The Self is a Unicorn

The Self is a Unicorn

A classic question: Who am I?

Clearly, individual persons exist. 

Each person is a particular eddy rippling along. While persons interact, they are distinct from each other, like different waves in the ocean. Persons have rights and responsibilities, and we should treat them with decency and care. 

But what about the so-called self? A supposed being inside who is looking out through your eyes. (I’m focusing here on the purported psychological self rather than the possibility of something supernatural.) 

This is an important topic since the sense of being a self causes a lot of sufferingtaking things personally, becoming defensive, and getting possessive. When the sense of self decreases, well-being usually increases, with a feeling of ease and openness. 

The psychological self is described in different ways in different cultures. Here the term “self” means a presumed “I” or “me” “who” is “inside” each person. Conventionally, we think of this purported self as having three defining characteristics:

  • Stable – The self today is the same self as yesterday and a year ago.
  • Unified – There is only one “me” inside the mind. 
  • Independent – Things may happen to the self, but it is not fundamentally altered by them.

These characteristics define the apparent self. They are necessary conditions for there actually to be a self. But are they all true?

When you observe your own experience, it’s striking to find the opposite of the three defining characteristics of a supposed self:

  • Not stable – The “I” or “me” in the moment keeps changing. 
  • Not unified – If the self were unified, you could command every bit of yourself to stop liking sweets. There are multiple “I’s” and “me’s,” including different sub-personalities and points of view.
  • Not independent – The sense of self changes due to different influences, such as ebbs and flows in craving. The various “I’s” and “me’s” have also been shaped by internal and external factors.

Second, as you watch the mind, you can see many references to a presumed complete self that exists . . . somewhere . . . always out of sight. A complete “I” or “me” is routinely implied in experiences of planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, and rumination. But try as you might, you will never find the presumed full self in your actual experience. 

Third, the sense of self is often added to our experiences, and you can be mindful of this. For example, you could be walking around with little sense of self – and suddenly you see something you don’t like: within a second or two, a much stronger sense of self could begin to develop in your awareness. It is perfectly possible for seeing, hearing, sensing, and cognizing to occur, . . . without adding an “I” or a “me” to it.

Fourth, there is a quality of subjectivity in most experiences. An awareness of, a witnessing of. The brain “indexes” across moments of experience to find what is common to them, and there is an inference that all this witnessing must mean that there is a witness. But subjectivity does not require a subject. There is awareness, but that does not mean there is “someone who” is aware. Look again and again, and you will not find that someone. 

Now when look at the brain from the outside in, we can’t find a stable, unified, and independent basis for a self there, either. Many studies on how activity in your brain correlates with different experiences of “me, myself, and I,” such as making a choice, recognizing your own face amidst others, or recalling something from childhood reveal startling conclusions. The neural activities that are the basis of self-related experiences are also:

  • Not stable – They are transient and dynamic throughout the brain.
  • Not unified – The neural correlates of the sense of self are scattered all over the brain. There is no single place in the brain that “does” the self. We are all unique and in that sense special. But the self is not special in the brain. 
  • Not independent – These neural activations are the result of streams of internal and external stimuli, and they also depend upon underlying physical structures and processes.

A “Self” Is Like a Unicorn

To sum up, our experiences of “I,” “me,” and “mine” – and their neural foundations – are impermanent, compounded, and interdependent. In a word, the apparent self is empty. This alone should encourage lightening up about it and not clinging to it. But I’d like to take this a step further. 

We can have empty experiences of things that do actually exist, such as horses. Just because the experience of a horse is empty does not mean that the horse is not real. But we can also have empty experiences of things that do not exist, such as imagining a unicorn. If there is no creature with the defining characteristics of a unicorn – a horse with a long pointed horn – then unicorns are not real. 

The presumed self is like a unicorn, a mythical beast that does not exist. Its necessary, defining characteristics – stability, unification, and independence – do not exist in either the mind or the brain. The complete self is never observed in experience. Subjectivity doesn’t mean there is a stable subject, a one to whom things happen. And the sense of being or having a self is not needed for consciousness – nor for opening a door or answering a question.  

Realizing this often begins conceptually, and that’s all right. These ideas can help to highlight different aspects of experience. Then we can observe and practice with the mind and gradually there will be a felt knowing of what’s true. 

This is an excerpt from Neurodharma

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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