Thursday, April 11, 2019


Now that's a provocative title for a blog post, if ever there was one.

Well, do you exist or don’t you? ‘Of course, I do, you silly fool,’ I hear you say.

Well, it all depends on what we mean by the word ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘you’.

One of the themes—if theme be the right word—of my blog posts is what is known as self illusion. It is a teaching of Buddhism but the idea is by no means exclusively Buddhist. Indeed, when I was in rehab many years ago, the psychologist-in-charge, Jim Maclaine, taught self illusion therapy. I have been expounding its virtues ever since. Why? Well, it worked for me! It still does.

Now, when I say that self is an illusion, it is important to bear in mind what I mean by the word illusion. It simply means that the ‘thing’ in question is not what it seems. We tend to think that our sense of self (‘I’ and ‘me’) is something that is real and permanent and stable—perhaps even something that is separate and distinct from the person that each one of us is. The truth is otherwise. Our sense of self seems to be incredibly real. In a sense, it is, although it is not a ‘thing-in-itself’, so to speak. However, there is now a wealth of scientific evidence attesting to the fact—yes, fact—that the notion of an independent, coherent self is an illusion, that is, it is not what it seems.

Dr Bruce Hood
Bruce Hood, pictured left, a developmental psychologist, and Evan Thompson, pictured below, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, are just a few experts who propound the non-existence, that is, the illusion, of the so-called self. I thoroughly recommend their books The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2011) [Hood] and Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015) [Thompson].

According to Hood, our brains generate, that is, construct, this illusion of a self—it’s a kind of a matrix—to deal with and respond to ‘a multitude of different processes and decisions that are often in conflict with each other, often occurring below our level of consciousness’. Our sense of self emerges during childhood and is built up andconsolidated thereafter. Thompson refers to an ‘enacted self’ (that is, ‘I’ as a process) and explains that we confuse the interplay of our ever-changing mind—which is a body-brain continuum of sorts—as a supposedly stable, core ‘I’ or ego. He writes:

… the mental repository is a subliminal data bank, not an ego, and it’s constantly changing process, not a substantial thing. Hence this impression that there’s a self is a mental fabrication and what the fabrication represents doesn’t exist.

The bottom line is that there is no a distinct ‘I’ or ‘me’ in charge of our thoughts, feelings and actions. In the words of Hood:

[O]ur brain creates the experience of our self as a model—a cohesive integrated character—to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout a lifetime and leave lasting impressions in our memory. 

In other words, the self is an illusion created by our brain.

Now, you may ask, ‘Well, so what? Why is any of this important, assuming that it is?’

Well, let me explain, but first listen to these words of J. Krishnamurti:

The very nature of the self is to create contradiction.

Dr Evan Thompson
Krishnamurti also wrote:      

You know what I mean by the self? By that, I mean the idea, the memory, the conclusion, the experience, the various forms of namable and unnamable intentions, the conscious endeavor to be or not to be, the accumulated memory of the unconscious, the racial, the group, the individual, the clan, and the whole of it all, whether it is projected outwardly in action, or projected spiritually as virtue; the striving after all this is the self.

If you have ever struggled
with an addiction, you will know all too well that there is, for example, the ‘self that wants to drink [or smoke, etc]’ and the ‘self that doesn’t want to drink [or smoke, etc]’. The two selves—and we generate hundreds of these selves every day of our lives, some of them becoming very persistent over time—are in conflict. At any moment of the day, one of them is fighting for supremacy.

Recovery begins when you come to the realization that none of these selves are what they seem to be. Yes, the so-called ‘self’ is nothing more than an aggregate or heap of perceptions and sensations. It is, in reality, a non-self. What is real is the person that you are. A person can change. You do what is appropriate for a person in your condition. You do not try to change the self that seems to you to be the problem.

Know this. Your sense of self is a constructed narrative that your brain has created. Do not try to change your ‘self’ or the particular little self that seems to be the source of your problem (eg the ‘self that wants to drink’). Work on the person that you are. Give your pesky little self no attention. Give it no power over you—for it has no power in and of itself. You, the person that you are, have power—the power to change your life for the better.