Getting to grips with no-self


“So you think I should put Hull City V Tranmere Rovers down as a score draw?”

Some of my students study Indian Philosophy and I am intrigued as to why. Will it help them in their jobs as salarymen and salarywomen? I doubt it. Are they studying it purely for the interest value? It surely can’t be for any other reason.

A couple of days ago I tried to write a post about the Buddhist idea of no-self but in the end I gave up because it all became too tangled and confused. This is my attempt to finally put the topic to bed, at least in my own head.

I like the idea that I am a consciousness that merely looks, hears, feels, smells and tastes but then falsely imagines itself to be a full-blown self with everything that entails. It’s like the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes but in reverse: there are clothes but no emperor.

The idea of the self has been problematical since we threw out the Dualist idea of there being a spirit living inside our material body. We have found no way that a spirit could make a body raise its arm a little, let alone throw a javelin or do the pole vault. After all, how could the spirit communicate with the body if not by physical means? The only way it could be done is by sending electronic signals along the nerves, which is precisely what happens. But electronic signals are physical. How could a spirit create electricity within itself? It can’t. The whole idea is a non-starter. There is no spirit because without a physical brain there is no mind, no spirit, no consciousness, no sense of self, no nothing. You’re just a ‘dead-fella’, as my dad would say.

Neither is there a little man inside us pulling the levers. This explanation of how we work gets us nowhere. Even if there were a small man inside us who makes decisions in our heads, there would have to be an even smaller man inside him pulling the levers and so on ad infinitum. Putting off the thing that moves us simply postpones the explanation.

So the self is not what we have traditionally thought it to be, that much is clear. And Eastern philosophy had long doubted that it was. The West therefore turned to those ready-made oriental ideas.

Buddhism thinks that we don’t have selves. We have a body and a mind and a consciousness, but no self. Somewhere in all this are thoughts which just rise up in us from god knows where. In meditation the idea is to observe these thoughts as they arise, notice them – whoever or whatever is doing the noticing – and then let them vanish again. With practice you can largely stop thoughts from arising into consciousness. Or so I am told.

According to one person who answered one of my queries, when we observe our thoughts arise and then disappear, we also disappear with them because we are our thoughts. Hmm, the plot thickens.

Somewhere along the way you have to account for memory. Is that part of my mind or something separate altogether? And if there is a body, mind, thoughts, consciousness and memory, why doesn’t this combination constitute a ‘self’? After all, although I am happy to believe that there isn’t a little man living behind my eyes, or an animating spirit that moves my body around, this still doesn’t mean that a body, mind, thoughts, memory and consciousness all bundled together don’t make a self, in the same way that a bit of cedar wood, some graphite, a little rubber and a tiny metal ring go to make up a pencil. You don’t ask what bit is the pencil. Everything combined makes the pencil.

Like Rene Descartes when he said ‘I think, therefore I am’, (meaning that if thinking is going on in one’s head, there must be someone doing the thinking) I reckon that if observation is happening in my head, there must be someone doing the observing.

No-self quickly becomes very confusing, which to my mind suggests it is either amazingly complicated, like Quantum Mechanics, or is just a load of nonsense. If the idea were easy or obvious we would all understand it by now. The idea of no-self would come as naturally to us as the idea that things fall down rather than up, and that Germany always wins the Penalty shoot-outs in World Cup matches.

I then dipped into a book recommended by Sam Harris, a writer I admire. It was mainly through him that I became interested in such things. I chose the book more or less at random from a list of about twenty on the subject of eastern Philosophy, all recommended on Sam Harris’ website. The book I looked at (admittedly only fleetingly) was by a writer called Douglas Harding. The title of his book is On Having No Head. And the title isn’t misleading. Douglas Harding apparently believes that he has no head.

I think his idea is this. Because we can’t actually see our own heads then we can’t be sure that we have one. We are invisible to ourselves and when we try to turn our gaze inwards we see only infinite blackness. If you try long enough to imagine that you have no head, then eventually ‘you’ disappear and dissolve into the outside world. And because ‘you’ are no longer there, you and the world around you must somehow be one and the same. Then comes a wonderful feeling of release and belonging and other pleasant sensations.

I have to confess that I couldn’t make head nor tail of this. Perhaps I haven’t done his ideas justice, though I fear that I have. What he has done is what a child does when it holds its breath for a minute, starts to see stars and goes pleasantly giddy. Afterwards the child believes that the world really was full of stars for a minute or two. He mistakenly concludes that he has tapped into a different reality, when in truth all he saw was what happens when you starve a brain of oxygen.

This idea is so childish and I was so disappointed with Sam Harris for recommending such drivel that I immediately lost interest in the whole idea of no-self. Instead I find myself much more impressed with Antonio Damasio’s more scientific and down-to-earth explanation, namely, that despite having no actual self inside us, the body naturally conjures up a sense of a self as a way of keeping track of its location and its essential processes. A sense of self is the body’s way of ‘mapping’ itself and of checking that everything is in order.

Thus trying to dispel the feeling of self is like trying not to see a rainbow simply because you have learned that it isn’t really there. Although it might be pleasant to sometimes feel that you don’t exist, in general it is hard work and doesn’t come naturally to us to imagine it.

But apart from all this, surely what is important to most people is to feel comfortable within their skin. Whether they really have a self or not is pretty much irrelevant to this. And if the man with no head was anything to go by, I would much rather be under the false belief that I have a head. I found him unappealing when I watched him on Youtube. Having no head didn’t seem to have made him a nicer person. And it probably didn’t make him any happier either, though it must have been nice on retreats to be surrounded by acolytes who hang on your every word.

In short, I think this whole project to convince yourself of your non-existence might be an unnecessary one. Just spend less time thinking about either your existent or non-existent self and more time connecting with people and it hardly matters whether you have a self or not. Or a head.


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