What is the Self?
Updated: 8 February 2019
I have modified and expanded on the words I use in this introduction relating to thoughts in a newer chapter called Metadata and the Mind, Chapter 13. What I write here is still relevant and forms part of my evolving understanding, so I have left it as I wrote it maybe a year ago.
As the basis for this book is the description of a journey that takes one to a reality beyond our concept of whom we think we are I thought that a few words on that concept might be a good idea.
Firstly, just to get the terminology out of the way, the ‘self’ Bernadette and others talk about can also be given names such as ‘ego’, ‘me’, ‘I’, along with other labels, or a specific identifier like ‘Tony Eastmead‘. I have gone mostly with ‘self‘ because it ties in with many of the quotes I share, but as always use whatever terminology that works best for you. I will write about the self in greater detail shortly, but as a starting point, its definition in the context of this document is the physical and mental package we identify as that unique ‘me’ entity, which exists separately from everything else in our world.
I will also use the expression mind but I don’t use this solely in relation to the act of thinking or thoughts, these being totally neutral in their pure state. Like clouds passing across the sky thoughts can be viewed by an observer but in themselves they have no power to impact us. If we only use this very limited interpretation of mind it is a very benign definition and the mind is anything but that.
I prefer a broader definition of mind, still with thinking as the core, but thinking that is energised with the two powerful elements of memories and emotions. A thought will often draw on stored memories, which are brought into the now to be re-lived, but they only become a tangible reality once an emotion is attached to them and it is this spontaneous melding of the two that then drives our actions and reaction. These three components when combined give life and certainly to the self, the person we literally think we are.
I learned that without any feelings to back it up, the mind is absolutely powerless to affect a single thing. Bernadette.
Applying logic to this supposition, if we dissolve this package, which only exists because of the mind, the linked self-identity must fade as well. All of this may sound confusing or bizarre at this early stage of the book but stick with it and I will expand as we go along, which may or may not clarify things!
How might this ‘self-ness’ relate to everyday life? I, like most people never questioned the reality of ‘me‘. Like everyone I lived as a complex and unique mix of characteristics contained within the individual physical body, I and others called Tony, part of the world that surrounded me but separate from it. I literally mean separate. We think that we are this body that ends at our skin and everything else is outside and envelopes ‘us‘ in a 360-degree panorama of reality. All our senses and mental certainties support this view of the world. We believe that there is a ‘me‘ (the subject) and then there is everything else (objects) and this duality is what we accept every moment of our waking state. It is the reality we have lived for as long as we can remember.
Within this body, our world is created moment by moment by the mind. We process sensory input through a unique set of filters based on our life experience and conditioning. These filters are based on our memories, both conscious and subconscious, the preconditioning we carry with us and the outcome of this automatic sensory processing triggers our reactions and emotions to what life presents us with, as I have stated before. These reactions are either felt internally (emotional) or expressed externally (actions) or both, as a result of that input. We are therefore a construct of our minds – take the mind away and what would be left? Certainly not the ‘me‘ personality we now take for granted.
Our individual existence and self-ness are supported by the ‘certainties‘ of our life, such as the work we do, our relationships, our historical memories, our beliefs and so on. Based on these absolutes, we then attach defining labels to ourselves that make us uniquely ‘me‘. In my case these would be tags such as ‘Tony Eastmead‘, retired, male, Australian, sixty-two years old, living in Thailand, my likes and dislikes and so on and these form the entity that gives my body life and personality separate from everything and everyone else. The idea of living without this identifying package of ‘self/ego‘ is inconceivable, or so I thought.
I can’t stress how totally central this concept of self-identification is in the way we believe our lives to be and how we think the world works. To suggest that everything that makes us solidly individual and separate, the ‘Tony Eastmead’ in this example, might dissolve would surely be like slipping into a sort of insanity; leaving us lost, confused and frightened without a centre point, the ‘I‘ to give us certainty and context around which our life can revolve. I watched my father become overwhelmed with dementia over a number of years and lose his connection to who he was and his world. As an illustration of the power of mind and the disastrous impact on an individual when it malfunctions, this example was as clear as it comes.
My most vivid memory of what this ‘insanity‘ might look like personally happened, maybe thirty years ago during a period when I was intensely involved in meditation and its associated practices. The fact that I vaguely recall this situation, when most else has faded into blankness, is a testament to the impact it had on me.
It was night-time, I was alone in my house in Canberra and I suddenly had an experience of losing the connection with who I was – the ‘self‘ or the ‘me‘ that I took for granted as a permanent in my life. It was as if the link with everything around me had been suddenly cut off, leaving me without the security offered by the ‘Tony Eastmead‘ personality that normally anchored me in reality. It was a brief period of total loss of identity and sense of humanness and as a result it was very scary experience. This disconnect didn’t last long thank goodness and my normal world returned much to my relief.
Having experienced a loss of self-identity even temporarily and the fear that resulted how is it possible that anyone could live without this central foundation that makes us who we think we are and still function as a human being? Not only that, but why would you want to!
The odd thing is that not that long ago I had absolutely no idea that this concept even existed, let alone my asking questions about how it might work in reality. There is no way I had a goal to achieve an altered state of reality resulting in dissolving Tony, the person I had lived with all my life, but surprisingly (for me) this is what has happened! This transformation has been a completely unplanned by my conscious self and at moments unwanted and my understanding of what occurred has only come through my reading after the event and discovering words that matched what I was already experiencing. Passages in Bernadette’s book that made no sense two years ago now do because they describe the world in which I now live, not as a brief moment of altered consciousness but as a permanent and unalterable reality, whether I like it or not.
So, before we delve into the ‘no-self‘ aspects of this journey I thought that we would take a brief look at how you might get started on this journey of self-discovery………I thought I would use a non-threatening description in this early part of the book. The answer is probably in a very laid-back way as I did!
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