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The Illusion of the Self

By Matthieu Ricard on October 09, 2018

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According to Buddhism, our view of the self as a singular, distinct, autonomous and lasting entity is at odds with reality and, therefore becomes a source of frustration and suffering. An exacerbated feeling of self-importance, self-cherishing, and self-centeredness are the basis for impulses of attraction and aversion, which quickly develop into mental afflictions of hatred, craving, arrogance, envy, and lack of discernment.

Conversely, viewing the self as a mere convention or as a designated label for our dynamic stream of experience - consciousness in relation to the body and the world - is in harmony with the interdependent and impermanent nature of reality; and leads to a state of well-being grounded in wisdom, altruism, compassion, and inner freedom. In order to reach this understanding, one should thoroughly investigate the notion of a “self” that might possibly constitute a separate, autonomous entity.

This analysis reveals that the self cannot reasonably exist outside of the body and the experience of consciousness. It cannot be intrinsically associated with the physical constituents of the body since it does not have any location, shape or color, Finally, the self cannot be found in the stream of consciousness, within which past thoughts have gone, future thoughts have not yet arisen, and present thoughts do not abide. Thus, Buddhism concludes that the self is a mere convention.

At every moment between birth and death, the body undergoes ceaseless transformations and the mind becomes the theater of countless emotional and conceptual experiences. And yet we assign qualities of permanence, uniqueness, and autonomy to the self. Furthermore, as we begin to feel that this self is highly vulnerable and must be protected and satisfied, aversion and attraction come into play — aversion for anything that threatens the self, attraction to all that pleases it. These two basic feelings, attraction and repulsion, are the fonts of a whole sea of conflicting emotions.

Out of fear of the world and of others, out of dread of suffering, out of anxiety about living and dying, we imagine that by retreating inside the bubble of ego, we will be protected. We create the illusion of being separate from the world, hoping thereby to avert suffering. In fact, what happens is just the opposite, since ego-grasping is a powerful magnet to attract suffering.

Our grasping to the perception of a “self” as a separate entity leads to an increasing feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. It also reinforces self-centeredness, mental rumination, and thoughts of hope and fear, and distances ourselves from others. This imagined self becomes the constant victim hit by life’s events.

Where then is the self? It cannot be exclusively in my body, because when I say “I am proud,” it is my consciousness that is proud, not my body. So is it in my consciousness? When I say: “Someone pushed me,” was it my consciousness being pushed? Of course not. The self obviously cannot be outside the body and the consciousness. The only way out of this dilemma is to consider the self as a mental or verbal designation attached to the body and the consciousness. The self is merely an idea

For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is a natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability. Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and of our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls “buddha nature”, which is present in all of us.

Paul Ekman, one of the world’s specialists in the science of emotion, has been inspired to study “people gifted with exceptionally human qualities.” Among the most remarkable traits shared by such people, he notes, are “an impression of kindness, a way of being that others can sense and appreciate, and, unlike so many charismatic charlatans, perfect harmony between their private and public lives.” They emanate goodness.

Above all, writes Ekman, they exhibit “an absence of ego. These people inspire others by how little they make of their status, their fame — in short, their self. They never give a second thought to whether their position or importance is recognized.” Such a lack of egocentricity, he adds, “is altogether perplexing from a psychological point of view.” Ekman also stresses how “people instinctively want to be in their company and how, even if they can’t always explain why, they find their presence enriching. In essence, they emanate goodness.”

If the ego were really our deepest essence, it would be easy to understand our apprehension about dropping it. But if it is merely an illusion, ridding ourselves of it is not ripping the heart out of our being, but simply opening our eyes.

Rather than weakening the individual, the understanding of the non-existence of an independent “self” leads to a deep rooted sense of inner freedom, strength and openness to others that allows the flourishing of altruistic love and compassion, rooted in wisdom.