Road signs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They inform us of the speed limit, and which exit to use; and tell us when a detour looms. They warn us of impending dead-ends, bumps, narrowing roads and rough spots. They let us know when pedestrians (or, in Colorado, deer) are likely to be crossing the street.
Across their differences, what road signs tend to have in common is that they point to a visible phenomena: to an aspect of the driving terrain that is (or is likely to be) present. Only rarely do we encounter a road sign that points to an absence – that draws our attention to something that is missing, that is not present.
Hence my surprise (and delight!) at seeing the sign “No Center Line” when recently driving along a road newly paved, but not yet painted. Here I was being asked to notice the absence of something – something that was not here.
This no-thing (viz. the absence of the street’s painted center line) was, of course, in plain view: I could easily see in front of me a street with no center line. So why, one might ask, is it even necessary to post a sign directing a driver’s attention to this totally obvious absence?
And the answer, of course, is that in the absence of a painted center line, drivers might (consciously or unconsciously) assume that the road is one-way, or might drift toward the center of the road – setting the stage for a head-on collision with on-coming traffic. So the “No Center Line” sign is basically saying: please drive as though there actually were a center line, even though it’s not yet painted onto the road.
No Separate Self
When a spiritual teacher says, “There is no separate self,” these words function in a manner similar to the “No Center Line” sign. They point to an absence – to something that is not here – and in so doing help us to avoid head-on collisions with the suffering of dualistic ignorance.
Once we look closely, the absence of a separate-self (i.e. a limited, autonomous, independent “me”) is obvious. Like the absence of the painted center line, it’s not hidden – just oftentimes not noticed. Hence the usefulness of a sign, a pointer: to help us recognize and knowingly experience the absence of a separate-self: a no-thing, an emptiness which opens, simultaneously, to the luminosity of Pure Awareness.
While the “No Center Line” road sign asks us to behave as if there actually were a center line, the “No Separate Self” pointer invites us to release the body-mind tensions associated with maintaining the illusion of separate-self. In terms of our metaphor: it’s as though we had been dreaming or hallucinating the presence of a painted center line, when such a thing has never actually existed.
Another way to play with this metaphor is to think of the painted center line as being akin to the subject/object or self/other polarity. At the level of blacktop or pavement, the road is a unified whole. The painted line is a more superficial division which – though it serves a functional purpose – remains secondary to the deeper reality (of the road as a unified whole).
At the level of the human body, the distinction between “my body” and “your body” can be a useful one. I put pizza into the mouth of “my body” because “my body-mind” finds the taste of pizza to be pleasing. If I attempt to place pizza into the mouth of “your body” – it might not work out very well, if your body has a gluten intolerance, or just finds the taste of pizza to be disgusting.
In this case, it’s good to keep the two vehicles traveling in their separate lanes. But we can still remember that who we are essentially is the unified road: the unbounded, unlimited, transpersonal Pure Awareness that knows no divisions of any sort: neither center lines, nor “No Center Line” signs.