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Self as Process

What is a "self"?

The self, according to the Buddha, is an idea that gets us into trouble. When we try to conceive of our being separate from the rest of reality, when we draw a line between “me” and the “other,” we create a false sense of the “me” as a thing in itself (we “reify” it). Then we identify with that “me”, and we invest any qualities we associate with the illusion with such vital importance that we defend these concepts — our ideas about who we are — with existential terror. Whatever and who ever we think we are, if someone tells us we are not that — or tells us we are something else that we don’t want to identify with — we feel threatened, and get defensive.

In fact the self — the ego — is a psychological and social fiction. We need it in order to function in the world, but it is in the end just an artifact of how our minds work. Taitetsu Unno compares it to the cursor on the screen of a computer: it is a necessary tool we use to focus our attention, but it’s not a thing in itself; it’s just a function of the system. [In River of Fire, River of Water, but I've lost the page number.]

Older translations of Buddhist terminology talk about the self as “empty;” but that usage has created a lot of confusion. (See Sunyata.) Recent interpreters (notably Roger Corless) have introduced the term “transparent” instead. When you look to find exactly what this “thing” the self is, it is transparent. There is no thing there. There is a process of interconnected energy, life, a dance....

As Joanna Macy says, “The way we define and limit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or at other moments, we can cast its boundaries farther to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained. [Macy calls this process of enlarging our self-concept ‘the greening of the self.’]

“I used to think that I ended with my skin, that everything within the skin was me and everything outside the skin was not. But now you’ve read these words, and the concepts they represent are reaching your cortex, so “the process” that is me now extends as far as you. And where, for that matter, did this process begin? I certainly can trace it to my teachers, some of whom I never met, and to my husband and children, who give me courage and support to do the work I do, and to the plant and animal beings who sustain my body. What I am, as system theorists have helped me see, is a “flow-through.” I am a flow-through of matter, energy and information, which is transformed in turn by my own experiences and intentions.” (World as Lover, World as Self, p. 12.)

The practical consequences of this thinking, for me, have been first of all, to be less knee-jerk defensive. Situations I formerly would have reacted to by dumping my anger on another (usually my husband Ward), now I can handle a bit more creatively, because I recognize the defensiveness, and can step back from it a bit, instead of identifying with that too. This gives me a feeling of psychological elbow room; I can own the feeling and still not act out of it, act more creatively. (There’s some more description of this experience in A Vipassana Success Story.)

Compassion is easier: I know that I am in an interdependent web with every being, we co-create each other. What Jesus said as “Love thy neighbor as thyself” now means to me that my neighbor is indeed my self, is part of a larger self we both participate in.

In the garden the sense of extending beyond my skin has become especially vivid. I am the garden, I am the gardening, I am the living earth, growing and changing and dying and growing again. This means that when I think about death, I have that sense to draw on: this body will die, but “I” am not this body.

There is no way to conceptualize what a being truly is. The concept of “self” is useful in daily life, but remembering that this is a concept, a cursor, enables me to both to function more creatively, and to be open to a deeper, more satisfying experience of the whole dance.

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark, 2001; last updated 25 January 2003