Self

Reading  Steven Collins’ book Selfless Persons* on the meaning of annata in Therevada Buddhism. Gradually the ideas are becoming clearer in my mind. There is no denial of the phenomenal or psychological self. What is denied is that this self is an enduring or eternal entity. What is not denied is that there are no eternal, or enduring entities – if entity is the right term. I suspect it isn’t. Our view of ourselves is much too static. The transitions from past to present and from present to future elide so that it seems there is one continuous ‘I’. Being a person is a process just as a wave is a process. The wave emerges from the calm waters under the influence of the wind. The wind transfers some of its energy to the water so that what was indeterminate and featureless takes on form and movement. The waves run until their energy is dissipated. Sometimes they augment each other, sometimes they cancel each other out. No one ever thinks of separating out a wave and regarding it as an independent individual. Waves cannot be separated from the process of which they are a part – the sea, the wind, the sea bed, the shore, the moon.

Similarly with being a person. To see a person primarily as an individual, abstracted from the process which makes him/her a person is to misunderstand. Is this what Buddha is getting at with anatta? Not that there is no individuality, nor that there is no self who is the thinker of thoughts and doer of deeds, but that there is no enduring self separate from and transcending experience. The problem though is that we are ‘self’ conscious. Self is the thought that thinks, the eye that sees, the hearer of sounds, the feeler of sensation. It is not usually ‘there is thought… there is vision, sensation etc.’ but ‘I think… I see… I feel’. It is almost as though ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ were a conjoint pair and it was not possible to have one without the other. Through meditation, however, there comes the realisation that the self who experiences belongs to and is part of the experience. Each experience is composed of thoughts, sensations and emotions and the self, which is the subject of a particular experience, belongs to that experience alone and not to any other experience – though memory provides an illusion of continuity. Sometimes looking back we say, ‘I have changed.’ or ‘I was not myself then.’ or ‘I have grown up.’ This was Descartes’ mistake. He thought he was doubting everything, every idea, feeling, sensation. The one thing he could not doubt, because it was being experienced, was thought itself. He assumed that because there was thought he was thinking. Therefore he, Descartes, existed. An understandable assumption, but an assumption too far. If he had rigorously pursued his doubt, questioning even the fact of thought itself, he might have noticed how tight was the bond between the self and the thought and that as the kaleidoscope of thoughts passed before the attention thought, self and emotion formed an indissoluble trinity. Any change in the perception of one was accompanied by corresponding changes in the others. The self which thought was as fluid and mutable as the thoughts themselves. Strictly speaking Descartes’ conclusion should have been ‘Cogitatio, ergo esse.’ So we are left with a mystery, the mystery of being.

*CUP, Cambridge 1982 

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