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Lions Roar : November 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 81 SCULPTUREBYCHRISDOROSZ,PHOTOBYJOHNWHITE THE SELF ILLUSION, BY British psychologist Bruce Hood, offers a systematic deconstruction of the idea of the self as an essential entity. It redefines the self as a bundle of socially influ- enced narratives that emerges gradually during early develop- ment and undergoes continual modification. This is familiar territory for Buddhists, who have been making a similar point for millennia. The idea of a self is fundamentally a confused idea. It’s a folk belief, a conceptual reflex, a linguistic habit, a flawed assump- tion. This is why the Buddha stayed away from it as much as pos- sible, even remaining silent when pressed upon the subject. To say the self does not exist is just as problematic as saying it does, because the whole notion of self is thoroughly flawed. It has a certain utility—socially, linguistically, legally—but breaks down when examined with any scrutiny. Once it was believed the rain god made it rain, or that God made it rain. But surely now most people will allow that rain occurs when certain conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) come together in a particular combination. And when those con- ditions alter, the rain stops. It doesn’t “go” anywhere; it just no longer manifests. Every single thing in the natural world occurs in the same way: when certain factors come together in certain ways, certain things happen. When the factors change, those things dissipate and other things happen. There is no intrinsic identity in anything. There are only the labels we decide upon to refer to things: clouds, raindrops, puddles. All beings, places, and things are merely names that we give to certain patterns we call out from the incessant flux of natural events. Humans are no exception. “Joe” is just something that occurs when conditions come together in certain ways, and that no lon- ger occurs when those conditions change enough. Sometimes, when certain things are happening, Joe is a nice guy; at other times, when other things are happening, Joe can be a real jerk. Under some conditions Joe is living; when the conditions sup- porting Joe’s life no longer occur, Joe will no longer be living. All this is as natural as a rainstorm in the summer. The Self Illusion gently but relentlessly dismantles the assumed notion of self as it chronicles the progress of cognitive neuro- science and related fields over the previous several decades. We are left with the simple but astonishing insight: the self has been carved through experience by the environment it inhabits and by the other selves (or self illusions) that surround it. “You only exist as a pattern made up of all the other things in your life that shape you,” Hood concludes. Yet, he reassures us, just as the Buddhists have done, “This does not mean that you do not exist at all, but rather that you exist as a combination of all the others who complete your sense of self.” As gratifying as it can be to see ancient Buddhist ideas cor- roborated by cutting-edge neuroscience and experimental psy- chology, one cannot help but sense that the two approaches to understanding the self are not entirely engaged in the same enterprise. A considerable gap remains between modern Western and ancient Eastern perspectives on the subject, and it is natu- rally difficult for each to conceive the territory that lies beyond the point where its own approach leaves off. THE SELF ILLUSION: How the Social Brain Creates Identity By Bruce Hood Oxford University Press 2012 368 pp., $29.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY ANDREW OLENDZKI No-Self 2.0 Reviews ANDREW OLENDZKI, PH.D., is the author of Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism. He is the senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.