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Jettisoning the notion of the “true self”

Joshua Knobe has a thought-provoking article in the New York Times on the topic of what we believe to be our “true self.” Knobe is an associate professor at Yale, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is one of a new breed of philosopher — the kind that not only takes account of science, but actively participates in scientific exploration.

In the article, In Search of the True Self, he explores the thorny problem, just what is the “True Self” anyway? Take the example of a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, but comes to realize that he is homosexual. As the article says,

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, [he] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

You and I will almost certainly come down on one side or the other, but we may end up with diametrically opposed views of what it means for this man to be true to himself. The decision about what is someone’s True Self seems to be a subjective one.

According to Knobe, one answer, “endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways” is that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” That seems fair enough, but then he goes on to say that from this viewpoint our conflicted Christian would realize that “his sexual desires are not the real him … If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.” This seems highly questionable. A reasonable person might say that if he has been born with an impulse to love others who happen to be of the same sex, and that if acting on this impulse harms no one, then it is the Christian restriction on homosexuality, and even the entire belief system of that religion, that is irrational. But as it happens, this isn’t what particularly interests me about this question of the “true self.” What does interest me about it is something I’ll return to later.

Knobe points out, however, that the very idea of our rationality being the True Self is incomprehensible in our wider culture, where our more base instincts are seen as who we really are. (I blame Freud. The Id is seen as being what’s really gone on, while the Super Ego (our values) are seen as fake, and as a front.)

So we have two opposed viewpoints, and Knobe highlights that the “trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology.” He says that the matter is “more complex” although the study he cites (one he conducted with his colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom) doesn’t seem to point to anything very complex at all. The study simply shows that what people identify as the “True Self” is subjective, and based on their existing religious and political views: “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self.”

As a Buddhist I find the concept of a True Self fascinating. I experience myself as being composed of competing impulses: on the one hand I want to be kind, while on the other I’m inclined to yell at my kids when things don’t go the way I want them. I have a clear sense that being kind is more aligned with who I want to be. But is either of those “my true self”? Actually, I could say either “both” or “neither.”

In a practical sense, both kindness and yelling are parts of my behavior. I have to own them. No one else can take responsibility for my behavior. And in this sense I am, as the Buddhist suttas tell us:

the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

So from that point of view the answer is “both.” Both acting kindly and yelling unkindly are equally “really me’ although I may choose to prefer one over the other.

Why do I choose one over the other? It’s because, in my experience, yelling leads to suffering for myself and others, and I do not like suffering or causing suffering. Kindness, on the other hand, leads to a sense of enrichment and happiness, and I enjoy experiencing those things. And that’s why I’d prefer to act kindly rather than yell. It’s not that one is “the real me” and the other is not — it’s that they have consequences for my sense of well-being.

This follows the Buddha’s advice to his son:

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

What is “unskillful” is what does leads to suffering rather than happiness. Rather than have some abstract principle leading us to look at what is “true” or not true in ourselves, we simply look at what leads to suffering or happiness. The Buddhist path is purely pragmatic, as this sutta shows:

I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm & suffering, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit & happiness, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’

You may note that what is unskillful is not what is “bad.” To say that an action is unskilful is simply to point out that it leads to suffering. There’s no value judgement involved.

But what of my assertion that as well as both kindness and yelling being “the true me,” neither of them is the true me?

Pragmatically, both skillful and unskillful tendencies are truly me, and I have to take responsibility for them. Saying that one side or the other is “not truly me” is a bit of a cop-out. But when we look at the factors that cause suffering, we find that at the core of these is a sense of self-identification that leads to self-definition, reinforcing a sense of the self being static and separate. Ultimately we let go of any identification of any part of ourselve as being “the real self.”

Nothing that we can identify as a constituent of the self defines the self, and so our selves are essentially indefinable. We’re told that our form is not the self, and neither is feeling, perception, our habits or even (despite what some Tibetan forms of Buddhism say) our consciousness is not the self.

In the end, we have no “true self.” Whatever constitues the self “must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’” The very effort to identify a “true self” is a cause of suffering, and is to be abandoned.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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