By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The falling away of self is the most significant, bewildering, and liberating spiritual event in one’s entire life, and perhaps the least understood.” – Adyashanti
“What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.” – Ron Crouch
Most people strongly believe that they have a self, an ego. Reflecting this, our language is replete with concepts that contain self; oneself, myself, himself, herself, ourselves, self-concept, self-esteem, self-love, self-regard, selfless, selfish, selfhood, selfie, etc. But, particularly note the term self-concept. It directly states that self is a concept. It is not a thing. It is an idea. This is important, as most of us think that there is a thing that is the self, when, in fact, there is not. A concept is a way to summarize a set of phenomena that appear to have common properties, such as fruit, or more abstractly, attention. But, note there is not a single entity that is fruit. It is a set of things that are grouped together by common biological factors. The idea of attention is not a thing. Rather it refers to a set of processes. This is also true of the concept of self.
A simple self-exploration can verify this. Spend some time looking within to find the self, to find anything that comprises the self. You will discover that you can’t find it. That’s because it’s a concept not a thing. Now quiet the mind for a brief time, even if for only a few seconds, and you’ll note that when you’ve eliminated thinking, the self disappears. In other words, self only appears when you’re thinking about it. This is clear evidence that self is a concept and is created by thought. In other words, there’s a process involving thought that creates a self. This is a verb. We are not a self, we are producing a self, we are selfing!
As another exercise, write down a set of responses to “I am ______.” You may have answered, a man, an engineer, an academic, a father, a cyclist, a Buddhist, etc. In other words, you would list of a set of labels that you believe are essential to your idea of yourself. These labels come from our minds summarization and categorization of a variety of experiences and memories. Thinking now goes to work using these labels in its construction of the self. Note these are not the self itself, but rather the remembered characteristics of the individual. These are now employed in producing the self, in selfing.
Webster’s dictionary defines self as:
“1a : the entire person of an individual
b : the realization or embodiment of an abstraction
2a (1) : an individual’s typical character or behavior
(2) : an individual’s temporary behavior or character
b : a person in prime condition
3: the union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person”
This definition suggests that the “self” consists of a set of components including physiology, behaviors, personality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, memories, etc. It is not a single thing rather it’s a set of things that in their entirety are considered a self. The self itself is thought to define one’s individuality. But, note that the definition indicates that self is an embodiment of an abstraction. In other words, the dictionary defines self as a concept, not a thing.
Each of these components of a self are themselves processes. To create a self, we recall memories, stories about us, that exemplify our nature. The active process of memory retrieval and review is part of selfing. We incorporate beliefs about ourselves in the self. These include ideas such as outgoing, intelligent, unlovable, overweight, etc. But these beliefs are produced by thoughts that are fueled by memories and prior learning. They are an active construction, a part of selfing. We include our emotions as components of our constructed selves. These include happy, afraid, loving, etc. But emotions are changeable moment to moment. We only include what we consider stable patterns of emotions. But this requires memory and thought, reflecting on our past emotional states, and is thus an active construction, part of selfing.
We also include what we consider our personalities in our constructed self. Personality is itself a constructed concept. There is no single entity that comprises a personality. Personality is thought to be composed of a set of relatively permanent and stable characteristics that mark our individuality, such as the so-called “Big Five” personality traits, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. But, once again these are not things, but concepts. They are actually constructed from consistencies of the answers to a set of standardized questions such as I am interested in people, I think a lot before I speak or act, I get stressed out easily, I pay attention to details, I have a vivid imagination. These all refer to the “I” (self) and refer to how you act or feel. But, note that these questions cannot be answered without reference to our memories of how we’ve acted or felt in the past. So, we address each question by constructing an answer based upon a review of memories, an active process. Hence, our personality is also constructed. It also is a process. If self is in part composed of personality then it also is constructed, part of selfing.
We think of the body as our self, with the skin physically separating us from the outside world and others. But is this actually true? The body is constantly changing. Every cell in the body is different than it was a few years ago. The body actually changes from moment to moment. It is constantly incorporating things from the outside, air, food, and water and contributing to things outside through breathing, sweating, and elimination. Hence, the body is not constant and it is not something separate from the environment. So, how can something so fluid and impermanent be a self? It is only our ideas and perceptions and beliefs about our bodies that are actually what we think of as a self. It’s a construction produced by thought. It is just one more component of selfing.
Buddhism teaches that there is no self. This is an unfortunate term as it implies no existence. A good example of what is really meant is contained in this story. A student came to his Zen teacher stating that he had a breakthrough. That he experienced no self. The teacher raised up his stick and hit him on the back of the head, then asked “now tell me who felt that?” The story emphasizes that no self does not mean that there isn’t an experiencing entity. Rather, that there is no enduring thing that is the self. The Buddha refused to answer whether a self-existed or not. He taught that we should not dwell on thoughts like these but rather to view everything as impermanent, arising and passing away. He taught that we should then look at the self in this way and investigate where this perception of self originates. So, the Buddha taught that what is important is to not think about a self but rather investigate the process of selfing.
The great Zen master Dogen wrote “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.” This well states the view that we need to investigate the process of selfing, study the self, but then realize that it’s just a lived experience and not a permanent thing; forget it, and stop looking at the world through a lens of self. There is indeed a lived experience. It would be a mistake to deny it. But, what the idea of no self points to is that it is only an impermanent experience, nothing more, nothing less.
So, self is simply a natural process of the mind. It is constructed. A solid self is an illusion. The idea of self may be useful in helping us navigate everyday existence, particularly during development, but has no true existence. We can’t really eliminate the idea of self as it is a lived experience. But, we can recognize it for what it is, a process and not an entity, and no longer make it central to our existence. Getting it out of the center is helpful as it destroys many delusions. That is the key to the teaching. Let self be experienced, see it for what it is, a process, and give it no dominant place in our lives. Let what is experienced in the present moment define what we are.
“Everything we think has self-nature, actually doesn’t. Buddha called it anatta or no-self where nothing has self-nature. That means, you and I and all of us are not really this thing called a self, or me. This is strange because it’s almost impossible for the Western mind or the human mind to think of itself in any terms other than self. The mind doesn’t even know where to begin how to do this. But, with deep insight this orientation toward self, collapses. We see that—wow—none of this has self-nature in it!” – Adyashanti
“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.” – Visuddimagga, 513
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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