The Self


philosophy spirituality

Language

Starting at a young age, we pick up language, mainly from our parents. We are very much conditioned to think in certain ways by the language we speak. This is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What I want to talk about is similar to Sapir-Whorf. It isn’t about how particular languages affect one’s worldview, but about how any language can create a false image of the world. Language is a tool for getting information from one mind to another. But it’s more than that. It is a tool for thinking. One thing that should be taught more in English classes is that writing is useful for crystallizing and refining thoughts, not just communicating them.

The problem with any spoken language is that in order to be useful, it has to create abstractions. These abstractions are fuzzy, inexact ways of talking about things. Mathematical language is not fuzzy and imprecise like spoken language is. Mathematical language is symbolic and rigorous. What is written is unambiguous. But this fuzziness of concept is a necessary evil, otherwise natural language would be inefficient and slow and still inexact. The problem isn’t language itself. It comes when we treat language as reality, when we forget we are dealing with these inexact fuzzy abstractions which are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. A lot of the words in spoken language are fuzzy.

This is something that I have always found intuitive but is an easy mistake to make in philosophy. I would argue that a rather large fraction of academic papers about philosophy aren’t actually creating an interesting argument or bringing any substance to the table. Academics are simply bickering about how words should be used without even realizing it. For example, look at the Ship of Theseus. The essential question it poses is this: “Is an object the same object if all its component parts are replaced over time?". I agree with Noam Chomsky that this is a cognitive issue manufactured by humans because we get really bent out of shape if we don’t know what to label something. We have to have a label. So what we do we call something if all its parts are replaced? Do we call it something else or do we call it the same thing? Now the problem becomes more clear. It’s a question about language.

The right question is “If an object’s parts are replaced, should we still call it the same object?". We could make a pros and cons list of calling it the same object versus giving it a different name and decide what makes more sense. One might think I’m being being pedantic about this and philosophers understand the real question is about what we call the object. My own personal experience has shown that this is not true. People often do not understand that they’re arguing about what to call something, and it’s not any deeper than that. This is called Mistaking the Map for the Territory.

But we have also created another problem. What is an object? Let’s take a car for example. Let’s say we haven’t replaced any parts. Where does the car stop and the car’s environment begin? Is the air inside the car also the car? What if the car is in orbit around the earth and it has no air, is the space inside the car still the car, or is it just empty space? This questioning is ridiculous in one sense because when I say the word “car”, every English speaker intuitively knows what the word “car” means. For all practical usages of the word “car” we will never have to worry about bizarre philosophical quandries about the identity of the car (especially since there’s no “Car of Theseus”). We all just sort of know what other people talk about when they talk about a “car”.

Opposites

Everything implies its opposite or negation. I don’t mean this in a logical sense. I mean it as a matter of language. The word “black” implies that there are words for other colors. It implies “not black” colors because otherwise we wouldn’t need the word black. Left implies right. Up implies down. Forward implies backward. Here implies there. Car implies “not car” or environment for a better term. Just by using the word “car” we imply that there exists (in language, not literally exists in space) an environment which at least is defined as not being the car. The car is not its environment. This can be applied to any object. It also applies to adjectives and other features of language. Colorful implies colorless. Dumb implies smart. Yin-yang. It words for verbs as well. Running implies walking or crawling or not running. A pair of opposites that depend on one another. They cannot exist (conceptually) separately. So if they can’t exist separately, why call them opposites?

It’s possible to see things from another point of view. What if instead of treating what we call a “car” as a separate idea from the environment of the car, we treat the car and the environment as one whole system. It could be called the “car-environment”. We are not accustomed to thinking of objects in these terms, primarily because we are conditioned to think using language that pretends that our distinction of what is a car and what is its environment is a real distinction made by the universe itself, not a somewhat arbitrary distinction as a product of evolved language. This is why we forget that voice in our head that we hear when reading this sentence is not us. So what about the word I? Where is the self that answers to the word “I”, that is yourself?

The Self

As a matter of language, the word “self” implies the word “other”. Other than self. Not self. Are you you’re brain? Where do the boundaries of “you” begin and end exactly? Where do “I” go when I sleep? The right question to ask is “What definition should the word I have?". But we must remember that “I” is just a word, a concept. The concept of “I” is no more you than the concept of a “car” is an actual car. No matter how far you zoom in to a continuous function, you won’t see the discrete points that make it up. Eventually you get the idea of continuity. The self is similar. The more you zoom in to what you are calling “I”, the less it makes sense to separate “I” from the rest of the cosmos. You are continuous with everything that is. You are one with the unfolding process that is this cosmos. You are not physically separate from it, despite the pesky word “I” that would have you think otherwise.

Meditation is a practice that can help you experience this oneness, but it takes practice. Specifically, mindfulness meditation is a good place to start. Instead of “zooming in”, I often use the phrase “getting behind oneself”. For instance, you are reading this sentence and suddenly a thought pops into your head “What should I make for dinner tonight?". Let’s say the thought pops up exactly like that, in a bit of language. And then it passes and you keep reading. Where did that thought come from and where did it go? Did you generate that thought or did it just pop up? If you pay close enough attention, you can see how thoughts, moods, and sensations come and go without you “doing” anything. One might call this level one of getting behind yourself. When you have an angry thought, you are no longer entranced by it. You are the self that notices the angry thought or the physiological change that comes with resurrecting that thought. You are no longer your thoughts. You are behind them, listening as a passive observer as if they are someone else’s thoughts.

Getting behind yourself a second time could mean that you notice the observer of your thoughts. To recap, level one is observing your thoughts and sensations. You are not behind your eyes, in your head as a matter of experience. You are the self that notices the feeling of having a head, the feeling of being behind your eyes, but you are not in your head behind your eyes. You are the noticer. Level two means that you notice the self that notices the feeling of having a head. What the ultimate goal here is, is trying to find the self that is doing the searching. You are trying to pay attention to your attention itself. I can call this level one and level two for clarity, but I think it’s more of a continuous spectrum of awareness without clearly defined “levels”.

Think about a dog chasing its own tail. Puppies might not realize that what they’re chasing is their own tail. But once they catch it and bite down, they know. Perhaps it’s better explained as a game of hide and go seek. You forget who you really are as you grow up. Others give you a name and assign adjectives to you as if that’s who you really are. You are told you are John, the clever thirty year old quirky accomplished artist and you better not think you’re anything else. To use the words of Alan Watts, you are an isolated ego inside a “bag of skin”. Life is like playing a game of hide and go seek where you are both the one hiding and the one seeking. And meditation is a technique for looking in the mirror and finding out the hider and seeker are the same person. Except the seeker goes by the name of “I” and the one hiding goes by the name of “the environment”. And when I say “the environment”, I don’t mean just the physical environment. I mean the thoughts inside your head including the feeling of having a head.

Conceptual Understanding of Self Versus Experience

If you get what I’m saying about the self so far, that’s great. You have a conceptual understanding of it. But to only have a conceptual understanding is to miss the point. It’s like if a person were blind from birth. They can learn every fact there is to know about color. They can learn the cultural significance. For example, in American culture, blue means calmness and security. Black means darkness. Purple represents mystery. The blind person can learn the wavelengths that produce every color. They can know what colors go well together and what art styles are used with what color. But they have never actually seen color. So we would still say they lack perhaps the most important thing there is to know about color. The experience. The experience of color can’t be replaced by knowing facts about it.

An understanding of the self is precisely the same. You might understand everything you’ve read in this post so far, but you may have never looked within. This makes you like the blind man who knows all the facts about color, but has never seen it. Experiencing the loss of one’s ego can be described in words, but you’ll never get across in words the most important aspect, the experience, of the disillusionment one’s ego. It’s much richer to be the one that has seen color, experienced it, yet knows nothing about it than to be the blind person that knows every color fact. There are yogis and zen masters that are expert meditators but can’t articulate their experience outside of religious dogma. I think fewer are those that understand the self but don’t have some experience of it, because often accidental life experiences of self create the interest.

There is a growing interest in the west around meditation and self which has been understood in the east for over two and a half thousand years. This shows that it’s not a matter of knowing more facts. We have gained immense knowledge as a species over the past two and a half thousand years, but for most of us westerners we still have no clue about the self despite our technological advancement. It’s just a matter of looking within and regular practice meditating. Turns out there are some places more thinking can’t get you and the experience of oneness or “inner peace” is one of them. This I think is the hardest thing for a western person to digest because in almost every other area of human endeavor we can make progress by thinking. In meditation, the goal is to be thought-less, or at least aware of your thoughts. Awareness is a completely different mode than most of us westerners are used to using our brains. That’s another reason some struggle to wrap their mind around it. I can talk to some western people about the self and awareness and it’s as if they have no inner life whatsoever and don’t understand what I’m talking about.

Conclusion

If you take away anything from this post, understand that knowing facts about self versus experiencing it are orthogonal. If you want to really experience oneness with reality and get with your self, one way to do it is repeated meditation practice. There is no substitute. If you have any interest, just try it. Try different forms of meditation even for five or ten minutes, but start with mindfulness if you’re a beginner. And keep practicing even if you don’t notice anything the first few times. You really can’t fail because it’s like dancing. There is no end goal. You just do it for the sake of it. The most important thing is that you are doing it. Meditation doesn’t guarantee a profound experience, but I’d be surpised if I met someone who meditated properly for one week, an hour per day and found nothing of value.