Your self is a feedback loop. Your ego is a resonance. It is your idea about who you are. It is your thinking about your thinking. It is attention paying attention to itself.
Feedback loops occur in natural and engineered systems. They can be useful, but they can also be destructive. The cruise control in your vehicle is a common useful feedback loop called a PID loop. By properly balancing three factors, the feedback loop is able to take input from the speedometer and control the throttle input to generate a constant stable speed despite the rising or falling terrain. If a feedback loop is not properly balanced, it can generate unstable oscillating output and never hone in on the target output. Or worse, it can oscillate with increasing intensity until the whole contraption is flung apart in destructive resonance. Everyone is familiar with the painful screech that occurs when a microphone gets too close to the output speaker. To stop the painful screech, the feedback loop must be broken.
Similarly, the feedback loop you know as your self can be useful, but it can also be painfully destructive. The principle effect of meditation is that the feedback loop of self is broken. During meditation, one stops thinking about thinking, one stops thinking about what one is hearing or seeing or feeling, and instead merely hears, sees, or feels. The effect is like pulling the microphone away from the speaker: the painful screech fades away and the signal can be heard clearly.
Through meditation and the recognition of the self as a mask or an illusion, one can develop the ability to modulate the feedback loop of the self and bring it into balance. As with the cruise control which maintains a steadiness despite varying terrain, the modulation of self generates equanimity despite the mountains and valleys of life. But the goal of “dying to self” is not to become a catatonic zombie who has no thoughts and cannot have any attachments. The goal is to modulate the feedback loop so as not to get stuck on thoughts or attachments or be controlled by them. A cord that is stretched cannot be stretched more, but a cord that is relaxed can be stretched. A person with no attachments can be free to form strong attachments. A person with no self, can dive deeply into life as experienced by the mask of self.
When I was five years old I began playing the piano, and I was really good for a kid so young. I remember at one of the first recitals I played “The Hopping Bunny” or something like that… I was not shy or scared to be on stage in front of a crowd 200 strong. I hopped up on that bench, legs dangling in the air, and precisely pounded out those notes simply for my own pleasure… but then something happened… everyone loved me for it! I had so many old ladies coming by afterwards to pinch my cheeks and tell me what a fantastic job I did that an odd thing developed: I became self-aware. And what an awful thing that turned out to be! I could no longer play for my own pleasure, I had to please everyone listening. Instead of simply playing the notes, I was aware that my self was playing the notes and this resonance caused doubts to creep in that I was playing the right notes. Ever afterwards, recitals were dreadful events! I had to sit there in my Sunday best anxiously awaiting my turn to have all attention focused on the sounds produced by MY sweaty fingers. What if I messed up? What if I forgot the notes? I had to do it RIGHT! I didn’t want to disappoint all these people who came expecting a good show!
The feedback loop of my self turned something I loved, playing the piano, into a miserable experience. To this day, I much prefer to play when no one is listening so that I can play without the distracting feedback loop of self-awareness.
Of course, the self is something we need in order to survive, to fit into society, and become useful. The self has enabled us to develop fantastically complex and dynamic civilizations. The idea that we’re all one doesn’t help us accomplish much. We have to have names, and there has to be a me and a you and a here and a there. The same anxious self-awareness that made piano recitals the pits also motivated me to achieve in school which in turn allowed me to earn a living for myself.
So in the course of life we begin without a well developed feedback loop of self. As young children, we dance and sing and play and act a fool not giving a darn what anyone thinks… until we become increasingly aware that our actions are being evaluated and responded to by others… and that causes us to evaluate our own actions and turn our thoughts in upon ourselves. And thus the feedback loop of the little self or the ego is created. It grows to a fever pitch by junior high making social engagements terrifying and awkward, and yet it ensures our survival.
So we find that later in life, we have developed pathologies of the out of balance self and they take many forms. We can be overtly selfish and lie cheat steal, etc. But most often our selfishness hides in reaction to our attempts to not be selfish. We want to be humble and righteous so that we can have a better self, a well liked self, and perhaps a self that will get the attention of a higher being who will make us feel really good about our self. And so the feedback loop gets ever more complex, deceptive, and difficult to pin down, balance, and untangle. It manifests itself in guilt, shame, arrogance, hypersensitivity, feelings of worthlessness, visions of grandeur, stress, anxiety, insomnia, and any other form of maladjustment that can be imagined.
So our self grows out of necessity, but is a common source of disease and we increasingly desire to get away from it. We put our selves through all sorts of activities and experiences ranging from the repetitive and mundane to the extreme or thrilling in order to “lose our selves.” We play with drugs. We seek danger. We sometimes stretch ourselves to the limit to find the end of ourselves. We say that after turning 30 we just don’t give a damn anymore what anyone thinks of us. We view the childhood experience of no self with nostalgia and we long to be carefree again. If doubt is to be “double-minded,” then a “childlike faith” is to be single-minded, unfractured in purpose from experience by the feedback loop of self-doubt.
To a large extent meditation and Eastern non-dual philosophic practices were developed simply to cure seekers of the suffering caused by an out of balance feedback loop of self. Meditation silences the mind and stops the feedback loop dead in its tracks. The non-dual philosophy provides an intellectual path to logically analyze away the self as an illusion, an apple on a tree, a wave on the ocean, or a whirlpool in a stream. Being free of the illusion of self allows one to take life less seriously, freely take on the illusion of self at will, and play the game of life with gusto. By dialing down the overworked survival mechanism, the enjoyment of life is increased. The richness of sensory experience and inner experience becomes profoundly wonderful. Relationships are freed of judgment and expectations. Playing the piano is transformed from a sweaty palmed terror back into a delight. Equanimity is achieved, yet the broadest range of feeling is possible because one is not stuck on anything.