The Sense of Self: A Conversation

by Hari Balasubramanian

You might wonder who is conversing with whom. The best description I have is that these are two voices or perspectives in my head debating each other.

ScreenHunter_847 Oct. 20 11.50“This thing called the sense of self, the ego or the ‘I'. There are many claims floating around these days that confidently say that the sense of self is an illusion. Not sure what to make of this. If I accept such a claim then who or what is this ‘I' that just accepted the illusory nature of the self? It's like walking around in circles, like a dog chasing its tail and going nowhere.”

“You could say the ‘I' is some kind of energy in our conscious experience that comes together in such a way as to create the illusion.”

“Maybe so. But how does that help me? I still feel the sense of self exists; that's what is speaking right now! I can't just wish it away because somebody says it is an illusion. I can't wish it away even if my own intellect logically reasons out that it is an illusion. For example, I know very well that the body – the best proxy I have for the ‘I' – had a certain shape in the womb, a different shape as a baby, something entirely different as an adult, and will disintegrate after death. So I can reason pretty clearly that what we call the body is ever changing, from one moment to the next, that there is nothing constant there. Yet each one of us, without fail, invariably points to his or her body to claim that this is me…”

“I agree that there is something that always seems to be hovering around. And it is quite practical in claiming an ever-changing and perishable body, among a host of other perishable things, for itself. But when examined closely, the ‘I' cannot be pointed out as anything concrete – where is it?”

“It is right here, always the main point of reference, always claiming that this is me or this is not me. Or I like this or I do not like this, or I am neutral to this. We cannot even frame a sentence while conversing that does not have ‘I' or ‘you' or ‘this' or ‘that' in it. If consciousness of anything is there, the ‘I' is very much there mixed up with it. This is why – unless I experience it myself firsthand: I don't know what that would be like – the idea that the self is an illusion does not affect me. It's as if one moment the ‘I' feels strongly it exists, and then the very next moment the very same ‘I' cleverly changes hats and declares: ‘Well, I shouldn't take myself seriously, since there is strong evidence that I am an illusion!'”

“Still, don't you think there is some practical benefit to the idea of no-self, of not taking the ego seriously? When I observe my thoughts closely, I find there is very little control; I don't know where thoughts are coming from and what their source is. They just come and go; sometimes my mind is very busy, chaotic, and at other times very slow and relaxed. Everything – decisions, events, what captures my attention, how things unfold in time – seems so complex and intertwined. An emotion or idea or feeling or inspiration will surge up within me whether I want it or not. When this understanding sinks deep enough, I may learn to understand that others too are being driven by thoughts that are not under their control. So maybe the ‘I' can observe and train itself. It may or may not work – there are never any guarantees – but you remind yourself, all the time, to not take the ego seriously.”

“You have to do it all the time because this thing called the ‘I' is present all the time!”

“Actually, I don't think that's true. There are very different states one goes through in just one day. Let's go into this in detail. I don't know whether the ‘I' is present in the state of deep, dreamless sleep. While dreaming something vague is still there, when awake something is still there. But I am not so sure about deep sleep. Deep sleep feels like a kind of void. To the individual sleeping there is a complete disappearance of everything: the world, the body, concepts.”

“Yes, I agree with that. And it feels good when we wake up and, it feels like contentment!”

“So the ‘I' is clearly not the same during the course of a day. At night, in deep sleep, ‘I' becomes or returns to a kind of happy void where you do not sense duality, time or space (maybe that's what it is like to die). When you start dreaming, ‘I' occupies some other world entirely. In a dream, you can walk on water and believe that there is absolutely nothing unusual about that. This seems strange when you wake up, and but while dreaming it all can seem remarkably convincing. There can be other people in your dream who will confirm that walking on water is absolutely possible. So the dream, however strange, manages to have some kind of internal logic that is convincing. During the course of the night you may have multiple, related or completely unrelated dreams interspersed with deep sleep. It is as if the “I' dies into deep sleep and then reincarnates as a new dream, experiencing a different world each time. In the morning ‘I' again wakes up to this world, which we don't call a dream, which we call ‘real', but is a world with its own unique laws and constraints. Here you cannot walk on water – at least not everyone! – but there are strange galaxies out there, something called gravity, something called evolution, billions of people and other species…”

“The key point you are implicitly making is that I can only act according to the state I am in. If I am dreaming, I play by the rules and internal logic of the dream and walk on water. If I am in a void, there is only the void. Right now, I am awake in this so called ‘real' world, so the ‘I' in me plays according to the rules of this world. And while I am awake, there's a remarkable consistency about this world, don't you think? Every day I get up, I see or hear or experience things that were there the day before…”

“Actually things are very different moment to moment, as you yourself noted in reference to the body. There is nothing that is the same…”

“But I can't live like that – how absurd would that be! I cannot always keep saying, look, I crossed this river yesterday, and I am crossing the same river today, but no one ever crosses the same river twice! I can't keep repeating that stuff – it gets tiring. Somehow I have to play as if I am a person; I have to play by the rules that consciousness has set up for me.”

“And maybe doubting the self, doubting the person is part of those very same rules. Sometimes while dreaming, haven't you had this sneaking suspicion, lurking in the background, that this is all just a dream and therefore unreal? That suspicion may be around whether the dream is pleasant or a nightmare, and it is confirmed when you wake up. And haven't you felt that when you are awake, too? Aren't there suddenly moments where you feel, what is this that I am living, how strange and arbitrary this world is, is this all for real? Questioning the validity of the sense of self and questioning the contents of consciousness seem to be an expression of that lurking suspicion we have even while we are awake — that although all this seems very real and consistent, perhaps it isn't…”

“If the sense of self isn't real and if you are going to wake up – as the Buddhas of the marketplace will gladly tell you – then what is it that you are going to wake up to? And who is going to wake up, since there is supposedly no one there to wake up? And how will you ever know anything about a state called no-self while you are still living in this very convincing and real illusion?”