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There is No “You”

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.

Conclusion

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.

Illusion of Self

Finished at Starbucks in San Jose while listening to Sublime on Pandora. Drinking a blonde roast and wondering: “Do I have a self?” Here is a 2000 word articulation of my thoughts on “I” and “self”.
dcdc

The “I” is a constructed idea, a collection of fluid opinions, beliefs, ideals, projections, and emotions, rather than something fixed. Because there is so much fluidity in our opinions, beliefs, and ideals, the sense of ‘self’ is always evolving. So just as Heraclitus said, “you can never step into the same river twice,” the same holds true for the elusive ‘self’. The sense of ‘self’ is simply a persona that we reinforce throughout our lives – as if we have been cast as a character in a play.

Stop for a second, and ask yourself where your “self” or “I” is? Most people will point to their head or stomach area. Most everyone is aware of the inner voice in their mind (technically known as the homunculus, meaning, little man), who gives opinions, analyses, guides, etc. Is the inside voice your “I”? Each of us lives with a sense of a self. We feel like we have an independent and existent “I.” We all yearn for clarity to the questions “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you.” It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we really don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? Does the ‘self’ survive even if I lose an arm or leg?

As a relatively new dad, I’ve been pondering this question. When will my son realize his “I”, his self, his identity? As a one-year old, he barely has control over his bowel movements. But somewhere along the path of childhood, he will start to develop a sense of self-identity and pride. My interest is this: what will constitute my son’s “I”, and is it real, or an illusion?

To answer this question, I’m reminded of Charles Cooley’s tongue-twisting claim about the self: ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’. In other words, my son’s “I” will be molded from what other’s think of him. Simply put, we discover who we are, and we come to value our self, based on what others think. Earning respect and social acceptance from others is probably one of the major preoccupations that we can have. 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. The illusion is that we think we alone are calling the shots. We think we know what our true authentic self is, and can literally put our finger on it.

lol

Realizing the delusions of our self is akin to the little dog Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinations of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the Land of Oz, the Wizard was dominant, all-powerful, and authoritative, and everyone deferred to him. This is like our ego, telling us what to do and convincing us that it alone is wise and knows all. Then, one day, we get fed up and tired of being sent on wild goose chases, and we discover that the big Wizard is only a rather small, insecure, and powerless old man shouting into a microphone. It is all ruse. The Wizard dominated for his own benefit; Dorothy never needed him to get her “home.” Our personal Wizard might be the internalized voice of our parents, or of society, or of our profession. The Wizard is not us, however, and we don’t actually need him in the driver’s seat. Invariably, getting “home” and overcoming our self-destructive tendencies require us only to be brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal our own false sense of self.

My argument can be summed up in three points:

  1. The “I” is a constructed idea
  2. There is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I”
  3. We predispose ourselves to expect that we live out the “story” which we think defines us

First, the “I” is a constructed idea, 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.

We all manufacture an elusive “I” filled with character traits, virtues, and a back-story so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. We cultivate a “self” from the amalgamation of our experiences, memories, and extensions.  A man’s “I” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his accomplishments and status.

The “I” is our constructed story that forms and shapes our identity. We are the chief architects of our individual selves as we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; or the ‘shy girl’ or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. In essence, our extensions become our identities.

Second, there is no independently existing, permanent, or inherent “I.” We see this in our ever-evolving acting roles given the experiences we face and the situations we find ourselves in. I may say and feel, for example, that I am a father, husband, counselor, writer, son, impatient driver, mellow driver, good triathlete, funny guy, contemplative guy, coach, and so on. But I am none of these concretely, permanently, solidly, independently, or absolutely, even if I do believe I exist in all those ways at certain times and places.

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Sometimes I am a husband, but with my mom – I assume the role of son. I play the role of good driver when my wife and son are in the car, but I’m like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights when I am in my car alone and I am late for an appointment. I’m professional and serious at work, but I’m goofy and crazy with my close friends. Am I a husband, good driver, and goofy constantly and absolutely? Not at all. I simply can’t nail down my identity or “me” because I play a plethora of roles in order to adapt to my environment. Moreover, if tomorrow I lose everything and find myself bankrupt and alone, I will assume a new role and character. Simply put, the self and “I” is not physical, but it’s symbolic. The “I” is an ever-changing symbolic narrative we mold as it undergoes perpetual construction, refining, and re-definition.

Why am I so focused on deconstructing the illusion of “I”? The reason is simple: I’m concerned with how we predispose ourselves to live out particular “stories” that we think define us. How you define yourself will color how you see the world and influence how you handle problems and suffering. Often when we have an experience, we generalize it to a personal trait. So, when going through various experiences, we typically reinforce an imprint of who we think we are. In a sense we could say we predispose ourselves to expect that we will live out the “story” that we think defines us, even when that story leads us into perpetual failure or self-destructive habits.

When we fail to recognize the illusion of the “I”, we end up fusing our identity with our emotions. We all, most likely would agree that we are not our beliefs, our experiences, or our roles. We know intellectually that we are not solely any of these limited things, but there’s the rub. Despite this understanding, we often behave and react otherwise. We “forget” in the heat of the moment. We live in a kind of consensual hallucination brought on by our emotions, which are experienced so fully and directly, it’s as if they take over our mind and we “fuse” our identity with them.

Just look how we talk about their emotions. We say, “I am hungry,” and “Boy, I’m tired,” or “I’m mad at my boss.” In the moment we become hunger, tired, and anger. All day long we are constantly identifying with our emotions, and we treat them as if they are the infallible barometer of our true self. The reality is this: when we fuse our emotions to our (constructed) identity we cause our own anxiety by projecting specific beliefs, perceptions, and values onto the situation.

bhbh

Currently, I am stressed because I have a rocky relationship with a co-worker. I have anxiety over the way that this co-worker treats me and false assumptions she has of me. But this anxiety is my own fault and my own doing. I am clinging to my sense of “I” that says, “I need to have a good reputation,” and “I deserve to be liked by everybody.” This is part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. This, however, begs the question: if I don’t get perceived by others that way, then am I the opposite? Am I thus, a person with a sketchy reputation who should not be trusted? It certainly feels that that’s the perception. Quite honestly, my identity feels threatened! My anxiety, then, is the direct result of this aversion and/or desire I have around a specific identity (e.g. reputable, well-liked), and my attachment to the outcome.

Do you see the emotional fusion? Anxiety is fused with the desire and attachment to an insatiable need to be liked and respected. Why? Because I have constructed an identity that says, “Wes is a reputable person who needs to be well-liked and respected.” That is the role, identity, and “I” that I have constructed.

Just because I believe the “I” is an illusion doesn’t been that we have to resign ourselves to a feeling of floating nothingness. It’s impossible to live 24/7 denying the “I”. The reason for this is because we all have experiences; and experiences are the catalyst for the formation of the “I.” Thus, we are destined to always construct a story of our “self,” as well as concretize an identity and story we wish to live out.  Given this inevitability, my suggestion is that we approach our personal “I” with open-mindedness and flexibility. I’d much rather adapt to a role in which “I” is known as, “Wes, the compassionate person,” rather than, “Wes, who is needy of attention.” The point I want to make is that you can take a step back and re-cast your role within the world, such that, your “I” is one that is mindfully aware of how to best integrate into the world and get along with others and yourself.

In reality, the “I” doesn’t actually refer to anything. You can have an elaborate story about “I,” and you can refer to that story and worry about how that story is going, but there is no-thing that all of that refers to. “I” is just a lot of memories patched together to make what we call a self-image, which is an accurate description of it – it’s an image. In the end, it turns out that “I” is just thoughts about “I.”