Your self is fictional so you can rewrite it.
The reason I’m saying this is because a friend just sent me this very interesting article: Eastern philosophy says there is no “self.” Science agrees. I think the whole thing is worth reading (and not that long). And I can’t resist addressing a few bits ‘cos the emptiness of the self is my favorite meditation.
They say that this idea of “me” is a fiction, although a very convincing one. Buddhism has a word for this concept — anatta, which is often translated as “no self” — which is one of the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism, if not the most important.
If we go looking for a self that we see as solid and real, we will never find it, wherever we look and also whatever time we look. In our meditations on the emptiness of the self in Buddhism – no self – we go looking for a self in our body and mind or separate from our body and mind, and we come up empty. Like crawling right up to a mirage to drink the water, the water disappears; it was never there.
For example, check out how you’re relating to yourself right now. “I am a bit sad”. This self probably seems pretty solid and real. So close your eyes for a moment and try and pin it down. Am I my body? No. My mind? No. Also, I am not saying “My body is sad” or “My mind is sad,” just “I am sad” – but take the body and mind away and there is no sad self left. This means that the self we normally see, that inherently existent self, is not there. It does not exist. Which turns out to be a huge relief.
(There’s more about this meditation here: Using wisdom to identify ourself correctly.)
No self in the brain
The brain is part of the body. And according to this article, in their experiments modern scientists are sort of accidentally discovering that they cannot find the self in the brain:
While various neuroscientists have made the claim that the self resides in this or that neural location, there is no real agreement among the scientific community about where to find it — not even whether it might be in the left or the right side of the brain. Perhaps the reason we can’t find the self in the brain is because it isn’t there.
So, what is the self?
The self does not exist other than as a mere label or name, imputed by conceptual thought.
The thinking mind reinvents the self from moment to moment such that it in no way resembles the stable coherent self most believe it to be.
We generally impute/label our I on our body and/or our mental activity or, more typically, ever-changing bits of our body and mental activity. Therefore, our sense of self is changing all the time depending on what we are basing it upon. If we are identifying with grateful feelings on Monday, we think “Yay, I am happy!” If by Tuesday these have been replaced by low or anxious feelings, we think “Oh no, I am sad or anxious.” And we tend to rewind and fast forward as well: “I am always sad these days. I have been sad for ages. I see no light at the end of the tunnel.”
But these are fictions. There is no self at all beyond our thoughts or version of that self.
Put another way, it is the process of thinking that creates the self, rather than there being a self having any independent existence separate from thought. The self is more like a verb than a noun. To take it a step further, the implication is that without thought, the self does not, in fact, exist. In the same way that walking only exists while one is walking, the self only exists while there are thoughts about it.
Why does it matter?
We need to know this because believing in a self that doesn’t exist is the reason we are in samsara. A samsaric being’s mode of living is contaminated by self-grasping ignorance and in the very nature of suffering. If you are a samsaric being, the chances are that you are usually identifying your self (I, me) on the basis of a meaty body and a deluded mind. And you believe that this self is findable in said body and mind, that it is far more solid than mere imputation by thought.
It is this habitual self-grasping that keeps throwing us back into contaminated rebirths, experiencing the not-so-merry-go-round of uncontrolled rebirth, sickness, ageing, and death. This is because, after each death, we crave and grasp at yet another suffering body and mind, and then another, and then another – we have not broken free. Life after life, the self we normally see — the real suffering self — is the ongoing fiction written by our self-grasping mind.
Luckily, because it is fiction, it is not actually true. And we can learn to rewrite the stories of our lives with gratitude, appreciation, and rejoicing. As someone just put it on Facebook:
Since the self is fabricated, we can create a better, happier, kinder, more peaceful one.
You might find this article helpful too: Rewriting the story of my life.
Interpretation is reality
It will take some time to see the idea of a “me” as simply an idea rather than a fact. Your illusionary self — the voice in your head — is very convincing. It narrates the world, determines your beliefs, replays your memories, identifies with your physical body, manufactures your projections of what might happen in the future, and creates your judgments about the past. It is this sense of self that we feel from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close them at night.
My dad reads books all day long. We love stories. Some stories suck us in, but we know they are fiction. We can also all read the same books but get very different meanings out of them due to our interpretation. Our own lifetimes are also fictional and different for everyone reading them – for example, my version of my life story and its meaning is different to my dad’s and indeed anyone else who knows me.
Think about the significance of this for a moment. The left brain was simply making up interpretations, or stories, for events that were happening in a way that made sense to that side of the brain, or as if it had directed the action. Neither of these explanations was true, but that was unimportant to the interpretive mind, which was convinced that its explanations were the correct ones.
For example, compare a narrative that goes like this each day: “My life is so dull and I can’t do the things I want to do or be with the people I want to be with and I have nothing to look forward to” with this: “I have a whole day today to appreciate the people around me, develop compassion, be kind, and make others smile. Today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better still.”
Patricia has this positive interpretation most of the time and it has already helped her deal with some great tragedies in life – she has lost two sons and a husband and her whole business was swindled from her back in Jamaica. Every day she gives thanks that she is alive to help and serve – and as a result it doesn’t take much to get a beaming smile out of her, even when her feet are painfully swollen or she’s only had 3 hours’ sleep looking after my mother.
There is nothing out there to be interpreted — interpretation is reality. Conventional reality, not ultimate reality. We get to choose.
Change our perspective or interpretation and we literally change our self and our life. We can in fact use all the meditations on the path to enlightenment to rewrite our self and our story – for example, today could be my last day or the last day of all these people I’m taking for granted (impermanence). Or renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and so on. Venerable Geshe Kelsang explains in How to Understand the Mind:
Discrimination associated with conceptual minds functions to impute, label, or name objects…. The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them … We can choose how we discriminate objects. As Dharma practitioners we should choose to discriminate only in constructive ways, in ways that are conducive to virtue.
Choose how we discriminate ourself
The truth is that your left brain has been interpreting reality for you your whole life, and if you are like most people, you have never understood the full implications of this. This is because we mistake the story of who we think we are for who we truly are.
The point Buddha makes, however, is that we are not truly anyone or anything. If we were, we could not change. But because we are not, this means that we are not limited and can even become fully enlightened beings with full-grown compassion and wisdom.
We often talk in Buddhism about choosing to identify with our Buddha nature, and with other positive states of mind, all the way up to identifying with being an actual Buddha in the practice of Tantra. When we talk about identifying with our Buddha nature and so on, we are not saying that we are truly or inherently our Buddha nature or that our Buddha nature is inherently us. We are not inherently anything — we are neither our delusions nor our positive minds. Our Buddha nature and us are not one and the same — our Buddha nature in this instance is the basis of imputation and our self is the name or label imputed on it. It is because our self is mere imputation by thought and not truly anything that we can transform it by changing our thoughts.
The implications of no self
[This self] seems all-important, so it often comes as a shock when I tell people that based on my work as a neuropsychologist, this “I” is simply not there—at least not in the way we think it is.
We need that shock, however – or that relief, depending on how much renunciation we have. As I explain in this article, What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?, without some renunciation and compassion for suffering, these kinds of extraordinary life-changing truths have disappointingly little impact on our mind. In Buddhism, we are encouraged therefore to go for not just an intellectual understanding but an experiential realization of no self through listening to teachings, contemplating, and meditating. This is what will set us free from the mental grasping and all our other delusions. As the author astutely points out:
The big difference between the Eastern spiritual traditions and psychology is that the former has recognized this experientially and the latter did so experimentally (and accidentally, for that matter). And in my view, this means that those who study and teach psychology are still largely unable to appreciate the implications of these findings.
He (Chris Niebauer) is really getting it, though:
Why does all of this matter? The unfortunate truth is that each of us will experience plenty of mental pain, misery, and frustration in our lifetimes. Mistaking the voice in our head for a thing and labeling it “me” brings us into conflict with the neuropsychological evidence that shows there is no such thing. This mistake — this illusory sense of self — is the primary cause of our mental suffering. When you can’t sleep at night, is it because you are worried about a stranger’s problems, or is it your problems that keep you up? For most of us, we worry about my work problems, my money problems, and my relationship problems. What would happen if we removed the “self” from these problems?
If our own self is not there, how can it be more real and important than anyone else’s self? So when our thoughts and feelings are revolved around trying to serve and protect an important self that doesn’t even exist (aka self-cherishing), we inevitably run into trouble. Or, as someone just put it on Facebook:
Stop fretting when your self doesn’t get the last piece of chocolate cake. Because your self doesn’t exist.
I will let the Taoist Wei Wu Wei have the last word:
Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself — and there isn’t one.
Alternatively, I’d like you to have the last word – please leave your comments below and I’ll reply 🙂