The Reality of Self and No-Self

I belong to a book group focused on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and one of our recurring discussions is about whether or not there is a self. Buddhist teachings often focus on the idea that there is no such thing as the self, but clinical work in Psychology tends to deal directly with the self. It can be confusing. Is there a self? Do I exist? If I do exist, what am I?

After years of going round and round with this topic, my conclusion is that both points of view are correct. There is a self, and there is not a self. I exist, and I do not exist. Both statements are true at the same time, and there is no paradox. Allow me to explain…

When Buddhist teachings say “there is no self,” I believe that they are being clever but unclear. They jump ahead without showing their work, which makes it hard for anyone else to see how they got there. If I taught math this way, by showing problems and answers without any steps in between, I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher, and my students would be rightly frustrated. The same is true for teaching Buddhism. A good teacher needs to help students move along the path to understanding.

The statement “there is no self” is elegant in its simplicity, but I believe a less concise statement would be far more useful. Based on my own forays into Buddhism, I suggest the following alternative:

ULTIMATELY, there is no FIXED OR SEPARATE self.

This statement is perhaps less elegant than “there is no self”, but it is also more clear. It means that, from the widest-possible perspective (i.e. ultimately), what we think of as the self has no existence that is concrete (i.e. fixed) or individually identifiable (i.e. separate).

Not being “fixed” means that we are dynamic and ever-changing, both physically and mentally. The person I am today is not the same as the person I was yesterday or will be tomorrow. My atoms are different, and my personality is different. Like a river, I have an identity, but that identity points to something that is never the same from one moment to the next. We can point at the self, just like we can point at the river, but we are never pointing at exactly the same thing twice. Both refer to a process more than a stable thing. The river is not static, and neither are we. When we really look at it, there is no fixed self.

Not being “separate” means that we are infinitely interconnected and interdependent with the rest of reality. Once again, this is true both physically and mentally. We may feel separate, but at a microscopic level, the physical boundary between my self and my surroundings is not so clear. Through the food we eat and the air we breathe, the cells of our bodies are renewed. Every atom comes from the world around us, and those atoms are constantly moving between us and the world.

At a mental level, we are equally permeable. Our senses take in information about the world, and that information changes us. Our personalities are built on our cumulative experiences with the world, and it is our personalities then determine how we respond to the world. The world shapes us, and we shape the world. We are infinitely interconnected, like drops of water in the ocean. When we really look at it, there is no separate self.

So, from this broadest of all perspectives, we have no individual identity called “self” that is fixed or separate. Rather, we are all one infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, and there is no distinction between any of us on this level. There is just the one event that is existence or reality. It is everything, and we are in it. We are it. There is no identifiable self. There are no things (plural) at all, only the one big thing that is everything. There is no individuality, no independence, no separateness, no choice, and no will. There is nothing apart from the one event.

I believe that this is what Buddhist teachings are trying to say, and I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also believe that this is not the end of truth. It is “merely” the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality, the biggest of all pictures. I sometimes compare this perspective to standing on a mountain, because it takes a lot of work to get there, but the view is amazing.

On a much smaller level, we do experience ourselves as individuals with bodies and minds that are relatively stable and separate. We experience ourselves as being independent and having the ability to make our own choices. This is reality as it appears, as it seems to be, and I would argue that it is not wrong. It is simply the “apparent reality” that we all live in most of the time. Building on our previous statement, I now suggest the following addition:

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate self, BUT APPARENTLY, THERE IS A SELF.

This sounds contradictory, but it’s not. The critical point is in the distinction between ultimate and apparent reality. Ultimate reality is what is seen from that broadest of all perspectives, as described above. It is the highest truth, and it encompasses all other truths. Nevertheless, apparent reality seems more true in daily life, and sometimes, it may be more important and useful than ultimate reality. If ultimate reality is like standing on a mountain, then apparent reality is like living in a village far below.

Apparent reality is where we get to learn, grow up, make mistakes, fall in love, suffer loss, be afraid, and feel joy. The village can be horrible, but it can also be wonderful. Ultimate reality has almost none of that. Well, I should say that it has ALL of it, which is true, but ultimate reality lacks the same intensity. We can’t fully experience the horrors and wonders of village life while standing up on the mountain. We have to allow ourselves to settle back into apparent reality and become consumed by the experiences of the self.

If you are going to do something exciting or fun, you want to experience it as a self in apparent reality. It’s just better that way. Who wants to be emotionally detached from the intense thrill of falling in love or of watching your favorite team win the big game? I might even argue that the same is true for negative experiences. They hurt like hell, but nothing shapes us or teaches us more profoundly than suffering, and it would be unfortunate to deprive ourselves of those powerful experiences.

Ultimately, apparent reality may be an illusion, but it is also where we live. It is where consciousness exists. Ultimately, we may all be one¬†infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, but perhaps that process can only experience itself fully through our consciousness down in the village. I’ve heard a very similar idea in the context of theology, with God creating humanity as a means to experience God. Regardless of which language you use, I think this idea can help us appreciate the value of apparent reality. Perhaps it is not our task in life to escape apparent reality and discover ultimate reality. Perhaps we exist to fully experience life in the village; to think, feel, learn, suffer, and grow. Perhaps we are built to be consciousness, not to escape it.

If awareness of ultimate reality limits our experience of life’s horrors and wonders, and perhaps even violates our basic purpose in living, then you might wonder why anyone would want to pursue it. Well, to answer this question, you only have to look at someone who is lost in the suffering of apparent reality.

We may be born into apparent reality. We may even be designed to live there. But life in the village is hard, precisely because we feel so fixed and separate. We can feel isolated, alone, small, powerless, insignificant, incomplete, and very mortal. We can feel like something is missing from our lives or from within ourselves. Nevertheless, most of us cling to the idea of a fixed and separate self. We want to believe that we are solid and autonomous. We fear the non-existence of the self just like we fear death, and through our fear and clinging, we suffer.

Awareness of ultimate reality removes the sharp edge from our suffering. It helps us to understand that there is nothing missing. We are not alone, because we are not separate. We are not powerless, because we are everything. We are exactly who we should be, and we are doing fine. There is nothing to be afraid of.

In the end, I believe it is good to seek ultimate reality, because it offers peace of mind, but you shouldn’t try to live there all the time. There’s just too much amazing stuff going on down in the village! If having one eye on the mountain allows you to be less afraid, then maybe that’s a good balance for getting the most out of life. Live in the village, but at some point, take the time to climb the mountain. Then, even when you’re back in the turmoil of the village, you can remember that mountain view and let go of fear.

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate ANYTHING, but apparently, there is… And maybe it is good, even when it hurts.