Bernadette Roberts’ “What Is Self?”

Bernadette Roberts was born in 1931. In 1949, she joined the Carmelite Sisters in Alhambra, California. During her time in the monastery, she reached the unitive state.

In 1957 she left the Carmelites and entered the world of education, where she obtained a university degree and eventually a graduate degree. She married and had four children, though this marriage would be annulled in 1976. Later, she came to see her education, career, marriage, and child-rearing years as vital parts of her contemplative path, calling them the “marketplace” section of the journey.

Sometime around 1979, Bernadette Roberts reached a no-self state. This began when she was praying the “prayer of quiet” in a chapel at a monastery by the sea. On this occasion, she settled fully for the first time into a deep stillness without the customary experience of fear pulling her out of this stillness.

To get used to living in this open, still, and undefended state, Bernadette Roberts then spent a summer alone, camping in the forests of the high Sierra. The next year, while on retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, she reached even more profound depths of stillness and emptiness.

Bernadette Roberts wrote an account of her journey to no-self and showed a draft to friends. She collected their comments and questions, and wrote out her responses. The narrative of the journey and the questions and answers formed her first book, The Experience of No-Self. This was published in 1982 by a small and short-lived publisher named Iroquois House of Sunspot, New Mexico. It was then reissued in 1984 by Shambhala of Boulder, Colorado. A revised edition was published by the State University of New York Press in 1993.

What Is Self? is Bernadette Roberts’ third book on the subject. She considered it necessary because her first two, The Experience of No-Self and The Path to No-Self, had “failed.” These were written in the 1980s; the third is dated some twenty years later. Her motivation for writing was not necessarily that the first two were defective in themselves, but that they had been misunderstood. To correct these misunderstandings, she assembled the writings for this third volume. As well as her essay “What Is Self?” the published work also contains two other essays.

Bernadette Roberts’ core thesis is that there are, in fact, two transformations that could be called loss of self: the well-known loss of the ego, which reveals the true self, and the much less well-known loss of the true self. These two steps can be abbreviated to the “no-ego” event and the “no-self” event.

The difficulty in writing about no-self, she says, is that prior to the no-self event, the ordinary mind cannot conceive of no-self. This is because ordinary consciousness, as she will later explain, turns out to be all about the self. Consciousness is “incapable of conceiving its own non-existence.”

In all of BR’s descriptions of the journey to no-self, I am reminded of something she once said to Stephan Bodian in an interview for the November/December 1986 issue of Yoga Journal: “I don’t think we should get locked into any stage theory: it is always someone else’s retrospective view of his or her own journey, which may not include our own experiences or insights.”

This makes me wonder to what extent she is describing a universal journey, and to what extent her description is the pattern of a minority, albeit a minority which includes BR herself.

It is helpful that BR spends some time defining her terms, since she uses general words in very specific senses.

For BR, “self” and “consciousness” are synonyms. This is because by “consciousness” she means that which humans possess but animals do not. Both “self” and “consciousness,” in her usage, mean the sense of our own existence, which would include both the verbal and pre-verbal aspects of self-awareness.

This definition seems odd, since anyone who has owned a pet dog will tell you that the animal knows when it is being talked about. A dog must therefore possess a rudimentary sense of “self” and hence, in BR’s terminology, a rudimentary form of “consciousness.”

BR emphasizes that, in her definition, sensory perceptions do not count as “consciousness.” The function of the mind in recognizing and organizing perceptions does, though, form part of “consciousness.”

The underlying mechanism of consciousness, in BR’s sense, is the ability of the mind to take its own functioning as the object of awareness. This “bending back” of the mind to know itself is the essence of how consciousness (and hence the self) comes to be.

There are both conscious and unconscious layers to the psyche. In putative experiences of the divine, “what we [actually] experience is the unconscious responding to the divine.”

Here we see one of the odd consequences of BR’s terminology: our consciousness includes that of which we are not conscious!

Ignoring this oddity, I think her point, that we can only ever know things as they appear in consciousness, is fair enough. It reminds me of Immanuel Kant. BR does not think, though, that consciousness is wholly separate from all else that exists. Consciousness is ultimately related to the divine that created it.

Since the mind bending in on itself to observe its own functioning — the “reflexive mechanism” — is, for BR, the basis of the self, it follows that the no-self event corresponds to the ending of this reflexive functioning. What the self truly is (or, more accurately, was) is then known only by its unfamiliar absence.

The self has two, and only two, components: the knowing self and the feeling self. The knowing self means the kind of knowing produced by the reflexive mechanism. The feeling self, on the other hand, is our basic, felt sense of aliveness.

BR writes of the feeling self: “At one point in our journey, when we have realized oneness with the divine, we may even attribute this experience to ‘divine Life’ and ‘divine Being.’” That certainly matches my experience of March 2011, so I am thinking that what I arrived at would, in BR’s system, count as “no-ego” rather than “no-self.”

The feeling self, in BR’s model, is like the engine that drives the knowing self. When the feeling self runs out of gas, the reflexive mechanism ceases, and we arrive at no-self. Contemplative practice, in which we deliberately try to let the reflexive mechanism extinguish itself, can never effect the final end of the reflexive mechanism. The self cannot cause the end of the self. Rather, the reflexive mechanism ends only when its engine, the feeling self, runs out of fuel.

It is interesting to speculate whether this running out of fuel is essentially the same thing as the Buddhist notion of the end of the āsava-s, which in the Pāli canon is what brings about nibbāna.

The ego, for BR, is the will directed toward its own benefit. The ego can be contrasted with the true self, which means simply the experience of being.

This does not mean that the ego is bad in itself. An ego that seeks after good is a good thing; it is the immature or distorted ego that is a bad thing. An ego directed toward the divine is in its absolutely correct orientation.

Ultimately, orienting our ego toward the divine is all we can do. For any further progress, we must rely on the divine taking the initiative and breaking through from the other side. At this point, in BR’s model, the divine center replaces the ego center. The “self” (which, of course, is synonymous with “consciousness” for BR) must then rearrange itself around this new center.

At first, the center is experienced as empty and as the loss of the divine. As this stage progresses, however, “we know the divine Ground to be the center or source of all that exists.”

One practical consequence of reaching the no-ego state is that the will is no longer effective in getting what it wants. Freed for the first time from egoic living, we can at last realize its futility.

In time, the non-egoic way of life, which once seemed to be something extraordinary, comes to seem natural. This is, after all, simply the way a mature human being goes about the business of living.

Living out the unitive (or non-egoic) state in “the marketplace” is, for BR, a critical part of the journey. It is the only way to take the unitive state as far as it will go.

Rather romantically, BR talks of the individual at this stage as overflowing with love, “the servant of all,” something like the Mahāyāna ideal of the bodhisattva. There are, though, those who fail to launch themselves into the marketplace phase of the journey. They cling to the security of a secluded, contemplative life. This will not work. The marketplace stage is necessary to fully live out our human potential.

During the unitive or non-egoic stage, all experiences, good and bad, are welcomed. Our responses to these experiences run their course, finally disappearing into the hole in the psyche where once the ego stood.

As the journey past no-ego progresses toward no-self, the mind can throw up archetypes or self-images. These must be seen as masks, not as something real, and certainly not as a real self.

A further characteristic of this stage is egoless giving, without any expectation of return. The remaining self is eroded through such acts. Again, though, the self can never accomplish the end of self. This depends, says BR, on an action by the divine.

Glimpses of the end-point take the form of “ecstasy.” Again, for BR, this is a word with a very specific meaning. By “ecstasy” she means the temporary cessation of self and consciousness in favor of “pure sensory perception.” This temporary state of affairs prepares us for the final transition to no-self, after which the senses can permanently function without any need for “consciousness” (in BR’s sense).

Given that BR sees the feeling self as the engine driving the reflexive mechanism, the no-self event necessarily entails the end of the feeling self. Subjectively, experience will no longer have a central point of any kind. The previously omnipresent sense of life or beingness will disappear. “Self,” previously thought to be a substantial “thing,” is revealed to be merely a passing experience.

Bernadette Roberts’ distinction between no-ego and no-self is an interesting one. However, I have yet to be convinced that her personal journey provides a roadmap for everyone else.