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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 50 see the word JOHN, our spirits leap, we think, “That’s me!” But we only need to separate the letters, J-O-H -N, to lose all interest. The idea of “our” name is just a mental fabrication. It is the deep sense of self lying at the heart of our being that we have to examine honestly. When we explore the body, the speech, and the mind, we come to see that this self is nothing but a word, a label, a convention, a designation. The problem is, this label thinks it’s the real deal. To unmask the ego’s deception, we have to pursue our inquiry to the very end. When you suspect the presence of a thief in your house, you have to inspect every room, every corner, every potential hiding place, just to make sure there’s really no one there. Only then can you rest easy. We need introspective investigation to find out what’s hiding behind the illusion of the self that we think defines our being. Rigorous analysis leads us to conclude that the self does not reside in any part of the body, nor is it some diffuse entity per- meating the entire body. We willingly believe that the self is as- sociated with consciousness, but consciousness too is an elusive current: in terms of living experience, the past moment of con- sciousness is dead (only its impact remains), the future is not yet, and the present doesn’t last. How could a distinct self exist, suspended like a flower in the sky, between something that no longer exists and something that does not yet exist? It cannot be detected in either the body or the mind; it is neither a distinct entity in a combination of the two, nor one outside of them. No serious analysis or direct introspective experience can lead to a strong conviction that we possess a self. Someone may believe himself to be tall, young, and intelligent, but neither height nor youth nor intelligence is the self. Buddhism therefore concludes that the self is just a name we give to a continuum, just as we name a river the Ganges or the Mississippi. Such a continuum certainly exists, but only as a convention based upon the interde- pendence of the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It is entirely without autonomous existence. The Deconstruction of the Self To get a better handle on this, let’s resume our analysis in greater detail. The concept of personal identity has three aspects: the “I,” the “person,” and the “self.” These three aspects are not fun- damentally different from one another, but reflect the different ways we cling to our perception of personal identity. The “I” lives in the present; it is the “I” that thinks “I’m hun- gry” or “I exist.” It is the locus of consciousness, thoughts, judg- ment, and will. It is the experience of our current state. As the neuropsychiatrist David Galin clearly summarizes, the notion of the “person” is broader. It is a dynamic continuum ex- tending through time and incorporating various aspects of our corporeal, mental, and social existence. Its boundaries are more fluid. The person can refer to the body (“personal fitness”), in- timate thoughts (“a very personal feeling”), character (“a nice person”), social relations (“separating one’s personal from one’s professional life”), or the human being in general (“respect for one’s person”). Its continuity through time allows us to link the representations of ourselves from the past to projections into the future. It denotes how each of us differs from others and reflects our unique qualities. The notion of the person is valid and healthy so long as we consider it simply as connoting the overall relationship between the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It becomes inappropriate and unhealthy when we consider it to be an autonomous entity. As to the “self,” we’ve already seen how it is believed to be the very core of our being. We imagine it as an invisible and perma- nent thing that characterizes us from birth to death. The self is not merely the sum of “my” limbs, “my” organs, “my” skin, “my” name, “my” consciousness, but their exclusive owner. We speak of “my arm” and not of an “elongated extension of my self.” If our arm is cut off, the self has simply lost an arm but remains intact. A person without limbs feels his physical integrity to be dimin- ished, but clearly believes he has preserved his self. If the body is cut into cross sections, at what point does the self begin to van- ish? We perceive a self so long as we retain the power of thought. This leads us to Descartes’ celebrated phrase underlying the entire Western concept of the self: “I think, therefore I am.” But the fact of thought proves absolutely nothing about the existence of the self, because the “I” is nothing more than the current contents of our mental flow, which changes from moment to moment. It is not enough for something to be perceived or conceived of for that thing to exist. We clearly see a mirage or an illusion, neither of which has any reality. The idea that the self might be nothing but a concept runs coun- ter to the intuition of most Western thinkers. Descartes, again, is categorical on the subject. “When I consider my mind—that is, myself, given that I am merely a thing that thinks—I can identify no distinct parts to it, but conceive of myself as a single and com- plete thing.” The neurologist Charles Scott Sherrington adds: “The self is a unity.... It regards itself as one, others treat it as one. It is addressed as one, by a name to which it answers.” Indisputably, we instinctively see the self as unitary, but as soon as we try to pin it down, we have a hard time coming to grips with it. The Fragile Faces of Identity The notion of the “person” includes the image we keep of ourselves. The idea of our identity, our status in life, is deeply rooted in our mind and continuously influences our relations with others. The least word that threatens our image of ourselves is unbearable, al- though we have no trouble with the same qualifier applied to some- one else in different circumstances. If you shout insults or flattery at a cliff and the words are echoed back to you, you remain unaf- fected. But if someone else shouts the very same insults at you, you feel deeply upset. If we have a strong image of ourselves, we will constantly be trying to assure ourselves that it is recognized and ac- cepted. Nothing is more painful than to see it opened up to doubt.