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.

Death: A Reality Check

I present a short musing that marks my hopefully triumphant return from the annals of writer’s block and apathy. It’s been too long since I’ve felt proud of a single sentence in anything I’ve written, including this. But how can I better perfect myself without even trying? Anyway, I digress. It’s time to purge this nihilism from my system.

The briefness of life is akin to a single breath of air. An inhale, an exhale, and then it’s over. The effects and memory of our meager existence in the universe are left to disperse and decay. I realize that I will not be upon this earth forever, for in fact my essence is as transitory as weather in the midwest. *chuckle* In this existence, my body is merely a shell that I must maintain in order to continue experiencing the perception of this particular state of reality. But this is a highly metaphysical, somewhat dry perspective.  

The simple, unalterable, absolute truth is that I’m going to die. 

I’m going to be rendered obsolete, wiped clean from the collective body of society, and ultimately eliminated from the engorged pool of humanity. It’s a frightening thought, but one I’m learning to embrace. Because embracing the inevitable is the best reality check. It frames your existence within a new context. It teaches you to see the aspects of life that matter on a true and profound scale. It unveils how many years you’ve wasted on trivial pursuits of material intention. But most importantly, it’s humbling as hell.

To cope with the realization of my looming annihilation, I have searched for a greater purpose. As if in rebellion against the void, I’ve analyzed the patterns of causes and effects underlying every event, looking for some meaning. This has led to a greater awareness of actions and reactions on both a micro (personal) and macro (universal) scale. Perceiving the inherent interconnectedness of everything and everyone, with no exceptions, has not been a forthcoming achievement. I realize that my way of thinking and priorities in life are not in line with convention, which has culminated in a self-centered yearning to be understood that I struggle to overcome. It’s spiritually inhibiting.

Liberation from spiritual death is understanding that the distinction between your individuality and the rest of the universe is not absolute. At best, it’s an illusion crafted by the limited awareness and material grip of this state of reality. The intrinsic and interconnected nature of life proves that we can not exist without sending ripples of effects out into the universe. And we are most certainly not immune to being affected by the ripples around us. It is indeed a metaphysical ocean we live in, and an unstoppable force that binds us all.

I meditate on this realization when the absurdity of existence takes its toll. What lies after death may not be possible to know with certainty. It may not even be within my capabilities, for all the speculating books and Sanskrit translations I’ve slogged through. But it’s my newfound understanding that this knowledge isn’t necessary. Realizing how inherently interwoven I am with the workings of the universe gives me a place and a calling. Spirituality frames the narrow truths of nihilism within a grander, far nobler context of divine purpose.

Death is but one side of the great balancing act of the universe. The story is so much larger than any individual soul. By striving to develop a perception of our interconnectedness, we can be inspired to live in a state of unconditional compassion, liberated understanding, and servitude toward our fellow man.