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Does Self/Selfing Exist?

Part Two: What Do You Mean, "Self"?
by Dr. Rick Hanson

Does Self/Selfing Exist?

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Find Part One here.

Existent or Nonexistent?

Does self/selfing exist, or is it a kind of illusion?

By ”exist,” the question asks whether self/selfing has a reality distinct from the observation of it. Personally, I think that the granite deep inside Mt. Everest exists whether anyone is aware of it or not, that the planets circling faraway stars existed long before astronomers discovered them, and that neurons fire inside your brain whether you know it or not. This is the materialist presumption. No one can prove it. But most people, and just about all scientists, consider the alternative – that
matter/energy depends for its existence on the awareness of conscious beings – to be highly implausible.

So, for our purposes here, let’s assume that existence . . . exists.

By the way: In terms of quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, just because uncertainty about a particle’s position decreases as certainty about its momentum increases, it does not mean that the existence of the particle depends on observation.

Think of all the particles in the universe that no scientist is observing in a cloud chamber: do they not exist? Further, even though it is possible to do increasingly clever manipulations of “entangled” quantum particles to create cool stuff like “spooky action at a distance” – in which the observation of one particle determines the nature of the other particle faster than light can travel – in the ordinary world of atoms and molecules all around us, including the ones functioning just fine in your brain right now to enable you to read these words, all these quantum entanglements “collapse” just fine without observation to form the material world.

The jury is out on whether quantum phenomena require some mysterious underlying Transcendental Consciousness to operate – since the issue is currently unanswerable – but there is no question that quantum particles exist and dance together without any human awareness involved. The implications of quantum mechanics for human consciousness and the nature of everyday material reality can, too easily, be romanticized and overstated.

Within the framework of material reality, patterns exist, like the lace of foam on a wave, or the modulation of the frequency of a radio wave that carries the Hallelujah chorus, or the momentary neuroelectrical assembly that (in ways that are still far
from clear) is the material substrate of your immaterial perception of, let’s say, a carrot.

So too, in even more complex ways, the pattern that is self/selfing – in each of the four quadrants above – does indeed exist. Self/selfing consists of patterns in the mind – in standing waves of information flows – that correspond to patterns in the

In short, self/selfing exists.

It is questions about the nature of that existence that have bedeviled philosophers, psychologists, mystics, neuroscientists, and people in general throughout history, and as long as any human being or our ancestors has looked up at the stars and wondered, even wordlessly, “Who am I?”

Compounded or Irreducible?

Is self/selfing compounded, or is it in some way comprised of an essence that cannot be reduced to any further parts?

In terms of the quadrant above, neuroscience would regard all four forms or definitions of self/selfing as certainly compounded – which is to say, based on underlying neural networks, such as the “default network” or the “dorsal medial
prefrontal cortex” or a “thalamo-cortical complex” that can be decomposed further into circuitry that, in turn, can be divided into neurons…made of parts…made of molecules…made of…and so on. This would apply even to the most elemental subjectivity present in ipseity: if it depends on underlying neural structures and activities – the central operating thesis of neuropsychology – then it is compounded of parts, since that is the nature of its neural substrate.

I believe that Buddhist teachings would clearly regard the “elaborated” row – the autobiographical and the parading self – as also compounded: made up of memories, personal attributes (as in the Abhidhamma), mental formations, etc.

Regarding the “essential” row, the original teachings of the Buddha (the core of the Theravadan wing of Buddhism) described a process in which the enactment of a presumed self gradually declines, disappearing entirely at the stage of the Arahant, the fully enlightened being. This progressive process implies that even the most elemental self/selfing must be made of parts since it diminishes its scope and influence bit by bit.

Dependent or Unconditioned?

Does self/selfing arise dependently upon preceding causes, or does it in some sense exist independently, unconditionally?

Pretty much the same answer as above. Within brain science, each of the four modes of self/selfing has causes, and when those causes change – such as waking/sleeping, strokes, injuries, dementia, psychedelics, object of attention, task at hand, etc. – so does the self/selfing. And in Buddhism, both the Theravadan and the Mahayana (Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land) wings reject the notion of a personal self that persists independently of causes.

But here’s where it gets tricky, particularly within “non-dual” perspectives: If the ground of self/selfing is ultimately consciousness, and if the nature of that consciousness is ultimately unconditioned, then does it not follow that “self” is unconditioned?

In other words, not dependent on preceding causes for its existence. In the frame of “Thou art That” – a core view of the nondual, Advaita schools in Hinduism – the Thou is the self and That is God/The Ultimate Ground/The Unconditioned. So Thou is ultimately unconditioned in that perspective.

I’m not going to attempt a resolution of this: that’s high above my pay grade! But one thing at least is clear: the Buddha, for one, relentlessly critiqued the identification of anything as “I, myself, or mine.” And he drove a similar critique of the prevalent belief of his time in an “atman,” a soul-essence that exists independent of causes. The term, anatta, means “not-atman,” and anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism; the other two are anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (suffering). Not-soul-essence is thus a fundamental Buddhist teaching. Of course, you need to see for yourself if you consider that viewpoint to be true . . . and perhaps more importantly, if you consider that viewpoint to be useful.

Mortal or Immortal?

Does self/selfing end when the body ends (dies), or does it persist in some way?

This the question most people really want answered. Faced with inevitable death and usually wanting to keep living, it’s natural to hope for some sort of personal continuity. As the saying goes: “Who in the world would want to live to a hundred?! Well, someone who’s ninety-nine.”

From a strictly Western science perspective, when the body dies, so do you.

Period. Of course, the “you” here is a mental pattern of self/selfing. The physical body persists for a while as a coherent pattern, and many, if not most, of its constituent atoms, will last as long as the universe does. In short, self/selfing emerges as an impermanent pattern of mind, which emerges as an impermanent pattern of the nervous system, which emerges as an impermanent pattern of the body, which emerges as an impermanent pattern of atoms and molecules, which disperses and re-form as rain, as dirt, as carrots, and as the bodies of other people.

From the perspective of the Buddha, he undeniably taught that there is reincarnation, which means that some patterning that is unique to a particular individual, and shaped karmically by the intentional actions (of thought, word, and deed) of that individual, must persist after the body dies. Whether that is actually true or not, I am not sure. But even within the framework of reincarnation, the Buddha made it clear that there is no atman, no soul, that persists eternally from life to life, but rather a collection of qualities – what Chogyam Trungpa called our bad habits – that change over time, that should change if one is serious about practice.

And at the end of the journey, those qualities change so thoroughly that there are no longer any causes or conditions that would give rise to another life in any realm.

In the Buddhist view, in the most complete sense, anything that we might consider to be self ultimately does – and ultimately should – come to a mortal end.

Here’s the Buddha’s description of his own enlightenment (from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful anthology, In the Buddha’s Words, p. 67):

I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being.

To conclude, here is a final question:

How could it be useful to you to regard your self – the “I, me, or mine” – as fluid, compounded, conditioned, and impermanent?

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Part One – What do You Mean, “Self?”

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., 2008

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