What I am about to say encapsulates only some of the traditions in Buddhism. Given the fact that there are so many traditions (Nicheren, Chan, Zen, Mahayana, Theraveda, Kadampa etc), there are also many different takes on this. Broadly speaking, the view I will be taking comes from the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) school, with a mix of Tibetan tradition on top!
Most Buddhists believe that we are confused and need to cut through this confusion to reach our true state of mind (or true self). Our mind/self is like a mirror that has got dustier and dustier over time. We need to wipe away the dust to be able to see our reflection (self) in the mirror. However, this is still NOT our true self, as our true self isn’t an individual body or consciousness at all (the reflection in the mirror isn’t us either!). It’s not so much about building a solid, structured mind through meditation. It’s about clearing the obstructions to let us see our reflection. When we see the reflection it’s only stage one. We are not at the end of the journey. Once we’ve seen the self we need to realise the fact that this is also an illusion. Once we’ve achieved this the state of anatta (non-self) we come into being (stage 2). However, eventually through non-self we come back full circle and realise that self and non-self exist interdependently (this is where some Buddhists are in disagreement). The sense of self created by society isn’t real, but a small sense of self is still needed to exist in the world we live in (small isn’t a good word here, it’s hard to explain an experience).
In the midst of all this confusion about self is that we are independent, solid and continuous. We are not independent. If we were we could exist without food and water. We are not solid (Physics can easily tell us that; look up Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). We are not continuous, as our bodies and minds are constantly going through change after change after change. The person I am now writing this blog is not the same person who will review this blog next month. The two people have continuity but only in the vaguest of senses. However, we do think of ourselves as independent, solid and continuous, and it takes long and arduous (on occasions) meditation to realise that this is not the case. It’s merely another illusion created by the circumstances and world that we are thrown into at birth. This illusion is extremely persistent and the idea of us being apart from something rather than being part of something is difficult to shift. Being part of something suggests we are cogs in a machine and we are not that. It might also make us feel very small and we are not that either. We are part of a greater whole. Without us the larger whole could not exist.
So, when it comes to a guide to the argument for self here goes:
Step 0 You are pure self. You can be a great person, but it’s highly likely that your needs come before the needs of others. Extreme Step 0 (almost like Step -1!) can lead to being obsessed with self (like drawing pictures of yourself all the time and publishing them). Step -1 is narcissism. Sadly, if you’ve had narcissistic parents it’s likely that you’ll be drawn to a narcissistic partner in adulthood. Even sadder still, you may not see the narcissist beside you even when its clearly pointed out to you! If someone is full of ego they are more likely to be Step 0 than Step -1! Step 0 can be hard to see, as you can have different versions of it. Many people can call themselves “yogic” or “spiritual” but in fact be stuck at Step 0 (they create a Spiritual Ego that feels superior to others). They can also use Spirituality as a mask (“I’m into yoga/meditation/mindfulness therefore I must be great!”) or “look at me and my cool new Yoga gear” lol
“Don’t be fooled by those who pretend the path to make themselves seem better in the eyes of others” (The Long Discourses of the Buddha)
Step 1 You realise you are conditioned by society, environment and others. You realise that your life is being run by ego (kind of similar to waking up!)
Step 2 You battle against the “ego” (self) that has been created through this process
(“Power of Now” style). Might get into a lot of reading.
Step 3 You realise your “true” self (free from egoic constrictions)+ (This is a huge step). Sometimes this is the first time a person actually sees themselves for who they truly are. Not many “evil” people actually think they are evil and will often use all kinds of blames or excuses to justify their actions.
Step 4 You realise this true self is in fact part of a much greater whole and is part of everything (world as an organic process-Alan Watts style).
Step 5 Your true self is dissolved into your “real self” which in turn becomes part of everything, as your sense of self vanishes altogether!
The Buddha mentions a number of ways of going from Step 0 to Step 5 (he never used this Step approach but oh well!). He calls it stages of enlightenment. Meditation can be one of the key ways but pain is actually the best way, according to the Buddha, to fast-forward through them. As R. Sharma says “Wounds create Wisdom”. These wounds can be physical, emotional or mental but cannot be self-inflicted. Quite literally, hell can create heaven for the mind.
I’m off to meditate on this now. Need to remind myself too that this is all words only. Words can’t describe this process fully any more than a menu can describe a meal! J