This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.
Back in college, I remember listening to two friends arguing cheerfully about something. He asked her, “What do you mean by ‘freedom’?” She fired back without missing a beat, “What do you mean, ‘mean’?”
The word, “self” – and related words like “I,” “you,” “she,” and “theirs” which refer to personal identity – have a similar mind-binding murkiness when you look closely at them, even though we use them routinely. Psychology, neuroscience, and spiritual practice all have an interest in what in the world the self is – if it’s anything at all – and so it’s helpful to know what we mean when we use that word, since it actually can mean quite a few different things. It’s not uncommon to hear or read people using the term in several ways, even in the same paragraph (sometimes sentence) without acknowledging the shifts in meaning. This is where things get muddled up.
The sort of self we are speaking of determines the properties it has, and more importantly, for many of us, how to free ourselves from its entanglements.
Here’s a summary of different ways to describe the “self,” informed by both neuroscience and Buddhism, and a consideration of some implications for a few deep questions.
Entity or Process, Elaborated or Essential?
Let’s start with two distinctions, expressed as questions:
- Is “self” an entity or a process?
- Is “self” elaborated or essential?