What is the Self?

Let’s imagine that— First, there was no self. 

It seems that an infant is only experiencing life, without reference to an internal thinking entity. As time goes on we begin to observe the emergence of a person, a self-reflective entity. It begins to experience and express a self.

Now, there is something we call a self and it dominates the infant’s experience.

We are interested in understanding what this self is. What is its form, function, origin, and reality?

The following will be an attempt to communicate the truth of ‘self’ as we know it.

As you read, experience the distinctions for yourself and contemplate their influence on your experience.

Self appears as an experience or an array of experiences.

At a basic level, humans experience life in the form of:

  • Seeing–  We see our body in both the objective and mental domains. Looking from the eyes we see a body in the world. And in our ‘minds’ we see various images of ourselves.
  • Hearing–  We hear our voice in both the objective and mental domains. When we speak we hear ‘ourselves’. Likewise, in our ‘minds’ there is a continuous process of languaging which seems to be us or ours.
  • Feeling–  Emotions and body sensations that feel like ‘me’.

These components are actually all we have of life and self. Think of them as the ingredients of all experience.

Your experience of self in daily life is composed of:

  • Self image (seeing)– You have a mental image of your body, face, character, future and past action and so on. This is almost always active within your experience. Paying attention to this domain reveals its dominance over your feeling states and relationship to things. 
  • Emotional disposition towards everything encountered (feeling)- No matter what is seen or heard, you feel some way about it. Major emotions such as fear, anger, joy etc account for a small proportion of what is there as feeling. There is also a continuous flow of subtle feelings about everything. This occurs all over and around the body.
  • Internal dialogue (hearing)- Your experience of talking to yourself. For most of us this is a continuous process, often in our own voice. It seems to take place in or around the head
  • Deep thought (seeing, hearing and feeling)- there is an activity of thought occuring on a level below clear discernment. This activity has a subtle audiovisual component, as well as a feeling associated with it.

Self also gains reality by existing in many conceptual domains.

These experiences have no reality in the objective world, they are actively imagined. They nevertheless constitute a large part of what we know and live as self.

  • Future– Where we need to go, who we’d like to be, what we will do, and so on. This idea of the future gives us a direction and so orients us to the moment in such a way that the imagined future can be attained or avoided. Much of our attention is consumed by this.
  • Past- What our self has done and experienced in the past. And experience a relationship to that memory now. This reference to what was helps us define what we are now. We tend to persist in this way of being out of a need for continuity (survival).
  • Characteristic dispositions- We tend to frequent a specific set of emotional dispositions toward life. These become our person and personality.
  • Social – The person you are is generated and reinforced within social contexts. You ‘perform’ yourself for others and then believe this performance is what you are.
  • Ideals- You experience yourself as a relationship to what you should be- your ideals. These help give definition to you in many ways.

There are some conceptual metaphysical parameters that help define you as a self.

These compose the framework in which your experience of ‘you’ exists. They were at one point adopted and taken to be true. From then on, you experience them as true and live in relation to them. These are not experienced as thoughts, but as both you and the world in which you live.

  • Beliefs- What you think the world is like as well as how it should be. Much of what you experience as you is the acting out of these beliefs.
  • Assumptions– What form your experience of self and world. You assume that things are a certain way and then orient your experience to this assumed reality. Some of the core assumptions that are prerequisite for modern selfhood are as follows.
  • Real separation between things– You and me, this and that are actually separate.
  • I am the body/mind– And my existence is synonymous with its existence. 
  • I am an entity– with an independent personal will.
  • Time and space as fundamental- The idea that my consciousness arises within them and I exist within them opposed to time and space being perception/experiences that arise within consciousness.

Do not underestimate the significance of these experiences, as they are what constitute “you’. All that is of importance to you exists within these experiential domains.

Now here’s the hitch. 

We don’t think of ourselves as ‘an experience’ but as the ‘experiencer’. 

If we look at any sensation or perception of ourselves, we can see that it is not us. It is another experience or another perception.

So, if all we know of ourselves as the aforementioned content,

and we are not that content, but the supposed experiencer of it,

then, we do not know ourselves!

Any experience of an experiencer is itself an experience, and not the experiencer.

You are nowhere to be found.

We cannot be said to exist as anything, based on the evidence we have.

but it is ridiculous to say, “I do not exist,” because hazah, here I am.

It seems that there is in fact no ‘you’ within the experience of you. There is personality with no person. Self with no self.

The experience of self is just that, an experience. 

With nothing behind, beyond, or within.

This does not necessarily mean you are elsewhere or other than the experience.

Intend to experience the truth of you.

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