As a person practicing meditation for a few years now, I have been able to observe the thoughts coming into and going out of my consciousness as a silent, watching self. Although I am not in a position to assert the existence or non-existence of the self, I would try my best to make a practical interpretation of the Buddha’s idea of not-self in the light of my own experiences, contemplations and readings.
As per the Buddha’s diagnosis regarding clinging as the source of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are fleeting in nature, and this prevents one from seeing the world as it is and having a clear vision of truth. Is it possible to be liberated from this cycle of unsatisfactoriness and should we necessarily reject our ‘selves’ for it? Can we say that our motivations, feelings or thoughts are somehow the result of a mingling, blended form of our being and our external world and that nothing is to be owned by us?
Human perception is very much influenced by the circumstances or conditions in one’s environment, as the mind is scientifically observed to work toward its best interests in having evolved to survive as successful as it can be as a result of natural selection. As we continue to survive on so many levels, our sense of self is being challenged by the Buddhist way of thinking.
As the Buddha said in his sermon on the not-self, the self persists through time and is subject to our control, whereas the five aggregates-consciousness, form, feelings, perceptions and mental formations- related to a person’s experience do not and are not, the self cannot be identified with anything that is changing in nature. In scientific terms, it is shown in the split-brain experiments that the left hemisphere of our brains, which is responsible for our language skills, communicates with the outside world about what is going on inside our minds not necessarily trying to reflect reality. However, our right brain hemisphere quite strikingly works to present only the literal truth without attempting to change anything at all. That half of our brains can come up with fabricated details that are not true in order to create a plausible narrative is one sign that supports the Buddhist understanding of consciousness as an unreliable part of our experience.
In a study conducted by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, the subjects were asked to make a choice among a series of similar products in front of them and it was found that very strangely that they had a tendency to pick the product on the far right. This finding implies that our motivation to choose something, or talk or behave in a specific fashion does not necessarily take place consciously, our judgments may be a result of an unconscious motivation and our mental formations (one of the five aggregates of the Buddhist thought) do not originate from a state of consciousness. This can imply that an idea that comes into one’s mind can easily be affected by another idea of completely unknown origin. Therefore, the controllable characteristics of the Buddhist self are not to be found here.
In this regard, I believe that none of the workings of my mind are a mere result of being purely me; that the self in me is distinguishable from the things that my mind perceives. As one can see in many studies conducted in modern psychology, our consciousness is attuned to see, perceive and make sense of the things around us by incessantly making best guesses and unconscious choices in the background for our protection and success so that failure becomes a lesser probability.
I take my ‘self’ as an unchangeable, firm-rooted, observing being that is the closest part of me to truth, and any awareness, emotion, opinion, feeling or physical form that comes and goes in the course of this lifetime does not suffice to constitute the very essence of my being.
Thanks to the Buddhist prescription of mindfulness, it seems to me that my mind has started working differently than it did before I started meditation, somehow disentangled from the transient and subjective notions of perception or feeling, etc. Being distracted or overwhelmed by feelings has become a less important problem for me during this process. This is not an intentional or result-oriented effort. It just happens to be the way it is, just as Peter Harvey claims in his book The Selfless Mind, not-self is something to be done, rather than something to be taught. I believe that observing the five aggregates of the Buddhist thinking through meditative work brings a mindful approach towards life and existence in general.
I think that the existence of self that is associated with permanence and control is only denied in a liberative framework by the Buddha, as mentioned by Bhikkhu Bodhi in one of his talks with Robert Wright, in order to eliminate one’s attachment to all objects of clinging and to the notion of a substantial I. Therefore, I take the Buddha’s sermon on the not-self as an attempt to describe the nature of self by denying what it is not.
Bhikkhu Bodhi. Lecture 3: The True Nature of Existence http://www.buddhanet.net/audio-lectures.htm
Harvey, P. (2013). The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. London: Taylor and Francis.
The Sermon at Benares/Varanasi, Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html
Timothy de Camp Wilson, & Nisbett, R. (1978). The Accuracy of Verbal Reports About the Effects of Stimuli on Evaluations and Behavior. Social Psychology, 41(2), 118-131. doi:10.2307/3033572