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What is the self?

A friend of mine went to a talk by a Buddhist monk. His question about self-improvement was: finally, doesn’t it come down to a hostility to the self? That is, self-improvement means judging ourselves as inadequate: that we need to be something other than we are. Doesn’t self-improvement rely on dis-satisfaction? Once we accept ourselves for who we are is self-improvement at an end?

Is ‘the self’ just what I want? My desires and their satisfaction. This idea of the self leads to the self in the sense of egotism – this narrow person going through the world caring only about themselves. There are more altruistic versions of this notion of the self: it feels good to do things for others; our pleasures aren’t just crass they can also be refined and include appreciating the beauty or the natural world and the extraordinary creativity of artists. But the refinement of the pleasure doesn’t alter the greed.

Is my ‘self’ just my thoughts? If so, then when I stop thinking there is no self. I am no longer planning or remembering. I’m just being me, here and now, doing what I’m doing. This may be just breathing. Or, “When eating only eating, when sleeping only sleeping.” When I am simply attentive to what is going on, then I have no ‘self’ in the sense of the self as thinking. This sense of no-self is more hospitable to others, we are not concerned to fit another into our plans and schedules, we can simply be with them – and it feels great. The next time you make love, do it from this space and enjoy the difference! It is easy to start with sex because the sensations can be strong and so help get our thoughts out of the way. It also occurs when we are fascinated by anything. Even when we are just playing we are in this space of no-self. These can be times of real refreshment – as the popularity of meditation attests.

And yet . . . I do meditation because it is satisfying, it is satisfying to me. My self benefits from this no-self. So, I think we need to re-think what we mean by self. There are layers here. As I peel back the layers I find what may be called “no thing” but it is far more than nothing. What I am doing when I am just me is different to someone else. Getting beyond the pettiness of our egos we don’t arrive at being all the same. We find our individuality – we often find in what way we express ourselves. If there is a universal self which we tap in to then it is expressed differently in each of us. For me this is the beauty of getting beyond our ego.

Once we get beyond our greed and attempts to control life with our thoughts, then here we are doing what we are doing. In this sense the self is our acting-here-and-now, our relationship to this situation (in all its many-dimensioned complexity).

What would improvement mean?

If we are not discontented why would we want to improve? If this is enough, why would we want more?

And yet . . . Even with meditation, we get better at it. It may be a remembering to not strive and just be, but we get better at that too.

The difference between a new born child and someone not captured by their ego is huge. And the adult has some benefits – they can be far more help to others than the new-born. In this sense the mature adult is an improvement on the new-born. It seems to me that life is (at least partly) about growth.

And the distinction between being and doing is somewhat false. We can express our being in our doing. We express ourselves through our words, even the particular walk that each of us have (and in many other ways too). These are not separate to our being.

Even those times of no-self when we are just breathing or just playing can be part of a larger story of improvement. We can meditate for the benefits it brings. We can play in order to find out how something works.

It seems to me that life is not a neutral force but a positive energy with a particluar ‘flavour’. It is a growing into being (and doing) more of who we are.

[For an extraordinary and brilliant investigation of the philosophy of this read Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his argument that quality is a dimension of being. In my view this is the best philosophy book ever written.]

So, simply being with life means some kind of ‘improvement’ – being alive means a process of growth. This, in my experience, is certainly a process of getting beyond our petty plans and our greedy ego. It means being able to be more hospitable to others, more clear in our perceptions, understanding more how we use our thoughts to protect our ego. It means a discovery of a deeper ‘self’ – in one sense a no-self, but a no-self that is different for all of us – a no-self that is truly individual.

What does this mean for us?

1. That when we are greedy our lives are less satisfying.

2. That times of ‘just being’ are important.

3. That when we find our vocation (what we do when we are being just us), this will mean a path of ‘improvement’, getting better at what we do. It is at this point that the experience of past practitioners becomes valuable.

I realise that this is a big topic on which people will have strong feelings. So comments are welcome (disagreement and different perspectives are especially desirable).

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6 Comments to “Self-Improvement? or what is the self and what would improvement mean?”

  1. Tom Stine says:

    Nice post, Evan. What is the self? Lots of answers to that one. How about “a dream”? Or just a thought pretending to be something? But as you observed, when we look within and find no self, over time we discover that this “no self” or no thing is rather full and rich and alive. Ramana called it the Self. The one Self. One without a second.

  2. Evan says:

    Hi Tom,

    I think we need to maybe invent a new word or something, all the different definitions of self, ego and what-all, get quite confusing. Any thoughts (I don’t have any really – Big Me as opposed to mini me?).

    Thanks for you comment.

  3. Hi Evan, you talked a lot about Jesus before, I think you must have known the beatitudes. One of them: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
    I thought that is related to dissatisfaction.. What’s your opinion?

  4. Evan says:

    Hi Robert,

    My upbringing is evangelical protestant. I know the beatitudes and love them; my favourite passage though is the Upper Room Discourse in John. I no longer attend a church, though I do maintain contact with christian friends who are doing interesting stuff. My interests and approach these days are regarded as so strange that those in churches don’t really relate to me.

    One of the big divides (the biggest?) between the prophetic (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) faiths and the wisdom (Hindu and Buddhist) faiths is the status of desire. A statement like “Desire fulfilled is a tree of life” is unparalleled, so far as I know, in the Buddhist or Hindu scriptures (unless realisation is seen as the fulfillment of desire). My guess is that the different traditions mean slightly different things by “desire”. If we take the wisdom faiths’ “desire” to mean roughly the same thing as the prophetic faiths’ “greed” it seems possible to reconcile them.

    Staring at a wall for ten years, or maintaining a less rigorous meditative practice, certainly needs strong motivation – in the prophetic faiths this would be called “desire”.

    So I don’t think Jesus means quite the same as the extinguishing of desire. I do think though that both the prophetic and wisdom faiths value the sense of calm elation/joy/bliss which comes from doing away with greed and the experience of spirit.

    This is my approach to desire and satisfaction in our spirituality.

    This is a long answer to your question Robert. I trust it makes some sense. If I’ve missed it, get back to me and I’ll try to give a better answer.

  5. Raymond Chua says:

    Hi Evan,

    You break the phrase into its elements. What a great article.

    I just love the last 3 points. 🙂

  6. Evan says:

    Hi Raymond,

    Glad you like it.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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