Some questions before I forget. I feel like I'm going in circles, but I hope it's actually a spiral... albeit a very, very gradual one
From a relative point of view, we see objective outside being observed by subjective inside, so we can go, "He's rude" and feel like quality X out there is observed empirically by person Y in here. The substance of our being is this experience which we create with our aggregates.
'Aggregates' is just a relative term used to break experience down into constituent pieces for means of evaluation. They're solely a convention. "We" create nothing, because "we", "I", "you", "me" are imputed projections (conventions) as well. Nothing is created or destroyed.
duckfiasco wrote: It still seems obvious to me though that there is something aside from those aggregates that influences them. Is it still inaccurate to say they're part of the continuum of existence, like cells in a body, even if the aggregates are not a discrete, enduring self?
It only seems that way, because you're accepting that there are inherently existent aggregates for some type of influence to act upon. Positing that something is acting upon "something else" is always ultimately a product of projection(but is useful in it's place). Yes it would be inaccurate to say they exist in a continuum of existence. It's truly all tetralemmic and paradoxical in nature when it comes to capturing this truth in words. It's naturally cleansed of the four extremes' stains.
- The Tantra Of Awareness' Natural Freedom
duckfiasco wrote: I can see how changing the process of observation can change what is observed in the sense that the observer has no other referents, but why would that have any substantial bearing on the thing itself, and therefore how others might perceive it?
These reference points and processes are conventions of language... and all lack inherent existence. That includes the 'thing itself'. There appears to be bearing on the 'thing itself' because there never was a 'thing itself' to begin with. The perceiving of a 'thing' is a projection of ignorance and the removal of this veil of ignorance is the dawning and actualization of truth.
duckfiasco wrote: I feel like I'm getting two messages... that our experience of a thing isn't the thing itself, but then there is no thing, just our experience of it. It feels like it all boils down to subject-object again.
Language is naturally dualistic so it's impossible for it to accurately describe that which is being discussed. But to clear up your two messages in a way that points somewhat closely; Experience appears to happen, however there's no experiencer and nothing which is experienced. However the absence of self/phenomena cannot be believed, because the self is reborn in the belief, as that which believes or disbelieves. The experience of a thing is a projection, there is no 'thing itself'(even apart from sensory perception like noumena). So there are no 'things' or objects anywhere in experience(of course there is conventionally). But if this is left on the level of belief then it's a rebirth of the same exact ignorance. A notion of absence is just as imputed as the original notion of appearance. A subject-object split of any nature is a projection of ignorance. Thought creates all separation, the problem is that thoughts are believed, and it's believed that thoughts are merely commenting on a 'thing' which inherently exists apart from the thought. But in truth the thought creates the 'thing'. The thought implies a thinker and that which is thought of. Thought and memory create time, space, everything. If you can start to view thought in it's suchness, as merely a sound, that points to nothing and self-liberates the moment it appears, and then eventually see that there's no one who views the thought but that it is self-originated... and it continues to collapse in from there with a few other possible steps until it's only emptiness.
duckfiasco wrote: I remember reading in one of my books that thinking, "I don't exist" and "Only I exist" are nearly the same wrong view. It's frustrating that those options keep popping up in my head.
This is because holding onto either view is what reifies the alleged "holder". Only a self would believe there's no self. The intellect cannot access the true state of what-is. Attachment and aversion is what generates and keeps the illusion of self/other alive.
duckfiasco wrote: When I meditate on emptiness of self, I dissect all the parts of myself and try to locate where this sense of solid "self" comes from. It's not in my fingers, bowels, eyeballs, brain... it's not in a memory, thought, opinion, or even consciousness which can be knocked out. And not a single one of these exists in its own right, but has a gazillion causes and matter helping them be what they are, while they in turn influence everything else. There's not even really control by something over something. It's just stuff being caused and creating other causes.
On the highest platform causes are actually conventions as well, as is matter. But the causal view is no doubt helpful, just don't take it to be an ultimate truth.
duckfiasco wrote: So then things start to get very weird. If this is so, what in the heck is observation really, just change by a different name? How is it so clear that there is no observer when I search for one with a fine-toothed comb, then one magically appears as soon as I get off my meditation cushion? And if there is no solid, controlling observer in the ultimate sense, how could there be influence over the process of observation? It feels like it's all smoke and mirrors.
Change is an imputed projection. Its a useful convention but experience is always in the immediacy. Observation and processes of observation are also imputed, a process would require time, point of origin, end point, etc.. And observation as an act itself would require an observer and something observed.
duckfiasco wrote: And in the big picture, if there is no witness/observer to the aggregates of self and their observations, what is it that causes change from delusion to right view then experiences it?
The aggregates are also imputed as mentioned above, as well as observations... the cause for the removal of ignorance is described in different ways, and realization itself varies among the different vehicles. Realization in Theravada isn't to the same extent as mahamudra or dzogchen. Each tradition has it's own nomenclature as well. On the ultimate platform nothing ever happens, there is no change, no samsara, no nirvana etc.. But that is a little extreme for this discussion. I guess you could say 'that-which-is' suddenly becomes aware of itself, although that isn't exactly accurate either. The metaphor of the sun being obscured by the clouds is good too like Greg mentioned, the sun is ever-present and ever-shining and only seemed to be absent or difficult to see due to the cloud cover. The Dharma is the means to remove these clouds.
duckfiasco wrote: I suppose in all honesty, I have no clue how to approach this problem. I can do all the thinking and intellectualizing I like (and believe me I have!) but it doesn't feel like I really know how to apply it. It's like I've studied music theory inside and out, but have yet to play a piano and for that matter, where do you even get one?
Again like Greg said qualified teacher is the best way to start. And then depending on your personal preference the vehicle you implement is up to you.