1) Is there a separate entity 'self', 'me' 'I', at all, anywhere, in any way, shape or form?
Was there ever?
No, there is no separate 'self' entity, there has never been one.
2) Explain in detail what the illusion of separate self is, when it starts and how it works from your own experience.
Describe it fully as you see it now.
The illusion of the separate self has many layers that can be peeled to reveal deeper and deeper illusion taking place, but the fundamental one, is a belief in thought content of a story about a self; it is relatively simple to observe that there is no self when there is no thought, and there is an appearance of a presumed self as soon as thought occurs. However, this is not enough to see the illusion taking place.
A fundamental layer is the association of sensations with an idea/belief of a body, and the belief that sense perception is the proxy by which one is sensing signals from a solid and persistent world outside the body. All experience is therefore getting interpreted as if
originating from a self entity occupying a body that is aware. In the illusion, that 'I' on the 'inside' is sampling an world 'outside'. That assumed 'self', looks with its eyes to see objects that exist independently of the 'I' observer.
Let's examine the first deep body illusion:
The illusion of self starts with a belief of the body. The 'body sensations' have a specific location and characteristic, 'I feel my hands', 'my heart beating', 'an itch on my eyelid'. The body appears as an image map, every limb and many parts location is known on that map, the head is felt above the shoulders, the feet blow, all specifically positioned in space etc. This illusion is created by the amalgamation of sights, sensations and thoughts/tags/images. When looked at, 'feeling my hands' reveals a sensation we can qualify as a warmth, tingling, paulsating, vibrating sensation, the location is easily dropped. Further looking revelass that the warmth or tingling is also nothing but a tag, as this looking unfolds, there is nothing left to the body but the raw sensations that are experienced and are by themselves impossible to describe. There is no body to be found at all outside the thought of the body.
Let's observe the illusion of a self and an object:
There is something called "a glass of water", and it's right "in from of me", on the table. Seeing the glass does not infer a 'me' or a seer, there is just "seeing" which is nothing but color, all interpretation of this appearing as a solid object made of matter, situated such and such distance and direction is seen as a process akin to thinking (visual processing). It takes some practice, but it is possible to "flatten" that image into nothing but color, just like what a photograph is. There is no 'me' in seeing, there are no eyes or a brain in seeing, these are all imagined, what is left is only the indivisible knowing of the seen, which we can call "seeing". If the glass is held the illusion says that "I am holding a glass of water in my hand, it's made of glass and is heavy". But the direct experience has no such story, there are sensations experienced as vibrations or tingling etc. and there is absolutely nothing there that suggests a body, and 'I', that can qualify heaviness, coldness or warmness or anything whatsoever. The combination of the visuals, the sensations and the thoughts create that illusion of a me holding a glass of water.
When the body illusion is seen, another made-up entity can replace that function. It is possible to remove the body and still assume a knowing entity "the awareness", "aware presence", or "the observer". Just like the idea of a body, it's simply impossible to find that aware presence anywhere, all that is found are the experiences, the knowing of the sensations, the knowing of thoughts. There is no knowing that is free-floating, there is no subject awareness that just knows. When this is clearly seen, there is no further self to grab.
This description will not be complete without talking specifically about thoughts, the "normal" human existence can hardly be described as a sequence of sensations and observations that just gets interpreted and tagged with an assumed self, it is spent, lived, inside thoughts, inside stories. Thoughts glue sensations with an image of a body and a story about me, so they must be seen to reveal the illusion. Let's look at feeling like fear (we didn't discuss this actually, so that's a good opportunity). Fear arises as a contraction sensation, perhaps in the chest or abdomen area. That contraction is tagged as "very unpleasant" and there are thoughts arising with unpleasant content (usually about a dire future), which can 'trigger' (no cause/effect implied) more sensations such as rapid heart rate, shallow breathing etc. Realizing that thoughts content is illusory and brushing this off is not a real observation, looking right into the fear and finding out who is feeling the fear, is. First, there is the sensation, it's nothing but a sensation tagged 'contraction in my
abdomen' and tagged 'unpleasant' 'I don't want it', 'make it go away'. It can be looked at and seen as nothing but a vibration/sensation that is free-floating, there is no body and it's not mine. Who is fearful? Who is sensing? That is found to be a thought, no entity or a self. The content of thoughts can be seen again and again as not real. They can point to a real experience or to other thoughts, but their content is simply never real, the experience however is.
Finally, the self illusion is effortlessly created all the time, with virtually every experience being veiled by tagging and interpretation at best, and often colored by commentary, judgment, stories etc. and always, somehow, related to that self.
The illusion continues, the story can be seen.
3) How does it feel to see this?
What is the difference from before you started this dialogue? Please report from the past few days.
It feels right, simple, nothing to celebrate here, nobody to share or discuss with, and also no need to do so, It has simply never been any other way. There is very little to say about that realization because again, this is how it has always been, and it's almost mundane in its simplicity, no great mystical powers or outcome or a story to talk about. It does feel gratifying to zoom out of stories as they occur rather than drama or futile and pointless suffering by nobody and no one. There is no seeking for "who I am", there is still curiously but far less of an obsessive desire to understand or to know how and why. There is more joy found in simple experience, the simpler the better, just raw knowing of perceptions. There is empathy and a desire to expand this understanding to others, the belief in a self and the suffering it brings are still real experiences even if there is no self and suffering is a thought-story.
Before starting the dialogue, there was much seeking, almost compulsive analysis and trying to figure out life, existence, experience. There was indeed much confusion and the hopelessly futile search which would never end thanks to many teachings that planted concepts like 'awareness' and looking for the "I am" that I am...
4) What was the last bit that pushed you over; made you look?
I must start with the first one - that was the realization that the seeker was never me, before that there was a fake "I" that was in the way of seeing the true 'I'. "There is ALREADY no self, and yet looking is happening" shattered that ignorance instantly.
There were a few iterations and beliefs that had to be seen - the deep association of sensation with the body was one, and then exposing the belief in a global awareness that "I was part of"...
The self illusion has been seen, but the last point was clearly seeing and exposing the nature of thoughts. Despite these previous realizations, there was habitual continuous zooming into thoughts and believing their story contents. It took one more zen master whack to see that.
5) a) Describe decision, intention, free will, choice and control. What makes things happen? How does it work?
Give examples from your own recent experiences to how things happen and how things work.
The normal perception is that I am a person (body and a conscious self with volition and awareness). I make decisions and my actions have consequences, etc. Let's take a look.
Thoughts appear from nothing and vanish to nothing, there is no control over thoughts or thinking, there is no entity that thinks and no mind as a place where thoughts stew and a decision is made somehow. Decisions are therefore never made by 'me' since any "debate" or listing pros and cons will just be made by a thought that says "This". It takes a bit more observation to also see that a thought will often come and "claim" it was a decision made by a 'me', or that an action had an intention or a rationale, but no, things just happen, appearance of decisions made. The actions of the perceived body are clearly autonomous, there is no thinking involved in any action and no entity moving body parts, but there is often thinking taking place that tells a story of a 'me' deciding to get up, to wash the face, there is an illusion of action or decision that is nothing but another thought, there is no decision, intension, choice or control! This conclusion can be challenged anytime and action will finally occur without a decision taking place, just sit and refuse to move... Free will is just a concept that says "I have choice", "I can decide", how can a choice be made with no thinker, chooser and no knowledge of thoughts before they appear? Clearly there is no free will, only the illusion of such.
Cause and effect is another such concept. A simple example is "feel the hands" - this is a thought that was supposedly made and now sensations are felt, but experience is just that the knowing of a thought and the knowing of a sensation occurring. There is no way to observe one event as cause of the other, only the thought whose contents tells that story.
Everything is constantly changing. Sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, colors arise, fall vibrate, move, thoughts arise and fall.
There is no doer, no chooser, no effort, no intention, no cause. There is seamless flow, movement and there are thoughts that contain stories about things getting done, how it works and why.
b) What are you responsible for? Give examples from your own recent experiences to how this works.
There is no "I", there is no entity here that could assume volition or responsibility. There was never a ME seeking for answers outside thoughts, and there is no ME that is responsible for anything, wants or can do anything.
6) Anything to add?
A great big thank you and a great big virtual hug.