How To See Beyond the Rigid Illusion of the Self
Don’t get fooled by your left-brain “interpreter” trying to categorize and label you
This is the first of a 2-part exploration into the illusory self. In this part we’ll look at what the self is, and the nature of our relationship with it. We’ll learn that while this sense of “me” may feel like a discrete and pervasive “thing”, it’s actually an illusion created by our left-brain “interpreter”.
Until my late twenties, I believed there were two different “versions” of me.
The first version was the one I’d identified with and become attached to. Let’s call him “baseline me”.
“Baseline me” had limitations and had to work within the confines of his perceived abilities. He tended toward a pessimistic, fixed mindset, and always opted to stay within his comfort zone. Here, he could avoid any situations that exceeded his abilities or pushed him out of his safe, anxiety-neutral condition.
Then there was the other version, we’ll call him “anomalous me”.
“Anomalous me” only came out when “baseline me” was pushed outside of his comfort zone, usually by life circumstances than by choice. When faced with new challenges, “anomalous me” broke any perceived limitations of “baseline me”. “Anomalous me” had an optimistic, growth mindset, and believed all limitations were just illusions waiting to be shattered.
“Anomalous me” contradicted the entire narrative and worldview of “baseline me”. This led to uneasy feeling whenever “anomalous me” was in control. It was like the lead character had gone off-script, and I began to question my whole reality. Who was I? Was I “baseline me” or “anomalous me”? Which was the real one?
I wanted to believe that “anomalous me” was the real me, but he never stuck around for long enough to convince me. The rigid, habitual conditioning of “baseline me” always overpowered the free-spirited spontaneity of “anomalous me”. Soon the narrative turned from a euphoric “anything is possible!” to a cynical “I can’t believe I thought anything was possible”.
Eventually, I recognized what was actually going on. “Baseline me” and “anomalous me” were the same person. One was just how I behaved when I stayed in my comfort zone, and the other was how I behaved when I was outside my comfort zone.
But my brain could only make sense of what was going on by creating two “versions” of me. The concrete illusion of self couldn’t accommodate for such dissonance in character; I had to be one or the other, I couldn’t be both.
As I started consistently pushing myself outside my comfort zone, I began to integrate “baseline me” with “anomalous me”. But who was I now? “New me”?
From no self to self
We are born into an alien world; a meaningless blur of shapes, colors, shadows, noises, and sensations. Outside the warm safety of the womb, we’re met with cold, chaos, and confusion. There is nothing of familiarity, nothing of comfort.
Deafening sounds and blindingly bright lights overwhelm our tender faculties. Bewildering sensations come from a body we don’t yet know exists. There’s no reference point to anchor ourselves to. It’s a scary, confusing experience.
But soon we find a reliable reference point. A soft voice with a soothing quality. A familiar figure with a recognizable scent. A loving presence associated with pleasant sensations. And most importantly, a food source.
This reference point is the only thing that has meaning in our world. When we’re close to it we feel safe, when we’re separated from it we become agitated. It becomes our guide.
Its face understands us far better than we understand ourselves. It’s always making sounds at us. Over time these sounds and facial expressions begin to impart meaning.
We transition from a world of meaningless chaos, into a world of meaningful concepts. The endless stream of sensory inputs become separated into five discrete senses. Colored shapes become recognizable objects, some of which we can interact with. Sounds begin to have meaning, with different sounds leading to different outcomes. One sound leads to a yummy treat, another leads to a fun, rattling object.
But there is one sound we hear again and again. A sound that is always trying to get our attention. Around six months of age, we become personally identified with this sound. This sound identifies us from others.
Learning that we have a name is the first clue that we’re an individual, separate from the world we inhabit. If we have a name, then we must be separate from other things with names.
Around age two, we can no longer deny the reality we’re faced with: we are our own agent, separate from the world, and living alongside other free agents. We have a face and a body. We recognize it when we look in the mirror. We see it in photographs. “That’s me!” we exclaim.
We begin talking to ourselves as we play, as we would to another person. We narrate the story of the dollhouse being set ablaze and the fire engine being called in to extinguish the fire. We count the number of Lego blocks we’ve acquired, as if making an important mental note. We simply cannot stop chattering away to ourselves.
Perhaps excusable as a four-year-old, but we continue these ramblings (now internalized) into adolescence, and adulthood. Apart from a select few who appear to lack this peculiarity, the majority of us will spend a worrying amount of our lives in our heads, talking to ourselves.
And so begins the most intimate relationship we’ll ever have — the relationship with the self. But though it may feel like a relationship with another concrete person, we’re actually in a relationship with a phantom.
Our left-brain “interpreter” constructs the self by connecting dots – how we look in the mirror, the sensations coming from our body, how people react to us. All these concepts come together to create a discrete entity, separate from the world, that it categorizes and labels as “me”.
The self feels concrete, like any other left-brain labelled “thing”, but it’s really an illusion. One that arises from associating numerous “pieces” of related concepts.
What the self is
In the book ‘No self, no problem’, neuropsychologist Chris Niebauer explains that our sense of self is primarily constructed by our left-brain “interpreter”.
The left-brain “interpreter” has two main tools: language and categorization. It makes sense of the world by decoding the constant stream of sensory stimuli into discrete categories and labeled items.
Once it’s assigned labels to everything, it looks for connections between them. Drawing from everything we’ve ever learned, it finds associations, then weaves it all into a meaningful narrative. Through language, the enormous collage of sensory inputs is translated into a simple story of what is going on at any given moment. It projects this narrative into the future, trying to anticipate what may happen, and the actions we need to take to achieve (or avoid) certain outcomes.
The left-brain “interpreter” is always coming up with logical reasons for why things happen, even when it has no idea what’s going on. It’s the annoying friend who’s constantly rambling on about anything and everything that comes to mind.
Like this optical illusion, the illusory triangle of self only exists when we link these self-related concepts in our mind. So convincing are these associations, that a cohesive self is formed: an objectifiable “thing” that we believe is what we are at a fundamental level.
We become so convinced by this illusion that it becomes the dogma we live by. Its characteristics decide whether we should feel good about ourselves, or terrible about ourselves. It dictates what we’re capable of, or incapable of. It tells us what we should expect from life. It’s our self-made prison, restricting our behavior so it fits with the very illusion we’ve created.
Life without the interpreter
When neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke and suddenly lost most of the function of her left-brain, she experienced what the Buddhists call “anattā”, or “non-self”.
Having lost the left-brain’s ability to categorize and label her perceptions, she became captivated by free-flowing “energy” that was no longer restricted to five senses. Everything was a continuum. There was no longer black or white, good or bad, right or wrong — there was just everything in between.
With her left-brain completely offline, a peaceful silence replaced the mad ramblings of internal narrative. The present moment was all that existed.
Without the boundaries of categories and labels, she no longer saw herself as separate from her environment. A profound feeling of oneness replaced the illusion of separation. Everything was connected. Any sense of having a separate self vanished, along with the accompanying emotional baggage. “I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call nirvana,” she remarked.
This was her right-brain’s view of the world, without the left-brain “interpreter” getting in the way. Chris Niebauer explains the right-brain in his book:
“Rather than dividing things into categories and making judgments that separate the world, the right brain gives attention to the whole scene and processes the world as a continuum. Whereas the attention of the left brain is focused and narrow, the right brain is broad, vigilant, and attends to the big picture. Whereas the left brain focuses on the local elements, the right brain processes the global form that the elements create. The left brain is sequential, separating time into “before that” or “after this,” while the right brain is focused on the immediacy of the present moment.”
In our left-brain dominant society, it’s hard to imagine what the right-brain’s world might look like. One big continuum of uncategorized and unlabelled raw data, constantly in flux, with no illusion of separation. Perhaps something like this?
It’s important to say this is a very generalized view of the brain. Whether our left or right hemisphere of the brain dominates in one area depends on the individual. While in 90% of right-handed people language production occurs in the left hemisphere, it tends to be more bilateral in left-handers.
Others who suffer strokes affecting the left-brain don’t tend to have the same experience as Dr. Taylor. While a topic of ongoing debate, our sense of self cannot be localized to any particular brain region or hemisphere. It’s widely distributed throughout the brain. Each hemisphere plays its own part in constructing the self.
Exactly where the “interpreter” lives isn’t important. What’s important is that by seeing beyond its narrow interpretations, we might see ourselves for what we actually are: fluid, ever-changing, pure awareness. We’re not this concrete, unchanging “thing” that pervades through time. Though we have conditioned tendencies and behaviors, none of them are set in stone.
But the “interpreter” likes certainty and clearly defined categories. So if you don’t fit into a neat tidy box, it will find a way to make you fit…
The rigid self
Back when I thought there were two different versions of me, awareness of my “interpreter” would have given me tremendous insight.
If I’d been able to see that my “interpreter” was just trying to categorize and label me, I might not have got stuck in the perceived limitations of “baseline me” for so long.
If I’d understood that my sense of self was just a constellation of self-related concepts, I’d have been more open to the idea that who I was could change depending on life circumstances.
“Baseline me” was self-reinforcing. He believed he had limitations so avoided challenging himself by staying inside his comfort zone. But by doing this, he didn’t have the opportunity to challenge these perceived limitations. He then got stuck in a self-fulfilling narrative, playing along with the “interpreter’s” restrictive view of the world.
People get stuck in ruts when they become too attached to a view they have of themselves. Take for example someone who’s been single for a long time. After a while, they may begin to see themselves as unlovable and believe they’re destined to be alone forever.
This idea becomes self-fulfilling. They become closed off to the idea of finding someone, and subconsciously sabotage any opportunity because it doesn’t fit with their worldview. They may desperately want a relationship, but because they believe their own narrative, they’re unable to see a way out of it.
The flexible self
When asked how younger generations can prepare for the disruption of artificial intelligence, Yuval Noah Harari (author of ‘Sapiens’) emphasized the most important skill everyone should learn is mental flexibility.
By holding a less rigid view of ourselves, we’ll be better able to pivot into a new career when technology makes our old job redundant. The stock trader whose sense of self is entangled in his career may experience an identity crisis when intelligent algorithms force him into early retirement. The truck driver who can’t see himself doing any other job will struggle to adapt when self-driving trucks take over. Being mentally flexible in how we see ourselves will allow us to better adapt to these challenges.
You can choose to live your life in two ways.
You can believe you have a fixed self that pervades through time, and is limited by rigid character traits and innate skill-sets. This will then be the case, as you act out the deeply ingrained patterns of conditioning without considering any other way. In your autumn years, you might cynically tell younger generations “Don’t believe that nonsense that you can be anyone you want to be. You just have to work with what you got”.
But if you don’t like that idea, you can choose the second option. You can believe that the self is fluid, always changing, never the same as it was yesterday, or even a moment ago. Unbounded by the reductive categories and labels of the “interpreter”. Conditioned to behave in certain ways, but flexible enough to overcome this conditioning when challenged.
The self becomes whatever we guide it towards. Believing that its path has already been set is delusional. Why limit yourself to who you think you are today when you could be anyone you want to be tomorrow?
Seeing beyond the illusion
To overcome the default of believing whatever our “interpreter” tells us, we must bring awareness to it. Here are some tips on how we can do this:
- Recognize all your different selves. How you view yourself changes depending on where you are, who you’re with, and how you’re feeling at the time. During the day you may have a “work self” who takes their job seriously and interacts with people in a formal manner. But later that evening you become “home self”, who’s more casual and carefree, making jokes and having intimate conversations with loved ones. Write down a list of all these different selves, and the characteristics of each one. Which one is the real you? Is there a real you?
- Bring awareness to the labels of the “interpreter” through mindfulness practice. Mindfulness teaches you to experience all stimuli in whatever way they present themselves. You’re led to drop the labels of the “interpreter”, and see the world similarly to when you first came into it — only without the crying and confusion. Taking ten minutes a day to observe sensory inputs and mental formations without the labels will train your brain to see the world without the “interpreter” getting in the way. The more you do this, the less convincing these labels will become.
- Seek glimpses of “non-self” through flow states. You can have glimpses of what it feels like to completely lose your sense of self through activities that induce flow states. Things like surfing, artwork, writing, rock-climbing; any rewarding activity that totally absorbs you and leads you to lose all sense of time, place, and self. This may be why flow states are correlated with higher levels of happiness — they offer respite from the emotional baggage of the self
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor eventually recovered much of the function of her left-brain — without it she would have been unable to tell her story. With the insights she gained from not having an “interpreter”, she was now able to consciously decide whether to use it or not.
When its incessant chatter began to bother her, or its reductive labels were unhelpful, she was able to simply switch it off.
We need our “interpreter” to navigate this chaotic world, to keep us safe, and to help us reach our goals. But when its limited view of who it thinks we are causes us suffering, it can be more of a hindrance than a help.
With enough mindfulness practice, we may learn to do as Dr. Taylor does, and be more flexible with our “interpreter”. Over time its mad ramblings may begin to quiet down, replaced by a peaceful silence. You might catch glimpses of a world without narrow concepts or labels. Glimpses of a world without the restrictive illusion of the self. A limitless world with no boundaries and no edges.
In part two, we’ll take a closer look at the Buddhist concept of “non-self”, and explore how it contrasts with the Western approach of self-development. I’ll try to answer the controversial question: Should we stick with Western psychology’s approach of strengthening and developing the self, or embrace Eastern religion’s approach of letting go of it?