Notes on the ‘Self’

Notes on ‘Welcome Back to Yourself’

Dhamma Talk, Planet Yoga September 2009

In the previous talk we had looked at the nature of ‘consciousness ‘ in Buddhism. When you see the word ‘consciousness’ it is a translation of the Pali term Vinyana (Vi`n`naana) – but it should really be called ‘cognizing’ or my own favourite description ‘conscious engagement’. It is when you focus your attention on something, and bring it to full attention. You can do this right now, for example, by turning your attention to the hearing sense, or the sensations in your feet. Where you turn your attention, you get conscious engagement. It is a topic that appears frequently through the suttas, but is practically never talked about in any detail by teachers. In fact, the six sense model of the mind consciously engaging different senses is probably the most common teaching throughout the suttas, more even than the four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path.

Relating to the ‘Self’

When you engage something with conscious attention, the sense of a ‘self’ arises. If you start paying attention, you can see the sense of ‘me’ and ‘myself’ follows the conscious engagement, along with Dukkha.

In psychology the ‘conscious engagement’ is something that is well known. It is called ‘hiway hypnosis’. When you drive your car, especially on a long trip, you will find that your conscious awareness wanders off onto thinking. You are pretty lucky that your body and mind are able to drive the car safely while ‘you’ are off thinking about something. In fact, most of your activities are carried out by the automated processes, rather than consciously. It seems that ‘you’ make the conscious decision to do something or go somewhere, and then leave your body/mind to carry out your order while you get on with the engrossing pastime of thinking about other things.

Where your attention wanders off to, the sense of self follows. Also, the sense of Dukkha arises. It only comes when there is conscious engagement. You can see this at the dentist. If you put your attention on what the dentist is doing, you suffer. Often it is not just painful treatment, but the fear and discomfort around it. These days of course, they do less drilling than they used to! Dukkha cannot arise other than with conscious attention (with some reservations for some psychological models). You can only suffer about something when you put conscious engagement on it.

If you attend to what the dentist is doing, the ‘self’ arises, and there is suffering. If you turn your attention to something else, then the suffering diminishes. This is why you wring your hands or clench your feet when something is uncomfortable in either body or mind. You are misdirecting your attention onto a place where you have a lot of sensation – your hands. This reduces the suffering of the thing that is causing you the problem, by way of redirecting your attention away. It is not a great solution, as you have not dealt with the problem, but it is effective as a temporary way to get a grip on things.

Another example that might be more clear is an insult. You turn your attention to it and the ‘self’ arises and you suffer. Every so often you remember the insult, and pick it off the shelf, brush the dust off, and create a whole new episode of suffering around it. Same for difficult events, failures, or ‘my childhood’ etc… Take note of the way you pick things up to ATTEND to, and then the ‘self’ arises and suffers around it.

You can of course pick positive things to reflect on, and this is to be encouraged. If you do something good, you are encouraged to reflect on it, as it makes you happy. Don’t be afraid of pride. Reflecting on the good things you have done is a way to make you happy, and to encourage yourself to keep fostering the good states, and abandoning the negative.

Ajahn Chah put it nicely. Imagine two chicken farmers. One collects the chicken dung and takes it into his house. Another collects the eggs. Which one is the wiser? So if you are to rake over the past you should be sure to collect and reflect on the positive experience, and not the negative.

So if you can move your attention around – what should you attend to ? What aspects of experience are worth attending to, and which should not be attended to ?

Way of Wisdom

This question is the heart of Buddhism. Many people have become enlightened. Krishnamurti, Nisagadatta, Ramana Maharshi – were they arahants and enlightened? We can debate. But there is in Buddhism a provision for those who attain to enlightenment by themselves, rather than being taught. They are Pacceka-Buddhas and the curious thing about them is that even though they experience nibbana, or enlightenment, they are not able to teach others.

The essence of Sakyamuni Buddha was that he was able to teach a system whereby others can get enlightened too. The point of a Guru is to get the disciples to experience the same liberation of the heart (ceto-vimutti) that he/she has discovered. Otherwise you just get a faith-following of believers.

The way the teaching works is by attending to the right areas of experience. If you attend in the right way to the right aspects, wisdom arises and this is what will take you to the same experience that the Teacher was trying to describe.

This should be fairly obvious in fact, but it is not often pointed out. Buddhism is not a body of ‘Truth teachings’, but a set of general rules for what to observe – what to pay attention to.

  • If you put your conscious attention on money, love and romance, excitement, and things that stimulate you, then you will have a mind that is always busy. You have trained it that way. If there is no excitement it either falls asleep or hints for something stimulating to get involved with.
  • If you put attention on other aspects such as compassion, awareness, perception etc.. you train your mind to be calmer and more observant of what is going on. Then things can really change for you.

You have to be willing to change, for any change to occur. Some people seem so afraid that they will lose their excitement for love, money, a sunset or a walk on the beach that they steer right away from any kind of real self observation. Then they make excuses and find ways to make Buddhism some kind of social engagement or philosophy/psychology. You have to be willing to change. But what you gain is far greater than what you give up. In fact, you don’t really have to give up very much. Just observe, or pay attention to certain aspects of your existence, and change will come naturally. Old habits and pleasures fall away in a process of maturity, rather than a process of difficult renunciation and dryness of experience.

Why bother?

If you are willing to track down this aspect of awareness, and nurture it, then very quickly you can feel the benefit directly. Then you pursue it not through faith, or through some kind of world-denial, but through a sense of joy. What you gain is far greater than anything you give up. As concentration develops, the experience of the mind coming together, getting brighter and sharper – real joy arises here that is not based on feeding your sense pleasures. Last week’s talk mentioned the Magandiaya sutta where the pleasures of the senses are compared to a leper burning sores on his body. He gains some relief from that, but it is not something he would do if healthy. So too, the sense of joy that arises from the mind coming together is far greater than anything you might give up or throw out as part of the practice.

Object Permanence

The way the psyche works has been well studied. One psychologist in particular, George Kelly, came up with a theory of ‘constructs’ that lies very close to some aspects of Buddhism. No, you won’t get enlightened by following George Kelly’s teaching, but it is handy nonetheless.

Before considering ‘constructs’ though, we can look at something called ‘object permanence’. When a baby plays with a rattle it is engrossed in the activity. But if you put the rattle under a cover the baby has no conception that the toy is there. It can’t relate to anything it cannot perceive directly. After about 6 months the baby will gain the idea that just because something is not in conscious attention, it is still there. This is ‘object permanence’. You have a sense that some ‘thing’ is still the same, even though it has changed.

This perception is developed into layers of constructs through which we filter experience. If you see your husband/wife tonight with a new shirt on, you don’t throw them out the house because you don’t know who they are – you perceive the same person. You have a construct about that person, and you relate to the construct rather than going through all the details. If we didn’t do this, we would be about as intelligent as Jingjoks.

So the most famous example is the woodman’s axe. If you change the head, is it still the same axe? If you change the handle is it still the same? If you have changed the head and handle is it still ‘your axe’? What you relate to is as a mental construct that is permanent. In fact you relate to the whole world through a layers of constructs.

Whatever in this world… is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect: That I directly know. That is known by me, but I do not become engrossed with it…

Thus, monks, when seeing what is to be seen [heard, tasted …] , does not construe an (object as) seen. He does not construe as unseen. He does not construe an (object) to-be-seen. He does not construe a seer.

Note the last clause – you construct a self who sees.

Constructs give an illusion of permanence to things. If you look closely, nothing is permanent. Your computer, your house, your body – all are impermanent. This is obvious to a casual observer, and is nothing special. This is not the insight into impermanence. That the mind is impermanent is what you should pay attention to. You relate to the ‘world’ through constructs, but in fact the cognizing mind is jumping about from one thing to another like a monkey swings through the forest grabbing branch after branch.

Monks, an uninstructed ordinary person might grow disenchanted with this body composed of the four great elements, might grow dispassionate toward it, might gain release from it. Why is that? Because the growth & decline, the taking up & putting down of this body composed of the four great elements is obvious.

But as for what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness,’ the uninstructed ordinary person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it. Why is that? For a long time this has been relished, appropriated, and grasped by the uninstructed ordinary person as, ‘This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.‘ Thus the uninstructed ordinary person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it.

It would be better for a person to hold to the body rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body is seen remaining for twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.

Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.

There is no construct more pervasive, and closer to you than that of your ‘self’. You carry this self image around with you the whole time. And consequently worry about it, protect it and fear for it in non-appropriate ways (neurosis). But if you pay attention to the impermanence of the mind, it can be seen as not-your-self. Any perception to which you can consciously engage is a fleeting arising of consciousness that you can watch disappear. If this perception was yourself, then when it vanishes, your ‘self’ would vanish also. Look around your six senses. Non of them are permanent, non of them are ‘you yourself’. This is ANATTA in Buddhism – the non-self teaching.

You will note here that there is no claim that ‘There is no self’. But any form of conscious engagement on any of the senses is given the adjectivethis is not my self’ . That is definitely not the same as saying ‘There is no self’.

Meaning of ‘Self’

In India 2500 years ago there was the theory that everything had some kind of essence, that was a permanent real identity of the thing. Trees, rocks etc.. all had an essence. The human was thought to have an essence also, and it was a permanent, solid, unchanging self that was called the Atman. Remember, the Buddha had learned about the atman, that it was Amata, or ‘unchanging’ ‘undying’ ‘immortal’. So looking around the fields of perception – everything you can sense: Taste, body, sounds, smells, sights or thoughts – that is all you can bring into conscious awareness. None of it is a permanent Atman. If you have an atman, a soul, or not, is not the issue. What we are being told is to attend to the jumping perception. This observation eats away at the sense of self.

Rather than attend to ‘who am I?’, what’s going to happen to me?’ ‘what happened in the past?’ etc.. which increases the sense of a self, we attend to the mind jumping from one thing to another, which diminishes the sense of self, even while increasing the sense of presence and awareness. It is not a matter of philosophy. In fact the two views of self are rejected – Bhavaditthi – the view of self, and Vibhavaditthi – the view that you have no self: both are rejected since they lead to speculation, and not to enlightenment.

The Ego

The pali word Anatta is translated as non-self. But actually ‘Atman’ is not a self in terms of a personality. It is, in Indian philosophy of the time,  a permanent unchanging essence, that migrates from life to life. That idea of the Atman was rejected by Buddhism, in an Historic split with the Brahmin/Samana culture of the time.

However , the ‘self’ in terms of a personality and personality traits you DO have.

This is often confused. Buddhism is not about trying to extinguish your ego. If that was the teaching it would run like this: you have a self, and you need to destroy or annihilate it. This would be a form of nihilism that is rejected by Buddhism. You DO have a personality – which in English is what we could call ‘self’. It is not permanent, nor unchanging, and therefore not an Atman,  but it is real. And Buddhism teaches you should develop and nurture this personality. This is Right Effort – a central tenet of Buddhism. Develop good personality traits, and abandon unhealthy ones. Develop patience, kindness, generosity, wisdom, morality etc… All these are personality traits of your SELF, that you should develop.

In fact it was the same for the ego in Freud’s model. The id is the pleasure seeking principle, and the ego is the rational side of the personality that you should develop. It is where wisdom comes from. A healthy ego is a functioning self. These days the ego gets a bad rap – but the common use of the term is really referring to negative personality traits such as self-aggrandizment, self image and self protection. These are not actually ego. They are aspects of a badly functioning ego.

So both in Buddhism and in Freud’s model, the personality is to be developed.

Welcome Back to the Self

But we should pay attention to the way consciousness is working – rather than getting caught up in speculation, worrying, planning and protecting this constructed ‘self’.

For the keen, there is a long but excellent study guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on this topic that pulls up endless quotations from the suttas on this topic. Sutta’s are a little stodgy to read if you are not used to them, so this is for the keen who want to get right back to the original source material.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu also gave a great talk on the Wisdom of the Ego looking at the psychological angle and confusion

9 replies on “Notes on the ‘Self’”

  1. As an extra note – attaining to that base of mind that is prior to the senses is nibbana :
    Monks, that sphere is to be realized where the eye (vision) stops and the perception (mental noting) of form fades. That sphere is to be realized where the ear stops and the perception of sound fades… where the nose stops and the perception of odor fades… where the tongue stops and the perception of flavor fades… where the body stops and the perception of tactile sensation fades… where the intellect stops and the perception of idea/phenomenon fades: That sphere is to be realized.

  2. If consciousness is a function of the senses, that “base of the mind” must also precede consciousness…if the senses are a function of consciousness, what you describe sounds like an out-of-the-body experience…or maybe what everybody’s having as vehicles of consciousness is an auto-body experience!

  3. You might say an out of body and out of mind experience.
    This ‘sphere’ is nibbana, or ‘buddha nature’ so it precedes everything, and it is unchanging and undying. It is the ‘Unconditioned’ that we are told is the goal of the Holy Life.

  4. I love your notes. You write so clearly. I think that I heard what I heard. Then, I read your notes. And then, it all comes through.

  5. He’s not the only one reading them, and some of us are now waiting not so patiently for notes to the Clockwork Universe talk last night.

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