Most animals don’t seem to have much self-awareness. They just see, hear, feel, want, fear, love, hate, and take the shortest, most direct path to their incentives. They just live.
It seems like humans are different. We don’t just see, but we know that we see. We know that we hear, feel, want, fear, love, etc. We’re able to use our imaginations to make and achieve goals unattainable by following an immediate, direct, A to B path. We’re able to use symbols, we’re able to think. We know that we exist. This is self-awareness.
Well, no. Buddha told Ananda that this isn’t self-awareness. The same way that my cat just sees and feels, I’m just aware of seeing and feeling. That “just” is a very important distinction. This is difficult to wrap the mind around, and can feel uncomfortable.
We say a cat isn’t self-aware because cats live automatically. I guess we could say that they live on autopilot. They have no conscious awareness of being aware, of being alive, of having feelings. Without training, they can’t control themselves, and even with training, they can’t control their impulses—they just restrain them thanks to conditioning.
We are aware of living, being and having. We can control ourselves and even come to control our impulses to the point that we just don’t want certain things anymore. But this “self”-awareness is just as automatic as my cat’s awareness of seeing, feeling, and living. This self-awareness is on autopilot. We can’t control it anymore than a cat can control turning its head toward a sudden sound or a movement in its peripheral vision.
Whenever there’s an experience, there’s automatically the awareness of experiencing that experience. If there was no experience, there’d be no awareness. We aren’t self-aware when we’re anesthetized..
That’s why the Buddha said that this isn’t truly self-awareness, it’s another blind process crafted by habits, instinct, and stimuli. It’s not self-awareness because it lacks everything we’d attribute to a self. It has no independence, volition, or stability. It’s another ghost, another mirage to detach from while meditating.
True self-awareness is what remains when body and mind have dropped away, when everything is settled and free, neither drawing us in nor pushing us away.
Saying that this mindless cognitive process is self-awareness is like saying that a bunch of falling dominoes are the table. If we think that a bunch of collapsing dominoes are a table, then we’re gonna have a lot of trouble when try to set the table for Thanksgiving. When we stop thinking that these dominoes are the table, then we can clear them away and set our plates down on a solid surface. We can learn to stop shaking the table.
Then we can go from thinking we’re self-aware to actually being self-aware. Meaning that we go from being not self-aware to being Not-Self-aware. Sorry, I had to do that.