The Human Condition:

The Illusion of Self – April 6, 2014


One of the teachings of Buddhism is that the existence of a self, of the person you think you are, is an illusion. Most people scoff at this, because one’s self and one’s life are so palpably, thumpingly real and important. “Without myself,” they think, “who and where and what would I be?” The notion seems silly that the crucial fact of a person’s entire existence might be an illusion.

Indeed, the human baby spends much of its early months and its first few years—lost to all of us in the mists and confusions of a developing brain and mind—in considering the world around it and the differences between the sensory images and tactile feel of that world and the being that does the feeling and touching. A toddler becomes aware when it separates its image of self from the world. From there, the child is learning and growing, developing talents, adding skills, demonstrating likes and dislikes, modeling behaviors both good and bad from the people around it. The first third of life—toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence—is when we humans develop our keen sense of self.

By the time we finish adolescence, we have a pretty good idea of who we are, what we can do, how we’ll react, how we think, and what we want out of life. We are ready to perform in the world, take action, refine our talents and skills, and make our place in the society into which we were born. We may still learn, but the learning is directed by a base of experience and a self-selected sets of rules, attachments, and goals. We have stopped—pretty much, anyway—deciding who we are and spend our time becoming better at being that person. The middle third of life is the time of action and increase.

And the last third? By the time a human enters what we used to call “middle age” and starts getting senior discounts on tickets, filling out Social Security forms, and looking longingly at old scrapbooks, a tiny wedge of doubt begins to set in. It suddenly takes a moment’s thought to recall details of people and places and activities we’ve always known and loved. We are slower and less flexible than we used to be, and the body sometimes trips us up. We think back on the enthusiasms we expressed in our young age, we look at old pictures, we read the things we once wrote, and we wonder, “Who is this person?” We know the person we can see in the mirror, we study the face in the picture, and they deny each other.

We all acknowledge the truth, taught in psychology and sociology classes, that we are different people in different situations. We take on different roles and act differently as sons, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, uncles, fathers, and grandfathers.1 We try to be consistent in these roles, approaching each with a personal set of core values about honesty, truth telling, loyalty, strength, generosity, compassion, and other behaviors we have either modeled from the people we admired in childhood or adopted because, in our experience, these behaviors have always brought good results. But a son shares knowledge in a completely different fashion than a father does, and brothers may share secrets that friends will never be allowed to know.

At a certain point—after one has adopted these different roles, fulfilled his or her varied functions in the family, the economy, and the society, and stared into the old pictures and compared them with the face in the mirror—the inevitable question must arise: “Who am I?” And from there, it’s a small step to the even harder question: “What am I?”

Am I my body? Many people prize their physical selves and build much of their life and sense of self around the body and its achievements: athletes, actors, fashion models, and those involved in occupations that require great beauty or physical strength. But if I am my body, am I then wholly changed—my self diminished—if I lose a hand, a leg, an eye, or other body part? I would hope to be mentally flexible enough to adapt—and even make an intellectual challenge and a learning experience out of adapting—to the loss and then continue bravely onward. But I can also understand how, for the person who has dedicated his or her life to fashion modeling or athletics, a maiming accident might seem like the end of the known self and the end of life itself. And certainly anyone who has contracted a serious or life-threatening illness suffers a contraction of personal focus, down to the organ or system that is damaged or deteriorating and the personal vulnerability of being dependent on a functioning physical form.

Am I my mind? As a writer—one who since childhood has worked and played with words, concepts, imagination, and the world of the unseen, who has profited from these skills and built a persona around them—I am far more ready to give up a finger or a hand than to give up a part of my brain that supports these talents and skills. If I were to go blind, my life would not necessarily end. I would require another person to read to me, or depend on a machine that speaks aloud the texts I select—with all the slowness and fumbling that these supports imply. I would try in earnest to use computer dictation and restrain, as much as possible, my personal itch to verify every spelling and capitalization, agonize over the placement of commas and periods, and fiddle with the look of the words on the page as well as their sound and meaning. My life would not end, but large parts of it would be disrupted to the point of madness.

And yet, I am not just my word skills, my imagination, and my store of facts and relationships which all, collectively, make me a writer. I have other talents, roles, and uses in this life—although it’s sometimes hard to remember and think of them. Right now, I am focused on writing and imagination, and feel that I am still growing, developing, and reaching new peaks with these skills. But I also realize that they are ephemeral. Every so often I have a “senior moment” when a word or name escapes me. It’s there at the tip of my tongue, just out of reach in the gray void of my subconscious, and I know that within ten minutes or half an hour it will pop out fresh in an “Oh, of course!” flash of recall. And I can foretell from this experience that, eventually, the word or name may be gone for a day, a week, or forever. There will come a time when I will sit down at the keyboard, and the words will flow less smoothly and quickly, the thoughts will stutter, my mind will draw a blank. And at some point—pray it be in the far distant future!—this whirligig of writing talent that I spin will shut down for good.

What will I be then? A fashion model without a face. A baseball player without a hand. I will still have memories of what I have been and done, a personal set of core values to drive my actions for the time I have left, friends and family to remind me about who I was. But I will be sincerely diminished.

So what am I? What is this “self”? It is a physical body—a collection of chemicals in cells and learned patterns and responses—which is subject to growth and deterioration, and ultimately to decay and dissolution. It is a physical brain that supports an unseen and unknowably complex ghost called the mind that simultaneously lives in the present of sensory and intellectual experience, the past of memory, and the future of goals and hopes. It is a set of personal, family, social, economic, and civic relationships that are constantly changing and subject to reevaluation. It is a set of memories about facts, experiences, relationships, images, and senses that are continually being rewritten as I recall them, sometimes becoming embellished, and sometimes denying themselves.

I am a cloud of action and potential, moving across time in the same way a cloud of water vapor moves across the sky. Like that puffy cloud, I am constantly changing shape and direction, sometimes growing, sometimes dissipating. I am real, solid, and definable for this minute only, and I will become something else in the next minute. Even what I might remember of this minute will be subject to change.

And that makes the notion that I am a single person, whole and constant, an unchanging matrix of skills, talents, loves and loyalties, dreams and expectations, the same today as yesterday, predictably the same tomorrow … simply an illusion.

1. For women, the roles of daughter, sister, friend, lover, wife, aunt, mother, and grandmother are comparable but decidedly different from those for men. Human relationships are infinitely varied and shaded.