Deconstructing the “Self”

In the third in a four-part series by Dr. Reginald Ray on the “self” in Buddhism, he explores how we create the storyline of “self” and how to deconstruct it.

Reginald Ray
1 September 2003

If the “self” is ultimately nothing more than a figment of our imagination, what is this figment like and how does it come to seem so real? In the third of four posts on the self, Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray breaks it down.

In my previous column, we saw that the “self,” the source of all our suffering, arises as a fearful response to the unfathomable, groundless awareness of our inherent essence, our buddhanature. We also saw that our “self” does not arise once and for all, but is radically impermanent, needing to be continually recreated, moment by moment. Our impression that we are or possess a “real” self—meaning an apparently substantial, continuous entity within—is thus a delusion, a false attribution superimposed on our discontinuous experience. There is, in fact, nothing there corresponding to our idea.

So if the “self” is ultimately nothing more than a figment of our imagination, what is this figment like and how does it come to seem so real?

Buddhism describes the specific, moment-by-moment arising of the “self” in its doctrine of the five skandhas, or basic aspects of the human personality. On the surface, the five skandhas are presented as a refutation of the idea of a substantial, continuous “ego.” They provide an exhaustive typology within which any and all human experience can be located: in no one of the skandhas, nor in any combination of them, nor anywhere outside of them, can any “self” be found.

Understood on a deeper level, however, this teaching provides an extraordinarily sophisticated and subtle account of how the human ego, the sense of “self,” arises out of primordial awareness, how it comes to have the specific structure it does, and how it functions to maintain the illusion of substantiality, continuity, and relative autonomy that is our “self.”

Form (rupa)

When we are functioning in our habitual human state (the condition of samsara), the experience of the essential nature is so boundless and brilliant that it generates a terror we cannot tolerate. In response, we recoil, pulling back from our experience and objectifying it as “other.” The existence of this “other” automatically implies the existence of a “self,” which is now opposed to the vastness of the space of what is not myself, the “non-self,” what is “over there.” This pulling away is an act of ignoring, what Buddhists mean by the primordial ignorance (avidya) that functions as the ground of the belief in a “self.” This ignoring leads to the first skandha, “form.” This “form” is not the physical reality of habitual experience (a far more complex experience), but rather the impression of something substantial and truly existing apart from us. At the level of form, the “self” is rudimentary, for as yet it has no specific shape, definition, or features.

Feeling (vedana)

Now that the experience of “not-myself” (the “other”) has been objectified, the need arises to define a specific relationship to it. In the first step of this process, we must arrive at a specific valuation of what stands over and against us as this “other.” An implicit question hangs in the air: is this “other,” friend, enemy, or neutral? Is the other—whether a person, a situation, an event, or an experience—beneficent, hostile, or of indifferent value to “me”? Does it affirm and support my sense of “self”? Is it threatening to my “self”? Or is it neutral and therefore of no particular value either way to the “self” I am trying to be? We arrive at an answer through an elemental felt sense: we feel rudimentary pleasure at that which confirms our “self,” pain at that which calls our “self” into question, and nothing toward that which is irrelevant to our enterprise. Arriving at this kind of valuation brings further definition and solidity into our self-concept.

Impulse (samjna)

Having established whether the “other” is for, against or neutral vis à vis our “self,” in order to further define and solidify our sense of “me,” we now need to take up an attitude toward this other. Toward that which is experienced as positive or pleasurable, we give birth to hunger, grasping, clinging: we want to draw the wanted “other” toward us, to possess, own, and control it. By contrast, we generate hostility toward what is experienced as negative or painful: we want to reject it, push it away, eliminate it from our world. In relation to that which is neutral, we generate delusion (moha): we turn our attention in other directions, pretending that it does not exist.

Karmic Formations (samskaras)

The first three skandhas occur at a rudimentary, felt level. Taken together they represent the shift of awareness that occurs when, in panic, we pull back from our inherent nature. We can identify five steps in the process of the first three skandhas:

  1. there is the experience of the limitless space of our basic nature;
  2. we panic;
  3. we recoil (form);
  4. we sense whether, in relation to our “me,” the other is positive, negative, or neutral (feeling); and
  5. we develop the appropriate affective stance toward the other, whether passion, aggression, or delusion (impulse).

In the fourth skandha, to further concretize our sense of “self,” we seek to make sense of ourselves on a conceptual level, to block out a place for ourselves in the limitless inner and outer worlds. We strive to establish a coherent rationale for what we are pulling toward us, pushing away, or ignoring. We accomplish this by attaching concepts—all sorts of extraneous mental baggage such as identifications, labels, judgments, and rationalizations—to the experiences of the first three skandhas. In this way we fabricate a personal storyline, a continuous narrative through which we try to explain and justify who we are to ourselves and to everyone else. The raw materials for this process are contained in our vast memory bank, which includes all memories, conscious and unconscious: in other words, the habitual patterns of thinking, complex feeling, and interpretation that we have experienced over, at least, this lifetime. While form, feeling, and impulse are more or less similar in each of us, our karmic formations are more idiosyncratic. Their precise contents and ultimate configuration are unique to each of us.

Consciousness (vijnana)

The final skandha is a felt sense that holds, coordinates, and supervises the process of the first four skandhas. Our unbounded awareness (buddhanature) is what receives sense perceptions and mental phenomena, but it is consciousness—a limited, centralized, self-absorbed, and self-serving field of highly restricted awareness—that decides what to focus on and what to exclude from awareness. The focusing presumes a stance of withdrawal from experience (form) and is guided by our primitive evaluation of the other (feeling); it uses our three self-serving modes of engagement—passion, aggression, and delusion (impulse)—and it chooses from the totality of our karmic formations what specific concepts will be needed to fulfill our self-project. Consciousness not only fixates on the contents and process of the delusional “self,” it also ignores and excludes all experience that is deemed not useful to or conflicts with the needs of this “self.” Thus it restricts its awareness to a tiny portion of the totality of the buddhanature. In this way, consciousness is always striving to create a sense of “self” that feels solid, secure, and comfortable.

Aspects of the Five Skandhas

The five skandhas are both a structure and a process. As a structure, they define the contents and configuration of our self-concept. What we try to think ourselves to be includes a fundamental separation from the other (form); a sensed feeling of pleasure, pain, or indifference in relation to the other (feeling); an attitude of primitive hunger, hatred, or dismissal (impulse); an elaborate, multidimensional rationalizing (karmic formations), and a perpetually paranoid “watcher” that seeks to control the entire process (consciousness). But this is also a moment-by-moment process. It shows how we are engaged in a never-ending struggle to deny our ever-changing experience and, moment by moment, to maintain the impression that we are a continuous, substantial “self.”

Each skandha is, in some sense, a distinctive feature within the totality of our “self.” At the same time, however, each implies and depends upon the others. It is easy to see how each skandha depends upon the ones that come before it: for instance, we cannot hunger for something we have not yet evaluated. But the first skandhas also presuppose the later: the felt sense of pain, pleasure, or neutrality of the second skandha, as well as the passion, aggression, and delusion of the third, can only come about as felt senses of the specific storyline of the fourth skandha. When we see someone we know, whether we feel good, bad, or indifferent about him—and whether we want to go toward him, run away from him, or ignore him—will depend upon the bank of memories we have of him. It will also depend on the way we conceptualize him and where he fits into our own global narrative (functions of the fourth skandha).

This all raises an important question: given that our self-concept arises in such a manner and possesses the described structure and dynamics, is this necessarily a problem? Can we not see the “self”—delusional as it may be—as a natural, inevitable, and even beneficial aspect of the human being? What is it about the “self” that Buddhism finds so problematic? My next column will seek to answer this question.

This is the third in a four-part series on the “self” by Dr. Reginald Ray, first published in the Shambhala Sun in 2003. The first article in the series, Who, Me?, provided a description of the Buddhist sense of “self” which serves as a foundation for understanding the Buddhist sense of “self” and “not-self.” Part two, Why Me?, looks at the fictitious self as a response to fear of groundlessness, and part four, The Problematic “Self,” looks at the pernicious, pathological, or unvirtuous “self” and the self-perpetuating process of this “self,” known in Buddhism as samsara.

Reginald Ray

Reginald Ray

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., was Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and a teacher-in-residence at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the spiritual director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation and author of Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.