If Not-Self Then What?

Triangles Illusion

Triangles Illusion

The Buddha’s teachings on not-self truly are impressive, especially when you consider those were times in which people were immersed in beliefs about the supernatural, an essence of self that is everlasting, and a multitude of gods. For Buddha to point out the parts of the body as not self, the emotions as not self, thoughts and memories as not self was a startling teaching. In fact, it still is for many.

If you are not familiar with these teachings, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to explore, to go through item by item, everything within your living being and test if any one thing can be the self.

Most of us will say there is a feeling of self, a sense of self. Dig some more and we begin to see how often we identify through this feeling, create story around it, intertwine memories into it, and again there is this feeling, But I am me. If that is not self, what is it?

Buddha does explain this but not in a straightforward way that is easy for us to understand. The problems with identifying through the self we can see if we are mindful to the processes of Dependent Arising. See Linda’s article series on DA to learn more:Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising.

It’s of endless value to develop mindfulness for the many processes that go into making a person and the DA process for how suffering, or dukkha, is born.

But I’d also like to recommend this book: The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood. This book explains how the brain creates this illusion we call self in an easy-to-understand manner.

The sense of self that most of us experience is not to be found in any one area. Rather it emerges out of the orchestra of different brain processes like a symphony of the self, just as Buddha and Hume said.

Buddha pointed out the importance of not-self because of the danger in identifying through it so closely. Bruce also explains other reasons . . .

Knowledge is power. Understanding that the self is an illusion will help to reconcile the daily inconsistencies that you may experience in the way you think and behave. We are all too quick to notice how others can be manipulated, but we rarely appreciate how our own self is equally under the influence and control of others. That is something worth knowing and watching out for.

The style of this book is entertaining, and non-technical. If you’ve never read a book about the brain, this is a great one to start with. If you’ve read many brain books, this is another to add to your reading list.

But Bruce also makes it clear that it’s not the brain alone that creates the illusion of self.

We process the outside world through our nervous system in order to create a model of reality in our brains. And, just like the matrix in the science fiction movie, not everything is what it seems. . .  . In fact, we are our brains, but the brain itself is surprising dependent on the world it processes and, when it comes to generating the self, the role of others is paramount in shaping us.

Bruce also explains the importance of it to our development as human beings, how the people around us help us to create this illusory self, and how the groups we engage in reflect the self illusion. The social aspects point at the very important Buddhist teachings on interdependence, and the psychological aspects are explained in how the illusion of self can throw us off, how we can see through some of it, and why we can’t see through other parts.

Just like Keanu Reeves’ Neo, you have no direct connection with reality. Everything you experience is processed into patterns of neural activity that form your mental life. You are living in your own Matrix.

Buddha speaks of this also in how we create stories around our interpretations of the world, and this is where we get into trouble, where we create our own suffering and confusion. Bruce speaks about how faulty our memories are and explains that they are not at all like a video camera.

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised. Note how this leaves us with a glaring paradox–without a sense of self, memories have no meaning, and yet the self is a product of our memories.

In addition, Bruce speaks to the challenges we face in modern society, living in much larger groups, and dealing with social interactions globally.

Our human mind, which was forged and selected for group interaction on the Serengeti, is now expected to operate in an alien environment of instant communication with distant, often anonymous individuals. Our face-to-face interaction that was so finely tuned by natural selection is largely disappearing as we spend more time staring at terminal screens that were only invented a generation ago.

Bruce starts the book with an excellent, fascinating primer on the brain. He then goes onto explain how a sense of self develops, how our interactions with others encourages this, and how groups reflect our inner selves. In each section he also covers the problems that arise with this illusory self, how easily we are mistaken about ourselves and others.

What he does not cover and leaves off is the problem of attachment through this arising illusory self, and that is where our Buddhist practice of mindfulness comes in, our understanding of dependent arising, and the challenge of letting go.

I highly recommend this book to better understand or add to the teaching of not-self, why we need to see through this illusion, and what dynamics are at work. With that understanding being mindful of the processes of dependent arising can help you take the steps to intervene early, before dukkha can take hold.