Imaginary Limits: Grasping at Illusory I

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Imaginary Limits: Grasping at Illusory I

From the perspective of science, there is no inherent reason for the human mind to have an underlying owner or “self.” The brain, the physical structure that creates consciousness and ‘the mind,’ exists only to provide centralized control over the body, ensuring our survival; it’s comprised of numerous subsystems that allow us to engage safely with the world—eg those regions that warn us of threats; others that alert us to opportunities; faculties that monitor body states; systems that process spatial awareness and on. No region can be found via scans or neural anatomy that could feasibly produce a lasting “self.” And if consciousness exists to address conflicting impulses and to integrate subsystems, its without doubt an event that changes fluidly over time.

And yet we refer continuously to the idea of a continuous identity despite all that demonstrates such a construct is false and non-existent. Western theorists since David Hume (1711-1776), have shown that the self is an illusion comprised of an assortment of experiences, sensations and impressions that are tied together by a narrative inner voice. One dominant contemporary theory is that language developed as a way to organize us for survival; as a byproduct of language, in which communication unfolds over time, and so narrative was made possible, an example of which includes the illusion of self.

The Buddha arrived at a similar conclusion 2,500 years ago. He proposed that much of the unnecessary suffering we humans experience, including so many psychological wounds that can lead to despair and even suicide, result from misattributing our emotional experience to the illusion of a self.

This identity sets imaginary limits and deprives us of the freedom to change. Such an idea keeps us from seeing clearly that our emotional experience arises due to how we’ve previously used consciousness—the quality of our thoughts and actions—not any continuing, locked in characteristics. The Buddha proposed that we can determine our interior, mental landscapes by changing how we relate to our experiences as they arise; compassion creates peace, whereas anger creates agitation, etc.


In summary, the self is an array of powerful experiences we’ve added to memory—neuroscience demonstrates we remember events that appear to directly effect our survival, during which all the various memory systems of the brain, implicit and explicit, are engaged—to which we’ve added a sense of continuity. Clinical psychology now reveals that once a healthy identity has been established to meet social demands, we can begin to explore changing it and even putting it aside for many beneficial purposes. In other words, we have the liberty to change who we are: We can remove ingrained fears through exposure therapy; we can over time reduce the power of traumatic memories by calmly opening to them in meditation; we can engage in narrative play, allowing us to reconstruct how we relate to the difficult experiences we’ve endured. In short, the state of having “no one home” may be more advantageous than we imagined.