Buddhism and the Self — Or No-Self?

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Buddhism, as a religious and/or philosophical enquiry, has been pointing the way towards the casting off of the self for the last 2,500 years.

After having considered the self from a few different angles — as a relational being, as an organism, and as a location — I think the time has come to consider casting off the whole idea of a self. (See my series on sense of self.)

Some strands in contemporary neuroscience and social sciences have been moving in this direction for a while now, and I’ll consider these directions in further posts. But to begin at the beginning, Buddhism, as a religious and/or philosophical (the debate rages on!) enquiry has been pointing the way towards the casting off of the self for the last 2,500 years!

While schools of Buddhism differ in many various and important ways, one of their fundamental tenets is the non-existence of the self, or indeed the existence of ‘no-self’.

Rather than try to faithfully interpret any of the schools of Buddhism, I am going to write the way I see it. Rather than being philosophically abstract, as it may sound, Buddhism is a practice. Buddha himself urged his followers not to believe what he said but to test it for themselves. He proposed an empirical scientific method. In my own experience, when you meditate, you pretty soon start to be aware of the patterns of consciousness you have and tend to identify with, and cling to as ‘me’, ‘mine’, ‘myself’. And you become conscious of something else too, a kind of background. It is something which undeniably happens “inside” you, and yet does not identify itself with any of the thoughts, desires, dreams, obsessions, hatreds or habits that appear along with the sore legs and aching spine.

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This background is not really anything that we could call something! Words don’t get it. Or (like Zen koans) they might ‘get it’ but they don’t explain it. You could call it nothing, or emptiness. Or you could feel it as wisdom, discernment, compassion. Whatever it is, it is not a personal thing, it is not ‘me’, ‘mine’, or ‘myself’. It might well be the one thing, place, way of being, that we all share, and it is certainly not a dead blank slate — it is alive.

The process of examining the contents of “myself”, all the old habits, reactions, thoughts and feelings, only to drop them as ‘not me’ — not essentially my own — can be similar to the therapy process. It goes further though, as we notice that not only old, dead habits and patterns are “not me”, but also pleasant experiences and positive qualities that we identify with ourselves.

We may also notice that attempts to force these qualities into our own individual beings and to make them our own actually cause suffering, isolating us, and dividing us from others. The first of Buddha’s Noble Truths is the fact that everybody suffers. When our own sense of self drops away, the difference between our suffering and that of others also drops away, creating compassion.

Attempts to make experiences “mine” cause internal conflict too, when feelings or thoughts arise “inside us”, or events happen “outside us” that do not fit our scheme. Maybe this effort to be in control of our own story divides us from a) the truth — the highly conditioned nature of our being, which Buddhist texts analyse ad infinitum, reducing one by one all of our bodily, mental, emotional experiences to the conditions on which they are dependent — and b) some essential level of our being, something much more expansive, which mystics from (I think!) all religious traditions associate with a dropping away of individual self.

No one is suggesting that our own personalities, characteristics, talents and patterns of behaviour do not exist in the world right now. Yet the teachings of Buddha, many and various as they are, all point to the fact that these phenomena can get in the way; that identifying with how things look right now, identifying with externally determined, transient things, only produces further suffering. When we drop the identification, whether for a glimpse during meditation, or as a constant process in our lives, we can experience that we are a part of existence well beyond the confines of our histories, and “ourselves”.

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