Buddhism insights on the Self

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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

Ideas to inspire: the self

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Photo by Christian Weidinger

Life goes on pretty much the same in every person’s life. I mean, since the day we’re born until the day we die, despite all the different and virtually infinite number of paths that each one might take, from the most successful to the least, from the richest to the poorest (whatever the definition of these words), we all have this special thing in common: self-awareness. A unique capacity that give us a sense of self and an inner voice which are fruits of millions of years of evolutionary pressure that shaped the mind and created consciouness in the process. Scholars believe that consciousness itself evolves and several degrees of complexity exist in the universe, with humans probably occupying a top place in this process.
It is in this plane of consciousness where the inner voice exists, the same place where thoughts and feelings arise at each waking moment, letting us experience the world on a subjective way, ponder and question about our past, present and future. An internal monologue that gives us a sense of free will and control of the story of our lives. The sense of self is a necessary and most important part of our human experience, ingrained in our minds and allowing us the conscious experience of the outside world, as if we are the main actor of our own reality. But there is a baggage that comes with that sense of self and that most humans can relate to but probably have never thought of, which is related with our close relationship, even a sense of ownership, to our thoughts and feelings. After all, aren’t I my mind? Aren’t I what arises from it? Isn’t my personality and behaviors constructed by the mind itself and therefore who I am? It definitely feels like it, don’t you agree? At least most of my lifetime I’ve felt like I am me! And let’s be honest, that hasn’t always been pleasant, to believe that I was certain thoughts that I’ve had in the past, that they were made by me. I mean I think I am a good guy, but I had my doubts along the road. A couple of examples of my confusion about who I am (or who I was – there is some debate about the linearity of the “self”) were 1) my growing uncertainty about my religious convictions and ideologies at a certain age (how can an honorable catholic young man, respected by the community, start having doubts about his own God, eventually becoming a convict atheist?), 2) my adolescent phase of sexual discovery, when I became a victim of the conflicts between biology and social conventions/symbols (am I weird because I don’t like what others like, or what societies says I should like?), 3) my moral code conflicting with my thoughts, like the wicked desire of wanting someone hurt for whatever reason, when I know it’s not in accordance with my own morals (should I feel guilty because of that? Is it a sign that I am a bad person? Or is it jusy the limbic system taking control during a stressful situation?); and the list of examples could continue further on but, hopefully, you can personally relate to those examples to attest my point. And my point is to show you that we are, normally, deeply attached to our feelings and thoughts to the point of feeling no differences between the ‘I’ and the ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’, and that can bring a serious amount of unhappiness, self-doubt and confusion to our lives. But the twist here, which is the idea I wanted to share with you, is not that there exists, after all, a fundamental separation of the self and the thoughts/feelings to solve our problems. Instead, the twist is even more groundbreaking: there is actually no such thing as a self at all, because the self is an illusion. You must be thinking “wow, this guy is just nuts and just wasted my time”. Well, I might be nuts to some extent (but who isn’t), however in what regards the idea of “illusion of the self”, that was not my creation or invention but, instead, a blossoming and mind-blowing idea being discussed and debated among philosophy and psychology academics that dedicate their time studying the mind and its best kept secrete, the consciousness. Since consciousness became a serious subject of study in that milieu, a growing body of evidence has been suggesting that the self is probably an illusion, naturally selected by evolution for not-so-obvious reasons (it’s been suggested that it brought tremendous benefits as a survival tool, mainly as the ‘social relations’ part of the brain). But on a modern and developing world, where natural selection is no longer affecting us, with all the progresses in science, medicine and the technological development, the collateral damages of a set of psychological traits that were selected thousands of years ago (the challenges we face today are totally different then the ones our ancestors faced during millions of years of evolutionary pressure) are nowadays very present and affecting each and every one of us, and it is truly illuminating when you discover that such new ideas are being theorized and researched by scientists around the world. And the beautiful thing about such mind-opening ideas is that they are so controversial and ahead of their time at their very beginning (see natural selection in Darwin’s epoch) but when that threshold is reached, after long deliberations, fortuitous debates and scientific corroboration, and society accepts it as true, we have reached a step further in our collective evolution . Following an emerging new theory, being on the forefront of its intellectual acceptance and starting to look at life through its lens is truly life-changing and liberating. As we add this new idea to our universe and it becomes more integrated into the patterns of our own perception, affecting our cultural worldview and restructuring our psychology, a new sense of the world will reveal itself.

PS: I didn’t go into the description of the theory because I am not an expert on the field and that wasn’t the objective of this post, but I would be glad to leave you with a couple of suggestions for you to dive deeper into the subject. First, you can start by a Google search (always a good start) about “illusion of self” and then go with the great book “Waking Up” by the prominent neuroscientist Sam Harris, which will give you some insight on the topic. I can also recommend the online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” in Coursera, where the illusion of the self is very well explained (supported by peer-reviewed scientific articles) and you will be introduced to a new emerging theory of the mind, the modular mind. And with that I think you will be very well served and, hopefully, the seed will be planted.