The Constant Self Is Real

When feelings such as loneliness, loss, and placelessness assail them, people often get into serious emotional trouble. It is interesting to note that, when some people experience such feelings, they do not turn inward for an explanation of their own emotions. They do not even turn to psychology or philosophy, external knowledge bases which would give them some inkling of what is happening to them and are therefore relevant to their condition. Instead, they turn to spiritual belief systems. With Christianity, the West’s traditional religion, now fallen from favour, troubled individuals feel they must look elsewhere for spiritual comfort and understanding. With increasing regularity, they turn to godless belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. The absence of any moralizing god and the possibility of solitary spiritual practice are powerful attractions. That is, people prefer a godless belief system with no churches or temples and no organized religious service. We might call this, “do it yourself” spirituality.

Tarot card showing the emperor on his throne

The authentic self is real, constant, and stable. Once found and accepted, it can provide a centre, still point, and anchor in life. (Image: public domain.)

Unfortunately, there is a problem here. While the more subtle points of Buddhism and Taoism may be unknown to them, most people are aware that these Oriental belief systems are short on knowledge and long on paradox. Everyone has heard of the puzzling koan. Even allowing for people’s ignorance, choosing Buddhism or Taoism suggests a wilful dismissal of reason, logic, and rationality (long held in high regard in the West) in favour of ignorance and irrationality. Increasingly, we choose arbitrary subjectivity over objectivity.

Quoting Lao Tsu: “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.” The goal is to become a “know-nothing.” Paradoxically, according to the practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism, this progressive ignorance is actually the road to enlightenment. In reality, there are no such things as paradoxes. Quite obviously, they cannot exist. When faced with a paradox, you have not discovered something profound; you have simplified the situation to the point where it no longer makes any sense. You have made a mistake. When you add back the appropriate details and qualifiers, you dispel the simplistic mystical paradox.

Why choose these Oriental belief systems? People who make the choice have no concept of their own (already existing) inner resources and strengths. Our lack of knowledge in this area is one of the world’s great failings. What we are talking about here, in its most basic form, is the psychological concept of self.

Now, the most striking aspect of the self is its constancy. The self is home to our most vital emotionally important ideas and subjectively formed guiding principles. These are established by our genes interacting with our early childhood environment and stay with us throughout our lives. They form the basis of our genuine personal worldview.

The most striking aspect of Buddhism and Taoism is the notion of complete changeability. In these belief systems, there is no concept of a stable self. Therefore, you can be anything or anyone you wish to be, changing from one person into another depending on your surroundings, like some kind of human chameleon. I call any particular example of this changing “self,” the false persona du jour. Such flexibility and “freedom” sounds lovely, but whether you like it or not, you are already a particular someone. That someone (your authentic self) is not an illusion or a needlessly rigid false persona that you may choose to destroy or discard.

Ceaseless persona change is a characteristic of the ego and the idealized false person it manufactures. Ceaseless change is not – repeat not – a characteristic of the authentic self. Anyone who is not in touch with their stable authentic self lacks a well-defined sense of self and remains trapped in the endlessly shifting thoughts and personas of the ego. Many misguided individuals mistakenly refer to this false persona as the self and often long to “escape” from it. This is hardly surprising since such a person has no ground, no anchor, no centre, and no still-point. In addition, since they have rejected the true self and deny any hope of self-knowledge, they have no way of ever getting those things. Buddhism and Taoism, with their belief in perpetual persona change, fix the believer in never-ending self-alienation.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

13 thoughts on “The Constant Self Is Real”

  1. Interesting article, Thomas. I once studied Buddhism, albeit many years ago, so I can’t remember a great deal about its subtleties and intricacies. I wonder if in the case of Buddhism (I can’t speak about Taoism) it’s not so much a case of elevating ignorance as an innate scepticism. Regarding the lack of a ‘God’ figure in Buddhism, for example, the idea as I remember it was that, while there may or may not be a God, He and His existence are unknowable to humanity, and therefore irrelevant to the human quest for Nirvana.

    Certainly the lack of a constant self always puzzled me, not least because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. The analogy given, if I remember correctly, was that it was akin to one candle being lit by another.

    Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I studied this, so I could be wrong about the above!

  2. You raise some complex issues, Mari, and highlight the limitations of writing such short articles. In my attempt to be brief, I have remained incomplete. Your interpretation of Buddhism’s deliberate “know nothing” policy as scepticism is popular among Europeans and North Americans. However, this position is a case of Westerners projecting their own sophisticated scientific paradigm onto a more primitive belief system whose very vagueness makes such projections easy. In reality, Buddhists seek to eliminate learned conceptualizations of the world so they can take in the raw data of sensory experience (direct experience). They are trying to look past what they have learned and “see” what is really there. They want to avoid jumping to conceptual conclusions. This is all to the good and one of Buddhism’s most brilliant insights. I have posted about this in “Sleepwalking through Reality” where I added a modern Jungian extension and some ideas of my own. (And, as I now see, failed to give Buddhism credit for the original inspiration!)

    Nevertheless, Buddhism was conceived when oxen drew carts and science and technology were unheard of. The simple world in which early Buddhists lived was quite suitable for such a belief system. You have only to examine the lifestyle of an enlightened Buddhist monk to see that the belief system is – as it stands – not compatible with modern life. It is no longer enough to see the natural world and basic human relationships as they really are. Recent followers of traditional Buddhism (there are Westernized variants) tend to shun modernity and take up relatively simple lifestyles that contribute little or nothing to the complex society in which they live. Instead of pursuing the sophisticated knowledge essential to successful life in such societies, they scrupulously avoid it viewing that knowledge as something else they must see past. Hence, my claim that Buddhists are deliberately ignorant.

    On the question of god, Buddha expressed his opposition to the idea. He regarded the notion of an omnipotent god as not supported by any evidence and morally objectionable in that it removes personal responsibility (a view I share). Since, unlike the Catholic Church, Buddhism has no centralized “dogma police,” some Buddhist monks and thinkers have other ideas.

    Buddhists do manage to merge rebirth with the concept of a fluid self. When you die, your mind or consciousness (as it is at the moment of death) animates a fertilized egg. It is important to note that (unlike Christianity) only the consciousness, and not the identity, is continuous. However, the new consciousness is vaguely related in some ways to the old and a process of ongoing development is supposed to occur. When an individual becomes sufficiently enlightened that they no longer desire identity, pleasure, and life, they cease to be reborn and become like a ray of light that never lands. (Poetic, you must admit!)

  3. So would you say that having bipolar with shift in moods and discretion is in part caused by an unbalanced ego?

  4. Hi Zak,

    Thanks for taking an interest in my blog.

    Bipolar disorder is primarily an illness of the emotions with ego being affected only by the damage to self-confidence and self-esteem suffered during the worst episodes of the emotional swings. I have the irritable (rather than euphoric) version of mania and get quite abrasive if I am not on my guard. During my depressive cycles, I tend to shun people and neglect important matters—and so on. As you say, judgement is affected.

    The causes of bipolar disorder are not known, but every self-aware sufferer (many people have the illness without knowing it) has enough first-hand experience to form his own theories. The sensitivity to light that some bipolar individuals experience is well known, for example. Diet seems to make a difference. In my own case, when and how long I sleep seems hugely influential, so much so that I routinely short myself on sleep to pull myself out of depressive cycles.

    Luckily, bipolar disorder does not affect the constant self. That bulwark of the psyche is always there and can be a great source of conscious comfort, if you care to take the trouble to unearth it.

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