Exploring The Idea, Or Notion, Of A ‘Self’
July 18, 2012
. . .
The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
. . .
While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
. . .
As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.’”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
. . .
In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
. . .
To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.