This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.
Back in college, I remember listening to two friends arguing cheerfully about something. He asked her, “What do you mean by ‘freedom’?” She fired back without missing a beat, “What do you mean, ‘mean’?”
The word, “self” – and related words like “I,” “you,” “she,” and “theirs” which refer to personal identity – have a similar mind-binding murkiness when you look closely at them, even though we use them routinely. Psychology, neuroscience, and spiritual practice all have an interest in what in the world the self is – if it’s anything at all – and so it’s helpful to know what we mean when we use that word, since it actually can mean quite a few different things. It’s not uncommon to hear or read people using the term in several ways, even in the same paragraph (sometimes sentence) without acknowledging the shifts in meaning. This is where things get muddled up.
The sort of self we are speaking of determines the properties it has, and more importantly, for many of us, how to free ourselves from its entanglements.
Here’s a summary of different ways to describe the “self,” informed by both neuroscience and Buddhism, and a consideration of some implications for a few deep questions.
Entity or Process, Elaborated or Essential?
Let’s start with two distinctions, expressed as questions:
- Is “self” an entity or a process?
- Is “self” elaborated or essential?
If we combine those, we get a 2×2 matrix, with four quadrants (see Figure 1). These define four of the major ways that you will find the “self” described.
Figure 1. Four Sorts of “Self”
1. Let’s start with the upper left quadrant, with what people commonly regard as the self, an entity, a being, with elaborated qualities.
For example, let’s take my friend and teaching/writing partner, Rick Mendius. He is recently married, has three
children, works as a neurologist, grew up in New Mexico, has such-and-such SSN, likes good coffee, works incredible hours, and so on.
The term commonly used in neuropsychology for this sort of self is the narrative or autobiographical self. It’s narrative in the sense that it is woven somewhat out of the stories we tell ourselves about our life: the ongoing commentary, evaluation, meaning-making. And it is autobiographical in two ways: First, it is a collection wherein others are tacit, such as when there are references to whether an action of yours would be approved of or rewarded by others.
2. Next, moving down in the first column, we have the core self.
This equates to that sense of being, the same fundamental “I”, across all our autobiographical situations. It’s the primary sense of “I” that comes online a few seconds after you first wake up in the morning. There is often little, if any, sense of gender or other descriptors with this self. And if you are threatened, it often comes to the forefront: “I will survive!”
If the frontal lobes of the brain – the apparent neural substrate of the autobiographical self – are damaged, there can still be some functioning personal identity in the individual. It is just not based on much complexity of continuity with the past or consideration of the future. That core self relies on subcortical and brainstem structures, and when those are damaged, both core and autobiographical selves disappear, indicating that the core self is foundational to the autobiographical self, at
least in neurological terms.
In evolution, the neural structures that are the basis of the core self in humans (or their early analogues) appeared at least a couple hundred million years ago, and perhaps earlier. Therefore, it’s a reasonable conjecture that the core self in humans is similar to the self of a higher animal, such as a lizard, squirrel, or dog.
When your mind is very quiet, it feels like the autobiographical self is minimally present at most, which presumably corresponds to a relative deactivation of its neural substrate. At those times, what seems primarily active are the foundational circuits of the core self. Certain aspects of contemplative practice – particularly the concentration meditations that focus on stilling the mind – could thus be regarded, neurologically, as training the brain to inhibit the neural circuitry of the autobiographical self (particularly its verbal components, centered in Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas in the left frontal and temporal lobes) and stabilize steady activation of the core self substrate.
3. Now let’s move to the right-hand column where we regard self as a process, as a verb and not a noun.
In this light, whatever may be enduring across moments of time about a self is seen as a kind of standing wave, like where a stream flows over a half-submerged boulder. Notice how language carries embedded assumptions. For example, in English, is the word “I” a noun or a verb? It’s a noun, a “person, place, or thing,” isn’t it? That linguistic framing can lead us unconsciously to regard processes as reified entities.
It’s interesting that in Pali – the language of the earliest surviving written record of the Buddha’s teachings, and the language spoken by many ordinary people of his time – there are basically no nouns: relatively persistent patterns in space-time, whatever they are, are described as gerunds: suffer-ing, cling-ing, dog-ing, cup-ing . . . self-ing.
In the upper right quadrant is the elaborated process of selfing parading.
I couldn’t come up with a better term! And I invite nominations. But the image of a cavalcade of characters, bustling and complicated, full of life, streaming down a passageway of some sort, with a certain messy unstably stable coherence, endearing and perhaps a little overwhelming…well that kind of conveys a sense of person-ness proceeding through time.
4. Finally, in the bottom right quadrant, there is the word ipseity, a technical term in consciousness studies for a certain, seemingly minimal, sense of experiencing subjectivity in the stream of consciousness; life given into a first-person perspective.
For example, when the mind is very quiet in meditation, and you seem to be getting pretty close to bare, rock-bottom awareness, you may still sense a subtle “beingness” that has a persistently individual quality to it.
When people equate the self with awareness, that view is usually grounded in this bottom right quadrant. But as appealing as that can be – “I’m open-space awareness, unbounded and free!” – there are several issues with that view. First, it can lead to a reification of awareness as a thing (one of those pesky nouns) rather than as an activity, which is the teaching of both neuroscience and Buddhism. Second, it’s a short hop from equating self to awareness…to identifying with awareness, which is a kind of clinging that, like other forms of clinging, leads to suffering.
Is awareness actually personal?
Neurologically, awareness is founded on the representing capacity of the brain, and that capacity is as generic and impersonal as the capacity for taste or fear. Phenomenologically, in terms of personal experience, aspects of self – including a minimal ipseity, the barest possible sense of “I” as an experiencing subject – arise within awareness, but they are not awareness itself. Awareness as the open field of presence, of knowing, in which mind-objects appear and then disperse, is regarded in Buddhism (particularly Tibetan) to have two qualities: emptiness (the capacity to represent) and luminosity (a self-sustaining kind of radiance). Additionally, some schools ascribe a quality of universal compassion to awareness. But that’s it: no “I” or “mine.”
Lastly, conceptually, why use two words when one will do? If “self” and “awareness” mean the same thing, shouldn’t we junk the word, “self?” But there are plenty of aspects of “self” – in each of the four quadrants – that have nothing to do with awareness, so we still need to come to terms with those aspects even if, in some ways, “self” and “awareness” overlap in their nature.
True or Useful?
OK – Now having laid out this structure, let’s take it a step further and make another distinction, this time between whether something is true or whether it is useful.
For example, we could regard this 4-quadrant model in terms of whether it is true: Is there really an autobiographical self? Is there ipseity?
Alternately, we could ask, is it useful? Is it beneficial in some way, in how you treat yourself and others, or how you progress in your spiritual practice?
The Buddha’s general approach was to focus on whether something was useful in terms of reducing suffering and increasing benefits to oneself and others. Even when he was asking people whether something was true, his larger frame was usually pragmatic, utilitarian – and often he was really asking whether it was useful to regard something as true. The Buddha is not a bad person to take one’s cues from – so here is the central question of this little essay:
How is it useful for you to regard self . . . or selfing?
So, in light of the points made so far about “self” and ways to regard it, here is a consideration of four distinctions that naturally come to mind. I pose them as questions, and then offer brief comments – and really invite you to investigate these questions for yourself.
This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two – Does Self/Selfing Exist?