The Self or No-Self? That is the question.

I have been presented evidence that I am not an individual. This goes against my learned tendency to believe that I am, in fact, an individual.

See, the interconnectedness of all things (causality) is a testament to the inseparability of all that exists. Moreover, experientially, it is possible to feel a sense of unity with all things. The fact that one can have two contradictory experiences; of individuality and non-individuality, undermines the fundamentality of the experience of being the individual. See, the experience of the self, if it can be taken away, forces us to accept that individuality is not fundamental to existing, whereas selflessness is not a state characterized by a particular addition of a phenomenon called selflessness, but is simply an experience absent of a particular phenomenon. Why? Because the sense of self is a mental object, whereas self-lessness is simply the absence of that mental object. The assumption here is that the truth is inherent, inescapable, and left over when all illusions are removed. Therefore, if the self can be discarded, then it is not fundamental; it is simply a mental object, and thus the act of discarding it is the letting go of a particular kind of cognition that only “adds more content” to experience. Experience is experience regardless of the content. The self is content, whereas self-less is absence of content. Due to this lack of fundamentality, it seems reasonable to regard it as no more “me” than the clothes on my body.

Yet within experience I find some evidence towards the hypothesis that I am indeed an individual; that the self is:

1. I have a particular perspective. I experience this body in a particular way, but do not experience other bodies in this particular way. Thus, it seems I have a unique perspective which entails that I do NOT have a multitude of other possible perspectives. The two facts: that I have this perspective and do not have many other possible perspectives composes “first person experience”. First person experience is the first piece of evidence I find that supports the idea that I am an individual. Even if I am causally connected to everything, there is only the phenomenological experience of here, from this body, and not another’s body.

2. There is a particular piece of matter (brain) that changes as my mental experiences change. Moreover, changing this piece of matter will induce changes in my mental environment. The fact that this piece of matter is confined to a particular point in space, and the fact that changes in the pattern of activity in this piece of matter can account for experiences of individuality and of complete loss of self lead me to believe that this piece of matter is evidence of a self, even if there is an experience of no-self, this no-self experience is localized to the same nexus that the self is localized. It seems then, that even experiences of no-self have an underlying self in the sense that there is a localized, material, identifiable cause.

3. Within this brain, there are many processes associated with conscious experiences, and many processes that are completely unconscious, yet are necessary for conscious experience to occur. Moreover, even though some processes are associated with conscious experience, we do not even experience these processes. We experience their subjective correlates. This leaves two possibilities: The brain is a materialized correlation of conscious experience, or the brain is the cause of conscious experience. If the brain is the cause, then there is immediately an explanatory gap that is incompatible with our conceptions and definitions of matter and subjectivity. If the brain is merely the correlate, then why does changing the brain lead to changes in subjective experience? This seems to be a causal relationship, thus, the self is not some immaterial experience, but some effect of localized activity.

Despite these three cases for individuality, there are quite valid cases against it as well:

1. Observing experiences shows that each experience is its own event, with its own “I”. The mind then imposes identification on an event, making it no longer simply an event, but an event that happened to “me”. Thus, it is observable that “I” am but a mental idea, or rather a mental habit, that is continuously brought up each time an experience occurs.
( Refutation: Introspection changes the nature of the observed object. (Friedman & Hartelius, 2013). One cannot examine the mind without changing the mind, because observation of mental processes are themselves types of mental processes)

2. It is observable that everything is interconnected through cause and effect. Thus, any separation is arbitrary since it doesn’t exist in reality. Separation is an idea stemming from an incorrect perception of reality (in the sense that phenomena themselves are illusory and that our thoughts about them are illusory). To believe in it is to confuse concepts with reality (Capriles, 2000) in the sense that these concepts do not accurately correspond to the ontological entities which they are supposed to represent. The nature of our perceptions – of phenomena – is only the result of cognitions which interpret the true reality in a distorted way (Thakchoe, 2007). Thus, the belief in a separate self is illusory, as is the belief in the phenomenal world rather than the absolute reality. (Thakchoe, 2007)
( Refutation: Though causality, taken to its fullest extent, encompasses the entire universe as one complex system, this is only an inductive conclusion based on our current conception of reality. Our conception of causality depends on our particular phenomenology. Perhaps both the absolute and phenomenal/conventional reality are both true, and each represents an equally valid, dual nature of the ontological entities that make up reality. (Thakchoe, 2007).)

3. If separation and the “I” are both mental concepts (Capriles, 2000), it seems that I am not an individual because I can change and shift the “I” concept and even forget it (memory loss) yet still there will be a consciousness that exists which holds the memory of experiencing the particular thought called “I”.
(Refutation: Just because I can have experiences of no-self, does it truly undermine the validity of the experience of the self? Perhaps the no-self is only the truth once it is experienced. Phenomenologically, to the person who feels like an individual, can they actually be told that they are not that? We know that attention nd introspection change their objects, and are therefore not simple passive observations but active changing forces in the mind. Such activities change the mind just as neurological manipulation via drugs would change the mind. Thus, can one truly say that discovering no-self means that the self is merely an illusion, or does it mean that both are equally valid phenomenological experiences? One could say that the self is an illusion to the extent that it can be destroyed while experience persists without destroying experience, but this means to me that it is simply not fundamental. We have to answer the question: Is non-fundamentality synonymous with illusory? Perhaps

There are arguments for both cases. The most perplexing aspect of this line of questioning is that regardless of our true nature, we doubtlessly exist. How can something which exists be confused about what it truly is? How can something that exists be not know itself, for to not know itself implies a disconnection from itself, and any fundamental entity or unit cannot be separate (disconnected) from itself, because wherever it is, there it is! There is no separation between a fundamental entity and itself. Why, then, are we confused about ourselves; our own nature? So, am I, or am I not?

One who is sure of themselves will proclaim “ I am!” One who is not sure of themselves will inquire “ Am I?”

Inquire not only whether you are, but inquire as to why you should be confused about such a subject in the first place.

Work Cited

Capriles, E. (2000). Beyond Mind: Steps to a Metatranspersonal Psychology. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 19. Retrieved from:

Friedman, H. L. , & Hartelius G. (Eds.) . (2013). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell

Thakchoe, S. (2007). The two truths debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the middle way. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

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