There is a distinction I want to make between thinking you are a separate self and believing/feeling deep down that you are a separate self. Only you can say for certain which it is for you.
Thoughts of a separate self may always return. Thoughts are not you. Thoughts are largely not controlled by you. Thoughts just happen. The brain/mind creates most of the thoughts in relation to a “me”. The brain/mind is trying to protect this organism from danger and to continue living. And so thoughts about “what could happen to me” may arise…even after enlightenment. Awakening just means you have seen through the illusion of “me” and so although the thought “what could happen to me” may arise, it simply is not believed. You do not suffer from worry after the initial random thought.
I found that after awakening, such thoughts actually helped to kind of shake me a bit from any dozing off or unconsciousness. The thought “what could happen to me” would arise, and it would be like a joke…I did not feel there was a “me” that needed protection or could be in danger. This dissonance between the random thought and what was felt would renew the realization of who/what I really am.
Society also helps reinforce the idea of a separate self. In the USA, our culture involves having purpose and meaning in life, being responsible for one’s actions, and a myriad of other ego inflating or deflating ideas. In the USA, individualism is a virtue. Being independent. There are countless messages you will receive from people that you really are a separate self.
Between cultural, societal messages and the brain/mind constantly looking for dangers to stay alive/comfortable, is it any wonder that random thoughts that involve a separate self arise? It is alright that these thoughts arise. These thoughts are not a problem. Don’t expect them to never arise.
Instead, the question is, “do you believe the thoughts that you are a separate self?” This will be apparent if you are honest regarding whether you suffer or not. Has worry, problems, guilt, etc. ceased in your experience?
Worry only exists when you are believing in a separate self. Problems only exist when you are believing in a separate self. Guilt only exists when you are believing in a separate self. If you feel you are a separate self, suffering happens and takes many forms like worry/fear, problems, guilt, etc.
If you don’t react/believe the thought that you are a separate self, then such thoughts arise less frequently. The brain/mind is trying to help…please recognize this. So if you keep ignoring every random thought about worry regarding your parked car (for example), eventually the brain/mind ceases to alert you about fictitious (“what if”) dangers to your parked car. It wants to alert you to things you care about. If you still believe you are separate self and so care about living (remaining a separate self)…then the brain/mind will alert you to every danger (real or imagined) it can spot that may end this life.
That is one thing about enlightenment that may be a shock…you cease caring about whether you continue in this life or not. I could die today and be happy. I don’t have things that are vitally important that must be done before I die. I am not attached to life. Someone might ask, “then why do you keep living?” This is a question from an ego that does not understand what is like to live without a purpose, meaning, or reason. Just because I am OK with living as much as dying, does not mean I am eager to die. In fact, I have little preference either way. I accept what is as is…be it continued life or imminent death. But I don’t seek death, I do what I have to in order to stay alive – drink water, eat, look both ways before crossing the street, etc. Like when we were children in a way, you continue playing for as long as you can just for the fun of it…until you are called home.
In feeling that there is no separate self to protect, the brain/mind will alert you less often (over time) to many of the worries and fears about the future that plague other people. The question, “what could happen to me,” arises less often as the brain/mind learns that you don’t care.
The enlightened are without fear, but they are not unwise. Fear is not the only reason to not die. Fear is not the only reason to look both ways before crossing the road. You can continue living because it is fun…for the joy of it…without being attached and needing it to continue. You can be wise enough to realize what would end the game for you…and so not put yourself in danger.
The enlightened see who/what they are and the world differently than those who have not woken up. They deeply feel they are not a separate self…and have seen through the illusion of “me”. And so although random thoughts about a separate “me” might arise…it is seen for the illusion it is and not believed.