Is the self just an illusion as claimed in Buddhism?

We often hear the fans and followers of Buddhism declaring that the self is just an illusion but in what sense is this really true? In my opinion, all Buddhists mean by this is that we often confuse things that we are conscious of with who we are. However, it is worth exploring what this means and why it is considered to be such a profound truth.

I should probably start by saying that I am not a Buddhist and do not believe in things like reincarnation. Of course, anything is possible and I am not insisting that such things cannot be true. However, when I talk about Buddhism I am merely interested in it as a system that helps people to let go of any unnecessary suffering.

We all have a conscious self, which is able to observe whatever is happening in the present moment, and then we have our experience, which is whatever we are able to observe or sense. Experience includes any thoughts, feelings and sensations many of which appear to be about a person who we tend think of as “me”, “myself” or “I”.

It seems fair to say that we have regular experiences of a constantly developing multifaceted personality with its own nature, habits and impulses. We are aware of this person, live with them and try to look after them. However, when we start thinking we are them, we forget that they are merely an aspect of our conscious experience.

However, we are the custodian who looks after the evolving personality and physical body we experience. A good way to illustrate how this works and why it is important is to consider the following thought experiment. Imagine if we switched brains and bodies so that you suddenly woke up with my personality and I woke up with yours.

In this scenario, you would become aware of a different body and a different personality with its own memories, habits, thoughts, impulses and reactions. Even if you exercised some direct control over their behaviour, your conscious self would not really be able to point at anything in your experience and say “That’s me”.

Even though you would be able to experience that person’s feelings, thoughts and sensations just as if they were your own, you would probably not find yourself naturally identifying with any of those experiences. You would probably not think of any thoughts, emotions or sensations that arose as belonging to you or being yours.

The experience would be rather like playing a highly immersive and interactive virtual reality game in which the person you inhabited would be more like an avatar than anything you would really think of as your true self. However, over many years you might gradually start to believe the illusion that you really were this person.

In a sense, this is exactly what has already happened to you. You have got used to the somewhat false idea that you are the person whom your conscious self merely inhabits. You are so used to experiencing their thoughts, feelings and sensations that you think of those experiences as your own and think of them as who you really are.

In a sense, nothing you experience is who you really are because you are merely the one observing all those experiences including the personality you are very closely aware of. Because you spend all of your waking hours with that person, your relationship with them is vital and you are in a unique position to take care of them.

It is important to be very caring towards that person when they are going through fear, anger, stress or pain. A good way to help them through such emotions is to really allow yourself to feel or express them so that you can move beyond them. However, becoming a detached observer of yourself can also create a shift in awareness.

When you no longer see your thoughts as your own, you will usually take some of them less seriously. You may start to notice that some of the most intense thoughts you experience are a little distorted. For example, when there are angry thoughts they may wrongly demonise someone or create a cruel and shaming self-image.

You may also notice that there are thoughts which try to resist rather than accept basic, uncontrollable facts. For example, there may be thoughts which want to solve pain not through healthy release or grief but by trying to change other people rather than accept their limitations. Getting lost in such thoughts only prolongs suffering.

However, merely “letting go” of such thoughts is not always the best way to deal with them. Sometimes, gaining real insights into ourselves and our thought processes can help us to let go of thoughts. For example, it might be helpful to realise that the reason we are obsessing about a loss is because we have unmet needs to address.

Nevertheless, letting go of unhelpful thoughts is vital. One of the best ways to help yourself is to let go of wanting what is unrealistic or what you cannot have and working instead with what you can reasonably influence and may be able to obtain. Resistant thoughts will often try to pull us out of this constructive and realistic approach to life.

The more we get pulled into thoughts which are distorted by suffering and resistance, the more we agree with those distortions and think of ourselves as the person we are experiencing rather than their custodian. In my own experience, the self who suffers often feels like a lost child who wants other people to take care of them.

This is why loving self-parenting is so important. It is important to be very kind and understanding towards this person we live with, to think of them as our inner child, to let go of any thinking which is exaggerated, distorted, unreasonable or unhelpfully resistant, to occasionally take a long break from thinking and just take care of them.

There is no need to think of yourself as an illusion. The illusion is the idea that you are the same self that you are in fact looking after. You disprove that illusion every time you take care of that person like a good parent. I think that this is the most important message in Buddhism but a much easier way to say it is simply: love yourself.

Of course, some Buddhists are focused on letting go of the self at a more advanced level but it is important to be realistic and never force yourself to run before you can walk. The most important part of letting go is to let go of distorted thoughts that cause suffering, starting with thoughts which are self-shaming, self-blaming or self-harsh.

I think one of the most common mistakes many people make is to shame themselves for not being at a more advanced level of letting go. We all sometimes feel annoyed at ourselves for struggling with the acceptance of basic facts. However, the truth is that struggling with resistance is not something for which anyone is to blame.

The solution is to be kind and patient with yourself, to accept that resistance is completely natural since the self we are learning to look after is afflicted with deeply set habits and haunted by powerful recurring illusions. You can be very proud of wanting to overcome your resistance rather than ashamed just because it can be hard to do so.

At the more advanced level of letting go, a person’s sense of self may become greatly diminished as they realise that much of it only exists in thoughts. However, it is not worth working on that until you have eradicated habits such as self-neglect, self-harshness and self-shaming through years of sustained self-care and self-kindness.

People who have a very troubled relationship with themselves are often criticised for being self-absorbed when what they really need to do is continue to focus on themselves but in a way that is much kinder. Only once they are used to being much kinder to themselves will they be ready to significantly let go of focusing on themselves.

The phrase “I love myself” unlocks the secret of Buddhism. The “I” and the “myself” in that phrase are not one and the same person. The “I” is the one who is able to consciously observe the self – that developing personality with all of its changing states of mind, sensation and emotion – and then take care of them just like a loving parent.

It is an illusion to think of the person you live with as who you are because you are the one taking care of them. It is also an illusion to develop too rigid an idea of who that person is. It may also be more accurate to talk about people having “many selves” since we have different mental states which often operate like “sub-personalities”.

I still think that it makes sense to talk about an overall personality which consists of these different parts. However, it is important to acknowledge that our personality is multifaceted rather than unitary and evolves over time, going through different conscious and unconscious states of mind, sensation or emotion which are merely temporary.

This is important because we sometimes confuse how we feel or think about an issue with how it will always be. Realising that we are just helping our inner child to get through a phase will often make it pass a lot easier. For example, it can be helpful to say to ourselves: “It’s strange but one day you won’t even care about this anymore”.

Another reason why the changeability of our personality is important is that this offers us a form of redemption. The person you call yourself can become a new person each day. You never have to think of yourself as the same person who existed yesterday and that means there is always a chance to start over again and reinvent yourself.

Of course, that does not mean that change is easy since the self is often somewhat bogged down by its past habits. However, your conscious self is not the person with those habits but rather an observer who only exists in the present moment but can act from that moment to inspire and develop your self to develop new habits.

I think that many people get confused about Buddhism especially when they hear a statement such as “The self is an illusion”. Some people who hear that phrase will think that it means that they are not real anymore, that they do not really exist and that none of their thoughts, feelings or needs has any validity or needs to be respected.

The sad thing is that people who live in a state of habitual self-neglect are more likely to arrive at this very understandable misinterpretation. The best way to think about Buddhism is to love yourself. Rather than getting lost in the illusion that this person you live with is who you are, you can simply become a loving parent to them.

One of the most important things you can do in this role is never to blame them for things that they are still learning. It is often the people who suffer most who find it much more difficult to step back and become that loving parent, especially if they never had a parent who really showed them what it meant to love themselves.

I believe that even though the Buddha said that the self is an illusion, he was talking about the identification with the self rather than the developing personality we all need to take care of. I believe that he wanted you to love yourself, respect yourself, be true to yourself and nurture yourself rather than abandoning or neglecting yourself.

As another thought experiment, let us consider that reincarnation is real after all. Whether it is or not, it is certainly an interesting idea. Imagine, for example, if in the next life I will be you and you will be me. This would make it in my own self-interest to be very kind to you since I will end up being on the receiving end of my own actions.

However, the concept of reincarnation can also help us think about self-parenting. Imagine that you will experience a thousand lives. In one, you will experience the mind and body of a billionaire with a happy childhood and all the luck in the world. In another life, you will experience the mind and body of an orphan in a wheelchair.

Would you be nice to yourself as the billionaire but judge yourself as the orphan? Or would it be fairer to say the following: whichever mind and body I inhabit, I will be kind to that person. When I inhabit the mind and body of the orphan, I will never judge them for their struggle but rather strive to be the loving parent they never had.

Being a loving parent to yourself means embracing that inner child unconditionally rather than blaming them for what feels difficult. It means encouraging them to realise what they can do rather than telling them that they “should” or “must”. It is about cultivating sincere self-compassion, self-understanding, self-fairness and self-care.

Rather than thinking of your ever-developing personality as who you are, you can think of them as who you are looking after, who you are taking care of and who you are going to help through all of life’s challenges. The more difficulties that person is going through, the more they truly deserve your help, love, kindness and support.

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