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Seeing Through the Self, Part 1

Robert Dimuro

Posted on July 26, 2020 14:46

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The self is really an illusion, both as a matter of science and as a matter of experience.

If you've studied ethics, philosophy, or religion in school, you've likely encountered the virtue of selflessness as a core tenet of many schools of thought or faith. Forgetting about the politics of altruism, it is generally beneficial to one's own life and the community in which one lives to be selfless as opposed to selfish. However, the concept of selflessness has a deeper, more literal meaning that you may not have considered, which is that our concept of self is illusory.

Although literal selflessness is a core tenet of Buddhism, there's nothing about this concept that needs to be taken on faith. Buddhists have gleaned this insight through the practice of meditation, which can exclude metaphysical or supernatural baggage. This becomes very clear when engaging in the practice.

There are various illusions that our minds generate based on the sensations we experience. These illusions are pieced together by the mind to form the concept of "me" or "I," and this happens without our even realizing it until we take the time to notice the elements of experience that form the sense of self.

To make this clear, let's begin with our senses. One of the ways in which the sense of self is formed is through our physical location in space. Our senses do this for us automatically. If you're sitting on a chair across from a wall, your brain automatically forms the concept of "I am sitting across from the wall" because you feel yourself sitting in a chair and you see the wall that's in front of you.

This sounds trivially obvious, but part of what makes the sense of self feel so concrete is that we don't actually notice the fact that this conceptual framework is constantly reinforcing itself in our minds. Instead of noticing this impartially, we assume that our sense of location is confirmation of an actual self that's camping out somewhere in our brains. The problem with this is not only that there's no neurological evidence of a special area of the brain where an actual self can exist but also that it's possible for the sense of self to be noticed and dropped experientially.

Before going further, it's worth discussing the philosophical or spiritual background of this idea. In the West, we implicitly assume that consciousness is dualistic in nature — that is, the existence of "self" and "other" as a matter of experience. However, many Eastern traditions teach nondualism, which assumes no dichotomy of "self" and "other" and posits that consciousness simply experiences itself.

It's important to note that we can have this philosophical debate without reference to any tangible differences between Eastern and Western society in terms of wealth, culture, governmental structure, and political ideology, which have a complicated web of causes. However, philosophies of mind do ultimately have broad-reaching societal implications, which I will discuss later in this series. In Part 2, we will continue to analyze the sense of self and expose the self's illusory nature. 

Robert Dimuro

Posted on July 26, 2020 14:46

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Fad? Not really. Just a long-known phenomenon with a new name. Over many years it has been called: consciousness, focus,...

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