The concept of a self is central to Buddhist thought; we are told meditative practices are intended to expand one’s self-awareness and to ultimately lead to a letting go of the self in order to distinguish one’s suffering (or all the dissatisfactions that come from being a conscious, experiencing being).
From my observation humans do not typically react well to the notion of a no self. To deny the self entirely seems to be akin to denying one’s own existence. If there is no me – if there is no I – then who is there? Who is there experiencing what I perceive to be as my life?
What is the self?
René Descartes once famously said, “cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think therefore I am.” I believe in these simple words Descartes had rightfully equated the thinking mind with the self. The voice in our head that reasons, postulates, and creates – this is the stream of consciousness we typically attribute to our voice. Only delusional schizophrenics seem to attribute voices in their head to the identity of someone else but the self.
The thinking mind is also the conceptual mind. Thinking in and of its self is purely conceptual. We cannot think without concepts, and we cannot conceptualize without thinking.
With that in mind, take a minute and be aware of just how many concepts arise within just a few quiet seconds. Even just take the simple thought: “I have work to do,” and list how many concepts you depend on to make any sense of that thought. There is the concept of work, the concept of having, the concept of doing, and of course the concept of I, better known as the concept of a self: the center of our conceptual world in which all our experiences relate to.
The conceptual mind includes all of our life story, our memories, and the meanings of all these remembered events that have happened to us. We assume all of our life’s events to have had happened to the same person or thing; and we call this the self.
There is not a single concept we have that doesn’t in some way or another relate back to the self. Without the self, all experiences would be disjointed and meaningless. The concept of a self is one of the first things the thinking mind must conceptualize to make any sense of his or her environment. All other conceptions build off of concepts in relation to the self.
The “No Self” in Compassion
One of the most useful notions of no self is when building one’s compassion towards others. By taking one’s self out of the picture, one can become more finely tuned to the wants and needs of others.
It is all too easy to get caught up in our interests to the self and forget that there is a whole world outside of our narrow windowed reality. I do not want to turn this section into an argument about my idea of the proper morality, but I think if one learns to observe karma (the laws of cause and effect) one will find that helping others is one of the greatest gifts and greatest highs one can get out of life (surely better than any drug you can find).
To truly be a being of compassion one needs to practice the removal and dissociation of the desires of one’s self. Acting on the petty desires of the self is a road towards delusion, harm, and sadness. If one is always placing concern in the self, and never others, one begins to lose a sense of purpose – meaning – and the sense of contribution and worthiness to one’s society and world.
To dismantle the self for the sake of compassion is like a breathe of fresh air. No longer do you need to be always striving, pushing, forcing the self to obtain what it desires. Too much of the self becomes burdensome and tiring. It sucks up the richness out of life and leaves one pale, shriveled, and rotting, like a fruit left out in the sun too long. Do not bask in the self for too long, spread your seeds to others and aid others in their growth as many have done for you in the past.
The “No Self” in Non-attachment
Compassion is certainly a form of non-attachment to the self, but in this section I will explain a form of non-attachment that may be of interest for more self-ish reasons.
If we put the self as the focus of attention (such as what is done in meditation) we notice a peculiar property of the self: it is always changing. This goes back to the very nature of the self as a product of the conceptual mind. What we perceive of our self today is slightly different than how we perceived our self yesterday and vastly different than how we perceived our self ten or twenty years ago.
As mentioned previously, the self is a product of our beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions regarding events in the past and our predictions for the future. But we are constantly experiencing new things moment by moment, thus our conception of the self is constantly reshaping itself and evolving.
Despite this truth, we still cling to certain ideas about our self. Perhaps we have a long history of failures with dating or school – we begin to think that our self is simply not a good dater or not a good student. If we hold onto these beliefs – they become self-fulfilling – and we fall deeper down the hole of false conceptions.
But the sooner we can let go of these false “selves” (the self who is a failure at X, or the self who doesn’t do Y) the sooner we can improve our selves. What we need to accept is that it is not typically something inherit in us that causes us to act in such a way (excluding any biological dispositions), but it is simply our strategy or method of doing something that has failed.
As you can see, the notion of no self is just as truth-revealing as it is empowering. It can be used to help others or to guide one’s own improvement. Learn to not think of the self as a concrete thing, but as a process – we can call this “self-ing”. Be aware of how and when you are self-ing and become better at avoiding the consequences of clinging to these false selves. I hope this helps.