The Self

Don Brautigam, 2 February 2011

Although Buddhist meditation has been part of the western world‟s counter culture for several decades, it is now making inroads into mainstream culture, and in particular, scientific investigation. One of the most perplexing teachings of Buddhism is that of selflessness, that of no-self. Although the disciplined practice of meditation enables us to open more deeply to the direct experience of selflessness, there is also a natural drive towards conceptual understanding. Of course concepts are articulated through a language grounded within a cultural and experiential context, and it is of interest to explore the concept of self from the perspective of both neuropsychology and Buddhism. The well-known western Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield1 explains that
All phenomena are empty of self. There is no entity separate from the flow of experience, no “self” to whom it is happening. … Our primary delusion, one whose influence pervades all aspects of our lives, is the belief that there is an “I,” a self, an ego, that is solid and separate from everything else. But actually this sense of “I” is made up only of the process of identifying: “This is me. This is what I do …,” and so on. It is created entirely by thought and has no substance. [Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987]

The phrase used by Kornfield, “all phenomena are empty of self,” relates to the interdependence of all things. The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term interbeing to emphasize the dynamic nature of this interdependent relation. No “thing” exists separate, in and of itself; its existence is dependent upon, and defined by, the relationship between other things. It is our tendency to abstract from the whole of being a dynamic pattern of percepts to which we attribute a self-existent identity separate from the whole from which it arose. The Ground of Being is a term often used to refer to the unconditioned nature of the universe from which all conditioned things arise. If we contemplate the natural environment as a metaphor for the “Ground of Being,” then what we call a “tree” is simply a special configuration of that Ground of Being – a convergence of a unique set of elements in space and time. The photons from the sun, the CO2 from the atmosphere, the rain falling from the clouds, minerals from the earth – all coming together to perform a special choreography called “tree.” In a conventional sense, it may sometimes be useful to ascribe to the “tree” its own identity separate from the environment. However, it can become problematic if we forget that the concept of “tree” is just a convenient label we create through language to describe a relatively stable pattern of activity arising from the environment that we find particularly useful to relate to. In a deeper sense, the identity of the “tree” is the Ground of Being. The human organism arises from the Ground of Being as all other phenomena do. However, because of its relative complexity, there are a number of sensory and mental factors that co-arise within a field of awareness – creating an elaborate choreography of experience. Buddhist teachings purport that it is the grasping nature of mind that creates a certain quality of possessiveness to this experience and in so doing creates the sense that there is a substantive “I” to whom this experience belongs. It is the unconscious reification of this “I” that leads to self-limiting behavior and is the root of much suffering. The human mind-body naturally gives rise to various mental images - bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. However, there is a tendency to become fully identified with these mental images that arise and to attribute to them a more substantive and independent reality then they deserve. There is the sense that there exists some fixed rigid identity behind these fleeting images, a separate independent owner as it were. Kornfield goes on to explain that if we can change our relation to our senses, thoughts, and emotions, and not get so wrapped up in them by recognizing their fleeting and impermanent nature, then we begin to see “I” more clearly for what is – simply a transient construction of the mind - one that is sometimes useful and sometimes not so useful.


Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, 1987

the brain reconstructs the sense of self moment by moment.. smelling. It is all emptiness. with the narrative focus having been shown to increase illness vulnerability. This hypothesized cortical reorganization following MT is consistent with the notion that MT allows for a distinct experiential mode in which thoughts. hearing. when integrated over time through the complex mechanisms of memory. unpossessable nature of reality. We humans have the tendency to lose touch with what is happening in the mind-body in the moment.e. each with its own unique focus: Experiential Focus (EF) is characterized by an awareness that is simply monitoring physical sensations moment-to-moment (i. and we realize that life is at the mercy of that never-ending process. the autobiographical self provides a more stable sense of continuity. and Narrative Focus (NF) by an awareness that extends through time during which self-narratives and enduring self traits are developed and elaborated upon (i. thoughts are merely a process. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. emptiness is their true nature. et al. p313-322 . … Our sense of self is a state of the organism. He theorizes that the sense of self is intimately tied to not only how the current state of the body is mapped to specific structures of the brain but also in the particulars of how the brain‟s map of the body changes in relation to the various objects that the organism encounters and responds to (whether externalized objects such as another person or internalized objects such as recalled memories or bodily sensations). In contrast to the core self whose very nature resides in the perpetually changing moment. we discover a ceaseless process of building up and tearing down. The study has found that those who have practiced a form of meditation referred to as mindfulness training (MT) are better able to consciously decouple and differentiate the two modes of awareness. the capacity to disengage temporally extended narrative and engage more momentary neural modes of self-focus has important implications for mood and anxiety disorders. there is simply experience in each moment: just seeing. and instead. It is another construction. [Farb. When we discover what we are made of and how we are put together. all without self. We have only to experience each moment directly. each moment is a manifestation of the empty. Neurological evidence indicates that distinct regions of the brain separately support each of the two modes of focus. autobiographical self). [Goldstein & Kornfield. … Just as death and life cycles reconstruct the organism and its parts according to a plan. words and pictures.e. [Damasio. where these modes become uncoupled through attentional training. Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Of course. et al.. We don‟t have to make things empty of self. tasting and touching. because thoughts are empty in themselves. SCAN (2007) 2. This dual mode of self-reference is better revealed following mindfulness training (MT). yet are typically coupled together by default. There is some intriguing research3 investigating the two forms of self-reference alluded to above. get tangled up in elaborate dramas largely rooted in fantasy generated from autobiographical biases. Within the context of the Buddhist meditative tradition. and bodily sensations are viewed less as being good or bad or integral to the „self‟ and treated more as transient mental events that can be simply observed. to a fully conscious autobiographical self.If we are not caught up in all our thoughts about our experience. the result of certain components operating in a certain manner and interacting in a certain way. core self). 1999 3 Norman Farb. within certain parameters. Conversely. The study concludes that the capacity to better balance these modes can lead to greater mental and physical health. conditioned by certain causes and composed of constituent elements. 1987] The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio2 has spent a great deal of time investigating the biological processes in the brain involved in the construction and maintenance of the self. it may be suggested that suffering arises when the dynamic relation between the core and autobiographical self becomes severely out of balance. 1999] Damasio envisions this construction of self as unfolding through a hierarchy of graded awareness. a vulnerable pattern of integrated operations whose consequence is to generate the mental representation of a living individual being. The process is grounded in continuously changing activities of the body/brain that are unconscious (proto-self) but from which arises a primal mind-body awareness (core self) created moment-to-moment that ultimately leads. it is not that we have to get rid of thoughts to experience emptiness. a growing body of evidence suggests approaching self-experience through a more basic present-centered focus may represent a critical aspect of human well-being. As such. feelings. 2007] 2 Antonio Damasio.

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