Much of life’s problems revolve around our belief in the self. The voice in our heads reinforces on a daily basis the feeling of being a unique and separate entity- a self. We live by stories that we’ve told ourselves. We attach to descriptions of ourselves and say, “this is me” and “I am this” as if we have a unchanging essence. This attachment to identity, ego, to self, compels us to protect our selves at all costs. We get offended, guarded, feel persecuted, feel attacked, feel like something is happening to us because of the ‘self’. But what are we really protecting? I’ll suggest that the self is simply an illusion that creates a façade that gives us the feeling of self-hood.
Imagine having a loved one with dementia so severe that they no longer recognize their own children or even know how to feed themselves. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. Here is the question: What happened to the self of your loved one – from un-demented to a demented state? When family members see their loved one in a demented state, it’s common for family members to express, “This is not my Papa anymore,” or “this is just a shell of my Papa, but it’s not him.” They will often run through a litany of attributes or qualities and say, “Papa was always a gregarious and outgoing guy who loved to fish and spend time with his grand-children, and now, I don’t know who he is?” Now think, when did Papa stop being “Papa”? Was it when he stopped fishing, or was it when he couldn’t recognize his own children? Moreover, who was “Papa” when he was 7-years old?
This is reminiscent of the ancient thought puzzle, “ship of Theseus” discussed in essays by the historian Plutarch. The dilemma proposed posits a ship that is left in Athens, and the youth of Athens slowly replace the old wooden boards of the ship with new ones. The question raised was this: is the ship the same, despite receiving new parts? Better yet, at which point did the old ship stop being the old ship? Was it when 1 wooden board is replaced, or 13 or 27? This puzzle can also be applied to a heap of sand. When does a heap of sand officially become a “heap”? The point of the puzzle is to illustrate that we cannot ever truly locate the “ship” or the “heap” of sand. Likewise, when we speak of the “self,” “me” and “I,” it is an illusion. Life experiences changes all of us, minute-to-minute in the most minuscule of ways; thus, the self is never located.
The crux of this essay concerns identity, and the self. We all feel as though we have a self. Every day, our senses seem to reinforce that each of us is “separate” from everything else. When I walk, I walk in my shoes, not yours. When I eat, I am eating and become full, but I cannot eat and have you become full, nor vice versa. It is I who notices the new moon at dusk and shares my wonder with my wife during our walks. It is our relationship with these experiences that compels us to see ourselves as the center of our own universe.
My contention is that we have no true self, no essence, no way to honestly say this is really me. The self is not physical, it’s symbolic. There is no “I”, rather we are constantly be-coming; our identity is in constant flux. Think of the list of adjectives that describe you and then ask yourself, “am I any of these descriptions all of the time?” Nope. Rather, you have different personas that you employ to help you navigate your immediate environment. Our metaphorical ship (a.k.a. self) constantly receives additional lumber with every experience we encounter. The self is not something fixed or static (e.g., teacher, father, son, car enthusiast). You were a different person at 5-years old, and vastly different every year after that. Heck, I am not the same person I was last week! Now, let’s dive deeper into the self.
Locating Your Self
Let’s start simple. Can you locate your ‘self’? Where is the exact location of your self? When asked, most people will point to their head to indicate inside the cranium. Others will gesture their entire body and say, “all of this is me.” But this tells us nothing. The problem with this is that both mind and physical body are in constant change. Given this constant flux, how are we to pinpoint your self?
Returning to one’s demented papa, one can never go back and hit the pause button in one’s life and locate the “self”; Papa’s entire lifespan was a constant unfolding (mind/body) from birth to grave. The self is thus, illusory. Like Papa, you don’t have a “self’ or real you that you can pinpoint. The self can never be pinned down and identified with any certainty.
What is the Self
“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”
– Charles Horton Cooley
The “I” is a constructed entity, a collection of opinions, projections, and emotions, rather than something absolute. The “I” is like a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives that seems so real – as if we have been cast as a character in a play. The self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us. People shape themselves to fit other people’s perceptions, and these vary from one person to the next. Spouse, family, boss, colleagues, lover, adoring fans, and beggar in the street each hold a looking glass up to us every time we interact, and we present a different self. You don’t unfold into the world; rather, the world unfolds into you.
Think of the self as a Potemkin village. A Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better. The term has its roots from stories of fake villages built to impress Catherine II during her journeys through Russia in the late 18th century. Likewise, the self functions in the same way as a Potemkin: a façade created to show a respectable image to the world. Simply look at anyone’s Facebook feed or Twitter feed and you will see the ubiquitous attempt to show the good stuff. A constructed façade.
Ponder this: who are you when you are with your closet friends? Now, who are you when you are in a meeting at work amongst professionals and your boss? Finally, who are you when you are by yourself? Often, I notice the drastic difference in personas between my business focused “work-self” and my “dad-self” when playing with my 3-year-old. We take on personas (e.g., work-self, social-self, alone-self) to help us navigate the world. The personas, however, are a façade. Thus, we modulate our personas, demeanor, facial expression, non-verbal cues, to best match the appropriate tenor of the situation. So, which is the real you? Well, none of these personas are “you”, they are façades that help you relate better to the world around you.
Think of the great actor, Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks knows he is not truly Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump. Yet, he is considered a great actor because he plays these roles, or identities, so well; his commitment and skill create convincing portraits of wildly diverse people that can genuinely move and inspire us. Further, playing these roles serves a useful purpose (in this case, communication and entertainment). Our multiple identities are much like the multiple roles that Hanks has played.
However, unlike Tom Hanks, who knows he is acting, we typically do not grasp the idea that we are constantly and continually playing roles. These roles, or identities, are relative and temporary and serve a purpose, but they are not who we are in an absolute sense. However, they are who we think we are, absolutely. Sometimes we are more self-aware of “performing” for an audience than at other times, and some roles we play are more comfortable and perhaps are more convincing and successful than others. But being a “good” actor doesn’t change the fact that we are “acting” within every interaction and every relationship, even our relationship with ourselves. In our ignorance, we don’t see and understand this; we are not in control of our actions. We are not in control of our life. It is as if our roles are playing us. We react to circumstances or our disturbed emotions without awareness and are unable to control, change, adjust, or stand up to whatever role we are compelled to play. If we are simply playing roles in life, how can we understand better the idea of the self?
Self as a Concept
The notion of self is simply a concept that we employ to help us navigate the world better. Think of “the self” as a heuristic (problem-solving technique) that helps us function and relate to the world in practical terms. The self in this context is not rational or a perfect concept, rather, it helps provide immediate and “good enough” approximations for helping one navigate in the world. The concept of love functions in the same way. Love is not rational or something that can easily investigated through empirical means, rather, it’s a concept people use in practical ways to communicate deep and profound feelings and emotions. Both self and love are illusory terms that lack a solid and fixed essence, yet they convey practical sentiments that help humans flourish.
You (your name here) are a concept, just like the constellation Big Dipper. There is no big dipper up in the sky. “Big Dipper” is a concept. Humans looked, saw a certain pattern, and then created a concept in our collective mind to describe it: That concept is useful because it helps us recognize the constellation. But it also has another, less useful effect. By creating the concept “Big Dipper,” we separate out those stars from all the rest, and then, if we become attached to the idea of that separation, we lose the sense of the night sky’s wholeness, its oneness. Does the separation actually exist in the sky? No. We created it through the use of a concept.
Does anything change in the sky when we understand that there is no Big Dipper? No. The stars in the sky remain just the same, and the pattern of the stars remains the same. We simply see that the concept that names the pattern of stars, and that separates those particular ones from all the others, does not have any independent existence.
Likewise, realizing that “self” is a concept revolutionizes our understanding by revealing how things have always been. Each one of us is a constellation of mental-physical processes. We recognize the familiar pattern, name it, and then become so identified with the concept that we fall into the great illusion of believing that some being is ultimately there. (Your name here) is just the same as “Big Dipper.” (Your name here) is a concept, a name given to a certain pattern of elements, just as Big Dipper is a name given to a pattern of stars.
The Self is like an Oasis
To be clear, saying the self is an illusion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all, but rather that it’s akin to a mirage in the middle of the desert. The vision of the oasis is real, but the oasis itself isn’t. In this same way, the image of the self is real, but when we look at the image, we find it is simply that, an image and nothing more. The image of both, the oasis and the self, is really just another idea or thought and only the moment it is being thought of.
Now ask yourself: Who is feeling the feelings? Who is thinking the thoughts? Once again, when I refer to the “self,” I am referring to the idea or concept we hold of an unchanging essence to who experience is happening. Thus, when you feel or think, your experience does not refer back to anyone. There is no “self” or “I,” feeling the feelings and thinking the thoughts. The “self” or “I” in this context is the oasis in the middle of the dessert.
The Dissolving of Self During Meditation
Here is another thought experiment: who are you when there are zero thoughts in your mind? Think about it. During meditation, especially the Buddhist practice of Vipassana (clear insight) meditation, meditators will experience gaps between thoughts. These gaps are an experience of absolutely (and literally) nothing, devoid of thoughts and emotion. Again, the question I raise is this: who are you within these gaps?
It is precisely thoughts, thinking, and feelings that build the façade of ‘you’. Each thought reinforces a sense of ownership of your body and actions, giving you a sense of control and responsibility. However, without thoughts, thinking and feelings, who are “you”? These gaps remove the façade, the ego, and the protective shell to reveal what we may call bare consciousness. I’m speaking of a mental space where you are simply be-ing, with no judgment, and a steady calm. In these gaps, you possess no adjectives, no descriptions and no roles to perform because all of the personas you regularly employ have dissolved.
I experience the gaps of no-self routinely, via meditation. I describe it as an absolute form of freedom because within those gaps I am not attached to anything or anyone. The ego and all of my defenses have vanished because there is no self to protect. However, as soon as a thought arises, I am back to performing in life: What am I going to eat for lunch? I need to call Mike. Do I have any meetings tomorrow? Desires have arisen and now I am compelled to feed my ego, my self.
The benefit of realizing that your idea of self-hood is an illusion is that you can end the bottomless pit of self-mortification. You know, the voice in your head that negatively critiques everything you do and reminds you of all your imperfections. The inner critic loses its power with a dissolved self. Let’s take an example whereby we may all relate. Imagine eating dinner with a small group of people and telling a joke that falls completely flat. Within seconds, humiliation and regret set in. The voice in your head begins, “what the Hell is wrong with me?”… “you’re so stupid!” Now let’s put things into perspective.
You just experienced what everyone experiences at some point in life: a well-intentioned joke that garnered an unexpected reaction. Any negative mental ruminations that follow are as ridiculous and unhelpful as tripping over oneself in public or spilling your drink in front of everyone. At no point is such a momentary lapse in judgement or glitch in motor skills a valid indictment to your self. This illustration extends to every kind of life event, really. Rather than allowing your self to be flooded with shame or self-denigration, imagine if you simply shrugged your shoulders and smile. Perhaps you reign in your thoughts by reminding yourself, hey, it happens to all of us. No suffering is needed. No need to attach your self to a facade you have created. Life moments are like clouds passing by; they roll in and then dissipate into thin air. The world is truly born anew in the very next moment, if you will just let it be. Realizing the self as illusory helps us to observe the clouds rolling by, rather than identifying with them, which is always the beginning of suffering.