When we talk about letting go of the self, we frequently are setting up a fight. It is a never-ending, unwinnable fight because it set up as a dualistic split. Instead, if we examine the transparent processes beneath all experience, we dissolve the self in its own uselessness for explanation. It arises less because we don’t need it. This is how problems tend to move, as opposed to conquest or reversal. They fade when their function is gone.
The Abhidharma is vital in this way because it explains everything we can experience without needing to refer to a self or personal agent at all.
Complex emotions and other psychological experiences that we knit into a self are composed of mental factors that surround the quick, basic action of consciousness touching on an object. We don’t own our experiences; their narratives don’t define a constant self. These experiences are systematic parts of processes of sentience.
Thoughts are colossal conglomerates of citta activities. Cittas are effervescent moments of consciousness touching on an object in a field. They occur too rapidly for most people even to detect, but they pull each other along in a way that works like animation. We feel a continuity of consciousness because it is moving so rapidly.
If we see thoughts as made of natural processes, we catch their essence and direction more than their linguistic trappings and finery. Thoughts should do work. Ownership of thought is like ownership of air.
Even memory is just the result of continuity of citta, which relies on particular causation factors. Cittas’ causal connections create momentum and direction of consciousness. We don’t decide to draw a particular thing from our well of memories; the consciousness processes link in particular ways and associations enter at the mind door at certain points of perception. That vital bank that I might imagine is memory right now, (which will be a totally different vital bank in ten minutes) is not me. It doesn’t actually exist. It is a present concept.
Emotions bind us to our self concept even more. Our self is so easily amassed in the series of feelings we have, because emotions are experienced so globally and bodily. But feelings also occur in tinier increments than we can perceive. Each citta is accompanied by a basic, pre-emotion bivalent feeling, one of the seven “universal cetasikas,” or mental factors. Emotions start out as tiny impulses of grasping or rejecting fragments of perception. These become ingredients of emotion and emotions could be seen as the currency in the karmic economy.
All of these experiences bundle together in ways that give our experiences a sense of coherence and a frame of reference, and those bundles are defined in the Abhidharma also. To give up the sense of self is not to stop bundling, but to recognize even that process, to incrementally substitute the sense of self for the awareness of process.