Self or no self? That is the Question.
In the translation of the Discourse on the Not Self, N.K.G Mendis reviews the Buddha’s thoughts on self – questioning where exactly it can be found: In the form? The Feelings? Perception? Mental Formations? Consciousness? Leading to the question, If the self was found in any of these internal spaces, if we are and can control self, would we not be free of affliction in these areas? The fact that we are not and cannot be, based solely on our wishes, wants and desire confirms in theory the idea that self does not exist.
Too often, as Ajun Cha warned us not too, we attempt to intellectualize matters of spiritualism and in that internationalization, so much is lost in translation especially with those who have not studied the same philosophies, I find that the simpler the language, the better the communication. Here I will attempt to explain how I agree with the idea of the non-self, at least how many of us have come to understand what the ‘self’ is. So let me begin there.
As Professor Wright discussed in the week 3 lectures, for Buddhism and Modern Pyschology, the idea of the self is usually equated with the position of CEO a far more familiar and understandable concept for most of us. The CEO of my being, like the CEO of any corporation assert control, plans, creates, administers and designs behaviors to achieve specific outcomes. Many may look at their own ‘selves’ and say, “Yes, I do that! I control my life, my feelings, thoughts, perceptions and form. I am in control, I am the CEO, I have a self!” My question is, do we really control or do we react? I believe the latter.
Perhaps in my quest to not intellectualize I have simplified far too much here but in my personal experiences with mental illness and addiction the idea that we are CEO’s in control of our own thoughts, emotions, perceptions and consciousness is a very simple concept – we are not, we cannot be. If we were, I could simply have the CEO of my self assert that there is no mental illness, no disease. If I were in control of my mind, body and soul, I would just choose to be healthy. Addiction would not be an issue as there would be no need to self medicate against a condition I have chosen not to exist. In the simplest and most basic of terms, this is one of the most direct arguments I have for the nonexistence of self.
Continuing this train of thought on the form as described in the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic, “May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.” Our bodies are our human vessel, everything we are and are not are contained within the physical form including if it were to exist, our Self, that CEO controlling us… and yet our physical forms have limitations and afflictions. Billions of dollars are spent annually around the globe on health care, medicine, prevention research and of course even more on fitness, nutrition, supplements… all to externally alter our physical form. Why would our CEO allow disease, obesity, decay, injury to permeate our forms if all it had to do was decide what it was and was not? A simplified concept perhaps but it does not make it incorrect.
It is my belief that there is no CEO, there is no self, we are but reactions to all around us. I believe that Christianity explains this with the concept of ‘Free Will’. Our ‘Selves’ are not controllers, we are reactors. Not the bosses but the minions choosing our paths based on what is happening around and to us. As observed in meditation practice, and in psychological studies as discussed in week 3 lectures, our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are independent of us often happening without even our realization let alone control (split brain research). Our monkey minds produce images, thoughts, emotions, constantly and the only control we can assert is observance and reactions, nothing more.
As much as the human ego wishes we can control our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual consciousness all we really can do is control how we react to them once they are produced and that production much to our great humility is beyond our control. We are not the CEO of ourselves, in fact there is no Self, if there were we would not have to seek Nirvana, we would already be there, from birth to decay without suffering, without struggle, without affliction. If we were in control, there would be no ‘human condition’ we would be beyond it just by deciding that’s how we want it to be.