For centuries, philosophers have been intrigued by the search for the self. Is there an individual self who is experiencing things; making decisions; thinking thoughts? And what does the self consist of?
Aside from thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images, it seems impossible to find the true self. Therefore, we look to outside objects to give us some sense of identity. We become identified with our bodies, our achievements, our social status, our beliefs, our work, and so on. However, all of these things are at the mercy of events outside of our control. If we draw a strong sense of identity from our work, and our job is threatened, our sense of self is also threatened. Identification with our opinions or beliefs can cause us to feel personally criticized if those ideas are criticized.
Any threat to our sense of self triggers fear. Fear leads to worry - worrying about what we have said or done, what others will think of us, what might happen to us… These all keep our attention focused on the past or future and not in the present moment, which is ultimately all we really have.
If most of our attention is taken up with the thoughts in our head, we miss what is happening right now: the birds singing; the trees rustling; how we feel in our body. Our lifetime of conditioning makes it hard for us to just let go, suspend thought, and just be.
The ancient Vedic teachings say that “when the mind is still, then one knows the real self, and the nature of this self is the truth; eternal; being. It is always there, never changing, no matter our experience. It is not a unique self; it has no personal qualities. It is the same for everyone.”
The reason we have such a difficult time finding this self is because we are looking for it in an experience, a feeling, a sense. The self can’t be an experience, because by definition, it is that which is experiencing. The self is consciousness. The sense of awareness that is common among all sentient beings. Once we become aware of our true nature, we no longer feel the need to buy things we don’t need, say things we don’t mean, or engage in activities that reinforce a false sense of self.
It is clear that we have lost our connection to our true self. We are confronted by this every day. We have so much wealth in western cultures, so much prosperity, and yet we close our eyes to the fact that half of the human race is living in a desperate state, where every day is a struggle to survive. Where they have no time to do anything else but struggle to live just one more day.
Any organism that is sensitive to its environment has some degree of experience and it can therefore be argued that it is conscious. I think it is clear to most people that a dolphin is conscious. Its ability to experience fear, joy, and love make it quite obvious. If consciousness did not evolve with humans, then maybe it has always existed.
The Buddha taught that sentience (the ability to experience sensation) is everywhere in varying degrees, and that humans should have compassion for all sentient beings. By living this way we not only have a desire for our own liberation, but for the liberation of others.
I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.