The Practical Illusion of Self
Hi … I haven’t posted for a long time, largely because, this being question-based blog, most of the questions I’ve been sent of late have already been responded to in other posts, which I’ve been able to refer people to, instead of writing a new post. But one question appeared this week, which I realized I haven’t dealt with – and that is the question of the Theravada Buddhist notion of Anatta – or ‘non-self’, which so many people so very confusing.
The question goes:
“Roger, I’ve been reading about meditation and Buddhism for a long time now, and one of the things that has always confused me is the Buddha’s theory of non-self. So, in the interests of collecting as much information as possible to try and understand, could you please give me your own understanding of this very difficult aspect of the Buddhas teachings.”
Okay then, I’ll try.
It’s an understandably confusing subject. We all of us look within, and feel ourselves as being autonomous beings – separate from everything else, with a name and history and destiny. And we look in the mirror and see ourselves, and we remember our self existing in the past.
How then can we bring ourselves to believe that there is no self?
For myself, I think it’s not an ‘either or’ question. This is the only way I allay my own confusion – I entertain both sides of the equation at the same time. Indeed, I think this is the case with a lot of what the Buddha was teaching. In alluding to aspects of existence (and non-existence) which have no earthly language to define them, he left many things double edged, or blurry. And non-self is one of them.
So lets look into this dichotomy.
The roots of our confusion lie in our direct experience of ourselves as an autonomous ‘self’, which in itself is supported by the fact that everything in our culture speaks to the idea of each of us being a ‘self’.
Yet we hear the Buddha telling us that there is no self or immutable essence or soul within us, or in any other part of nature for that matter – that everything is merely a combination of other smaller things which, in concert, take on the presence of the larger form, which is itself constantly changing.
And we see that, theoretically, that is true. If, for example, we start at the bottom of the creational mulch, we see that all things material are formed from sub-atomic particles – wave patterns of electromagnetic energy which arise and pass away at an incredible rate. From there the landscape of material form is a ‘patterns-forming-larger-patterns’ kind of thing – the infinitesimal blips of particle forming atoms, which form molecules, which form cells, which form all the stuff of life and living creatures we’re familiar with.
So the Buddha asks us, where in this vast and intricate and constantly evolving pattern of energy is the individual soul that religion speaks of?
Is it in our body, or our brain? And if so, exactly which part? Because wherever we look, we see everything we are can be broken down into small and smaller things. The brain is, after all, simply a community of trillions of smaller cells, each of which have their own rudimentary sense of self. And those cells are built from the molecules and atoms and particles that are the most basic material of all things.
So where, in the vast community or things all working together, is the singular soul?
Or maybe the soul is some kind of ‘collective consciousness’ – a composite energy presence of all the stuff of our mind and body?
But then, if it is a collective consciousness, where does it end? And why is it exclusive only to humans, who after all, are made of exactly the same stuff as the rocks, air and all the rest of the universe around us? And does this soul include all the bacteria, virus’s and foreign body’s that live within our body as essential parts of our community?
Where, in this huge mulch of creation does ‘selfhood’ begin and end?
Hence the ‘two pronged’ solution.
To accommodate the discrepancy between our personal perception and evident reality, I personally think Buddhism, very practically, acknowledges two truths – it accepts the ‘relative reality’ of our human Zeitgeist, that self does indeed exist – simply because it’s undeniably true that we perceive a ‘self’. And we perceive self in everything around us. We give ‘selfhood’ to everything, simply by naming things and judging them as desirable or not.
So it is ridiculous to deny that self exists.
But Buddhism also asserts a larger, ‘ultimate reality’ – a ‘universal truth’ if you like – of what is called ‘anatta’ – non-self. That is, that at no point, stage or aspect of this universe is there a self or essence to anything in existence, be it human, animal, vegetable, mineral or spirit, that is separate from the unity of everything else. That all things are simply parts of a constantly changing and endless ocean of manifestation, coming and going eternally.
So then. We have two realities co-existing. The evident one, and the ultimate one.
Even though we use self-hood as a vehicle for this life – and indeed, we need this self to survive, we should never forget the ultimate reality which this apparent relative truth exists within – that the self we have become is simply a practical illusion we’ve created to use in this life – nothing more.
In this, the Buddha was not telling us that we don’t exist in the terms we perceive – he was merely trying to help us to see that our self is temporary and illusory – that it has been created by itself and the life we live – like any other of our many habits.
As such, in the big adventure of life and the little entities we have created to ride its waves, he recommends that we should not cling to the stuff of this life. Nor should we assume we own it. That we should always be mindful of the larger reality which this little trick of the light we call life spins in, from which we emerged, and to which, presumably, we will disappear back into.
Of course, this is only my view – a set of highly fluid conclusions I’ve reached …temporarily. But thanks for the question. it was all very interesting.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)