I had came up with this idea when reading the Brief history of everything by Ken Wilber.
Firstly, I am going to introduce an hierarchical (or holarchical, holarchy is a nested hierarcy) “core self -environment continuum model” (couldn’t come up with a better name, sorry!) which is a rough model of how reality is organized in the individual-interior (see Wilber’s four quadrant model of reality). The model is about individual-interior, i.e. relates primarily to the subjective experienced reality that is phenomenological, not empirical in nature. In other words, it attempts the describe the things a subject experiences them as opposed to things that can be observed from outside. So this is more a philosophical text than a neuroscience text.
Secondly, in the context of this model, I am going to argue for nondual perception of reality (there is no distinction between the self and the “outer” reality).
Core self – environment continuum model
In this model, there is a continuum from our core self to the “outer” reality or environment. In the order of increasing distance to the core of the self, the components of the model are:
observing self <-> mind <-> body <-> environment
In this model, at the core of reality experience is the observing self (the witness, the Buddha nature, etc etc). This is in accordance with the teachings of most of the ancient and modern spiritual teachers. For example, Tolle writes:
“I am not my thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions, and experiences. I am not the content of my life. I am Life. I am the space in which all things happen. I am consciousness”, from Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (2003)
The idea in the model is that the four components – observing self, mind, body, environment – interact and interface hierarchically (or holarchically).
Observing self has an input-output relationship (an interface) only with the mind. This means observing self can interact with the body only via the mind. Example: if I want to raise my hand, I need to activate some processes (plan the motor sequence and give order for execution etc) in the mind to enable me to actually raise the hand. The idea is that the observing self cannot directly interface with the body.
Similarly, mind has input-output relationship (an interface) with the body (but not directly with the environment) and the body has an interface with the environment.
I am not sure if I can make a good argument for the four categories, observing self – mind – body – environment, based on solely phenomenological subjective experience (individual-interior), that is, in this case introspection. From the view point of empirically observable correlates of observing self – mind – body – environment, the argument for these categories and the interfaces in-between could be probably made easier. In any case, here is the argument for the four categories based on phenomenological subjective experience: Observing self is the part of reality-experience that does not change. Mind is all the experiences and forms that appear. Body is something I experience with either or both of two qualities 1) I can control it (interact with) directly 2) it can directly affect my experience (i.e. sensations). Environment is something I experience conditional to my body.
Argument for nondual perception of reality
The common view of reality is dual in the sense that there is me and then there is the outer reality. Me is usually composed of body and the mind. “I have this body that I can move and feel. I also have a mind where some emotions, experiences, meanings, thoughts come and go.” In this view reality, the self-sense has not yet differentiated mind and observing self, in the sense of the above Tolle quote. If we differentiate them we get: me = body + mind + observing self.
In the dual model of reality, in addition to “me”, there is the “outer” reality, the environment. There is a dividing line between me and the environment. It seems to me that this is arbitrary.
In the context of the “core self – environment continuum model” here, dual perception of reality means that there is something special in the interface that separates body from environment that is not found in the other interfaces.
Let’s take an object in the environment, for example a can of beer. The dual perception of reality says I am separate from that can of beer. The only reason I can think why somebody would state that the can of beer separate from me is that I cannot directly influence or interact with the can in the same way I can directly influence or interact with my hand for example. In other words, I need to use my body to interact with that can.
But in the same way, I need to use my mind to interface with my body. So by the same logic, in the context of the model here
observing self <-> mind <-> body <-> environment,
it follows that I am separate from my body.
Thus, because there is no difference in the quality of the interface mind<->body and body<->environment, there is no reason to arbitrary draw the line of self between the body and the environment.
In conclusion, if the “core self – environment continuum model” is any good description of reality experience in the individual-interior (the subjective reality experience), there is no grounds for having a dual self-sense which separates me from my surroundings.