What Is the Self? Part 1

A common interpretation of many spiritual practices is the transcendence of Self, or rising above one’s identity. This is reflected most prominently in eastern religious traditions, and to a lesser extent, in those of the west. Throughout the ages, much about this subject has been watered down or misinterpreted. The modern pseudo-spiritual approach has taken the concept of No-Self and warped it into a method for simultaneous depersonalization and innocuous egoism. Getting back to the root and original intent of these ancient teachings can help dispel this benign confusion.

Buddha taught that the Self is an aggregate of five skandhas, or the particular mental factors that give rise to one’s cravings and attachments. They include form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Together these factors comprise the foundation of one’s personality. In Theravada Buddhism, suffering is shown to arise when one clings or becomes attached to these aggregates. In Mahayana tradition, the nature of the skandhas is entirely empty of independent existence. A side note: In Blavatskian Theosophy, it is possible to conflate this teaching with the “Seven Principles” of the monad.

The first skandha pertains to our body or physical form. The second, sensation, is primarily made up of physical and emotional feelings. The third skandha, perception, is what can be most accurately defined as cognition or the ability to think. It’s the part of ourselves that recognizes and identifies. The fourth, mental formations, includes our behavioral patterns, conditioned prejudices, and both negative and positive mental states. It manifests as cyclical karma, or the causes and effects of our actions. The fifth and last skandha, consciousness, is pure awareness without conceptualization. It is the bedrock of the Self that knits together our experience of reality.

Something to keep in mind is that, because they are empty, the skandhas are not characteristics that an individual possesses. Beneath the emergent identity of these aggregates, there is only No-Self, which is the True Self. Simply put, the ego, or the individual and autonomous “you,” is a manifested illusion. This doctrine is referred to as Anatta or Anatman in Buddhism. Stripped of greater context, this teaching can be dangerous and easily misconstrued as nihilistic.¬†While our Self is inherently empty, this does not mean we are “soulless.” In my opinion, it simply necessitates a reinvention of the idea of a soul. I will attempt to further develop this idea in Part 2.