Self Portrait, 1965 - Picasso

    At the heart of the topic of identity lies our notion of ‘the Self’. To whatever degree, we all have some ingrained sense of self, some form of ‘image of ourselves’, that we rely upon for our interactions with others and for our attempts to understand and control our behaviour. Yet this mental construction – what Freud and Buddhists alike term ‘ego’ – is notoriously responsible for a great deal of our psychological torment.
    In an attempt to bring some fresh perspective to the discussions and clarify the Eastern philosophical approach, I posed some questions to a close friend well-versed in Buddhist philosophy, and the results are as follows…

(~9 Minute Read)


  • What is your picture of “the Self”, and how does it compare with Buddhist/Eastern philosophical ideas?
So in brief, the self is that Collection of sensations that give us the feeling “I Am”, but I expect you want me to elaborate…
    It’s worth pointing out from the outset though that with these definitions, in order for them to mean anything of practical use and not just be fancy language fencing, there is often a translation error to overcome. When asked what is my picture of the self, it means something already to everyone, even if that is vaguely felt. If you think it describes one experience or concept, and I describe it in relation to another, then that won’t make any sense to you without first unpicking what you define that concept as.
    This is a common problem across the field of consciousness enquiry. There’s no agreed on terms across cultures. Following an ancient understanding of consciousness can help clarify matters – since Pali, the language of the Buddhist oral tradition and later its written texts – has many definite terms for discrete experiences of mind and body. But then people can translate them to English quite differently depending on their viewpoint. English doesn’t have clear words for something our culture has little history exploring.
    Similarly, modern neuroscience and psychology uses terms that are very clear and definite, but those meanings can get crossed wires as they reach popular awareness AND ALSO differ in meaning to other traditions and cultures. All this makes a discussion of the mind somewhat difficult without being aware of and careful with the terms you use.
    Here, Tom has touched upon a core topic within Eastern philosophical discussions of the Self, that is in fact the heart of Identity’s potential dangers (by my understanding – but I’m biased as it’s a major part of my book-in-progress!): that the language which we are forced to turn to in order to question and explore our sensation of ‘selfhood’, is itself limited and constraining. We will see this facet arise continually throughout coming discussions, as the roots of the uncertainty and confusion in all areas of the topic – be it gender identity, existential identity, social roles and their responsibilities – seem to stem not just from “mind versus body” (experience against ideas), but rather “body versus language”– for our languages are how we formulate our perspectives on the world, and these perspectives determine our values.
    While this idea is somewhat novel to Western minds and philosophies, Eastern thinkers have had a few thousand years’ headstart on us, and have reduced the problem down to that very notion of perspective. Specifically, that the Self is an “illusion”– a trick of perspective, as real as the reflection of your face in the window; certainly there, certainly drawn from reality, but wholly subjective and dependent entirely on the relationship between you and the ‘absolute’.
    You’ve probably heard the phrase “the self is an illusion”…
    What really is meant here is that the commonly held (western) concept of ‘self’, of being an individual thinking entity, likely doesn’t track to your actual experience like you think it does. It certainly isn’t as static as usually imagined. It is actually a changing field of mental experience, it’s there, but it’s not solid. And in a deeper sense, it’s not you.
    So you’re not yourself. Sorry – you’re not wholly this ‘self’ you are experiencing. Well that makes no sense if your word me/you means your self. So there’s clearly a translation problem here. Why even challenge this? What’s wrong with our sense of self? Well bluntly put I think that confused minds lead to a confused world. Confusion breeds misunderstanding and suffering. I think that it’s important that what we think of conceptually and what we tangibly experience should tally, otherwise we become easily trapped in states of mental suffering, essentially fighting our selves, or ignoring our experience because it doesn’t fit our concepts or beliefs.

    Although I cannot claim association with any particular Buddhist lineage, I think my way of describing this is pretty much the same as original Buddhism. And this question is at the core of Buddhist teachings. Importantly, as a Buddhist, exploring the sense of self comes from direct experiential exploration. Logical reasoning can help make sense of experience as adjacent to other concepts or ideas, it helps organise words properly for good communication. But it is not the way this conclusive viewpoint has been arrived at, it’s directly felt through detailed attention and awareness.

  • If it is so difficult to encapsulate with words, how would you guide people toward this perspective on the Self, practically?
    Firstly notice you are aware of experiences. There is an awareness of sensations. Those include the body and breathing. Temperature/ pressure/ tingling etc.
    These sensations are not static. They inherently change. When observed closely even the most monolithic of sensations (e.g. a chronic pain) is not one still thing. It is many many little things, all moving and coming and going. Making up a bigger concept we might call a pain, or a hand. The questions is, are these changing intangible sensations of interaction with the world your ‘self’? 
    Noticing these finer details can take practice, so trust me for a bit, this idea of experience as fundamentally impermanent (in Pali – Annicca) is important moving on from here. Any experience (whether noticed consciously or not) arises and passes. In its arising, there is a reaction, an automatic response. This is called Vedena or feeling-tone (not the same as emotions). It is the basic instant response of like/not like/no preference. Or Positive/negative/neutral. When closely observed this arises before any further thought. It is also not consistent. Hot water the same temperature feels one way at one time, and in different conditions, feels another. So the Vedena of an object is dependant on prior conditions. Are you, your self, inside or made up of these feelings? As feelings (vedena) arise, they condition perceptions- Cognition, or pattern Recognition. Is this your self? In noticing the feeling and shape and temperature of a warm armchair you sit in, and your response of liking it, is this your self? Can you your self help but notice these arising experiences?
    From Perceptions then come mental formations– thoughts, emotions, opinions, ideas. Surely here is you. Western philosophy usually places our liking or disliking, and our emotions and thoughts, firmly in the realm of self. But if you as an observer can see and literally watch a Sensation arising, which leads to —> Feeling-tone —> Perception —> Mental Formations. All arising dependant on initial conditions that result inexorably in a reaction.
    Where along this chain would Selfhood begin and end? Isn’t that rather arbitrary? What do we even mean by self? Being in control? Being able to watch these proceedings from outside them?
    So that’s the real question of where the self is:
    Am I doing any of this, am I in control?
    And then, if you find you are not…
    Am I noticing this?
    Note that this is not meta-cognition, thinking about thinking. If you’re thinking about anything you will find you can be aware of it. So where is this awareness? Can you find it? Feel it? Does it have a sensation? No, apparently not. So what is it? And is that me? Is that my self? It’s just awareness. A pure field of consciousness, which doesn’t feel like anything, it is the container in which all sensations, feelings, thoughts and emotions arise. If you can feel something it has to be inside of consciousness. It can’t be outside of it, or you couldn’t be aware of it. 
    So is that Self, Me, I? Well yes. But does that look like what you think I, Myself and Mine usually mean to you? Probably not.
    To end with I’d like to share a bit on the subject from “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts, that may help elucidate the picture some more, and clarify the role of perspective. While Zen shares a great majority of teachings with traditional Buddhism, its tone and approach are intentionally much more minimalist, to the extent that many find it overly so– too mired in riddles and mystery. However, I believe their use of analogy and insistence on ‘pushing’ the listener to thinking for themselves is essential for topics concerning the absolute periphery of what we can rationally discuss, such as the Self. Notably, when discussing the concept of the ego, and the age-old philosophical quandary of the relationship between subject and object, they utilise a simple picture of ‘The Five Ranks’ (closely related to that of the fourfold ‘Dharmadhatu’):
“The Ranks are often represented in terms of the relative positions of lord and servant or host and guest, standing respectively for the underlying principle and the thing-events. Thus we have:
1. The lord looks down at the servant.
2. The servant looks up at the lord.
3. The Lord.
4. The Servant.
5. The lord and the servant converse together.
(…) In other words, one may regard the universe, the Dharmadhatu, from a number of equally valid points of view–as many, as one, as both one and many, and as neither one nor many. But the final position of Zen is that it does not take any special viewpoint, and yet is free to take every viewpoint according to the circumstances. In the words of Lin-chi:
Sometimes I take away the man (i.e., the subject) but do not take away the circumstances (i.e., the object). Sometimes I take away the circumstances but do not take away the man. Sometimes I take away both the man and the cirucmstances. Sometimes I take away neither the man nor the circumstances.
And sometimes, he might have added, I just do nothing special (wu-shih).”


    A huge thanks to Tom Glendinning for his input here!
    What do you think? How would you describe your ‘self’? Do you think developing our perspectives upon it are useful, or pointless pseudo-spiritual raving? Do you have anything you’d like to contribute to the topic of Identity?
Comment below or get in touch with the ‘Contribute’ page above – your input is invaluable!


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1 year ago

That was absolutely fantastic. I also find it incredibly hard when explaining to people the idea of the “I” and the “me” due to the inherent bug the English language has in explaining these concepts. But I love the ending, and will definitely be using that 5 tiered system to try and explain this concept to friends.