Thinking about what “you” are and the concept of individuality can be very difficult. Many people spend their entire lives ignoring these questions due to fear, ignorance, laziness or simple lack of interest. This is one of those topics that sounds like only a “philosopher” would care about, right? Frustratingly there are significant upsides and downsides to confronting our perceptions of ourselves. It can raise uncomfortable existential questions about identity, free-will and consciousness… But it can also provide a powerful, alternative perspective through which the world can be seen, I would argue, more completely.
So, on that note:
What are you? What does the word you even mean? Well, that’s easy right? It refers to one particular human being. You know all sorts of facts about “you”, your age, your hair colour and hopefully your name. Those facts haven’t always been the same, I’m sure you’ve changed a lot, and yet, you were still you a few years ago. If you change everything about yourself, are you still you?
We have the intuition that the words I and you refer to something known as an individual. Individual humans look distinct from one another but they also have unique personalities. These individuals claim to have agency and conscious control of their actions. Individuals think that they have consistent beliefs and act accordingly with them.
But we also know this doesn’t quite seem to be right. When we’re sulking, our scientist-approved health-focused diet can give way to a torrent of binge eating. When we have a newfound crush we find ourselves uncharacteristically beaming with joy. We say we want to protect the environment then we lazily hurl our recyclables in the regular trash 😱. Why is it we so often find ourselves saying one thing and doing another? It seems like there is no single version of yourself, there’s no consistency. Any effort you spend to categorically define yourself is futile, any measurement made is merely transient.
What I’m going to try to convince you of in this post might seem slightly weird. My claim is that the idea of “you” consists of little more than an aggregation of urges and reactions that are weaved into a vaguely coherent story just in time for it to all make sense to yourself. This story is what makes its way into wakeful consciousness and allows us to keep a record of what we’ve done and how we feel about our lives to date. This seems to be part of the role of the pre-frontal cortex, though nothing is ever quite so cut-and-dry when it comes to biology.
The illusory nature of the sense-of-self (i.e. the ego) is something that, with enough time, you will start to run into through meditation. I wasn’t looking for this understanding when I started to meditate, I was just looking to be calmer, but now I would argue this is the more valuable takeaway.
I’m going to run through a few different perspectives on the sense of self, but first I want to take a moment to discuss meditation. It can be difficult to grapple with these ideas without exposure to some particular mental states. Meditation is designed to access these states but they can also be reached through powerful emotional experiences and certain drugs.
Eventually, with significant meditation practice, you will actually notice the very moment a thought pops into your head and you can choose to follow it, or stay in the present. Once you taste this moment of choice it becomes incredibly appealing. You even begin to vaguely understand the experience of consciousness, without thought. You develop mindful meta-awareness (which I swear is a term I didn’t make up) of your own mind and can observe some of its often hilarious rambling.
~breathing~ "I better remember to take my lunch out of the fridge" ~feeling the sun on your skin~ "I wonder what Snoop Dogg's real name is?" ~hearing the leaves rustle in the breeze~ "Hah I'm doing so well not thinkin-" ~breathing~
When these thoughts appear, you can examine them and try to determine where they came from and… You will find nothing. When probed it appears that your consciousness has no centre or even any structure that you can observe, it simply is. The idea that you have any control of your mind or your actions becomes but one possible perspective. These thoughts spontaneously present themselves to us and we cannot choose to stop them.
If you would like to learn to meditate, or you would like to focus more on these aspects of meditation I would thoroughly recommend Sam Harris’ Waking Up Course.
Now, let’s get into it. There are a whole range of reasons that it seems like we are one single, independent entity. The majority of people are convinced of some of the following claims, at least on some level:
I’m no longer convinced that any of these are accurate or beneficial ways to think.
Through meditation you will be forced to spend time observing your thoughts as they arise. After a short while you may be left with the impression that your brain is basically a random thought generator. How can we be so scattered between topics and priorities? Why can’t we tell when we’re about to have a thought? It doesn’t seem like we have control over whatever is creating these ideas, you can keep looking but I assure you there is no source to find.
I find it easier to think about the source of thoughts as a conversation between a group of many “selves” working together. Perhaps these could be different regions of the brain, the influence of signalling molecules in our bodies or even subtle environmental cues we are consciously unaware of. Within our daily experience we can find: The anxious self, making sure not to forget anything. The confident self, telling us we’re doing a fantastic job. The jealous self, not really being quite as happy as we should be for a friend’s success. These selves occasionally decide it’s their turn to speak and push a thought into our main, observable consciousness.
There are an uncountable number of these independent contributors voicing their opinions. Just how loud any given one is changes over time and can be actively shaped using mindful awareness. There is no single-minded author of your thoughts and you cannot stop yourself from thinking them.
This is a confronting idea, it threatens our notions of free will and agency. I will talk more about free will in the future, but for now it suffices to say that free will is more a matter of perspective than fact. Meaning, in turn, that it cannot be fully “proven” or “disproven”. It should not bother us that we are inconsistent, or that we have thoughts that are “undesirable”. The fact that you cannot fully control yourself implies there is no avoiding thought. In many ways this perspective is an antidote to shame.
Obviously, at times, shame is critically important. Shame is a force to help us guide us toward more productive and collaborative behaviours. However shame, especially the shame found in many overly traditional religious practices, can be oppressive. To feel that the thoughts in your head may themselves be a “sin” is a horrendously cruel way to treat oneself. These thoughts and impulses arise and, with practice, we can regard them gently and decide if they are worth further inspection.
Looking at things this way has shifted my relationship with my own mind. If, like me, you have a voice in your head constantly berating you, telling you that you’ll never be anywhere near good enough for anyone then I’m sure you can relate. I no longer hate or fear my anxious self, when it speaks up I can often calm it: “ah, I’m worrying again”. The same is true for melancholy, laziness, self-hate or intrusive thoughts of any kind.
I understand the sense-of-self as a projection. Our minds stitch together a somewhat unified story of our lives as a visualisation tool. This perspective lets us easily communicate about things that have happened to us and recognise the apparent passage of time. But, as with any projection or model, do not confuse it for reality. This model is useful when trying to recall facts about ourselves, but it can actually be a significant hindrance when trying to analyse our behaviour.
Trying to work out out exactly why you did something is an interesting thought experiment. I’m sure you’ve found yourself staring into the fridge before, despite having no recollection of walking to the kitchen or deciding to stand at all… We imagine that something reminded us and we consciously decided to grab food but have since forgotten. I am convinced this is not the case. The more time I have spent meditating the more clearly I can spot “automatic” behaviours like this popping up, and they really do pop up. There’s no clear premeditation, just an urge that manifests in consciousness.
This phenomenon is far easier to understand if you’re willing to accept that much, perhaps the vast majority, of what you do is done without conscious thought. Urges from our organs, muscles and gut microbiome (a.k.a our many selves) poke into consciousness, we act on them and then craft a plausible explanation to explain ourselves to others. Ever found yourself in the midst of explaining your actions, only to realise you aren’t sure if what you’re saying is correct?
Almost all of us have the feeling of being torn between two worlds. We’ve have the external world where we do the important stuff (i.e. laugh, eat and sleep) and we have the internal world of thought. It’s rare for us to put this duality under scrutiny but, when pressed, it doesn’t hold up well. In actuality there is no separation between internal and external. In fact, we do not have the ability to objectively experience anything at all. All that you perceive as being external exists within your subjective version of reality. We may think of thoughts as images or words, often as an internal monologue, but perhaps a more accurate view is that anything that enters consciousness is itself a thought.
Sensory inputs feed in to create a representation of reality within your mind, thus becoming thoughts. Your conscious thoughts are one and the same with these sensory inputs, they inform one another mutually and occupy the same space. The light and temperature may remind you of a summer evening overseas with someone you love, nostalgia washes over you and the scene in-front of your eyes seems to subtly shift. It suddenly starts to look the way you’re feeling. I urge you to look for the evidence of this in your own life, for me it is a reliable reminder of the beauty of the world.
Everything you’ve ever experienced and ever will experience appears in consciousness. It’s the only way we can have an experience at all. This leads to a slightly upsetting realisation, we have no idea what the real world looks like at all. It seems there is no alternative though, no matter how much further we could evolve or augment ourselves we would still be asymptotically approaching objectivity. The upside of this realisation is we can use our subjectivity to our advantage, probe at its nature and find the most pleasant ways to subjectively experience everything.
I have always resented people telling me that “happiness is a choice”, it feels ignorant and condescending, especially when you’re in the midst of depression. However it’s unfair to say that it’s inaccurate in all cases. If you embrace the idea that reality is actually open to interpretation it opens you up to seeing that you can influence whether experiences in your life have a positive or negative valence.
I am an irrationally time-conscious person, I fear running late in any situation and missing my train has historically been a difficult experience for me. As my perspective on thought itself has changed I find it easier and easier to get over ridiculous obsessions like these. I panic for a second and blame myself “how could you be so fucking stupid” before realising “hey, I’m getting worked up over this and there’s nothing I can do”. I can actually preempt the negative emotional experience and often defuse it using reason.
So, it seems like our intuitions about reality and ourselves are a somewhat askew. We feel that we are one whole entity, and that other people and animals are also whole entities separate from one another. This is not the only perspective though. When looking upon a school of fish you can see the entire group as one entity, ignoring each individual. If you grab one fish and look closely at it (assuming it doesn’t squirm out of your grasp) you’ll certainly be able to see it as one entity again, but that fish in turn is made up of trillions of cells swimming together in a fish-like shape. These boundaries are a human construct to understand and discuss the world. We can choose to see the forest, a tree, a branch or just a single leaf. In sufficient number and with sufficient perspective, a group of humans can easily appear to be acting as one single entity (note: I may have described an orgy 🤔).
In turn, there exist many ways to see your body and mind as many many separate components influencing one another. When talking to a close friend, in the heat of conversation, the boundary between the two of you seems to break down. You’re present, locked-in and immediately responsive to every comment. You’re no longer modelling the world as “I” and “they” but as “we”. Playing with your perspective like this can lead to some interesting philosophical ideas and, more importantly, incredibly deep bonds.
Accepting the illusory nature of the self does not mean rejecting individuality, individuality is a highly effective perspective for many tasks. However, in my opinion it is not the most effective perspective for all tasks. When acknowledging that the lines between us are not as clear as they once seemed it becomes much easier to feel compassion for others. It can even help us accept our nemeses, for we now know that if we had been born into their life with their desires poking their consciousness, we would be exactly like them.
If you take this to the logical extreme you can relax the boundaries between absolutely everything. Everyone you’ve ever known, every animal, plant and rock, your cells and even your thoughts are all part of the same thing: the universe. You are one profoundly nuanced part of a profoundly nuanced whole. You are exactly as significant as the stars and galaxies in space, and as grains of sand or the electrons within them. This sensation of one-ness comforts me and is the basis for the ~spiritual~ aspect of my worldview. There’s nothing supernatural about it, I look upon nature in awe and can’t help but be moved by the beauty of so many systems, within systems, all functioning as one. If you like how this sounds, you should try listening to other people say it far more eloquently than me.
I find myself naturally shifting between looking at myself as a consistent individual and as a mere chaotic fragment of the universe, as it seems appropriate. Finding the balance between an individual and collective perspective has been and will continue to be an ongoing struggle for humans. Rather than picking one perspective and campaigning tooth and nail for it (see: most political discourse) we can hold both ideas gently and consult with them each in turn to better understand the world.