I have never really understood the Buddhist idea of not having a self. Surely just being aware of yourself thinking presupposes some kind of self, just as Descartes thought it did. Even if it is just my brain doing a kind of loopy thing so as to look at itself, this is still a kind of self.
A sense of self comes into existence when you become aware of yourself and it departs again when you forget yourself. Even so, you must at some level continue to be aware of yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to distinguish yourself from the man standing next to you. Your sense of self can be weak or strong, depending on how much time you spend constructing, reconstructing and just generally thinking about yourself. If you spend a lot of time on this project then you are likely to have a strong sense of self. If not, then not.
I once blacked out and while I was in that dark spinning place I had no recollection of who, what or where I was. It was frightening. I wrote about it here. However, had I found myself not in a black spinning hole but in some beautiful upland meadow, I think the feeling of not knowing who I was might have been quite pleasant. I imagine it being something like the state described in H.G. Wells’ short story The Door in the Wall. In it a small boy enters an enchanted garden and in doing so feels immediately at home:
You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen’s carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy – in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky.
This door appears to the boy, and then to the man, just three times in his life. He can never predict when the door will appear and it always comes as a surprise.
In contrast to the boy, I rarely forget discipline, obedience, hesitations, fear, discretion or the intimate realities of this life. Instead, my mental day goes something like this. I wake up, remember where and who I am and what I have to do today. I get up, start to make breakfast, get lost in thought, find myself eating breakfast and remember again where and who I am. Thus my day is a constant cycle of getting lost in thought followed by remembering I who I am and what I have to do today.
I am sure there must be better ways of spending your days than alternatively losing and finding yourself, always with the need to reorientate yourself. I would like to forget myself for long stretches of time while still being aware of my surroundings. Occasionally, when I am in a careless mood or feeling a bit tiddly from drink, I sort of manage to do this. Such moments feel like a release from something, though quite what I’m not sure. It’s perhaps a release from my habitual sense of self.
Still, trying to forget myself just doesn’t work for me. It’s a bit like the door in the wall in the story which only appears at unexpected moments and can’t be summoned up at will. I have to wait for self-forgetfulness to settle on me.