The Illusory Mind

How well do you know your ‘self’? Well enough to know that your ‘self’ does not exist? Please read on.

More and more psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors are drawing upon the insights of Buddhism to better understand the nature and activities of the human mind. In my own therapeutic practice, I apply, quite eclectically and unashamedly, ideas and teachings from a number of different traditions, both Eastern and Western. A pragmatists, all I am interested in is results---and changed lives.

When we turn to Buddhism we discover that its ideas, teachings and practices espouse a psychological realism that expressly acknowledges the reality of cognitive and other mental processes. The mind is seen as both relational and ‘extended’ to situations in the external world. Yes, mentality belongs to the spatio-temporal world along with everything else such that a person’s mental things and processes are not wholly internal to that person.

In addition, Buddhism views a person as being a human body-mind as a whole, that is, an autonomous and dynamic system that arises in dependence upon the natural world as well as human culture. So-called ‘consciousness’---not so much an entity in its own right but a dynamic, ever-changing process---emerges when the mind and the body cohere. The physical body is essential for the emergence of the mental, but having said that, Buddhism has never regarded the body and the mind as being separate. Mind is said to ‘extend’ into the body, with the body also ‘extending’ into the mind.

When Buddhism uses the word ‘illusion’ it does so in a special way. Referring to a thing as an ‘illusion’ does not mean that the thing does not exist. It simply means that the thing in question has no separate, independent, unchangeable and permanent existence. Buddhism psychology aims to treat what Buddhism often calls an 'illusory [or a 'false'] mind' (that is, a mind characterized and dominated by wandering, oppositional and discriminatory thoughts) with a view to bringing into manifestation a 'true [or 'pure'] mind' (being a mind which is not in opposition to itself).

Buddhist psychology teaches the doctrine that ‘self is illusion,’ and that belief in the existence of some supposedly permanent and substantial ‘self’ or soul is a delusion. t There is no actual ‘self’ at the centre of our conscious---or even unconscious---awareness. The ‘self’ does not exist---at least it does not exist in the sense of possessing a separate, independent, unchangeable, material existence of its own. In words attributed to the Buddha, whether ‘past, future, or present; internal or external; manifest or it actually is ... “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’” (Majjhima Nikaya I, 130). Buddhist scriptures are very firm on this teaching of ‘not-self’ (anatta):

‘“Even as the word of ‘chariot’ means
That members join to frame a whole;
So when the groups [the ‘five aggregates’] appear to view,
We use the phrase, ‘a living being.’ (Milindapantha, 133.)”

‘Just as the word "chariot" is but a mode of expression for axles, wheels, chariot-body, pole, and other constituent members, placed in a certain relation to each other, but when we come to examine the members one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no chariot; … in exactly the same way the words “living entity” and “Ego,” are but a mode of expression for the presence of the five attachment groups [again, the “five aggregates” (see below)], but when we come to examine the elements of being one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no living entity there to form a basis for such figments as “I am,” or “I”; … . (Visuddhi-Magga, 133-34.)’

Our so-called consciousness goes through continuous fluctuations from one moment to the next. As such, there is nothing to constitute, let alone sustain, a separate, transcendent ‘I’ structure or entity. We ‘die’ and are ‘born’ (or ‘reborn’) from one moment to the next. Whence comes our sense of ‘I-ness’? To quote Robert C Lester, author of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia: ‘The “I-ness” or selfhood of man, perceived as unchanging --- his sense of individual being in time, having experiences --- is an unwarranted extension or assumption from experience to experiencer, from knowledge to knower, thought to thinker.’ No wonder Jesus exclaimed, ‘I of myself can do nothing’ (Jn 5:30). Perhaps he too understood the illusory nature of the ‘self.’

So, what is the mind? Well, for starters, it is much more than the brain. The materialist position, equating the two, is simply wrong. The bulk and the weight of the evidence point the other way---namely, that the mind is both relational and ‘extended’ to situations in the external world. But what of the ‘self’? Does ‘it’ have a transcendental, separate existence of its own? The short answer to the last question is---no. That is the position asserted by most forms of Buddhism, and it is a position that increasingly is being supported by the findings of modern neuroscience and neuropsychiatry. Hundreds of thousands of separate, ever-changing and ever-so-transient mental occurrences (‘selves’) harden into a mental construct of sorts. We call ‘it’ the self, but the so-called self, or ego-self, is no more than a confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’), that is, mental states (cittas). These mental states are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way which appears---note that word, appears---to give them a singularity and a separate, independent, unchangeable and material existence and life of their own. The so-called ego-self---as well as the so-called ‘mind’ (nama)---has no separate, independent, permanent existence in the sense of being, to quote from Vipassana Bhavana, ‘compact, all of one piece, doing all these different mental functions’: ‘“We”, our entire existence, at any given time is simply the arising of one of those mental states, which is quickly replaced by another.’ (Vipassana Bhavana.)

Now, it is through this perception of an internally created sense of 'self' that we experience, process and interpret all external reality. With alcoholics and other addicts, this false or illusory sense of self also becomes chemically altered (seemingly for all time)---with truly disastrous consequences for the addict and those associated with him or her. Each of us---not just the alcoholic or other addict---clings to the ‘self’ as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, and that we are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness (the latter simply being the function consisting of apprehending the bare phenomenal world, that is, cognition):

‘Whenever there is a functioning sense-organ (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body and mind), a sense-object (visual form, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought) entering into the field of the sense-organ then, with these brought together, there is the manifestation of the part of consciousness referring to the specific sense-organ.’ (Majjhimanikaya, i, 190.)

Buddhist teachings refer to different types of ‘conditions’ that give rise to cognitive events. In the case of sensory perceptions, external objects are the objective or causal condition. However the immediately preceding moment of consciousness is said to be the immediate condition, with the particular sense organ being the physiological or dominant condition.

In short, Buddhism sees a human being as being simply an amalgam of ever-changing phenomena of existence. Yes, the so-called ‘self’ is nothing more than an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of perceptions and sensations. It is, in reality, a non-self. There is no unifying consciousness, and no ultimate ‘self.’ Rather, the human mind is a field---indeed, a veritable battle-ground---of conflicting tendencies, feelings and emotions, for the simple reason that the mental is not a unitary agent. Consistent with an overall pluralism, we are always dealing with a plurality---indeed, pluralities---of complex interacting but otherwise waxing and waning forces, for such is the nature of reality. At the same time, Buddhism espouses an ‘extended’ view of the mind such that the mind is seen to be more than just the activity of the brain. Rather, the mind is an embodied and relational process. True, the mind is a product of the brain, but it is conditioned by both internal and external events.

I go so far as to say this---most of our problems, at least those of a mental or emotional character, as well as problems in our relationships, arise because we fail to recognize the ‘illusory’ nature of our ‘self.’ We constantly talk about our ‘self,’ we are told all the time that we must love our ‘self,’ and we react badly when we feel that some other person is attacking our ‘self.’ If only we could grasp this simply truth---more than half of our problems would die from attrition if we, the person that each of us is, acknowledged that ‘self is illusion.’

Know this. You are not a ‘self,’ you are a person among persons. Now, what is a person? Well, the well-known English philosopher P F Strawson wrote much on the subject, as did Jean Piaget and L Wittgenstein. Strawson articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it. Each one of us is a person among persons---a mind-body complex. We are much, much more than those hundreds of little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me,’ that is, the person each one of us is. Only the latter is ontologically real. Personal freedom and real personal transformation come when we get real, that is, when we start to think, act and live from our personhood as a person among persons. We need to get our mind off our ‘selves’ and rise above them if we are to get real. And we must not forget that there is no human problem that is not common to other persons among persons.

So, be confident, but forget all about self-confidence. Be a person of esteem, for that you are, but forget all about self-esteem. Seek the truth (that is, the 'real' and 'actual') in all things, but forget altogether about self-seeking. The purposes of ‘self’ are in direct and stark contradistinction to the pursuit of happiness, peace of mind, and serenity.

Note. This article is a reworking of two posts that were first published on the author’s own blog on 11 and 18 August 2013.