In Search of the Self

I thought a lot in my late teenage years about finding myself, as if there were a definite self somewhere out there in a metaphorical forest who needed to be discovered. As I grew up I hoped to salvage parts of myself I thought were redeemable and dispose of parts that weren’t as flattering. I romanticized this notion that there was a pure concept of my self and also thrived off of defining it with certain adjectives. It gave me a sense of purpose and self-understanding that I felt was so real it could be tangible.

Believing in something, not just in anything, but in the essence of something is powerful. It transitions from belief into wholehearted faith and, if by some misfortune we’re told such a thing doesn’t exist, it causes nothing short of a mental uproar, an existential crisis. This is especially so when the “essence” we refer to is the self, my foundation of which was rocked as I began to learn about Buddhism.   

I became interested in meditation and Buddhist philosophy in college, hoping it would ameliorate my anxiety. Any relief I felt through deep breathing, however, was overshadowed by the fear I felt at learning of the Buddhist concept of the non-self.

At first I was in disbelief at the suggestion that we do not actually have a self. I was reluctant to believe that the self I had procured, protected, and watched mature was an illusion. Buddhist thought holds that we aren’t our thoughts or our actions, but rather our true self is one connected with the other: nature and things outside of one’s self. The self is fundamentally inseparable from the world, meaning there is no individual or any separate self.

This was incredibly hard for me to fathom. I think and speak, I have a tendency to be introverted and a habit of collecting words; I feel things—sadness, anger. I am a goddamn individual! But not according to Buddhist teachings. Any concept of the self is merely a menagerie of thoughts, particularly strong and prevalent, but that only serve to bolster an illusion. Our thoughts do not represent the truth. Our mind deludes us into thinking we are a united self. In Buddhism, consciousness is a conniving snake that creates perhaps the greatest fallacy of earthly experience. Sakyong Mipham builds on this philosophy in his book Turning the Mind Into An Ally:

In Buddhism we talk about emptiness because when we start to investigate that self we can’t find anything substantial. There’s a sense of self- a shadow. We have eyes and visual consciousness- that is a sense of “me.” We have touch and feeling- that is a sense of “me.” We have memories, thoughts, actions, and speech all adding up to a sense of “me.” We have a body and the pleasure and pain that come with that, and those things are “me” too. This sense of self is mentally fabricated, defined by outer conditions. We say, “I don’t feel like myself today.” But when we look for this self that we want to feel like- where is it? [1]

If you’re thinking ‘hold your horses Siddhartha,’ let me explain a similar concept from a science-based perspective. I too was hopeful that perhaps this was merely a component of the Buddhist tradition that I did not have to accept. I then read that Thich Nhat Hanh has acknowledged that scientists have discovered this non-self.

I learned more about the scientific perspective on the non-self in my Social Psychology course. It began with questions of the existence of the self, the ‘me’ versus the ‘I.’ The ‘me’ is the object, and our self-concept. The ‘I’ is a subject—and it’s said that we can never know exactly what that subject is.

Our brains are constantly piecing together a reality, but the brain makes mistakes. Similarly when we perceive ourselves, we make mistakes. Life is the process of trying to construct the self, which we can only do from the empirical sense, the ‘me,’ in hopes that it says something about the ‘I.’ The process of getting to know other individuals is much the same. We look at behaviors and make inferences about them based off of our perceptions. Similarly, with the self, we think we have attitudes, which reflect our behaviors, but in actuality, the effect of behavior on attitude is much stronger. Take for example the famous Stanford Prison experiment. No one going into that experiment had the attitude that they would torture their classmates, and yet, their behavior showed otherwise. This revealed that although individuals would like to think they are, in fact, individuals, the environment has massive implications for individual behavior that slide under the radar. This inseparable connection of the self with the environment is not so different from the Buddhist teaching of a self that is interconnected to all other things in the world.

I have always prided myself on being in touch with my self. I connect strongly with the positive traits I assigned to myself: motivated, just, etc. It is frightening to think, in the metaphysical Buddhist sense, that the real me is not actually any of those things; and that those qualities are just deceptive thoughts. It is frightening to think in the psychological sense that if presented with an environment that asked me to say, torture prisoners, the ‘me’ could slip away so easily, and the ‘I’ would act in accordance with everyone else. 

In short, I am attached to the notion of myself. Maybe I’m a narcissist, but it’s difficult to acknowledge that, maybe, I am not who I think I am; that maybe none of us are. I do not want to be reduced to play dough, separated, rolled, molded into different people with puddy for brains. 

There is a way to override some of the controlled behaviors that are part of our psychology. But doing so requires great effort and awareness and does not guarantee that we won’t fall victim to our situation. Just a few weeks ago at rush, despite my greatest efforts, I found myself judging girls based on things as foolish as their cardigan’s color. The severe disappointment I felt in myself was only slightly mitigated when, the next day in class, we had the lecture on the way environment influences the individual, and how our behavior often says much less about our true self than we might think.

But instead of soothing me this only brought me back to Thich Naht Hanh; to the idea that, if I can let go of my ego and feel interconnectedness with others, I will do things that benefit the greater good. Am I that selfless? There seems to me something so wonderfully human about our self-concept, albeit mistaken. I’m not sure I’m willing to forfeit it to religion or science.  




{C}[1]{C} Mipham, Sakyong. Turning the Mind into an Ally. New York: Riverhead, 2003. Print.