic mark within the aggregates that allows for a correct mental labeling; and such a findable defining mark is certainly not “me.” The basis for labeling and what is being labeled on it cannot be the same thing. As for a more specific label than just “me,” my family might agree to call me by one name, my Tibetan friends might call me by a different name, and mosquitoes might label me as a meal. I can exist validly as all these different things for those groups, merely on the basis of mental labeling alone.

To get back to this morning’s discussion: what is the orange? Is it the sight? Is it the sound? Is it the smell? Is it the taste? It depends on what type of consciousness is dealing with it. It’s not that there is a characteristic smell that we can find inside the orange, and that makes it an orange. It is not that you can look inside the atoms and say, “There is the orange.”

It is true that something has to be able to perform the function that corresponds to the label we give it. If I call this chair “a dog,” that doesn’t make it a dog. It can’t function as a dog. There are various conventions and rules that allow for correct mental labeling without there having to be something findable in the object.

This is quite important because when we negate or refute something with voidness, what is it that is to be negated? It’s this false “me.” At the end of that refutation, we are not just left with nothing, completely lost. If we think like that, the danger is thinking that nothing matters and so it doesn’t make any difference how we behave. In fact, things do function according to cause and effect, according to experience and so on. All these things work.