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Examining the Self

By examining consciousness more closely, we challenge our usual assumptions about ourselves and the world. Another subject that requires more attention is the notion of the "self."

We commonly maintain the idea of an internal self — the psychological "I" we locate at the core of our identity. But does this "I," this "self," this "me," substantially exist? Rodolfo Llinas, Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience at NYU, writes in "I of the Vortex":

"I" has always been the magnificent mystery; I believe, I say, I whatever. But one must understand that there is no such tangible thing. It is just a particular mental state, a generated abstract entity we refer to as "I" or "self".... The "I" of the vortex, that which we work and suffer for, is just a convenient word that stands for as global an event as does the concept of Uncle Sam vis-à-vis the reality of a complex, heterogeneous United States.

The meditation teacher Toni Packer addresses the same question in her book "The Wonder of Presence":

Now, is there such an entity as me or I? Or is it just like the weather — an ongoing, ever changing stream of ideas, images, memories, projections, likes and dislikes, creation and destruction, that thought keeps calling I, me, Toni, and thereby solidifying what is evanescent?

The site Naturalism.org, which promotes a scientific approach to understanding the world, offers a complementary view:

The self is constituted by more or less consistent sets of personal characteristics, beliefs, and actions, but it doesn’t exist apart from those complex physical processes that make up the individual. It may strongly seem as if there is a self sitting behind experience, witnessing it, and behind behavior, controlling it, but this impression is strongly disconfirmed by a scientific understanding of human behavior.

It was once believed that atoms were indivisible and the sun revolved around the earth. Perhaps we are even more attached to the belief in a permanent self — the "I" in control of our life. When examined more closely, through the scientific lens, or in the moment-to-moment attention of awareness, such solidified beliefs begin to dissolve.

February 13, 2005 | Science | Permalink



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