Selflessness, Perception and Time


I want to speak about how the mind creates the concept of self, even the felt sense of self, how does that happen if it’s really not there? How are we creating it and how can we free ourselves from this great illusion?

The Abhidhamma is a collection of works containing the Buddhist psychology, a very detailed analysis of mind and body, it’s not easy reading, it’s very technical…but it can be extremely helpful as a model for understanding selflessness and how self was created. So in the Abhidhamma it describes the mind as the knowing faculty, that which knows, so we call that consciousness. Knowing of a sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation in the body, just the bare knowing is what we often call mind. So for example we hear a sound, consciousness, the bare knowing, is just the moment of hearing. Perception, the mental factor, has the function to pick out the distinguishing marks of that particular sound. To name it so that we might hear a sound, recognize what distinguishes it and name it “bird.” And then we remember that name, stored in memory so the next time we hear that same sound, it’s perception which recognizes, “Oh that’s a bird.” It’s in this way, through this factor of perception, of distinguishing the different aspects of experience, naming them, remembering them, this is how we construct the whole world. We construct it through our perceptions, through recognition.


A big concept, one that has a huge affect on all of our lives, is the concept of time; of past and future.

How much, in the time since you’ve been here, do you think you’ve been lost in thoughts of past and future? A lot. And this is our lives, we’re in that realm and we have the idea that past and future are real. But when we look at what these concepts refer to it’s very interesting.

What is the past? What is our experience of the past? We’re going through the day and certain kinds of thoughts arise: memories, recollections, remembrances, so we put a concept on all these kinds of thoughts that are arising in the moment – we put the concept “past” and then somehow toss the concept out behind us, as if the past is really “back there” someplace, substantially, when our only experience of past is as a thought or feeling in the moment, that’s how we experience it. And the same for the future – there are certain kinds of thoughts, of imagining or planning or anticipating. We put a concept “future” on this class of thoughts, and then toss the concept out in front of us as if the future is out there substantially waiting for us. But all that really happened is that a thought arose, and passed away.

It’s possible to be mindful in a way thats holding to the present, so it’s almost stuck to the present, instead of letting go of the present. And we still are present to the moment’s experience but we’re not holding and fixated on it, and that’s what liberates the mind, it’s that letting go. So just play with that in your practice a bit.

This blog is a partial transcription of a talk given by Joseph Goldstein at the Northern Light Vipassana Society in February, 2015. View the full video here

Hear more from Joseph through his Insight Hour podcast.