The Subject-Object Illusion

subject-objectThe whole problem is that we think of ourselves as ourselves. That is, as objects – bestowed with sentience, perceivers of the world, stumbling our way through life burdened by circumstances over which we have no control, all the while pretending that we do. And always lurking in the back of our mind is the knowing that ultimately we are going to die.

Life as an object is tough.

Seeing ourselves as objects is of course inevitable, given how we regard time and space as separate from us. I mean, if you think that objects exist in space out therehow would you ever see yourself as anything other than a perceiver of them? If we believe that objects are real, we must necessarily also believe that whatever perceives them is itself an object. Be it a brain, a soul, or a person, it must be some spatially distinct entity – and such an object, we refer to as a subject.

Let me be clear. Objects do not actually exist. Time and space are not objectively real. I just want to point out that if anyone believes that time and space is out there, they must admit that, logically, objects must be perceived by other objects (which we call subjects) – for as long as objects are regarded as things-in-themselves, the notion of an object necessarily involves the notion of a subject, since to be a thing-in-itself specifically means to exist independently of a perceiving subject. In other words, according to our misconstrued conceptual schema of reality, objects must – simply by how we define them and think about them – be perceived by a subject.

And since most of us do believe that subjects and objects are real, whenever we encounter an object we inevitably see ourselves as its subject. 

This is the mistaken identity from which we seek to free ourselves.

And so, if we are to awake, we must rid ourselves of this notion of objects existing in their own right. It’s not the objects as such that are the problem, but their subject, and by abolishing the notion of an object as a thing-in-itself we thereby abolish the notion of its subject also – and that is why I stress the importance of understanding that there is no external world.

However, simply understanding that objects and subjects don’t actually exist isn’t enough. Conditioning is too strong. Decades of objectivizing day in and day out have established a habit that cannot be overcome by intellectual understanding alone – and it’s objectivization that is the real obstacle to awakening.

Objectivization can be understood as the functional aspect whereby this-which-we-are perceives what it is as an object. It’s a way of cognizing by means of conceptualization. We fabricate objects in the mind by turning what is nothing but pure perceiving into objective concepts such as “a lamp”, “a coffee mug” and “the moon” – and since we regard them as independently existing entities, we imagine ourselves into existence as their subject, namely the very subject whose perceiving they are supposedly independent of.

So, all of this can be summarily understood as follows: this-which-we-are, or pure consciousness if you will, perceives itself as an object (such as “a lamp”) by means of an subject (such as “myself”) – neither having any existence whatsoever other than conceptual – and thereby manifests this entirely illusory objective world and self. And all of this takes stage where there is nothing but pure subjectivity, which is no thing whatsoever.

It’s a division through conceptualization. In conceptualizing, pure experiencing is divided into interdependent conceptual counterparts: “subject” and “object”, “self” and “world” or “in here” and “over there”. We then add layer upon layer of other ideas to this imagined entity in here, thereby creating an entire edifice of figments that come to constitute our ego – the self image.

But all of these ideas are built upon the idea of a subject – and when conceptualizing ceases, the very linchpin of our identity is removed, because the subject is no longer fabricated in the mind. In this absence, looking stops and seeing begins – and no longer bound by objectivization, we find ourselves, simply, awake.

Note: Anyone who claims that objects are objectively real and at the same time say that consciousness is “prior to” or “beyond” time and space are talking out of their hats. If time and space are objectively real, there can be no “prior” to time or “beyond” space – for those are themselves temporal and spatial concepts with no application independently of time and space.

Artwork by ratpat13

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25 Responses to The Subject-Object Illusion

  1. Alan Neachell says:

    Hi, I have just found your site and I am really loving your expression.
    With gratitude, Alan.

  2. unu' says:

    I fail to understand the underlying issue. If you mean by this post that our perception of reality and reality are two different entities, sure, I agree. Otherwise you mean to say that reality exists because we think about it? That doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if you talk about the false dichotomy between man an nature, and the layer upon layer of abstractions constructed to sustain this lie, I agree again.

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Thanks for your comment!

      There is no external world beyond our perceptions. There is only consciousness. What this post attempts to explain is the mechanism whereby this subjectivity manifest itself into this seemingly real world of objects and subjects.

      There are no actual objects or subjects. They only seem to exists due to conceptualization.

    • unu' says:

      Thank you for the opportunity to do some thinking.

      Now I better understand your point, but I don’t agree with it (maybe I’ve misunderstood what you are really saying, or it’s a semantic issue). My model representing reality and how I relate to it is this: objective reality, my subjective perception and my consciousness. What I experience is not reality itself, but a model created in my mind by the means of my senses. The different aspects of the objective reality are morphed through my senses and using the conceptualization you were talking about into metaphors, or personal/cultural representations of the objective reality. All my interactions with objective reality is done using metaphors, because the perception of reality is always a buffer between my consciousness and objective reality, and thinking is not compatible with actual objects, you can think using metaphors, not actual objects. But you’re saying that there is no objective reality, only consciousness. If that’s true, what exactly is my consciousness perceiving through my senses? How exactly does society work if each of us defines it’s own personal reality, without a common ground (objective reality)? How can we even have this conversation?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi!
      I wrote a long article refuting the external world (an objective reality.) It’s split into four posts and can be found here http://www.uncoveringlife.com/refuting-the-external-world/
      It explains all the issues you’ve raised here.

    • unu' says:

      Hi again! I’ve read the series and must say I couldn’t find a flaw. I can’t consider myself a philosopher or logician but what you’re saying there makes perfect sense. I’ll be checking back for some more articles working on the implications of your findings. Should be a very interesting read. Cheers!

  3. David says:

    :There is no external world beyond our perceptions: So what?.that is the human experience, that’s all we have. conceptualisation cannot cease,

  4. Runstill says:

    Well I must say you have explained what is in a way that one can all most conceptually grasp.
    When the see’er, seen and seeing is an actual experience with out the ‘I’ then your teaching
    resonates not as a concept but as a way to be this….

    Are you seeing reality this way, with out object/subject separation ?

  5. john says:

    Non dual consciousness as seen from our duality projections/perceptions may seem like the end game. And it is in many non dual practices. Yet, there is still duality only more subtle. For consciousness Always requires there be something to be conscious of. Consciousness itself is still in the domain of the ego though for the purpose of what is being illustrated here, it is not very important. At higher levels, non dual consciousness is an oxymoron. The point becomes relevant when a truly enlightened being discovers he has yet a further step to take in returning the consecrated mind still capable of creating duality back to his Creator. Enlightenment is a step away from ascension and that is where the point looms large.

    • Neerav says:

      This is correct, John. What you described then is more of a “dualistic non-duality” rather than non-duality in the truest sense of the terms. Good work, as I agree in everything that you said.

  6. Pingback: Zen in the Art of Listening | The High Fidelity Report

  7. Kisha says:

    Hi friends, how is all, and what you desire to say regarding this
    piecde of writing, in my view its really amazing for me.

  8. Malcolm says:

    I am enjoying perusing your website and I have bought and read your book with great enjoyment. It’s the right kind of approach for me as I understand closely reasoned stuff better than a right-brain approach.

    You say “If we believe that objects are real, we must necessarily also believe that whatever perceives them is itself an object.”

    I don’t follow this reasoning, can you spell it out for us?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi Malcom,

      I mean, given that we believe in an objective universe of objects, it’s inconceivable how they could be perceived, unless by another object. Could, in this model, an object be perceived by a force, such as gravity? No, that’s not how we think about things. We think that objects are perceived due to having come in contact with an object’s (a brain) perceptual faculties. We don’t believe that the power of perceiving could hang around in the air, so to speak, existing independently of an object’s perceptual and cognitive capabilities.

  9. Jason says:

    Hi Goran,

    I found your book first and then your blog and I am really enjoying both. I think understand most of what you are saying without much difficulty but I am struggling with one aspect I am hoping you can help me with.

    If there is no objective “outside” world, does that mean there are no other people other than myself? Or, if there are other people, how do we form a consensus reality if there is nothing objective for us to base it on? Is consensus reality just some sort of agreement between our experiences? Or is consesus reality also an illusion?

    Sorry if this was already covered, I need to read you book again and digest it a little more slowly.

    Thanks,
    Jason

  10. Daniel says:

    It seems to me that at some point in a true awakening the desire for understanding is no more, for what can be understood? fragments, concepts, certainly not a unified whole. I would suggest that all that is called understanding is only the ego standing-under the illusion of separation. That being said I do recognize that your writings do point nicely in the direction of surrender. It is hard to avoid confusion when pondering the concepts of the non-conceptual especially when you can’t stop laughing at the idea of two.

  11. Thomas says:

    So if there is no external objective world, why are you selling your book on Amazon? Why are you writing this blog? To whom? To where?

    • Göran Backlund says:

      If you had the experience of being lucid during a night time dream, you know that the dream goes on even though one knows it’s just a dream.
      One just doesn’t sit his ass down simply because there’s no objective counterpart to the dream world.

  12. Thomas says:

    So we are in a dream? Ok, fine, but so what? So what if it is a dream or all in your mind? Everything goes on as it ever did – people wake up to work, other people suffer, birds fly in the sky, you’re hungry, seasons change, you’re using fork to eat, you put on shoes and use objects etc. – now we just call it a dream instead of “reality” or whatever.

    You still have eat and take a dump. And then eventually you die. Be it a dream or not.

  13. Julian says:

    Great writing and so clear. Have read Francis Lucille, Greg Goode, Berkeley and some others…. your writing is clear and concise as theirs plus you have the realization to back this work up.

    Groking it with these posts seems a lot easier than what I have read before on this vital subject….please get a hard copy of your book out if you can.

    Cheers :-)

  14. Michael says:

    Your writing is simply awesome in its straightforward simplicity, a perfect breath of fresh air.
    Where were you thirty years ago when I was a philosophy student? Thank you for your efforts to communicate what you have found.

  15. Francis says:

    What a wonderful and motivating account, to give encouragement to all those seeking the end of suffering, that such a state of liberation does exist. Thank you Goran for sharing your story, but my brother, my friend, where are the concepts of forgiveness, love, compassion, forbearance with one another, friendship, beauty, kindness, true selflessness action, family, community, healing, acceptance, courage, joy, peace, contentment, fearlessness, wondrous maginifcance at the mystery of the unspeakable absolute? Where are all the virtues and the embodiment of the truth in the conventional illusory world of the messy relationships? Where can we intersect transcendence and immanence, how can we not only wake up from the dream, but also wake down into embodying the truth of the recognition of the ultimate reality?

  16. Willem Ernst says:

    Hi Goran, if I understand your position correctly, you are an absolute idealist. I consider myself a transcendental idealist, that is, there must be a world outside of my I: the world-as-such, otherwise I could never have developed a self. That is what Kant has proved. However, according to Kant this world-as-such, cannot be known by us. I agree. But I think that absolute idealism cannot explain the subject-object-split, or the emergence of self-consciousness.

    • Göran Backlund says:

      Hi! I suggest you read my book if you wanna dispel the world-as-such idea! I explain this in detail in there, but essentially the problem with Kant’s trancendental idealism is that, space being entirely subjective (an idea to which we owe kant’s brilliance) it follows, logically, that objectivity as such (and thereby the noumenon itself) is a impossibility. Again, this is outlined in detail in the book, I’m sorry I can’t spell it out here, it’s just to long.

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