No Self

Understanding the Nearly Incomprehensible – 2 Descriptions

A Brief Refresher for the Serious Student of “No Self”

Description 1 – Memory and “Coherence”

At about the age of two, the hippocampus develops sufficiently for us to have explicit memory. Explicit memory yields a kind of retrieval that involves the sense of recollection–and, if autobiographical, of the “self” at some time in the past. This autobiographical memory is the ability to perform “mental time travel,” creating mental representations of the self in the past, present and future. This narrative process allows us to shape the flow of information about self and others into a coherence. –Daniel Seigel

From a neuroscience perspective, coherence is the important module here. From a Buddhist perspective, coherence is the problem, here and everywhere.

What is not explicit in Dr. Seigel’s description is that we are creating a fictionalized, a fantasized understanding of our Self in this way. This Self of ours is created within modules (strong habitual belief and value patterns) from fragments of stored memory based on previously stored fragments of memory, habitually retrieved fragments and patterns of retrieval, making it appear to our mind that the Self we are imaging is real, true and permanent, as presented.

Neuroscience is, in fact, proving what the Buddha described 2600 years ago, that there is Self–but not in the way the mind presents it to us, and not as we commonly understand it.

If there is not Self in the permanent, true coherent way our minds describes us to our consciousness; if it is just a made up fiction to produce coherence from one episode of our lives to another, then who is Carl, the writer of this email. Carl is a nominal label and characterization of an impermanence–a useful understanding for everyday communication. There is no mental time traveler named Carl that exists in a coherent, cohesive way and whose characteristics change while he remains permanent. That would be a completely incoherent thought. Yes, I am here, this is not a denial of physical reality, just of the erroneous way I understand my Self.

Realizing this, realizing that there is not Self, not in the way we ordinarily perceive it, is one of the most important teachings, or tenets, of Buddhism. It is the gate to living a peaceful, happy, healthy life.

Once we weaken the fiction of our Self, we generalize and weaken our fictions about all the other Selfs, and then and only then does live become clear, easy, satisfying–without the need for stress or anxiety.


Description 2 – Emptiness and Memory

If the meaning of “no Self” were that there is literally no Self whatsoever, no personal identity and no moral agency, then the only logical conclusion would be that Buddhism is nonsense. But that’s not the case. Let’s take a brief, but deep look at no Self.

The doctrine of no Self is best understood on two levels:

  1. The first is the conventional level, that of everyday life, which does not question the concept of Self and freely uses personal terms, like names and pronouns, in accordance with ordinary language and social conventions. It is the Us as we generally imagine ourselves to be and the everyday Us as generally understood, even though we don’t actually exist in the substantive way we perceive our Selves. (So . . . no Self.)
  2. The second, the considered level, is more sophisticated and rejects views of Self and personal identity where either (1) Self is permanent, inherent, and autonomous, or (2) where Self arises from a dualistic subject/object perception.

In Buddhist philosophy, these describe the only two ways to create a Self. (So . . . no Self.)

Behind this second level there is a technical understanding that Self and personal identity are just combinations of imaginary momentary psychophysical processes and perceptions, all interrelated and ever-changing, and which, when they arise and aggregate, falsely appear to create an existent Self “from its own side.” This binds level one to level two; in fact, this makes them the same (i.e., always dependent on preceding phenomena; having no independent self-supporting existence) and in doing gives rise to no Self.

The concept of the Self as permanent (or existent in the conventional way) is a misperception that arises from aggregated momentary cognitions and affects that are associated with “the conceit I am” and the underlying ignorant tendency to “the conceits I and mine.

This combination of conceit and ignorance fosters different types of cravings, especially cravings for being, meaning for eternal existence, and subsequently, speculations about the past and future existences of and for the Self. The doctrine of No Self is primarily intended to counteract views of the Self and personal identity that are rooted in ignorance regarding the nature of how we really are; in doing so it relieves suffering.

Put another way, the Self, which is the source of all our suffering, is an imaginary being that falsely appears, from moment to moment, to be real, independent and autonomous from its side. This imagined Self takes the shape of a time traveler with an inherent essence that moves through time and space as an entity somehow fantasized as being within the mind, or body, or both, or neither, but that is never discoverable there upon examination. And this false conceit of a nonexistent Self as existent in the way we are perceiving it, that is the source of our suffering, all our suffering, for there is no such being.

It is not just that there is no one to suffer; it is also that there is no such thing as Suffering, for the doctrine of no Self also extends to suffering. Incidentally, the traditional Buddhist understanding of the doctrine of no Self is that a Self is incompatible with any metaphysical or occult Me, or with past or future lives, all of which require permanence.