Here I talk about one of the three marks of Existence (Pali: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: त्रिलक्षण, trilakṣaṇa, Japanese: 三法印 sanbōin). The Buddhist idea of No-self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Japanese: 空 kū)
The habitual way we think and feel about ourselves is to think we have this unchanging separate part that looks out on the world, a soul, spirit. What we call ourselves. The self then is like a boundary, that describes an inside, and an outside.
Descartes idea that he was sure of himself as existing because he had thoughts (I think therefore I am) is an example. Daniel Dennett the philosopher described it as a Cartesian Theatre, as if there is this little me inside watching a film of the outside. In film it’s like the little alien, inside the big aliens in Men in Black.
A feeling of ego. A thinker who thinks, a person who does, a feeler who feels, a senser behind our sensations.
Our identity is something we create. We go into ‘i’ making and ‘my’ making. We claim belongings like our possessions: car, home, clothes, job even our things are me. But it’s more than just our belongings, our possessions also include our ideas. Our beliefs: I am a Christian, Atheist. Nationality I am British. Race: White, Black, Asian, Western. So much more is part of it.
Our sense of identity gets made in the things we hold onto. We can so attached to them.
This notion that there is a fixed, separate part of us that denotes who we are is not agreed upon by everyone, however.
The Self as sensation
The Buddhists believe everything is in flux, and we are no exception. To say ‘me’, ‘I’ or ‘you’ is merely a convention of language. It allows us to talk to each other about the world, so we can get on with our lives, but it does not reflect reality.
This feeling of a separate self does exist, but it’s an illusion.
You might say it’s contradiction, but that’s failing to understand that something illusory doesn’t mean non-existence. An example are Mirages, those bodies of water on land when there is really none.
Does a mirage exist? We think not because the water fails to materialise. But a mirage is not an optical illusion. You can photograph them, and they follow physical principles. It’s light bouncing off a layer of heated air just above the surface. What we’re looking at is reflected sky or a distant object.
The self exists as an illusion. It’s a feeling, a sensation of separation from the world, the cosmos. That we are doing this all alone. We feel it without knowing it, sense of a duality there, Me vs Cosmos, or the world.
We think of ourselves as a separate ego or self, disconnected from the world. That misconception gives rise to our suffering: fear, worry, loneliness, and a host of other problems.
It’s that duality, that feeling of separation we need to see as illusory. Our bodies are forged of the material substances from outside. But also the contents of our minds are connected to what’s going on outside of our minds.
Take your thoughts when reading a book or listening to a friend. Your thoughts follow what you read or what they say. They influence what you think and feel.
Or think of it like watching TV, or a film, you get immersed in the story. What we think about is related to what we have experienced in our lives. The present, mixed with memories of past.
At no point in our lives are we voluntarily thinking or feeling, such sensation comes unbidden into our consciousness. Neither is the content under our control.
The Self as an idea
The notion of the separate self can be seen as the same practice we do when making maps and models. We draw arbitrary dividing lines between things.
Like the maps we make the Self become an abstraction of reality. The boundaries we create are not there, we just think they are in order to talk about them in the language of nouns.
It’s the Ship of Theseus. Our identity fuzzy, but that’s hard to communicate, so we create simpler versions. Our mistake is in forgetting we create these simpler, abstracted versions of ourselves. We think we are the caricature we and others create.
Our ego then is defined by our ideas and the language we use, but such ideas are never reality itself.
The Self as Cosmology
How we think about ourselves is to also hit upon how we relate to the cosmos as a whole. The East ways of thought and that is very different in how we have typically thought about ourselves and the cosmos in the west.
There is in Hinduism and Buddhism the idea of Indras Net.
It’s described as a cosmic net with jewels (or dewdrops) on the strands. Upon the surface of each jewel are reflected the images of all the other jewels, and in each reflection of all the other jewels in that reflection and so on.
It’s a metaphor for the cosmos and its interconnected nature. All entities are reflections of all other entities. Because of this, we are reflections of the cosmos as a whole.
We are not separate because we are the cosmos.
Our self, the narrative we tell to ourselves about ourselves is but a jumble of reflected images from elsewhere.
To put it briefly, We don’t ‘have thoughts’, we ‘are our thoughts’, along with feelings sensations. All bundled together and changing moment by moment.
‘You are a verb that’s things itself a noun.’
You are a process, not a thing. We all changing, we’re all WIP, works in progress. The self then is more of a metaphor, not a real thing. You are not part of the cosmos you are the cosmos.