No Self, No Limits.
Who are you underneath it all?
One of the reasons that the illusion of the self is so persistent, is that it’s easier to imagine that there are many “self”s in the head than it is to recognise that there is no self at all. There’s the confident self, the happy self, the shy self, the insecure self, all of them feel real and at times all-consuming, all of them appear repeatedly and consistently in our minds in ways that make them feel familiar, even comfortable. I mean, who would we even be without all of these characters?
For instance, someone who is trying to motivate themselves might notice that there’s a “self” in their mind who doesn’t want to do anything. A voice, telling them to give up or masturbate or start tomorrow. This unmotivated person might briefly see this aspect of themselves clearly as a character that is playing in their minds rather than continuing to mistake it for who they are.
But then they might notice that there’s a different voice in there too. Perhaps the one that encouraged this self-examination in the first place. This voice is in conflict with the unmotivated character and wants the person being possessed by it to overcome it. To stop making excuses. It counters the unmotivated character’s reasons to procrastinate with reasons to persevere. The unmotivated person might be able to see this as a character inside their head too, though unfortunately for most of us it’s usually a much smaller and weaker character.
Most people reconcile this by identifying their “best self” as one of the voices, usually the one trying to get on with life, while the other voice, the one that just wants to sit around and masturbate, is identified as…actually that self isn’t usually well defined. We don’t tend to talk about our “worst selves” or our “weaker selves” with the same enthusiasm as we talk about our “best selves”. Usually, the second voice is labelled as temptation, the person recognises that they’re only human and will occasionally succumb to temptation, and the whole thing is left at that.
Our hypothetical person tries to resist temptation and strives to be closer to their best self, feeling as if their life is a constant merry-go-round of switching between these two characters, and in so doing risk missing the elephant in the room; who is the person listening to these two voices? Is it our best self, our worst self, or an entirely different self? If it’s able to observe the other two as they battle it out, it must be a self which is separate from either of them. In fact, it must be a higher self seeing as it can see them both from its vantage point. his sense that we’re switching between our best self is the first hint that there is something greater within us than both of them.
But there’s still further to go. You see, you can play this game forever. First, there were two selves; the best self and the not so good self. Then there was a third self which was able to observe these two. But now, something has noticed the third self and is also able to notice the other two selves, a fourth, higher self, which has now also been noticed, presumably by a fifth self, and on and on. Thinking of our internal world in this way creates an infinite hierarchy of selves all looking down on the ones below. So who, or what is at the top?
This infinite recursion is our first clue the there’s something wrong with this model. The inside of our heads would be awfully crowded if they were filled with this hall of selves. Instead, when we look closely at any one of them, we notice that they start to become less concrete. It’s harder to define the edges of them; to see where one ends and the next begins, look even closer, and they disappear like so much smoke.
Does this mean that we’re empty inside? Hopefully, it takes even less effort to see that this isn’t right either. The self is a kind of story we’re telling ourselves to keep all of these identities in order, a trick of the mind to make us feel like their interplay makes sense. But the truth is that none of them is real. We aren’t limited by the constraints of who we are, only by what we believe our next options to be. The self is what allows us to draw limits around ourselves, and the truth is, there’s no limit at all.