My quick answer to this question is that it merely depends on what we mean by the “self” but ultimately “YES”: the self can be viewed as an illusion in the sense that many Buddhist-inspired meditators and therapists have in mind. However, it’s worth exploring both the “NO” and the “YES” answers to this question to get more clarity on the issue.
First the “NO”: why it’s somewhat misleading to declare that the self is simply an illusion
Whenever I hear anyone declare that the self is an illusion I tend to cringe a little because it’s a statement that is bound to be misunderstood by most people and is certainly not true in every possible sense. After all, you and I both exist in the world and so at least in some sense that can be experienced we both have a “self”.
At a very minimum, we both have a conscious self which is what allows us to have any kind of experience at all. Most people would also agree that they also have a body or physical self. Finally, there is what most people tend to think of as who they are, which might be defined as the set of mental and emotional habits, beliefs and dispositions which define how we are as people and distinguish the way we tend to behave or react from others.
Of course, it’s a slightly complex issue. When we look a little deeper we might begin by observing that this “self” is neither “fixed” nor “unitary”. We obviously do not have a “fixed” self because our thoughts and moods can easily change from one moment to the next and we are also capable of undergoing profound transformations of personality over the course of months, years or decades. That’s why people talk about developing or working on your “self” rather than it being like a rock statue which always stays exactly the same way.
However, it’s also fair to say that we do not have a “unitary” self either. Rather, there is a real sense is which we have many different “selves”, various independently driven mental and emotional states which can also overlap at the same time. Freud went as far as describing some of these inner states as “sub-personalities” with a kind of life or drive of their own.
For example, someone may feel a combination of both happiness and jealousy at hearing of a friend’s success: in these moments, it is as though there are two different selves with completely contradictory attitudes or viewpoints coexisting at the same time within that person’s mind. We often speak of feeling “conflicted” when these different parts of ourselves are not in alignment and so we can already see the notion of the self becoming more complicated.
Of course, there is also the subconscious mind which we only discover through dream states or by noticing what “leaks” out of it through strangely unexpected behaviour. We do not always understand ourselves and may find ourselves asking questions like “Why did I do that?” And so, it seems that the mind contains many selves, some partly hidden from our everyday awareness and many in a constant state of evolution or development.
However, it is fair to say that we all have a “self” in the sense that encompasses all of these various inner mental and emotional states. The self might be thought of as the whole set of beliefs and dispositions within a person’s mind and body. It is also very useful to think of it as a set of programmes: the “software” of the mind and its supporting physical processes.
It’s clear that some kind of software of the mind or brain is required to maintain any overall sense of identity. For example, in any moment how do you know that you are the same person you were yesterday, a month or a year ago? There is less consistency in who we are than most people imagine. For example, the fact that most of our cells get replaced every decade means that there is almost no part of you that physically existed ten years ago.
What the software of the brain does is to take all of the different memories of who you were in the past and connects them to form a mental concept of the same person developing over time. It’s also clear that we have ideas about who we are and beliefs about what is important to us. All of this can be viewed as aspects of the self, distinguishing our personality from those of others, driving our reactions and determining how we feel much of the time.
To say that this “self” does not exist at all would clearly be misleading since it definitely exists as a set of habits, beliefs and dispositions, playing a vital role in just about everything we think, say and do. Not only does it make sense to speak of a self but it’s fair to say that it often seems to have a life of its own, behaving rather like an organism which behaves independently of our control or full conscious awareness even with its many different and evolving parts.
For example, there will be times where this organism you experience as your “self” will be able to work productively with very little encouragement and other moments where it will stubbornly refuse to cooperate no matter how much you try to motivate, inspire and bribe yourself to get things done. Another example might be how when we express what some part of us really thinks or feels then we have a sense that we are in touch with our authentic self whereas when we are being somewhat dishonest we may feel stressed and at odds with our true self.
And so, it seems fair to conclude that everybody has a complex mental and emotional system that can fairly be described as a “self” which they sometimes intimately experience as who they are and at other times experience as somewhat more distant entity which they try to interact with, get in touch with and express. We never have complete control over the self because it is the product of many different functions of the brain and body but it is important to find effective ways of working with it to meet our needs and achieve our goals.
And now for the “YES”: why it’s true to say that the self is an illusion
As I have just explained, there is a very clear sense in which it is true to say that we all have a self. However, when Buddhists talk about the self being an “illusion” they are still onto something and what they are talking about is profoundly insightful. A good way to understand this is to consider what’s going on if you were to point at the person you see in the mirror and say “That’s me”. Are you really the person in the mirror or the person looking at the one in the mirror?
In this example, it should be clear that the real you is the conscious observer rather than the mere reflection or image which the observer sees in front of them. In a similar way, there is a danger of pointing to things like how we feel or what we think and imagining that these things are part of who we really are when we are merely the one observing, sensing, feeling or otherwise experiencing those thoughts and emotions.
This commonly experienced self still exists in the sense of being a set of mental and emotional habits or programmes which produces various thoughts, feelings and sensations. However, it is not who we really are once we understand that we are the one experiencing or observing it. I will still use the term “self” to refer to this commonly experience self but I will use the term “conscious self” or “true self” to refer to who we really are, which is the observer or “experiencer” rather than whatever thoughts, emotions and sensations are being observed or experienced.
It’s very often possible to view whatever is going on in your mind and look at it almost as if you were observing an organism that has very little to do with you or even by referring to it as another person who is separate from the one who is observing and experiencing it. As long as you are able to sense yourself observing that being and their internal states then you will be aware that you are the observer rather than the self which is being observed.
Sometimes, it can really help to describe what you are observing as another person. For example, my name is John and so instead of thinking “I’m angry” I might think “John is angry today: how can I help John to release and let go of his anger or to channel his anger into something more constructive?” By never thinking of the anger as essentially belonging to my true self, since I am merely the conscious observer and “experiencer” of the one who is angry, there may be more of a chance to detach from that anger and to do some useful reprogramming so that it no longer controls me.
For many people, this is a rather strange and counter-intuitive way to think about themselves but a rather fun way to think about it might be as follows. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow in the body of a squirrel. What if you could feel not only the squirrel’s tail, hands and feet but also its mental impulses and emotions just as if they were your own? Would you really say “Okay this is me now” or would you feel strangely “disidentified” from all of those sensations?
Perhaps eventually, once you got used to it, you might well think of your new self as that squirrel but for some time you would probably find it hard to identify with anything that was going on inside your new mind and body. It would be more like watching a very immersive movie involving all of your senses. You would merely be a conscious observer of and participant in a peculiar experience rather like having an “avatar” that you could not only control but also physically sense.
You might well be thrilled to experience even the more sad or fearful states which the squirrel was going through since you would simply be amazed and fascinated by the immersive movie that was continually arising within your awareness. The point is that it’s possible to have a similarly disidentified experience of existing within your current mind and body, regarding the vivid sensation of all your thoughts and emotions with amazement and curiosity but without really identifying with any of it. That’s because your true self is arguably only the conscious observer rather than the organism you happen to be experiencing today.
Why viewing the self as an illusion can be useful from a psychological perspective
Consciously disidentifying from the commonly experienced self can help us to work on our personal development in many powerful ways. A good example is the one already mentioned: liberating ourselves from anger. Of course, in cases of extreme rage you may need to empathise with that anger a great deal and consciously feel it as your own in order to release it properly. Intense anger doesn’t always give us a choice to immediately step back and view it with detachment. It often demands that we agree with it and identify with it, for example by thinking “I’m really angry” rather than something more detached like “John is angry” or “I’m experiencing sensations of anger”.
One of the reasons for this is that human beings have evolved to experience a runaway effect with rage where it gets out of control and behaves rather like a tornado or gorilla on the rampage destroying everything in its path. Aggression may sometimes need to go on “autopilot” to ensure that we are properly protected. When anger takes over, we get drawn into it and experience it as though it is a major part of who we are,
Nevertheless, there is hope even for rage-a-holics who can gradually detach themselves from their anger the more they are able to do things like feel, express and release it, forgive themselves by seeing rage as an understandable response to suffering, look after themselves and meet their basic needs, soothe the parts of themselves which are hurt, make sure that they feel safe rather than threatened, let go of the importance of whatever or whoever angered them, understand that most people can’t really help who they are or what they don’t see, reasonably assert themselves without going too far, allow space for hope in their lives, sense the wisdom that emerges from the those beautiful moments when we are able to gracefully accept our suffering with humility, orient themselves towards something inspiring or uplifting and eventually find their way to a balanced, realistic and wise overall perspective.
This combination of solutions can lead them to eventually look at their rage as nothing more than a temporary state of mind and emotion which they had to go through. From this more detached vantage point, it becomes clear that the anger never really belonged to who they really are but rather to a self which experienced it and which they were able to slowly extricate their conscious awareness from as they found various ways to help themselves to move past it. It’s a lot like working with a wounded child and helping them to calm down. This would be one example of how gradually disidentifying from the experienced self and instead identifying with the conscious observer can help us to deal with a very challenging emotion.
Another way in which it can be useful to disidentify from the self is that it can stop you from being controlled by thoughts or beliefs which are somewhat unreasonable. People believe all kinds of destructive thoughts because they have a kind of possessive relationship with them. They think of whatever thoughts they are used to experiencing as their own authentic thoughts representing who they are as a person. Yet all of our thoughts merely belong to a self which has been through a process similar to brainwashing and this is something we are much more likely to notice once we are disidentified from it.
An obvious example might be someone who walks around believing all kinds of negative and harmful things such as “I’m essentially a bad person”, “I’ll never amount to anything” and so on. The reason they have these thoughts in their head will often be that it’s what their rather dysfunctional parents “taught” them to believe at any early age. Realising that thoughts like these are not really their thoughts but merely a bunch of weird ideas which happen to be floating around in their heads is a good first step to challenging them.
Another example of thoughts worth challenging might be views on subjects like politics. We often see people arguing very aggressively as though “their” viewpoints on these subjects could never be wrong. Rarely are people in such heated debates willing to step back and admit that the thoughts which happen to be in the heads are not based on years of thorough research and expert investigation. It’s easier to be humble about your views when you realise that all the thoughts and beliefs to which you subscribe belong to a “self” which has been programmed or shaped by a set of essentially limited experiences. This can result in the very endearing trait known as “taking yourself less seriously”.
Of course, the need to take our thoughts less seriously does not mean that we should fail to respond to ourselves with kindness whenever we are suffering or to take our basic needs any less seriously. The concept of re-parenting is a particularly powerful way of disidentifying from the self and making progress in these areas. Rather than seeing what comes up within your mind as being you or belong to your true self, it is possible to think of much of it as belonging to your “inner child”. Of course, there is not literally a child living inside our minds. However, the inner child is a useful metaphor which describes mental and emotional states which have a distinctly “younger” or less mature feel or aspect to them.
This concept of the inner child comes back to the idea of us having many “selves”. We might behave like a twenty year-old in some situations, a ten year-old in others and more like a three year-old on some occasions. This is because the strange mental and emotional system or organism which we experience as the self consists of different layers or parts each of which is not equally developed in maturity. We can group all of our less mature states into the concept of the inner child and use this notion to re-programme those states by changing how we relate to ourselves. The inner child can be viewed in a very positive way since it describes parts of us which are essentially cute, innocent, helpless or playful.
A great way to deal with all of these states is to act like a loving parent through positive self-encouragement, self-compassion, self-exploration, self-expression, self-understanding, self-care, self-soothing and in many cases helpful self-reeducation. Rather than being coldly detached from yourself, you can observe the mental and emotional states of the inner child in a loving way. Learning to respond to what those less developed parts of the self need can help them to heal, integrate, mature and thrive over time.
Of course, loving yourself is not just about dealing with those younger or less developed states. It means behaving like a good parent, coach, therapist and cheerleader towards yourself no matter what mental age may characterise the inner states you are dealing with. Loving yourself means responding to your inner states in a way that is kind, caring, gentle, soothing, nurturing, instructive or encouraging whenever that is helpful. All of this requires a certain level of disidentification from the self which you are trying to help.
After all, when we say “I love myself” the “I” and the “myself” are not really the same person. Self-love involves observing parts of the organism we experience as the “self” and responding to them with love but from the viewpoint of an observer who is not identified with any of those different parts. It involves stepping back from your self and becoming a loving conscious observer sometimes also referred to as the “higher self”. Another way I might say that is “I am not John: I am the one taking care of John”.
In reality however, I think the best way to love yourself is to practise both identifying and disidentifying with the various parts of the experienced self through a kind of internal dialogue rather like that between a loving parent and a child. During this process, your consciousness will switch between the self and the loving observer. For example, the internal conversation might go something like this:
Inner child: I feel really irritated right now
Higher self: I know and I am here to help. Would you be willing to tell me more about how you feel?
Inner child : I don’t know, I guess I am feeling sad and disappointed
Higher self: I’m really sorry about what you are going through, I know it’s hard. Can you tell me more?
Inner child: I don’t know. I guess I’m just finding everything really boring and annoying right now
Higher self: That’s totally understandable. Is there anything I can do to help?
Inner child: I’m not sure. There’s probably nothing that can help
Higher self: What if we had a break and did something really fun or inspiring?
Inner child: That might help actually
Whether we are expressing things verbally or not, we are often engaging in these kinds of internal dialogues. There are parts of us that need to be felt, expressed and heard so that we can get our needs met. It’s important to sense what those parts of ourselves are feeling and trying to communicate so that we can listen and respond in a caring, helpful and constructive way.
For example, with trauma there may be suppressed parts of us that are very scared and need to be acknowledged, physically experienced and soothed. During this process, we will switch between identifying with the parts of the self that are feeling something or trying to express something and the higher self or loving observer which is responding to them in a soothing and caring way.
While taking a loving attitude towards various parts of the self is generally helpful, at times it can also help to do things rather differently and handle challenging emotional states such as fear or anger in a much more detached way, viewing them as nothing more than physical experiences that have an interesting form, structure and quality to them. In this practice, you “drop the story” surrounding how you feel and just experience your inner mental and emotional landscape rather like a scientist exploring an alien planet and learning to feel their way around.
The effect is rather like what happens when you stare at a word for so long that it starts to look like nothing more than a series of letters and appears to lose its overall meaning. In much the same way, sitting with an emotional or mental state for long enough and physically exploring it with an attitude of detached curiosity can sometimes very gradually cause it to lose much of its power over you.
Of course, you cannot be completely detached from distressing emotions since you have to physically feel rather than suppress them in order to release them from your system, which can be an unpleasant ride. Developing resilience is partly about being willing to take a beating from your some of your internal states and see that as a way of strengthening your inner mental and emotional “muscles”.
In cases of childhood trauma, we may discover that a very raw sensation of pain rather like a needle going through the heart often comes up once we feel our way through emotions like fear and anger which are more like a defensive armour or cover for that pain. The aim is to get to the original wound, lean into the pain and feel it as much as possible so that it no longer has us in its grip. People with childhood trauma sometimes talk about loving their pain because that is the path to true release as well as pain resilience.
However, what’s important here is that it’s usually easier to move beyond the most unpleasant emotions if we are willing to go through them as purely physical experiences rather than attaching too much meaning to them. The idea is to go through them with much the same attitude as going through an assault course, simply accepting it a physical challenge rather than focusing on any associated mental story. Eventually, a new story can then emerge, a far more powerful and epic tale of struggle, survival and self-overcoming in which the particular people or situations involved in triggering those childhood wounds and catalysing personal transformation are no longer considered very interesting.
Observing and describing what a distressing emotional state is doing with your body can be especially liberating because this can help you figure out how to gradually relax a bit more and let go of whatever is causing that state to persist. For example, merely noting that there is tension in your jaw, chest or forehead and patiently observing that tension will often result in a gradual easing of the tension. Over time, the aim might be to develop greater body awareness so that you can get to the root of where any physical stress is being caused from within. This knowledge can help you to achieve ever-deeper levels of relaxation.
The more you can help yourself to physically relax, the easier it usually gets to let go of things that don’t have to matter and re-programme your whole perspective so that you gradually view everything in a more balanced and detached way. Dropping the story at least for a while is a vital way of gaining enough distance from the experienced self to be able to challenge and reprogramme where it may be going wrong and help it to move into a more healthy state.
The plot thickens
It is likely that the Buddha’s teaching of “no-self” went much further than what I have discussed in this post. For example, many Buddhists appear to believe that there is no real separation between different people at all, as if everyone you meet in life is really just another version of you in a different form. This is a really interesting concept whether it happens to be true or false and would make many of us think twice before acting selfishly in the world.
One of the really interesting variations of the idea is that we all come from a divine collective consciousness. Perhaps we “split off” from that consciousness in order to incarnate as seemingly separate beings and will continue to reincarnate until finally escaping the cycle of death and rebirth to be merged back into the source forever. This would make sense if the source seeks to directly experience each of those lives through the process of being incarnated and reincarnated. In other words, it would be a way for the divine to participate in the creation of the Universe through the vivid experience of billions of real life stories.
As it happens, I have directly experienced collective consciousness while on psychedelics. I remember the rather mystical yet vivid sensation of being part of a collective “we” rather than an “I” and thinking “How can we help John?” I wasn’t able to discern how many of “us” there were since we were all merged as one but some people have described similar experiences in terms of the infinite and the divine. At the time, all of this seemed completely normal and natural.
Apparently, some Buddhist monks have also achieved similar states of collective consciousness through extreme meditation. I am curious to know whether this effect is merely the result of something malfunctioning in the brain, a neurological feature which would normally help us see that we really are separate from others, or whether it is in fact the key to understanding a much deeper and more profound truth, that our entire sense of having a separate consciousness is nothing more than an illusion. It’s hard to know exactly how deep this particular rabbit hole goes…