The Self, and No Self

Who am I?

Philosophers, religions, spiritualities and people all over the world have asked themselves this question. Lately, I too have been asking myself this – and looking into the meaning of the self, to see if there truly is a Self there to begin with.

The Materialists would say that there is no self at all – that there is no consciousness, that we are simply matter and energy and the result of material interactions.  Descartes stated “I think therefore I am”, to which the Materialists refuted Descartes dualism of a separate mind and body, ridiculing it as “ghost in the machine”.  Zen and Buddhism talks about a True Self that can only be realised by dropping all ideas of the self and achieving a pure state of being in the moment, a state of total selflessness in every sense of the word.

Nietzche stated that “We have never sought ourselves, how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?”  Like the Materialists, he believed that we are a result of our experiences and actions, but that there still was a Self, a consciousness.  In order to be complete, Nietzche said that we must learn acceptance – to accept everything we have ever done.  I find this fascinating, because how many times have we done things our lives, stating that we were out of our minds, or did something “that was not me at all” – stepping outside of the core idea of what we are.  This acceptance, instead of avoidance, is key to the deeper understanding of the self, in my opinion.  Acceptance doesn’t mean liking everything that we may have done in the past, nor does it define us in the present moment, but what it does allow is a total non-judgemental overview of the self, and in doing so, a deep awareness that we might not achieve by avoidance of the subject.

Before Nietzche, Kierkegaard put forward the notion of choosing to be self-aware.  We are homo sapiens, after all – in fact, I believe the proper term for our species is homo sapiens sapiens – the beings that are aware that they are aware.  Kierkegaard stated that when we choose to be self-aware, we are both aware of our self and, at the same time, aware that we are aware of our self.  Observing the observer who is observing.  Yet, we choose not to observe, because we often don’t like what we see, or experience, either in the past, present or future.

This is all fascinating. And also requires some very deep thinking.  I’m currently exploring the theory of No Self from Zen Buddhism, which is a paradigm of course, as is much in Zen.  The No Self is also the True Self.  It states that our real self is in existence, always, and always has been.  It is pure, and shining free – we only distract ourselves from it to such an extent that we never see it.  Zen states that we are already complete, already whole, already perfect.

This is pretty simple to understand, and it makes sense.  The difficulties, the suffering in our lives detract us away from spending time in the pure moment, in which the True Self resides.  We suffer because we want things to be different, because we desire things, people, etc – and are not happy with the present moment as it is. If we are happy and accepting of the present moment as it is, without judgement of good or bad, or any attachment to it at all (see previous blog post on understanding, not judgement) then we can rediscover this True Self.  By letting go of all notions of the Self, we return to the core, essentially.

In Zen Buddhism, the term mu can mean a multitude of things – it essentially, and paradoxically, means “nothing”.  It can be termed as “no self”, “no ego”, “no holiness” and “impermanence”.  It is the transcending of all things, the enlightenment experience, the complete and utter letting go of affirmations and negations.  It is an answer to some Zen koans (questions asked to break apart the mind and let in a new way of understanding).  Zen master Keido Fukishima, like Kierkegaard, promotes the self-inquiry into our own being and mind, to be aware that we are being aware.  In Zen, this has the goalless goal of letting go – once we have found our mind, we lose it (not in an insane way, I might add) and in the losing, in the understanding of the impermanence of all things, including the mind and the self, we rediscover the True Self.  Keido Fukushima says, “Zen teaches us how to live by inquiring into and clarifying ourselves. This self-questioning is well suited to our contemporary ways of thinking. Rather than seeking salvation through an “other” or through grace, we achieve it on our own.”

Fukushima delves further into this idea, stating “The experience of mu may at first glance seem purely negative or passive,” he says, “but it is not so at all. Being mu, or empty of self, allows one to actively take in whatever comes. Our world today and all in it are separated into dualistic distinctions of good and evil, birth and death, gain and loss, self and other, and so on. By being mu, not only does one’s self-centeredness disappear, the conflicts that arise with others dissolve as well. Here is a simple example: When we look at a mountain, we tend to observe it as an object. But if we are mu, we no longer see the mountain as an object; we identify with it; we are the mountain itself. This transcendence of duality may sound like some psychic ability or spiritual power someone possesses. But that is not true. Rather, it is simply and naturally a case of being free, creative, and fresh. We become human beings full of boundless love and compassion.”

This rejects the dualists’, such as Descartes, theories and instead breaks down all barriers, which is both liberating and frightening at the same time.  There is no Us and Them, no Self and the Other – if we truly let go of all attachment we become one with everything.  Are we willing to do that, or do are we too attached to our sense of self to experience that? Can we truly dissolve into everything?

It comes in small flashes, in glimpses, for me so far.  The world, wrapped up in an apple, in a drop of rain, in the flight of a hawk.  Barriers have dropped, ego and self has fallen away, and we see the multitude of the universe (another paradox!).

This is passing through the Gateless Gate – I’ve also heard it called the groundless ground.  In realising the impermanence of everything, including the Self, we have a platform from which to jump off and into real living, where every moment counts and is never the same.  The Self changes from moment to moment.

This is hard, for we have spent our whole lives creating this sense of self, this timeless sense of self that we think defines us.  After seeing Taylor Swift’s new video, Trouble, in which she states “…I don’t know if you know who you are, until you lose who you are” really hit home.  I don’t think she meant this in a Zen sense, as she seems pretty attached to her past experiences (and boyfriends) but the statement really hit home.  She talks about losing her balance.  I really identified with this statement, having recently lost my balance in these last few months.  But what did I lose my balance from? Is the concept of balance just another distraction? I’m still working on it.

Starting with acceptance, and then moving on, letting go, without attachment, is crucial.  Maybe then the True Self will shine again, for longer and longer moments, ever shifting, ever changing, always truthful.

However, as Freud said, “It’s just a theory.”

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