That Problematic “Self”

In the fourth and final post in his series on the Buddhist concept of “self,” Dr. Reginald Ray talks about how we maintain our “self” and therefore suffer.

Reginald Ray
1 November 2003

“Self” is a purely conceptual construction says Dr. Reginald A. Ray in his fourth and final article exploring the “self.” He says, “What makes one’s ‘self’ so problematic is its degree of isolation from our actual experience, its rigidity and dissonance with reality beyond itself.”

In my current series of articles, I’ve been considering Buddhist notions of the “self,” responsible for the suffering of samsara, and the “not-self” of enlightenment.

So far, we have seen that the “self” is a purely conceptual construction emerging as a fearful reaction to the limitless expanse of our inherent nature. Through the process of the five skandhas, we pull back into an inner fantasy world that is a “mentalized” and distorted version of reality, a series of images and thoughts that we take to be a fixed and substantial “self.” Because this “self” is little more than an incessant monologue that we must carry on in order to feel secure in our identity, it tends to be self-serving and self-absorbed. From this point of view, the wild ravings of some of the more extreme forms of mental illness are only exaggerations of the delusional inner life we all carry on to maintain the fiction of our “self.”

The habitual “self” that most of us “have” is a pernicious phenomenon. What makes this “self” so extraordinarily problematic is its degree of isolation from our actual experience, its rigidity and dissonance with reality beyond itself. The pernicious or problematic “self” is always something of a hallucination—it postulates something that is not just a conceptual construction, but often wildly inconsistent with actual experience.

For example, I frequently encounter students in my classes who believe—as do so many people in modern culture—that their “I” should be solid, continuous, and unchanging. Yet they may have come across moments when they discovered a profound gap or discontinuity in their supposedly continuous self. Because this experience is so out of keeping with what they believe should be happening, they are often thrown into a crisis of doubt, fear, and confusion.

Most commonly—perhaps encouraged by family, friends, or the culture at large—they will try to disbelieve what occurred. They will attempt to deny or ignore their experience and retreat back to what they believed in their pre-crisis state. They may even resort to the school psychiatrist, seeking medication to block out any possibility of experiencing that kind of discontinuity again. But even in such cases, they are haunted by what they saw, and they are sorely distressed by the contradiction it poses to their idea of “self.” That’s why conviction in a solid “self” is clearly harmful, because it is so blatantly out of keeping with what is actually the case. As in this example, it renders people unable to acknowledge common experience. It leads them down a path of self-contradiction and alienation.

According to the Buddhist Abhidharma, the problematic “self” is characterized by certain specific features called “unvirtuous dharmas” in the traditional parlance. First, because the experience of the problematic “self” is so glaringly out of keeping with our actual experience, an inordinate amount of denial or, in Buddhist terms, ignorance, is required to maintain it. The more our idea of ourselves is inconsistent with what is the case, the more effort we must put into keeping it going. And the more we do so, the more threatening will our actual experience be to our self image, requiring an ever more vehement and energetic ignoring of what occurs.

This process leads to a “self” that is more or less dysfunctional—it is rigid, inflexible, and highly resistant to correction by experience. No matter what happens, we tend to grip tightly to our pre-existing notion of ourselves. This inflexibility may manifest itself in an overly aggressive stance, but it may also be reflected in one that is stubbornly passive. For example, if someone is committed to a view of themselves as a weak and vulnerable victim, the experience of oneself as possessing strength, power, and autonomy will be repressed; in such a case, information that contradicts one’s self-image will be systematically discounted and dismissed, even if that information is positive.

This investment in what we think or want to think about ourselves and our concomitant denial of experience leads to a “self” that is inherently distrustful and paranoid. We have placed all of our trust in our concept of ourselves, and withdrawn our trust from experience. Experience now becomes the enemy. Sometimes subliminally and sometimes quite consciously, we do realize the contradiction between what we think about ourselves and our experience. This puts us perpetually on guard, ever ready to defend the territory of our “I” against any threat posed from outside.

This paranoid self is also characterized by a feeling of guilt that one is contravening something integral to one’s life. This guilt is reflected in reliance upon rationalization to maintain and protect oneself. It is similar to upper-class people who possess great privilege, and who often feel considerable guilt. Sociologists have identified a typical pattern of managing this guilt through rationalizing privilege and justifying it. This rationalization typically involves a continuous extolling of one’s own family, class, or caste, while disparaging and denigrating those below. In a similar way, the problematic “self” generates a shadow of guilt and one attempts to manage this through judging, rationalizing, and condemning the feared “other,” in this case, experience.

A further feature of this negative self is its particular disembodiment, isolation, and fragility. The human ego, or “self-concept,” obviously emerges as a highly selective construction of our life experiences. In a very real sense, it has taken its life, its nourishment, and its vitality from what we have gone through. Our “self” rests upon and has come about through continual correction and reformulation in light of our experience. In this way, our “self” or “ego” is a dependent and therefore changeable phenomenon. When we have a self-concept that is unable to accommodate what we are experiencing and is not open to continual reformulation, when it is rigidly and inflexibly held as it is for most of us, we lose touch with the vital springs of our own lives. This leads to a loss of basic confidence, even when we masquerade with bravado or aggressive posturing.

The unvirtuous “self,” then, is essentially narcissistic; it is vain and self-absorbed. It is unable to acknowledge the existence of anything essentially different from itself. Nothing has value within its own frame of reference, but is assigned value only in so far as it confirms or detracts from our desired self-image. This is true not only of people and situations we may meet, but even of our most basic feelings and sense perceptions. Nothing can be allowed to stand on its own feet, outside of the territory of ego; it must be brought into ego’s domain through the sticky matrix of the five skandhas.

All of these processes and characteristics of the pernicious “self” may be summarized in the term duhkha, or “suffering”—the first noble truth of Buddhism. Our “self” is in a state of continual pain, marked by fear and anxiety. It continually senses but cannot acknowledge its own dependency, reactivity, and fragility. It feels alienated and inauthentic, but doesn’t know any alternative. It is always trying, more or less unsuccessfully, to manipulate and control the world it experiences. As a result, we undergo the continual discomfort—sometimes vivid, sometimes very subtle—of feeling artificial, fake, or phony.

This problematic “self” also points toward the future, for it sows the seeds of further, subsequent suffering. In Buddhist terms, it generates negative karma. Attempting to maintain our “self” involves the creation of ever deeper and more entrenched habits of reaction, defensiveness, and ignorance. We get used to the compulsive perpetuation of our “self” in certain habitual ways, and in this we are stubborn and incorrigible. The more we drive in the same rutty tracks, the deeper the ruts become and the more difficult it is to respond to situations or live our lives in a fresh and open way.

The self-perpetuating process of the pernicious “self” is known in Buddhism as samsara—never ending, cyclic existence. Our problematic “self,” by its very definition, can never, on its own, break free. Only when some outside agent intervenes is there any possibility of change. The Buddhist dharma provides such an agent and, when it enters the scene, the unwholesome, samsaric “self” can begin to undergo change.

This is the fourth and final post in a 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?, looked at the fictitious self as a response to fear of groundlessness.  Part three, Deconstructing the “Self,” described the specific, moment-by-moment arising of the “self” and the Buddhist doctrine of the five skandhas. 

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.