Statue of the thinker philosopher

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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

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 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

The illusion of self optical illusion

Life without the interpreter

The right brain's view of the world

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

The flexible self

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

Final thoughts

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?

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