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If the self doesn’t exist, what am I?

 
jro
 
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jro
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26 March 2016 12:25
 

I know that the concept of the self has many issues and that Buddhism and modern neurology hold it to be illusory likewise. A central tenet of Buddhism seems to be that the subject-object dualism is a delusion. However, if the self is an illusion, what am I? I understand that there is the homunculus problem, destroying the classic notion of the self, however it definitely feels like something to be me, I definitely feel my nose itching and not someone else’s.  This sense of identity, embodiment may be overcome in some extraordinary situations, but it seems that the experience of being a distinct person, of having an identity, of being someone and not someone else is the prevailing experience most of the time. Does non-self only mean that these phenomena are contingent, they don’t have any lasting substance, without denying that being a person is a real experience?

What adds to the difficulty I continue to have with the concept of anatta or non-self is that it uses purely negative terms. We learn what something is NOT but we don’t learn what it is. Does anyone have any comments?

 
EN
 
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26 March 2016 13:45
 

I think that “you” are simply consciousness or awareness.  It’s like watching a movie - you are in theater 2 while someone else is in theater 3.  You are seeing what’s running on your screen.  The experience of sitting in that theater is “you.”

 
jro
 
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26 March 2016 13:55
 
EN - 26 March 2016 01:45 PM

I think that “you” are simply consciousness or awareness.  It’s like watching a movie - you are in theater 2 while someone else is in theater 3.  You are seeing what’s running on your screen.  The experience of sitting in that theater is “you.”

Except that I know I am not getting killed when one of the characters on screen is. When I feel that my nose is itching, it is definitely my nose. I don’t have to act on it and scratch it, I can instead examine and observe the sensation (which I incidentally do often in meditation. It is an easy to grasp object) and this changes how I relate to the itch. But still it is my nose, quite definitely so. I cannot choose to feel someone else’s nose itching instead. I am stuck being myself. So the theatre analogy seems to break down at that point.

 
EN
 
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26 March 2016 14:08
 
jro - 26 March 2016 01:55 PM
EN - 26 March 2016 01:45 PM

I think that “you” are simply consciousness or awareness.  It’s like watching a movie - you are in theater 2 while someone else is in theater 3.  You are seeing what’s running on your screen.  The experience of sitting in that theater is “you.”

Except that I know I am not getting killed when one of the characters on screen is. When I feel that my nose is itching, it is definitely my nose. I don’t have to act on it and scratch it, I can instead examine and observe the sensation (which I incidentally do often in meditation. It is an easy to grasp object) and this changes how I relate to the itch. But still it is my nose, quite definitely so. I cannot choose to feel someone else’s nose itching instead. I am stuck being myself. So the theatre analogy seems to break down at that point.

It’s only an analogy.  All analogies break down at some point, because they are not the same thing.  The point is that “you” are observing things that are happening in your brain, so if you experience your nose itching you scratch it.  In a theater, if you relate to the characters you cry or laugh or get angry.  There is a response to what you see.  Same in your head.

 
Dennis Campbell
 
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Dennis Campbell
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26 March 2016 14:18
 

My self is me.  What I feel and think.  Absent others, my sense of self would only relate to other objects or animals or plants, and I suspect would be quite different than it is at this moment. My “self” varies from moment to moment, but across years there’s some coherency that’s called personality, mostly by others. Absent memory, “self” diminishes. Excuse me, but my self has some bills to pay. No self, no bills and no payment.

 
 
jro
 
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26 March 2016 16:12
 
EN - 26 March 2016 02:08 PM
jro - 26 March 2016 01:55 PM
EN - 26 March 2016 01:45 PM

I think that “you” are simply consciousness or awareness.  It’s like watching a movie - you are in theater 2 while someone else is in theater 3.  You are seeing what’s running on your screen.  The experience of sitting in that theater is “you.”

Except that I know I am not getting killed when one of the characters on screen is. When I feel that my nose is itching, it is definitely my nose. I don’t have to act on it and scratch it, I can instead examine and observe the sensation (which I incidentally do often in meditation. It is an easy to grasp object) and this changes how I relate to the itch. But still it is my nose, quite definitely so. I cannot choose to feel someone else’s nose itching instead. I am stuck being myself. So the theatre analogy seems to break down at that point.

It’s only an analogy.  All analogies break down at some point, because they are not the same thing.  The point is that “you” are observing things that are happening in your brain, so if you experience your nose itching you scratch it.  In a theater, if you relate to the characters you cry or laugh or get angry.  There is a response to what you see.  Same in your head.

... which really doesn’t help to solve the riddle of what the nature of the self is. Doesn’t a sentence like “you observe what is going on in your brain” presuppose that you are there, that you are NOT an illusion? How would an illusion observe anything? Yet, if my consciousness is generated by my brain I have to concede that there is no seat of the self in the brain to be found. The brain seems to have no command centre, it is self-organising as an ants hill is (I heard the analogy from Dan Dennett) , there is no one in charge of overseeing it all. Still it works. It seems to, at least. So objectively, a self as the “centre” of it all doesn’t seem to be there. The driver seat is empty, the steering wheel doesn’t exist, yet the vehicle is driving around, as if there was. This is puzzling.

 
EN
 
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27 March 2016 06:37
 

The spectator in a movie is not driving what happens on a screen.  The individual is not driving what happens in his brain. Consciousness (in the sense of self-awareness) is a phenomenon that occurs associated with brains, but it’s not a separate “self” that makes decisions.  It provides some sense of continuity, since it is aware of the brain’s memories.  But it is not a separate thing that makes decisions apart from the brain.  The sense of self derives from consciousness.  Where consciousness comes from is still mysterious to me, but the explanation most satisfying to me is that it is simply part of the fabric of the universe, and our brains somehow connect to it or access it.

 
jro
 
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27 March 2016 09:57
 
Dennis Campbell - 26 March 2016 02:18 PM

My “self” varies from moment to moment, but across years there’s some coherency that’s called personality, mostly by others. Absent memory, “self” diminishes.

There are some extreme cases of amnesia, the best document one is what happened to Clive Wearing who only has a seven seconds memory. Yet as a person with distinct traits and talents he still exists (he still has music abilities, among others),  It is a horrible fate that has befallen him but it hasn’t extinguished him as a person.

 
EN
 
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27 March 2016 10:46
 
jro - 27 March 2016 09:57 AM
Dennis Campbell - 26 March 2016 02:18 PM

My “self” varies from moment to moment, but across years there’s some coherency that’s called personality, mostly by others. Absent memory, “self” diminishes.

There are some extreme cases of amnesia, the best document one is what happened to Clive Wearing who only has a seven seconds memory. Yet as a person with distinct traits and talents he still exists (he still has music abilities, among others),  It is a horrible fate that has befallen him but it hasn’t extinguished him as a person.

His traits simply come from the wiring in his brain.  Others see that in him, but he himself has undoubtedly lost a degree of sense of who he is.

 
burt
 
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27 March 2016 11:25
 

From LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore: “It’s tough being in the moment if you’re a Jew. Without a past, where is the guilt? Without a future where is the dread? And without the guilt and the dread, who am I?”

 
jro
 
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27 March 2016 15:24
 
EN - 27 March 2016 10:46 AM
jro - 27 March 2016 09:57 AM
Dennis Campbell - 26 March 2016 02:18 PM

My “self” varies from moment to moment, but across years there’s some coherency that’s called personality, mostly by others. Absent memory, “self” diminishes.

There are some extreme cases of amnesia, the best document one is what happened to Clive Wearing who only has a seven seconds memory. Yet as a person with distinct traits and talents he still exists (he still has music abilities, among others),  It is a horrible fate that has befallen him but it hasn’t extinguished him as a person.

His traits simply come from the wiring in his brain.

Whether the person or self is grounded in the brain wiring or somewhere else makes little difference for the claim at hand, namely that with the disappearance of memories, the person or self also disappears.  I think the case of Clive Wearing if not disproves, it is strong evidence against such a claim. He still has a lucid intellect, despite being robbed of the ability to form new memories, and how he is struggling with this fact shows what a strong person he is. I recommend watching some of the documentaries which have been made about him, they are on Youtube. 

EN - 27 March 2016 10:46 AM

  Others see that in him, but he himself has undoubtedly lost a degree of sense of who he is.

Yes and no. As I said, he is constantly struggling with the fact that while he recognizes his own handwriting in his journal, he can’t recall writing what he is reading. So the aspect of identity seems to be tremendously important to him, but since his hippocampus is completely destroyed, there is no way of creating the sense of identity, because he is barred from having any recollection. Still, for all we can tell, he appears as a person with very distinct attitudes, opinions, habits and abilities. I thing there is no easy solution to this one.

 
Hypersoup
 
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28 March 2016 02:29
 

What am I? The idea is of a permenent enduting self essence,, an “atman”.

Which is shunyata, void of true being. Emptiness.

Look at my take on what I call the chess board style reasoniong of the madhyamaka. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhyamaka )


A chess board, does it exist? Ok are the white squares the chess board? No.

Do away with them.

Likewise, the remaiing squares are not the chess board….!

Do away with them.


We are left with a void. Emptimness.

Same with the self, memories, emotions, will etc.

The fingers on the body. Which finger is the hand?

There is no hand.

It is made form things it is not. It is an imputation on parts, thats all.


The self is made from things it is not.

Where is the “true self”

Picture your body, emotions etc dissolving into nothingness.

Become invisible. Emergence in reverse.

Literally focus: My true self is as empty space. Void, nothing.

Just as a flower’s petals die in the fall, so the self is empty under analysis.

Just as the flower has a colour, but electrons do not, so the world is real, but also unreal. Tjhis is the doctrine of “two truths”.

All composites, all imnpermanents , are empty.

This is what remains after the deconstruciton of illuion of “atman”. The (so called) permanent, partless, eternal, independent, uncaused.

The myth of atman, it is empty. The hand, it is empty.

a b c d e f g. Which letter is the alphabet. Which atom is the letter?

LAlphabets are empty, and even atoms have parts.

For emptiness of self, you must go into trance and meditate on emptiness, and have a experience of what its like.

For me the closest I can say is its like the tranquilising effects orf a beer, or diazepam or something.

Self and other dissolve. Its not like thers over here and over there, just a block reality, like an absolute perception. Reminds me of something like Hegels absolute idealism. The absolute becomes self aware.

The icon of MAnjushri, holding a sword which cuts through delusion.

For me this is cutting composites into parts.


https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manjushri

So we have self (conventional reality) and shuyyata (ultimate reality, emptiness of all phenomena).

Thats what I have learned anyway.

[ Edited: 28 March 2016 02:41 by Hypersoup]
 
 
jro
 
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28 March 2016 03:59
 
syamsu - 27 March 2016 04:40 PM
jro - 26 March 2016 12:25 PM

I know that the concept of the self has many issues and that Buddhism and modern neurology hold it to be illusory likewise. A central tenet of Buddhism seems to be that the subject-object dualism is a delusion. However, if the self is an illusion, what am I?

You are what is making the alternative future´s of your brain, body and mind into the present.

I fail to understand what you are trying to say. Can you explain?

syamsu - 27 March 2016 04:40 PM

You are the owner of those decisions.

This would say something about the relationship between the I and a decision, but it would not say what the nature of the I actually is (substantial or insubstantial etc)

syamsu - 27 March 2016 04:40 PM


The term spirit is used for that. That term can be used generically for the owner of any decision.  Also the word soul is used, but then soul refers to you as the owner of all your decisions throughout your life. The term heart in this sense refers to you as making a decision in a way that all your emotions are unified now.

It is categorically a matter of opinion who you are as being the owner of your decisions. That means one can only reach a conclusion about who you are by choosing the answer to the question. That means forced answers are wrong, ffor example answers forced by evidence are wrong, only chosen answers are valid.

If you think a decision informed by the evidence is “forced” then your usage of the word “force” seems to differ from any of the usages I have come across thus far.

syamsu - 27 March 2016 04:40 PM

So is your spirit loving or hateful, the answer is formed by choosing the answer. By spontaneous expression of emotion with free will an answer is chosen.

That conceptual scheme does not deny facts altogether. It just limits facts to issues about what is chosen, and limits opinion to issues about what is doing the choosing. It is fact what options you have available, fact what option you choose, fact how that decision making is organized, but it is a matter of opinion who you are as making the decision turn out the way it does.

again, I fail to understand what you are trying to say and how this relates to the topic under discussion.

 
SkyPanther
 
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31 March 2016 14:44
 
jro - 26 March 2016 12:25 PM

I know that the concept of the self has many issues and that Buddhism and modern neurology hold it to be illusory likewise. A central tenet of Buddhism seems to be that the subject-object dualism is a delusion. However, if the self is an illusion, what am I? I understand that there is the homunculus problem, destroying the classic notion of the self, however it definitely feels like something to be me, I definitely feel my nose itching and not someone else’s.  This sense of identity, embodiment may be overcome in some extraordinary situations, but it seems that the experience of being a distinct person, of having an identity, of being someone and not someone else is the prevailing experience most of the time. Does non-self only mean that these phenomena are contingent, they don’t have any lasting substance, without denying that being a person is a real experience?

What adds to the difficulty I continue to have with the concept of anatta or non-self is that it uses purely negative terms. We learn what something is NOT but we don’t learn what it is. Does anyone have any comments?

I think Alan Watts paraphrased the philosophy of the East pretty well to answer this question:

“It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually—if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning—you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as—Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so—I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it. ”

All of existence is existence/the cosmos. Including you and I, and everything else. The illusion is that you think you are you, and I think that I am I.

Here is the same mindset from Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

Source: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/11/delusion.html

[ Edited: 01 April 2016 09:38 by SkyPanther]
 
sojourner
 
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01 April 2016 18:43
 

This is probably an obnoxious answer, but I do think fully understanding the answer to this question requires introspective practice of some sort. For me, where I see the distinction between ‘self / no self’ most sharply is in the experience of pain (in that it can be experienced so differently so quickly.) Not all pain, obviously, there is a threshold beyond which mindfulness is not possible. But I usually forget to practice ‘equanimity’ until I have a migraine or a muscle spasm or whatever, and then I remember. And for me, the more I pay attention, the more I see composite parts of the experience. Something like:


- Ok, there is an “I” or “me” sensation in here that “feels like” a felt sensation of “existing” in my head behind my eyes. And then I think, ok, how exactly does it ‘feel’ to feel oneself existing behind the eyes instead of in the feet or the chair across the room? It’s actually a specific pattern of physical sensations, almost a pressure around the point of the “I” that’s “in” the head.


- There is pain that feels like X (hot, cold, tight, sharp, etc.)


- There is a corresponding sensation of X (contraction in the chest, heaviness in the whole body, etc.) when that pain happens


- There is X thought (I hate this, why isn’t the stupid Tylenol working, I’ll be late for work, etc.) and corresponding sensations of Y…


I am by no means particularly skilled at this, but I can say there’s a way to pixelate experience into composite parts so that there is some noticeable change, some lessening of suffering (again, below certain thresholds). Viewing an experience as more a composite of sensations that is not ‘really’ happening to a concrete ‘I’ (the ‘I’ is another composite, after all) vs. seeing it as absolute reality.

 
 
sts86
 
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27 April 2016 16:54
 
jro - 26 March 2016 12:25 PM

I know that the concept of the self has many issues and that Buddhism and modern neurology hold it to be illusory likewise. A central tenet of Buddhism seems to be that the subject-object dualism is a delusion. However, if the self is an illusion, what am I? I understand that there is the homunculus problem, destroying the classic notion of the self, however it definitely feels like something to be me, I definitely feel my nose itching and not someone else’s.  This sense of identity, embodiment may be overcome in some extraordinary situations, but it seems that the experience of being a distinct person, of having an identity, of being someone and not someone else is the prevailing experience most of the time. Does non-self only mean that these phenomena are contingent, they don’t have any lasting substance, without denying that being a person is a real experience?

What adds to the difficulty I continue to have with the concept of anatta or non-self is that it uses purely negative terms. We learn what something is NOT but we don’t learn what it is. Does anyone have any comments?

There is no reasonable denying that there is experience, and a common type of experience is the form of the egoic, individuated self. This is a *real* experience, even if the truth behind it does not concord to objective reality. The feeling of being an individual is a product of thought and the brain, so naturally the feeling is localized to that brain, just as we should expect the feeling of an itchy nose to be localized rather than felt in a nose that isn’t itching. Again, this is not to say that the feeling doesn’t exist, just that it’s an arising and dependent phenomenon, similar to pain, rather than an essential entity. The mistake is in believing it to be the solid foundation that precedes all local experiences, rather than an emerging phenomenon that arises in conjunction with certain experiences.

Even knowing that the ego is not a true entity often doesn’t change the feeling accompanied by it. In extraordinary situations, yes, it can dissolve. But it’s actually not present in quite a few of our direct experiences, when we are fully immersed in something. However, as you said, it is very prevalent. It is a habit that we’ve developed over our lifetimes and it is one that has a massive impact on how we live our lives. But it *can* be lessened, if not altogether overcome, through the practice of meditation for example. This is a practice that helps to break the habit by objectively examining the nature of the body and mind and identifying how egoic thoughts are simply another form of thought.

Non-self is actually a pretty deep truth with many layers - in mind, in body, in other things in the world, etc. It is probably a universal truth and I believe it is one of the key ideas that Buddhism has to offer the world.

To answer the question in the title - “if the self doesn’t exist, then what am I?” - nothing! There is no self! A thought arises. This thought is “I am.” This is an ephemeral, conditioned phenomenon. The thought ceases. The temporary existence of the thought does not imply that there is an ‘I’ that ‘is.’ This is the ego, and while yes it is experienced, it has no substance, thus it is an illusion. There are just arising and ceasing phenomena, local or otherwise, conditioned by myriad things. One of them is the feeling “I am.”

 
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