A classic question: Who am I?

Clearly, individual persons exist. 

Each person is a particular eddy rippling along. While persons interact, they are distinct from each other, like different waves in the ocean. Persons have rights and responsibilities, and we should treat them with decency and care. 

But what about the so-called self? A supposed being inside who is looking out through your eyes. (I’m focusing here on the purported psychological self rather than the possibility of something supernatural.) 

This is an important topic since the sense of being a self causes a lot of sufferingtaking things personally, becoming defensive, and getting possessive. When the sense of self decreases, well-being usually increases, with a feeling of ease and openness. 

The psychological self is described in different ways in different cultures. Here the term “self” means a presumed “I” or “me” “who” is “inside” each person. Conventionally, we think of this purported self as having three defining characteristics:

  • Stable – The self today is the same self as yesterday and a year ago.
  • Unified – There is only one “me” inside the mind. 
  • Independent – Things may happen to the self, but it is not fundamentally altered by them.

These characteristics define the apparent self. They are necessary conditions for there actually to be a self. But are they all true?

When you observe your own experience, it’s striking to find the opposite of the three defining characteristics of a supposed self:

  • Not stable – The “I” or “me” in the moment keeps changing. 
  • Not unified – If the self were unified, you could command every bit of yourself to stop liking sweets. There are multiple “I’s” and “me’s,” including different sub-personalities and points of view.
  • Not independent – The sense of self changes due to different influences, such as ebbs and flows in craving. The various “I’s” and “me’s” have also been shaped by internal and external factors.

Second, as you watch the mind, you can see many references to a presumed complete self that exists . . . somewhere . . . always out of sight. A complete “I” or “me” is routinely implied in experiences of planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, and rumination. But try as you might, you will never find the presumed full self in your actual experience. 

Third, the sense of self is often added to our experiences, and you can be mindful of this. For example, you could be walking around with little sense of self – and suddenly you see something you don’t like: within a second or two, a much stronger sense of self could begin to develop in your awareness. It is perfectly possible for seeing, hearing, sensing, and cognizing to occur, . . . without adding an “I” or a “me” to it.

Fourth, there is a quality of subjectivity in most experiences. An awareness of, a witnessing of. The brain “indexes” across moments of experience to find what is common to them, and there is an inference that all this witnessing must mean that there is a witness. But subjectivity does not require a subject. There is awareness, but that does not mean there is “someone who” is aware. Look again and again, and you will not find that someone. 

Now when look at the brain from the outside in, we can’t find a stable, unified, and independent basis for a self there, either. Many studies on how activity in your brain correlates with different experiences of “me, myself, and I,” such as making a choice, recognizing your own face amidst others, or recalling something from childhood reveal startling conclusions. The neural activities that are the basis of self-related experiences are also:

  • Not stable – They are transient and dynamic throughout the brain.
  • Not unified – The neural correlates of the sense of self are scattered all over the brain. There is no single place in the brain that “does” the self. We are all unique and in that sense special. But the self is not special in the brain. 
  • Not independent – These neural activations are the result of streams of internal and external stimuli, and they also depend upon underlying physical structures and processes.

A “Self” Is Like a Unicorn

To sum up, our experiences of “I,” “me,” and “mine” – and their neural foundations – are impermanent, compounded, and interdependent. In a word, the apparent self is empty. This alone should encourage lightening up about it and not clinging to it. But I’d like to take this a step further. 

We can have empty experiences of things that do actually exist, such as horses. Just because the experience of a horse is empty does not mean that the horse is not real. But we can also have empty experiences of things that do not exist, such as imagining a unicorn. If there is no creature with the defining characteristics of a unicorn – a horse with a long pointed horn – then unicorns are not real. 

The presumed self is like a unicorn, a mythical beast that does not exist. Its necessary, defining characteristics – stability, unification, and independence – do not exist in either the mind or the brain. The complete self is never observed in experience. Subjectivity doesn’t mean there is a stable subject, a one to whom things happen. And the sense of being or having a self is not needed for consciousness – nor for opening a door or answering a question.  

Realizing this often begins conceptually, and that’s all right. These ideas can help to highlight different aspects of experience. Then we can observe and practice with the mind and gradually there will be a felt knowing of what’s true. 

Excerpted from Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness.