The Illusion of the Self

Written on April 18, 2020. Written by .

The Buddhist concept of non-self says that the self is an illusion, but the meaning of this is subtle and requires some elaboration.

First we need to distinguish what I’ll call the “concept of self” and the “sense of self”. The concept of self is what you cognitively think of yourself as. The sense of self is the aspect of your subjective experience that makes you perceive yourself as a self (I’ll clarify this below, this is just the abstract definition). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram describes this sense of self as “a permanent, separate, independently functioning (acausal), localized self”.

The non-self concept says that the sense of self is an illusion. It’s possible to have an accurate concept of self without illusions, so it can be confusing to hear something like “the self is an illusion” without this distinction.

Ingram also says “sensations arise on their own in a natural, causal fashion, even the intentions to do things”. This statement essentially answers the question of free will vs determinism in philosophy. It says that our minds are deterministic, which implies that our sense of free will must be an illusion. This is part of the illusion of the self, but the illusion of the self is not limited to just free will.

The illusion of the self refers to a bundle of mental illusions (this list is probably incomplete):
1. the illusion of acausal free will: I choose to do this vs. this intention arose spontaneously
2. the illusion of acausal thought: I am thinking this thought vs. this thought arose spontaneously
3. the illusion of persistence: I am the same self today as I was yesterday vs. this consciousness only exists in the present moment (Zen and Ego-persistence)
4. the illusion of coherence: I generate and perceive all my thoughts vs. there are many interacting mental processes running simultaneously (this is discussed in The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa)
5. the illusion of duality: I am in my head/body vs. there is no precise division between myself and everything else

Our sense of self is merely the product of these illusions. How do we know this? Well, if you eliminate these illusions then all that’s left in your experience is consciousness, thoughts, and sensations; nothing that could be identified as a sense of self. Thus, the sense of self is an illusion.

Even if you cognitively understand that these are illusions, it doesn’t mean that you have overcome them. Regardless of what you believe philosophically, normally it still feels like you are thinking your thoughts, like you are actively driving the thought process. The reality is that the thoughts are being generated automatically and you are just experiencing them and getting your awareness lost in them.

With this understanding, we can see how meditation can allow one to see through this illusion. When you are meditating, thoughts will arise. If the thought completely consumes your consciousness then it just feels like you got distracted and this doesn’t lead to any insight. But the mind can be trained to witness the thought arise and pass. This means that conscious attention is strong enough that arising thoughts don’t always fully capture it. In this case, it becomes clear that you (the observer) didn’t create the thought because you just observed it arise and pass spontaneously. This is where the illusion breaks down because the illusion tells you that you are both the observer of the thought and the generator of the thought, but the observer knows it didn’t generate it. This is a direct experience of the illusion of the self.

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