By Rick Hanson PhD.
Self is like a unicorn.
Components and functions of the apparent self—Me! My Precious! I want! How’m I doin’?—are widely distributed in the brain.
Take just three kinds of self-related activities. One is recognizing yourself, distinct from other people, or noticing an “x” on your forehead someone put there without you realizing it. Only a few animals can do that, including humans, other “great apes” such as monkeys and gorillas, whales and dolphins, and elephants. Another aspect is personal history, your memories. The third aspect is making decisions; I want chocolate, not vanilla, for example. Studies have shown that those self-related activities are spread out throughout your brain. There’s no homunculus looking out from your eyes.
Self in the brain is just like the Buddha says in the Dharma: compounded (made of many parts), variable and transient, and interdependently arising. It has no inherent, underlying self-arising on its own; therefore it’s empty of absolute existence
Much of the time there’s not much selfing present; there is presence and mental activity without much activation of “I” or “mine.” You abiding increasingly in that fertile, generative space in which neural assemblies take form is a central process along the path of awakening.
You shift your body in your seat because it’s gotten tight somewhere: probably there’s not a lot of self present. But suddenly someone says something to you, or you notice, hum, their chair is crowding into mine: Hey, don’t you respect my space?! Then the self really activates.
There is a process of varying self-related activities; self is not a noun but a verb: there is selfing.
Selfing developed in evolution to help us survive, and so it shows up particularly under three conditions: pursuing opportunities (often associated with “greed”), avoiding threats (often associated with “hatred”), and interactions with others (since we evolved to be the most social animal of all).
Aspects of self arise as impermanent but existent patterns of mental and therefore neural activity. These patterns exist in the sense that the patterns which correspond to a thought of a butterfly or the knowledge that 2+2=4 exist. Patterns exist, but they’re impermanent and dependently arisen: they’re empty. ++ related to self are just more patterns in the mind and brain, not categorically different from other mental/neural patterns.
The problem is that we privilege those particular patterns above all others. They are the ones we most identify with, and the trickiest ones to disidentify with as we proceed along the path of practice.
The mental/neural activity of selfing is designed by evolution to continually claim ownership of experiences, claim agency of actions, and claim identification with both internal states and external objects (like political groups or sports teams we like): it’s very powerful! Watch your mind: a strong reaction will arise, let’s say, and for the first second or two there is not much self entwined with it, but quickly self jumps on the bandwagon and then claims the reaction as its own. Self does give rise to desire, but much of the time, it is desire that gives rise to self.
But actually, much of the time self is truly superfluous to functioning well in the world, and feeling good inside.
Without much if any selfing present, there can be executive functions at work, such as organizing and planning or the will. There can be wholesome desire, chanda, present—which is distinct from tanhā, thirst or craving, which the Buddha said caused suffering.
Walk across the room: does there need to be self present? Lift the cup to your lips: is self needed?
The patterns of selfing in the mind and brain are real; they exist in the way that memory or an emotion exists. Their existence is transient and empty, to be sure, and thus not worth clinging to. But even more to the point: does what they point to, what they represent, actually exist? In other words, is there actually a coherent, unified, stable, enduring being somewhere, somehow, in the brain? Actually, no such being exists.
Whatever of self there is in the brain, it is compounded and distributed, not coherent and unified; it is variable and transient, not stable and enduring. In other words, the conventional notion of self is a mythical creature. Representations of a horse in the mind/brain are real representations of a real thing.
But representations of the self in the brain are like representations of a unicorn: real representations of an unreal thing.
In sum, when you appreciate that the representations of self in the brain are empty, that what they represent does not exist, you start taking your own “self” much less seriously.
The reality is that the more we study how the mind and brain intertwine, the more we find how well it maps with Dharma. The Buddha clearly understood this cycle of using the mind to change the brain, which then changes the future mind. If this is done well, it reduces suffering. He showed us ways to examine our experience, see how this works, and use that intuitive, direct understanding to free ourselves from suffering—completely free ourselves, in this very life, potentially. Just about everything we have found in neuropsychology supports the idea that he was right. This should give us a lot more conviction in our practice, along with a continuing source of practical tools to make it a reality.
* Reprinted from Insight Journal 2009 with permission from the author
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness (in 14 languages), Buddha’s Brain (in 25 languages), Just One Thing (in 14 languages), and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has several audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 100,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity.
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer