Where is the self?

Is it who I see in the mirror?

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

One of the things people struggle with when considering Buddhism and its teachings is the concept of ‘no self’, and it’s not hard to see why. I walk in front of a mirror and hey, there I am. I knock into some piece of furniture and ‘Ow!’ there I am again. Someone calls me on my mobile and guess what, ‘I’ answer it. So how can I not be here? These are physical manifestations of ‘the self.’ If we are to understand what the Buddha taught, we have to look at the nature of ‘the self’ in a different way.

I hope we can accept that, to all intents and purposes, I exist, and this text wasn’t generated by AI. To exist I must therefore have a self, mustn’t I?

1. I have a past with memories.

2. I have plans that will take me into the future, and

3. I have other people to confirm this (they keep calling me on my phone just to remind me).

So, what is it that we are missing here? Well at the end of the day it comes down to understanding ‘the self the Buddha was referring to’ was not about our physical selves, but rather a mental construct.

We need to look at the level at which you consider ‘the self, your self,’ to exist and what is its relationship to impermanence.

What the Buddha taught was that there is no ‘single abiding self’ i.e everything is constantly shifting and therefore is fluid. We are not statues that remain the same day in, day out. Given that we are not cast in Bronze or hacked from stone perhaps another analogy would be useful. Consider a wave heading for the beach. At one level we can point to it and say there is a wave, we identify it as such but every moment of its journey it is changing, either increasing or diminishing in size and energy. Furthermore, it can only be a wave because it is actually part of the sea. It has no existence in its own right. Perhaps we should think of our ‘self’ more like a wave than a statue.

We realise that the water of which the wave is made is constructed of molecules but we don’t say ‘hey there’s a bunch of disturbed molecules lapping on the beach’. So, it is with the term ‘the self.’ When I refer to ‘myself’ or ‘my self’ it means I am referring to a collection of both physical and mental attributes, a result of which are memories, views and beliefs that I hold to be true, that form a sense of ‘me’.

Like everyone else I have constituent parts, skin, muscles, bone, hair etc., a brain that both receives input and reacts to it and consciousness that allows me an ‘awareness of awareness.’ Taken as a whole that is what one might call a self, but it is only ‘me’ provided all of the constituent parts are all there in the same amounts and the same order, forever. Change anything and I have effectively become a different ‘me’. After all I am not the same self I was when I was born, or when I was one, or two or twenty-two. Those ‘others’ were the building blocks for who I am now, and I can look back at photographs and say I remember this or that event, but I am not them and they are not me. They are just part of the wave on it’s travels.

If you are practising mindfulness, then your actual sense of being should be focussed on the immediate, on being in touch with things that are going on in the moment, not thinking about the future or the past. How many of us are able to live like that? Not many I would guess. We try of course, but most of us are not as proficient as we might wish to be.

Here is crux of the matter: we hold on to a sense of self because we cannot or do not want to totally grasp the meaning of impermanence and are unable to focus simply and only on ‘just this moment’.

Here is crux of the matter: we hold on to a sense of self because we cannot or do not want to totally grasp the meaning of impermanence and are unable to focus simply and only on ‘just this moment’. We maintain a ‘self’ to give us stability, to enable us to function in society, and give us what we believe is a sense of purpose. However, what the Buddha was trying to teach was that maintaining a rigid sense of self leads to unhappiness. When he taught about becoming enlightened, he was saying ‘you are suffering and unhappy because of the fact you are trapped by your sense of self, do you really want to be like that? Show me where is this tangible self which holds you in it’s grip?’

Our suffering comes from having a rigid view of who we think we are and our response to the things we experience. In a photograph of a younger me I look different than now, I had dark hair, and my skin was smooth. If I maintain a fixed view of things, about how I want to look for example, then when looking at the photograph it will make me unhappy. I could feel I have lost something. I could then start thinking about my friends at that time, or perhaps how much fitter I was, and all sorts of other related memories. Rambling through the things I feel I have lost.

Sometimes our unhappiness comes from our rigid beliefs. If I hold strong political views, then I might be extremely upset by my party not getting elected, or perhaps I am environmentally aware and am shocked that no one else is prepared to do anything about the state of the planet. These are what are considered to be one’s values, which are intimately connected with my sense of self. Once again, the Buddha taught these are the types of things that are ultimately likely to cause us distress.

Now some readers may not like the idea of ‘no self’, and say ‘well if I accept what you are saying, that on one level I don’t actually exist, and I should try to understand that, then who ultimately becomes enlightened?’ The answer is not ‘you.’ And here is where I feel a lot of people make a mistake. They have an image of themselves becoming enlightened. In other words, they are still embodied in a sense of self, but somehow, a better version. Becoming enlightened means working towards losing the sense of self one has previously clung on to. You can’t actually be a better version of yourself when the self no longer exists.

What is the point in doing anything at all if I have no self, who am I doing all this for? At the end of the day, we act because we are programmed to act and formed by the instructions in our DNA. Then taught by others what to believe and how to behave as we grow. Our bodies do everything they can to continue to live and get older because that is their nature. We don’t consciously tell them to do anything. All of this is automatic.

I do not monitor my heartbeat,

I do not tell my lungs to breathe,

I do not repair myself at a cellular level,

I do not decide I am hungry, or cold, or tired or restless.

These are all functions beyond my control, determined by hormones, my immune system, the nature of external conditions, etc. Physically my body is self-regulating.

I have used the analogy before, that travelling through life in a body is like riding a horse. It can be an exciting journey. We cannot always know what it is going to do but ultimately, we can try to help it become calm and obedient and happy. The only way we can do this is by examining the processes of the mind and working to change them, to live a better life. One that is for the benefit of others and not just us. Part of this has to be an exploration of this issue of the self and no-self. Even if we get no further than dipping our toes into the water and considering the question, it is a valuable exercise in developing our practice.

Give it a go.

You might find you are not actually who you think you are.