Sense Of Self Is An Essential Skill Of Mind

Paul Fleischman

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Awakin FeatureMany articles in the Western press have confused the Buddha’s idea of “anatta,” the absence of an eternal soul, with the idea that meditation should rid you of your ordinary sense of self. Then the press has utilized neuropsychology to confirm this point. Psychologists like Bruce Hood, in his book, The Self Illusion, have encouraged people to look upon their sense of self as something to be discredited and abandoned.

All of this is dismaying to a psychiatrist who spent much of his professional life helping disorganized, fragile, and wavering people to develop a firm and coherent sense of self. Let me emphasize it in one clear sentence: our sense of self is a creation, an essential skill of our mind. Our minds collect the information contained in our body sensations to fabricate an integrated and continuous identity. This gives us greater memory, consistency and flexibility - you could say “character” or “personality” - than we would have if we were limited to immediate reactivity.

There is an enormous difference between understanding that our self is created, versus devaluing it. After all, clothes, cars, and houses are created things, and we don’t try to live without them. Our body is a created thing and we can’t imagine trying to live without it. Our sense of self is an integrative, psychological system that we must have to live a focused, directed and self-consistent life. In the psychological sense, the Buddha had a powerful sense of self that gave him continuity and consistency across a lifetime of teaching and leadership.

There are many people who have difficulty creating a consistent, flexible, responsible internal executive. Their problems may be due to many reasons, either neurological and/or environmental. These neighbors and family members of ours suffer excessively, because they are unable to generate around themselves a world of goals, loves, people, and tasks. We should not weaken the executive function of confused people by implying that their psychologically constructed sense of self, which they need in order to function, should be abandoned, simply because all of their being is ultimately
ephemeral.

When we absorb the wisdom of meditation, we see our selves as chimera, and when we take care of our daily business, we count on ourselves, to be effective, just as the Buddha was. We are the world, using all the laws of science and running on the energy of the Big Bang. We are a fabrication, created by our brains as they integrate and portray ephemeral body sensations. And we are people, born to eat, meditate, make friends and hold jobs. All of these dimensions co-exist and express aspects of a bigger truth. 

Paul R. Fleischman is a psychiatrist, a teacher of Vipassana meditation, and an author of eight books, most recently, "Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant". The Above is from his Essay, "A Practical And Spiritual Path"

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that a sense of self is a creation and an essential skill of our mind? Can you share a personal story of a time you became aware of your self as an integrative psychological system? What helps you respect your self and not dismiss it simply because it is a creation?

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9 Previous Reflections:

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    On Sep 21, 2018 sandip sheta wrote:

     perfect about SELF RESPECT....



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    On Sep 6, 2018 Pragalbha Doshi wrote:
     I grew up without a sense of self. Having told repeatedly and religiously that you are not your body, you are not your emotions, all that means nothing, I was thoroughly confused with what I was really. I could not relate to any God outside of me as in general I felt lack of trust.I never truly learned humility without collapse. The only way to feel a sense of validation for my existence was trying to access it through some ego identity. The more I tried to feel some puffed up bigness, smaller I felt. I struggled a lot and landed with some pure gifts of human suffering. I learned the difference between the self we create in terms of our body through our beliefs, thoughts and emotions - and the Self that is a observer, creator and a seeker of liberation from it all.The inner higher Self allows me clear discernment of my choices in alignment with my values and the human person self allows me to function towards my purpose as it unfolds through me. I can identify my body, thou... [View Full Comment]

     I grew up without a sense of self. Having told repeatedly and religiously that you are not your body, you are not your emotions, all that means nothing, I was thoroughly confused with what I was really. I could not relate to any God outside of me as in general I felt lack of trust.
    I never truly learned humility without collapse. The only way to feel a sense of validation for my existence was trying to access it through some ego identity. The more I tried to feel some puffed up bigness, smaller I felt. 
    I struggled a lot and landed with some pure gifts of human suffering. I learned the difference between the self we create in terms of our body through our beliefs, thoughts and emotions - and the Self that is a observer, creator and a seeker of liberation from it all.
    The inner higher Self allows me clear discernment of my choices in alignment with my values and the human person self allows me to function towards my purpose as it unfolds through me. I can identify my body, thoughts and emotions to be the tools, when used skilfully, a true expression of my purpose of this lifetime is allowed. Body is my primary dwelling that I care for, just like my concrete home that is my secondary dwelling.

    I still feel a sense of dilemma within. A coherent sense of self, that is my personality, like Paul Fleischman describes is a new experience to me(after a life-altering experience of disintegration & rebirth of a kind). I have so much need in me to be witnessed, acknowledged and appreciated for how I am in this lifetime, that I find myself self-indulgent. Wanting to talk about myself, share my experiences, own with words how I appear, what I experience. It often overpowers my desire to serve, feel selfless in my attitude. I am guarded about risking losing myself again while prioritizing others. It feels necessary to own my new creation of myself and love for myself. How then am I making the right use of my sacred tool of body and mind in service of this life given to me? How will I be able to find exactly what the purpose of my journey is, if I am still so self-focused? Is it that telling my story of how I landed at these knowings and raw awakenings - in itself my purpose in service of those who could use it to find their self empowerment and love and awakening?

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    On Sep 5, 2018 Paul Hunter wrote:
    This is a good reflection that is attempting to restore balance to a topic that is moslty based upon a belief system, one that has not been directly realized by the person practicing, thereby creating an internal fallacy where thoughts and actions are in conflict. Though the author is pointing out another perspective I see that there is a balance in terms of understanding what we are actually able to work with. Who and what we are, here and now, vs. conforming to any real ideology. I agree that the concept of non-self has become dogmatic and misintrepreted but I also think there is more depth than the author is able to realize or communicate. There is a self (created or not who cares?) that we firmly identify with yet there is also a place where we are able to simply observe this collection of body, mind, and personality as an entity that is void of any real substance. Just a flowing mass of expressions and manifiestations. It is our identification, or lack there of, that may effect o... [View Full Comment]

    This is a good reflection that is attempting to restore balance to a topic that is moslty based upon a belief system, one that has not been directly realized by the person practicing, thereby creating an internal fallacy where thoughts and actions are in conflict.

    Though the author is pointing out another perspective I see that there is a balance in terms of understanding what we are actually able to work with. Who and what we are, here and now, vs. conforming to any real ideology.

    I agree that the concept of non-self has become dogmatic and misintrepreted but I also think there is more depth than the author is able to realize or communicate. There is a self (created or not who cares?) that we firmly identify with yet there is also a place where we are able to simply observe this collection of body, mind, and personality as an entity that is void of any real substance. Just a flowing mass of expressions and manifiestations. It is our identification, or lack there of, that may effect our peace of mind and understanding. And I personally shift from observation to identification with frequency wishing I could maintain observation as it provides much more understandind and persepctive then being caught in identification. 

    Still, identification has to be accepted and worked with in order to increase our skill in life. Knowing we are caught is a key part to an awareness that can lead to freedom and allow us to work with where and who we are in any given state.

    Self or not, if we just begin to understand what we are observing, feeling, being, expressing. This balanced observation will lead to deeper understandind and happiness. If we just believe without further investigation we are lost from the start.

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    On Sep 4, 2018 Annie wrote:

     It takes a strong sense of self to be able to let go of attachment to identity, and to trust the fabrication and the fabricator as being one and the same so that compassion and altruism can naturally arise  as the outcome of social fabrication and conditioning. Anatta isn't a bypass to experience, any more than a solid sense of self can control experience. Direct experience is all we have, it simply happens and how it is received and integrated depends on the cultural meaning ascribed to it. There is no escape hatch,  only the mystery wonder and luminosity of consciousness being aware of itself  


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    On Sep 4, 2018 Sunil, Bangalore wrote:

     This is the fundamental difference between Buddhism and Hinduism.Absence and presence of a SOUL respectively.I believe in the existence of an eternal life force,the innermost and absolute self distinct from mind n body.All the Universal lives are but the manifestations of this singlemost ever vibrating-pulseting consciousness.The whole-sole purpose in the complex gamut of this human birth is to find this self and become soul conscious.This Freedom or Nirvana is realised by many of our Saints,Sages,Rishis.I am also a student on this long path and the associated honest Sadhana sincerely.

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    On Sep 1, 2018 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
     Who Am I or the Quest of Identity has been explored by philosphers, psychologists, scientists and spiritual seekers. The answers come by remaing inquisitive and open. Thoughts about who I am arise in my mind. When my mind is not clear, steady and closed, my understanding of myself is also a reflection of my mind.When my mind is rigid, closed, and narrow my understanding of myself is a reflection of my mind.I have been practicing meditation for quite some time which has helped me not to be blindly and rigidlly attached to orto be stuck with my restricted thoughts and ideas and beliefs. I have come to relaize that I have a body and I am not a body, I have a mind and I am not a mind, and I have a desire and I am not a desire, I have an emotion but I am not an emotion. This understanding of myself helps me to differentiate between the phonomenal  self and transcedental self. The phenominal self is characterized by limiting, fragmented,and divisive ways of thinking, emoting... [View Full Comment]

     Who Am I or the Quest of Identity has been explored by philosphers, psychologists, scientists and spiritual seekers. The answers come by remaing inquisitive and open. Thoughts about who I am arise in my mind. When my mind is not clear, steady and closed, my understanding of myself is also a reflection of my mind.When my mind is rigid, closed, and narrow my understanding of myself is a reflection of my mind.I have been practicing meditation for quite some time which has helped me not to be blindly and rigidlly attached to orto be stuck with my restricted thoughts and ideas and beliefs. I have come to relaize that I have a body and I am not a body, I have a mind and I am not a mind, and I have a desire and I am not a desire, I have an emotion but I am not an emotion. This understanding of myself helps me to differentiate between the phonomenal  self and transcedental self. The phenominal self is characterized by limiting, fragmented,and divisive ways of thinking, emoting and acting. The transendental self is charcterized by going beyond the conditioned mind and fragmented self , merging into wholeness, oneness and harmony. And this is an ongoing pilgrimage for me. I remeber what my dad used to tell me, "Hasten slowly my child!" and these words coming from an enlightened loving dad have been guiding me on my path.

    May we continue our life joueney by expanding our consciousness to receive Divine Grace for healing wounds created by fragmented and divided self!
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P  Dave

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    On Sep 1, 2018 david doane wrote:
     My sense of self definitely is a creation -- however, it is a creation of much more than my mind -- it is a creation of consciousness of which I am a part.  And my mind is also a creation of that same consciousness.  I began becoming aware of myself as an "integrative psychological system," not that I ever knew or used that term, more than 40 years ago and have been developing as an "integrative psychological system" ever since, and probably long before.  I am a system that is part of larger and larger systems, and I am in the process, three steps forward and two steps backward, of becoming more and more whole with self, others, and all that is.  For me, that is what life is about.  Knowing that I am a unique expression of Creation, with the opportunity, responsibility and privilege to be that, helps me respect myself.  Of course I don't dismiss myself because I am a creation -- everything is a creation -- I value myself as a creation.  The thi... [View Full Comment]

     My sense of self definitely is a creation -- however, it is a creation of much more than my mind -- it is a creation of consciousness of which I am a part.  And my mind is also a creation of that same consciousness.  I began becoming aware of myself as an "integrative psychological system," not that I ever knew or used that term, more than 40 years ago and have been developing as an "integrative psychological system" ever since, and probably long before.  I am a system that is part of larger and larger systems, and I am in the process, three steps forward and two steps backward, of becoming more and more whole with self, others, and all that is.  For me, that is what life is about.  Knowing that I am a unique expression of Creation, with the opportunity, responsibility and privilege to be that, helps me respect myself.  Of course I don't dismiss myself because I am a creation -- everything is a creation -- I value myself as a creation.  The thing to dismiss is the false or illusory self that thinks it is separate and all that is.

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    On Aug 31, 2018 Rajesh wrote:

     This passage brings out very nicely the appropriate role of the "ordinary self". A coherent sense of identity is necessary to protect the body and allow it to do its thing as well as to function "effectively" in the world. But what it means to operate "effectively" is something for us to meditate on. 

    I believe a coherent sense of self is the starting point and perhaps the baseline to explore questions of god/truth/beauty. And to find out what it means to dismantle the self, as referred to by the Buddha and other mystics and sages of the past.

    I find that allowing the self to operate coherently in the world is a slippery slope. For many of us, includng myself, the body and mind are mostly used for the service of ones own projected goals, couched in the guise of making a livelihood. Takes a lot of self-reflection to watch this movement and put a self-correcting algorithm in place. 


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    On Aug 31, 2018 Susan wrote:

     Wow, this is a thought provoking essay; thank you.

    True, we, none of us, can abandon or forget our 'self'.

    I guess for me, in my continuing to grow up in this life, it is a balance of humility (that helps me engage more deeply with others and enables better empathy within), and the care and love of me much like that which I work within myself to cultivate for others. I seem to be balancing this with increased awareness of my internal responses to others and pausing and feeling and allowing for understanding of others and myself in these situations. Also, the realization and experience of the larger world really does drive home the sameness of us all which has humbled me rightly.

    Your term 'internal executive' is one I am not familiar with and cannot seem to find specific information on the almight worldwide web, though I feel I understand what you are referring to. 


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