Buddhism insights on the Self

Photo by Julie Rutherford

After intoducing the idea of the “illusion of the self” on my first post I’ve decided to continue on the topic because I truly believe it is an important and inspiring idea that can bring a refreshing and positive perspective to ones personal life. Long before science started to look into the subject, sages of the ancient world were already exploring these realms.
One of the first people to suggest in his writings that the Self is an illusion was Buddha. Buddah, born as Siddartha Gautama in the middle of the 6th century BC in India, became a great sage and meditator that is recognized to have been the first to attain and describe the state of “nirvana”, a deep state of meditation, and to describe the stages of enlightenment, a roadmap to inner discovery, called the “Four Dhyanas” (Sanskrit word for ‘meditation’). This enlightened man was born flesh and bone, just like me and you, and his life journey of contemplation was fruit of his own experiences, a background where he would start from. At that time, the Upanishads were a collection of documents written by previous meditators, which talked about things literally seen, a view of the deep realms beneath the sense-world only accesible through deep meditation. The sages of the Upanishads explored the contents of consciousness, peeling away personality layer by layer, finding nothing permanent in the mass of perception, thoughts, emotions and memories that we call ’I’. Their principle was neti, neti atma, “this is not the Self; that is not the Self”.The only thing that remains when the individuality is stripped away is consciousness itself. In this sense, the separate personality we identify ourselves with is something artifical, “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness”, as described by Albert Einstein, referring to the illusion of the Self.
After his first “nirvana”, the Buddah was asked what he was now, and he said: “I am awake”, the literal meaning of the word buddah, and then he started his work on teaching the dharma, the ‘path of truth’. Here follows the transcription of his own tale about his journey to ‘nirvana’:

“I roused unflinching determination, focused my attention, made my body calm and motionless and my mind concentrated and one-pointed.

Standing apart from all selfish urges and all states of mind harmful to spiritual progress, I entered the first meditative state, where the mind, though not quite free from divided and diffuse thought, experiences lasting joy.

By putting an end to divided and diffuse thought, with my mind stilled in one-pointed absorption, I entered the third meditative stat, becoming conscious in the very depths of the unconscious. Even my body was flooded with that joy of which the noble ones say, “They live abiding joy who have stilled the mind and are fully awake”.

Then, going beyond the duality of pleasure and pain and the whole field of memory-making forces in the mind, I dwelt at last in the fourth meditative state, utterly beyond the reach of thought, in that realm of complete purity which can be reached only through detachement and contemplation.

This was my first successful breaking forth, like a chick breaking out of its shell…”

Through his genius and commitment, Buddah experienced something that very few have, which was possible after years of arduous training, sharpening the concentration and unifying the will with meditation. He has experienced ‘self-transcendence’, and when asked about what he has gained through meditation, he answered “Nothing at all”, but what he lost through meditation was “sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death”. That is the good of meditation.
Nowadays, the world is facing a rediscovery of the powers of such practice, now backed by the scientific method, in terms of its therapeutic use and health benefits, enhancing the quality of life and psychological well-being of anyone brave and persistent enough to bring this practice into his life. And, meanwhile the world is still trying to understand the origins of consciousness, if the Self is after all a mere illusion of the mind, me and you and whoever wants to dive in into this journey, have the opportunity to make our own exploration of this mysterious inner world and develop a new and integrative perspective of our own reality.

Suggested readings (ancient scriptures, English translation):

The Upanishads
The Dhammapada