I first ran into this problem when I told my mom I had tried LSD. She took it surprisingly well, especially as someone who grew up during the peak of 1970s/80s drug war propaganda.
But what preceded this admission was a long conversation, walking along the beach, where I tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to convince her that the “self” does not exist.
The sense of self is an illusion, there is no separateness between individuals or anything else, we feel like egos but those egos aren’t really there…
No matter how I phrased it, she wasn’t buying. I became increasingly frustrated and she became increasingly defensive, as I kept insisting that not just the two of us but everyone in the world somehow didn’t really exist.
Eventually I said something like, Well, I took LSD, and this all seemed true then. Not only that, but that reality felt more real than this one, and it still does now.
While this shed some much-needed light on the situation, and gave my mom some understanding as to why I believed this craziness, it still did little to persuade her of any of it.
A hard problem
In hindsight, it’s no surprise this conversation went the way it did. Something I’ve learned since is that effectively getting across the concept of “no self” is an extremely hard thing to do.
This is not surprising either, as the majority of our life experiences continually confirm what seems to be the existence of a self. Our societies, built on shared ideas about reality, contain within their structure the assumption that we are all distinct, separate individuals. Thus our collective beliefs, behaviours, and interactions all confirm it too.
Core aspects of our direct experience – namely thoughts and the sense of agency or free will – also continually solidify the illusion. In a multitude of ways, the idea of a “no self” goes against everything we have been told is true, and even what feels true subjectively.
When you consider the nature of the ego itself, it becomes even clearer why this concept is so difficult to convey. An ego is naturally defensive and self-preserving. It doesn’t want to let go of its sense of control, and it clings to a perceived sense of legitimacy and importance. That’s what egos do.
So telling an ego it’s not really there generally doesn’t get a very good reaction. No one likes being told they don’t exist.
You have to address someone on the level of the self – this is how we communicate and interact – but then convince them that that self is not really there.
And how it often feels to people, I think, is that you are somehow diminishing or trying to steal away everything that feels most true, most salient, and most important to them.
This is a hard problem. But the lack of self, it seems to me, is the core counterintuitive truth about the human experience. This feeling of being only a distinct, separate self is the ultimate cognitive bias, and recognizing it as such is the one concept that is most important and necessary to spread.
It is the single idea that, if more widely understood, would do the most good in terms of solving the most problems and reducing the most human suffering.
A two part solution (?)
There appear to be two aspects to understanding no-self at an individual level: conceptual or theoretical understanding at the level of the mind, and understanding or feeling through direct experience.
The latter aspect, direct experience of no-self, can come about in a number of ways:
It can come through spontaneous mystical/spiritual/transcendent experience, although this is rare.
It often comes through psychedelic use, this is probably the path with the highest likelihood of success, although it is still not guaranteed.
It can come from meditation – generally a significant amount of meditation – although this is not guaranteed either.
There are also tricks and techniques like this one and others, that are meant to instantaneously bring about the feeling of no-self. In my experience these work either quite well or not at all, and the effectiveness often depends on an individual’s existing familiarity with these ideas.
None of these paths are that readily accessible.
A conceptual model for understanding no-self seems even more difficult. As far as I am aware there isn’t currently a great one – one that is accessible, useful for framing the direct experience, and suitable for spreading and understanding in the 21st century.
All existing accounts I know of come bundled with either murky religious esotericism or new-age mysticism that very quickly crosses the woo-woo line into total and utter bullshit.
So short of telling someone to go read one or more entire books, meditate for several years, or take an illegal drug, the options are pretty limited.
I think ideally what you would have is a highly accessible meme designed for mass circulation and adoption in the information age. Something that can be understood quickly and easily and thus spread quickly and easily as well.
And, as mentioned, this would need to circumvent the natural defensiveness of the ego, and somehow persuade people of the lack of self without invalidating their experience. Rather what it invalidates is the illusion of ownership of that experience.
A better future
Imagine for a moment a future society. In this society, the sense of self is understood to be an illusion – or at least an incomplete picture of reality. For an individual to identify solely as a distinct, separate self is a relic of the past and seen as just another set of primal urges we have outgrown as a species. Another evolutionary adaptation that was once advantageous but that we simply don’t need anymore.
In this society, individual incentives are aligned with the collective good – what is good for each person is at once good for everyone together. Individual differences are honoured and understood within this context. Transparency underlies everything: right action on the level of the individual and the collective is known and understood to be right by everyone involved.
(See Aldous Huxley’s Island for a not altogether unrealistic account of this.)
Currently, however, this remains utopian fantasy, and until then we are confronted with the problem of the illusion of separateness. The core of this is again, I think, the degree to which the truth of “no self” runs counter to our habitual experience.
Even if you can see it, you rarely truly feel it. Even if you feel it sometimes, most of the time you don’t. And even if you feel it all the time – you still have to operate in a world where most people neither see it nor feel it.
That’s where we find ourselves today. So I’m asking you – how do we talk better about no-self?
Update: Read the follow-up post No-Self as Counterintuitive Truth