One of my favourite optical illusions is the Kanizsa Triangle, named after Gaetano Kanizsa, the Italian psychologist who first discussed it. At first glance, the image looks like a white triangle placed on three black circles all sitting on a white background. But when observing the image closer, we see that there is no triangle there. Due to the placement of the circles, we see the imaginary lines that make the triangle, but on closer inspection, we see the triangle doesn’t have any borders or edges. But still, every time we look we see the triangle even though we now know that the triangle is an illusion, it does not exist.
I like this optical illusion because it helps illustrate a profound truth about the nature of self. Like the triangle, the unchanging self or the I that we think we are is an illusion. Even though the sense of self that we have is so deep-rooted and apparent, on closer inspection, when we go searching for this I, we see that there is nothing there. The I that we think we are is an emergent illusion of the collaboration of all the different processes going on. Just like the triangle is an emergent illusion of the collaboration of the three circles.
Why does this matter?
If we are in pursuit of truth, this matters because it is true. Most people live their lives as if there exists somewhere inside them this I, this driver of their body and thoughts. But this is not true, all we are in reality is an ever-changing process of fluctuations. The illusion of an unchanging and linear self that we think we are evolved to help us navigate better in our environment. No part of us is the same from one passing moment to the next, and no part of anything in the observable universe is still and unchanging.
This truth also matters because it can help us live a life with less suffering. When we feel a destructive emotion arise, if we identify strongly with this I, we think “I am angry!” But if we know that there is no I, anger is just arising in consciousness, but there is no I to attach to this emotion, we can watch it pass. When someone criticises us, instead of feeling offended we can acknowledge that this feeling of offence has arisen, but there is no self to be offended. When we can be mindful and observe our mind, we understand that our thoughts and our emotions don’t have to dictate who we think we are or how we think we feel. We observe the thought or the feeling the same way we watch a cloud passing in the sky.
So take time every day to sit down, and observe your mind. The most tried and tested method to do this is to breath and to observe your in-breath and out-breath. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.
It's as simple as that!
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!