top of page

Consciousness and Self

What is the self and how does it relate to causality? I had a professor in my grad school who had us the first day of class write down 5 words that described us on index cards. Then he had us throw away the one that was least central to our view of ourselves. We continued to throw away one word at a time until we had only one left - at which point everyone in the class balked. “But I have to be this at least” we all said. All he said was, “Do you?” and went on with class. I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago he was a Buddhist sage - even if he didn’t admit it.

In Western philosophy we generally grasp onto the Cartesian model of the self. This can be represented by a central circle of the existing self surrounded by other circles of experiences and relationships that we “have”. While those outside circles may change, disappear and new ones appear; the central self is constant. Any change that is admitted to the self is still seen as coming from outside the central self. So education, spiritual awakening, etc. are all seen as happening to the central self.

In Buddhism the self can be viewed as a mandala like this: where the experiences and relationships we have are the petals around the central space of the self. Not only do these experiences and relationships interact with each other but they also work to define what the self is at any given moment - since they are constantly changing and evolving. The important thing to remember is that these experiences and relationships expand throughout time; so we are not only defined by our experiences and relationships now but those that occurred in the past. This is a very important part of the puzzle because it helps answer the question, “but isn’t there SOMETHING that’s me?”.

This is also where causality - or dependent origination - comes into play. It’s not that this current self blinks out of existence and is replaced by the future self who has no connection to my self now. Dependent Origination tells us that the future self flows out of the present self - who in turn flowed out of the past self - in a continuous flow where each one is dependent on the one before it. Going back to the mandala we might more appropriately view it as a spiraling tube of interrelationship where the self flows through space and time - ever evolving until the tube ends.

So where does consciousness come into the equation? Buddhism defines the experience of the self in terms of the Five Aggregates: Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formations and Consciousness. Forms are the external things we experience - this zafu for instance. Sensations are the sense events of those forms - a circular, black thing that feels kind of squishy. Perceptions then become the recognition of those sensations - “ah, a zafu”. Up to this point we’re talking about non-learned, physical events. The aggregate of Mental Formations is the learned reaction to our perceptions - positive, negative and neutral. Mental Formations include such things as language, valuation and prejudices - “oh, that’s some Japanese Buddhist thing, I’m not going to have one of those in my house.”. Finally Consciousness - what some call self - is the amalgamation of the other four aggregates into the knowledge of how this initial Form applies in our life and what it “means” to us - “this is a comfortable way to place my body in a way that facilitates mindfulness meditation and will help me in my life.”. It is really this aggregate of Consciousness that the West tends to view as Self. This is the Cartesian “I think therefore I am”.

So how does Buddhism look at the interaction of Consciousness and body - specifically the brain? Quite simply really; Consciousness is the activity of the brain in the same way that digestion is the activity of the digestive organs. We wouldn’t be asking if digestion exists as a separate entity outside the body, so why do we ask that about consciousness? At least that’s the observation of our experiences. The Buddhist formulation of selflessness, or anatman, is not a denial of the possibility of the self but is more saying that the belief in an unchanging, eternal self is not supported by our experiences and observations. This in turn means that focusing on an eternal self and it’s needs take us away from the essential matter of focusing on how we are interconnected with and interdependent on the natural world and how what we do affects - and is affected by - others. Going back to the mandala again we are not just 3 dimensional mandalas spiraling through time we are interlinked, spiraling mandalas. Think of throwing a box of Slinkies down the stairs; by the time they came to the bottom it would be hard to say where one started and another ended – yet they still have a unique identity.

This idea is not completely foreign to Western thought. John Donne expressed it in perhaps his most famous meditation, MEDITATION XVII from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”. Here he said:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page