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09. The separate self

The belief in a fixed, unchanging central point in our experience, separated from the rest of our experience is perhaps the most widespread and deeply entrenched belief.

This belief arises, at a very young age, usually through identification with a mirror image and/or through identification with other bodies of other children and adults, encouraged by parents and caregivers.

Little Emma thus gradually believes through gentle indoctrination that the image in the mirror is an image of her, including a head imagined in the place where previously only her perceptions were manifested. And she learns that she herself is inside that head and that she looks out through the eyes in that head and that her experiences are therefore taking place outside of her (analogously, for a blind child, this works just as well through hearing).

As a child one notices that thoughts and feelings make themselves known only near this body, my body. It is not possible to perceive other people's thoughts. One cannot feel what another person is feeling. One can keep ones thoughts hidden. So there seems to be a kind of private sphere in which thoughts and feelings take place. This makes us feel that "I" am in here as a "subject", with my "subjective" feelings and thoughts, while the so-called "objective" world takes place outside of me.

Emma has become a "thing" among other "things" that do not belong to herself.

Where other people see a head and where I see a head in the mirror, exactly in that place, if I look honestly and unbiasedly, I do not see a head, and when I touch that place with my hands there are in fact no such things as a "nose" or "cheeks," but on the contrary only vague tactile impressions. We have learned to interpret those impressions as "nose" and "cheeks". We have learned to identify with the image we see in the mirror: "that girl over there is who I am". Who we are to ourselves is forgotten and we walk around in a world that is outside of us rather than as the knowing we are. We feel we have lost something and we do everything we can to fill that void: with money, relationships, a quest for enlightenment and happiness, whatever.

There is, in fact, only one, undivided experience. There is no thing (nor a head!) between my thoughts and the computer screen I perceive here. The experience is singular. My attention can go to my thoughts and a moment later attention goes back to the screen on which these words appear. I don't feel like I'm crossing a boundary then. It is one fluid, flowing event. The sense of self is simply something that happens in the moment, and a moment later another sense comes to the fore and the sense of self fades into the background.

Some spiritual traditions aim at a total eradication of the self, including the feeling of being a self ("nirbija samadhi"). If such a thing is even possible, it is in any case not desirable and probably a completely disorienting, psychotic experience or else it manifests itself in complete lack of awareness of the surrounding world.

But fortunately, of course, "I" do exist! Not as something fixed since birth that constitutes my immutable identity as a living being, as a person with a fixed name, as an (immortal) soul, and so on. But as a point of view, as a self-reference, as an indication of this body and personality in relation to other bodies and other aspects of the world in which I find myself. Otherwise, I experience myself as a continuous stream of changing experiences.


It is true that this body and the memories of this body have a certain continuity. And there are traits of character, perhaps enshrined in the DNA of this body, that are still the same. I also still detect a kind of basic reticence in my dealings with people and a hypersensitivity to all kinds of impressions. I feel more or less the same as I did yesterday, yet I already look and feel nothing like the person I was a while ago, and even less like the person I was as a teenager and as a child. I have different interests, different beliefs, different values, a different taste in music, and so on.

In fact, the self or "I" is nothing more than a landmark, a unique point-of-view. However, we think that "me" is a lot more: the complete story from birth to now, under the same name, as the same person. But if you look closely, you can see that "me" is constantly changing.

"The use of the word "I" seems inevitable. Notice, however, that the word "I" does not refer at all to something fixed, but to a flow that defies every description and can never be pinned down or forced to behave in a different way."

Robert Saltzman, The Ten Thousand Things

"When we think that we are a certain thing with a name, we see ourselves like a cork in a stream. What we do not realize is that there is only flow. What we think of as something special is from the beginning only movement, change and flow…. It is not that the universe consists of countless objects in motion. There is only flux. Nothing floats along (or can float along) in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing arises or passes. There is only flux."

Steve Hagen (author of Buddhism Plain and Simple, among others)

So in addition to the sense of being an individual, there is also the identification with the body and in particular the head as the seat of self-consciousness and being separated from the environment.

The sense of individuality is a complex psychological phenomenon that probably developed over a long period of human history. Although it is difficult to pinpoint specific evolutionary changes associated with this feeling, we can make some informed speculations based on what is known about human evolution and social development.

Early humans lived in small, close-knit groups in which cooperation and social bonds were essential for survival. These groups were typically organized around kinship, with individuals having strong ties to their families and immediate community. In this context, a sense of belonging and connection to others was vital to group cohesion and collective survival.

As human societies became more complex and began to expand, new challenges and opportunities arose. The development of agriculture, the establishment of permanent settlements and the formation of larger communities necessitated more complex social structures. This transition likely brought about changes in the dynamics of social interactions and the emergence of more diverse roles and identities within societies.

With the growth of societies, there may have been a gradual shift from primarily kin-based relationships to broader social networks. As individuals interacted with more people outside their immediate family circle, they would have increasingly encountered individuals with different perspectives, interests and goals. This expanded social landscape may have contributed to a growing awareness of one's own individuality and separateness from others.

Moreover, the development of language and the ability to communicate abstract thoughts and ideas played an important role in the formation of human cognition and self-awareness. Language enabled the exchange of information, the transmission of cultural knowledge and the formation of complex social narratives. It provided a means for individuals to express their thoughts, desires and experiences, creating a sense of personal identity and self-expression.

The emergence of complex societies also brought with it hierarchies, social roles and division of labor. As individuals assumed specialized roles within their communities, they may have developed a stronger sense of personal identity tied to their specific functions. This differentiation of roles and responsibilities may have reinforced a sense of separateness from others.

The distribution of functions in a complex society will also have fostered the giving of names to people, as well as the giving of names to apparent parts of people's experience. This, of course, greatly facilitates communication. The shadow side of this development is the emergence of loneliness and alienation.