The Self Illusion


[This is part one of Mystic Materials, a collection of quotes I’ve gathered over the last few weeks from mystics, poets, scientists, Zen masters. Mainly to remind myself. This wisdom is also known as the Perennial Philosophy (Aldous Huxley) and spans the ‘Axial Age’ (800 BCE – 200 CE) to the present, from the Buddha and Upanishads to present physicists and poets. It is transcultural. This first section is about the illusion of having an ‘I-identity’, self, ego, a ghost in the body machine, of being an independent individual ‘confronting’ and separate from the universe. Who ARE you? ‘What was your face before you were born’? Took the shot of my wife on the south coast.]

The Self Illusion, No-Self (Anatma), ‘Original Self’, ‘Unborn Self’, ‘Buddha Nature’

[The root cause of most individual and collective problems: our mistaken identity. We identify as separate individuals, with an ‘I concept’, as an ‘ego’ or ‘self’ that is inside our sack of skin somehow ‘in control’ and directing things. This is a social internalisation and construct that does not exist, or rather exists as a wave exists as a both real and illusionary fluctuation of the Ocean. We are both wave and Ocean, form and Emptiness.]

Gautama Buddha (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 1959, pp. 26, 54-55, 66)

As the Buddha told Ratthapala: ‘The world is in continuous flux and is impermanent.’ One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called ‘I’. […] There is no unmoving movement behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is no thinker behind the thought. The thought is itself the thinker. […]

If the whole of existence is relative, conditioned and interdependent, how can will alone be free? Will, like any other thought, is conditioned. So-called ‘freedom’ itself is conditioned and relative. There can be nothing absolutely free, physical or mental, as everything is interdependent and relative. […] According to the doctrine of Conditioned Genesis [pratitya-samutpada], as well as according to the analysis of being into Five Aggregates [of attachment, pancakkhandha], the idea of an abiding, immortal substance in man or outside, whether it is called Atman, ‘I’, Soul, or Ego, is considered only a false belief, a mental projection. This is the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, No-Soul or No-Self. […]

According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion ‘I have no self’ (which is the annihilationist theory) as to hold the opinion ‘I have self’ (which is the eternalist theory), because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea ‘I AM’. The correct position with regard to the question of Anatta is not to take hold of any opinions or views, but to try to see things objectively as they are without mental projections, to see that what we call ‘I’, or ‘being’, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.

Rumi (1207- 1273, Sufi master and poet, Selected Poems transl. by Coleman Barks)

Do you think I know what I am doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next.


Every second he’s bowing into a mirror.
If he could see for just one second one molecule
of what’s there without fantasizing about it,
he’d explode.
His imagination, and he himself,
would vanish, with all his knowledge, obliterated
into a new birth, a perfectly clear view,
a voice that says, I am God.

Meister Eckhart (1267-1327, German Sermons 2, 13 and 22 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’)

The soul too is nameless. It is no more possible to find a name for the soul than it is to find one for God, even though weighty tomes have been written about this. But in so far as she chooses to act, we give her a name.

Sometimes I have said that there is a power in the soul that can alone be said to be free. Sometimes I have said that it is a refuge of the spirit and sometimes I have said that it is a light of the spirit. Sometimes I have said that it is a spark. But now I say that it is neither this nor that, and yet still it is something which is as far above this or that as heaven is above earth. Therefore I shall now name it in a nobler manner than I have ever done before, and yet it mocks such reverence and manner, and is far above them.

It is free of all names and is devoid of all forms, quite empty and free as God is empty and free in himself. It is so entirely one and simple, as God is one and simple, that no one can see inside it in a particular manner. […] If you could see this with my heart, then you would understand what it is I am saying: for it is true, and the truth itself tells it.

Therefore I am my own self cause according to my essence, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is in time. There I am unborn, and according to the manner of my unbornness, shall never die. According to the manner of my unborn nature, I have been eternal, as I am now and ever shall be. But what I am according to my nature which was born into the world, that shall die and turn to nothing, for it is mortal. Therefore it must decay with time. In my birth, all things were born, and I was the cause of my own self and of all things. Had I wished that I should not exist, then neither would anything else have existed. And if I did not exist, then neither would God have existed as ‘God’. I am the cause of God’s existence as ‘God’. But it is not necessary for you to know this. […]

But in the breakthrough, where I am free of my own will and of God’s will and of all his works and am free of God himself, there I am above all creatures and am neither ‘God’ nor creature, but I am rather what I once was and what I shall remain now and for evermore. […]

Whoever does not understand these words, should not be troubled. For as long as someone is not themselves akin to this truth, they will not understand my words, since this is an unconcealed truth which has come directly from the heart of God.

Angelus Silesius (Johan Scheffler, 1624-1677, own translation)

I was God within God even before I was me,
That’s why I can be so again when I have died to me.

David Hume (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, pp. 252-253)

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. […] I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. […] The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. […] What then gives us a great propension to ascribe an identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro’ the whole course of our lives?

George H. Mead (Mind, Self, and Society, 1934, pp. 138-155)

For he enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behaviour in which both he and they are involved. […] The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience. After a self has arisen, it in a certain sense provides for itself its social experiences, and so we can conceive of an absolutely solitary self. But it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience. […]

We are one thing to one man and another thing to another. […] There are all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions. It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self; it is not there is a self apart from this type of experience. A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal. […]

The organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self may be called ‘the generalized other.’ The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community. […] It is in the form of the generalized other that […] the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members; for it is in this form that the social process or community enters as a determining factor into the individual’s thinking. […] The internal conversations of the individual with himself in terms of words or significant gestures – the conversation which constitutes the process or activity of thinking – is carried on by the individual from the standpoint of the ‘generalized other.’

Max Planck (quoted in: D. Blatner, Spectrums, 2013, p. 150 and p. 172)

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And it is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve. […]

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

Norbert Wiener (The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950, p. 96)

We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.

Alan Watts (The Way of Zen, 1957, pp. 67, 141, Psychotherapy East and West, 1961, pp. 95-99, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, 1966, pp. 120, 145-146)

It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences, For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch. […] the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration. […]

When we are no longer identified with the idea of ourselves, the entire relationship between subject and object, knower and known, undergoes a sudden revolutionary change. It becomes a real relationship, a mutuality in which the subject creates the object as much as the object creates the subject. The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience. Consequently the whole notion of getting something ‘out’ of life, of seeking something ‘from’ experience, becomes absurd. To put it another way, it becomes vividly clear that in concrete fact I have no other self than the totality of things of which I am aware. […]

With all their differing methods, Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism all involve the realization that life ceases to seem problematic when it is understood that the ego is a social fiction. […] For the ego is the role, the ‘act’, that one’s inmost self is permanent, that it is in control of the organism, and that while it ‘has’ experiences it is not involved in them. Pain and death expose this pretence […] Thus the ego which observes and controls the cortex is a complex of social information relayed back to the cortex – Mead’s ‘generalized other’. […] The ego is the unconscious pretence that the organism contains a higher system than the cortex […] When, therefore, I feel that ‘I’ am knowing or controlling myself – my cortex – I should recognize that I am actually being controlled by other people’s words and gestures masquerading as my inner or better self. […] If all this is true, it becomes obvious that the ego feeling is pure hypnosis. Society is persuading the individual to do what it wants by making it appear that its commands are the individual’s inmost self. […] This is misinformation, and this – if anything – is the ‘Great Social Lie’. […]

The only real ‘you’ is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For ‘you’ is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean. […]

I presume, then, that with my own death I shall forget who I was, just as my conscious attention is unable to recall, if it ever knew, how to form the cells of the brain and the pattern of the veins. Conscious memory plays little part in our biological existence. Thus as my sensation of ‘I-ness’, of being alive, once came into being without conscious memory or intent, so it will arise again and again, as the ‘central’ Self – the IT – appears as the self/other situation in its myriads of pulsating forms – always the same and always new, a here in the midst of a there, a now in the midst of then, and a one in the midst of many. And if I forget how many times I have been here, and in how many shapes, this forgetting is the necessary interval of darkness between every pulsation of light. I return in every baby born. […] Each infant dawns into life as I did, without any memory of a past. Thus when I am gone there can be no experience, no living through, of the state of being a perpetual ‘has-been’. Nature ‘abhors a vacuum’ and the I-feeling appears again as it did before, and it matters not whether the interval be ten seconds or billions of years. In unconsciousness all times are the same brief instant.

This is so obvious, but our block against seeing it is the ingrained and compelling myth that the ‘I’ comes into this world, or is thrown out from it, in such a way as to have no essential connection with it. Thus we do not trust the universe to repeat what it has already done – to ‘I’ itself again and again. […] In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself – through our eyes and IT’s.

D.E. Harding (On Having No Head, 1961, pp. 9-10)

Somehow or other I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking out through its two round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t like that at all. […] Victim of a prolonged fit of madness, of a lifelong hallucination […], I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed – to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is – rather than contains – all things.

For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed – still less a soul or mind to which they are presented, or a viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes […]

R.D. Laing (from The Politics of Experience, 1967, p. 113)

Most people most of the time experience themselves and others in one or other way that I shall call egoic. That is, centrally or peripherally, they experience the world and themselves in terms of a consistent identity, a me-here over against a you-there, within a framework of certain ground structures of space and time, shared with other members of their society. […] It gives us a sense of ontological security […]

In fact all religious and all existential philosophies have agreed that such egoic experience is a preliminary illusion, a veil, a film of maya – a dream to Heraclitus, and to Lao-Tzu, the fundamental illusion of all Buddhism, a state of sleep, of death, of socially accepted madness, a womb state to which one has to die, from which one has to be born.

William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-93)

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

The notion that a man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged;
This I shall do by…melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

Walt Whitman (‘Song of Myself’, in Leaves of Grass, 1855)

The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions
or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next, both in and out of the game
and watching and wondering at it.
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night. […]

I acknowledge the duplicates of myself, the weakest and shallowest is deathless with me,
What I do and say the same waits for them,
Every thought that flounders in me the same flounders in them. […]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Jorge Luis Borges (‘Funes the Memorious’, ‘A New Refutation of Time’, and ‘Everything and Nothing’, in Labyrinths, 1964, pp. 92, 256-257, 269 and 284-285)

The truth is that we live out our lives putting off all that can be put off; perhaps we all know deep down that we are immortal and that sooner or later all men will do and know all things.


The Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’ is thus invalidated; to say ‘ think’ postulates the self, [and] is a begging of the question; Lichtenberg in the eighteenth century, proposed that in place of ‘I think’ we should say impersonally, ‘it thinks’, just as one would say ‘it thunders’ or ‘it rains’. I repeat: behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions. The series? Once matter and spirit, which are continuous, are negated, once space too has been negated, I do not know what right we have to that continuity which is time. […] Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.


There was no one in him; behind his face […] and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. […] At twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. […] History adds that before or after his dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

Thomas Merton (New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961, pp. 26-28 and Choosing to Love the World, 2008, pp. 40, 39)

To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone I never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not. […]

For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.


Learning to be oneself means, therefore, to die in order to live. It means discovering in the ground of one’s being a ‘self’ which is ultimate and indestructible, which not only survives the destruction of all other more superficial selves but finds its identity affirmed and clarified by their destruction. The inmost self is naked. […] Paradise is simply the person, the self, but the radical self in its uninhibited freedom. The self no longer clothed with an ego.

Wei Wu Wei (Terence Gray, Ask the Awakened, 1963, and Posthumous Pieces, 1968, pp. 212, 216, 220, 221, 223)

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself —
And there isn’t one.

What is your trouble? Mistaken identity.
We do not possess an ‘ego’.
We are possessed by the idea of one.
All the evil in the world, and all the unhappiness, comes from the I-concept.

This ‘real’ nature with whose revelation the Chan Masters are primarily concerned, or the Atman-‘I’ of the Vedantists, is not the far-off, unreachable will-o’-the-wisp we are apt to imagine, but just the within of which we know the without. It is just the other side of the medal, and it lies wherever our senses and our intellect cease to function.

We do not experience: we are experience.

‘You’ cannot ‘see’ (or ‘seek’) it because ‘you’ think ‘you’ are looking, and ‘you’ cannot see LOOKING, for it is what is looking, and what is looking is not ‘a’ you. No ‘you’ could ever see it. ‘You’ removed – it is HERE.

‘I’ cannot be thought: the thinking is what I am. […]
Being aware of this is called ‘Not-Thinking.’

The moment I cease to be myself, I become what I am.

What you are trying to see is what is looking!

Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970, p. 29)

If you think ‘I breathe’, the ‘I’ is extra. There is no you to say ‘I’. What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I’, no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

J.P. Briggs and F. David Peat (Looking Glass Universe, 1984, pp. 137-138)

So ordinary consciousness responds to the explicate [external, created] because that consciousness has been trained through acculturation to consider itself an explicate order, to screen out and suppress vast dimensions of its own implicate [inmost, essential, uncreated, eternal] nature. One of the explicate-order forms which consciousness adopts is the sense of personal identity or self. Humans come to think of the individual self as a fundamentally separate ‘thing’ which persists despite an immensity of changes that take place in one’s life. Becoming an explicate order mirroring the explicate orders in the universe has great advantages for consciousness. […]

[Physicist David] Bohm believes that there is a grave fallacy lurking behind the concept of individual consciousness. In the implicate order, consciousness as a whole – the total consciousness of human kind – has a more primary reality. Even more deeply than this, all of consciousness is enfolded in matter and matter is the unfolding of consciousness. Thus individual consciousness, like an individual electron, is an abstraction. A useful one at times; at others, destructive and confusing.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (Questioning Krishnamurti, 1996, pp. 15, 67)

No, I say you are not an individual. Your thinking is not yours. Your consciousness is not yours because every human being suffers, every human being goes through hell, turmoil, anxiety, agony, every human being, whether west or east, north, south, goes through this. So we are human beings, not ‘I am a separate human who is related to other human beings’: I am the rest of humanity. And if I see that fact I will not kill another.


Look, sir, there is no you and me. I am not you and you are not me. There is that quality of choiceless awareness, that sense of attention in which the ‘me’ and the ‘you’ cease. You don’t say it’s unity. Unity implies division.

Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self, 1991, p. 187)

The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen from its military, ecological, or social aspect, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of self. It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things. It is a delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries, that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume, and that it is so aloof that as individuals, corporations, nation-states, or species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings. […]

Sten F. Odenwald (Patterns in the Void, 2002, pp. 172 and 243)

If [as in quantum mechanics] space and time can at some point lose their individuality and certainty, how do we then regard all the other possibilities for space and time that might have been? What becomes of the sanctity of cause and effect, or the sense of self, when the bedrock of reality seems to tremble and shift from state to state in an uncontrolled and chaotic dance? In the quantum world, things remain in a half-real state until they are observed. Does this also mean that space-time doesn’t exist until it is observed? And who is doing the observing? […]

In the end it is not what we see that matters or that steers our destinies either as a species or as a living substance. Ninety-seven percent of what you are is a pattern of energy trapped in a gluon field. The three percent of you that tips the bathroom scale each morning is a hint of concrete mass that is a gift from the Higgs field, or something like it, lurking in the Void. The destiny of the entire universe is not controlled by the luminous stars and matter sprinkled throughout space like diamonds on a dark satin cloth. It is controlled by the 97 percent of the dark matter and energy that moves in the Void, unseen except for its feeble gravity.

Bruce Hood (The Self Illusion, 2012, p. xi and ‘The Self’ in J. Brockman (ed.), This Idea Must Die, 2015, p. 147)

Who we are is a story of our self – a constructed narrative that our brain creates. Some of that simulation is experienced as a conscious awareness that corresponds to the self illusion that the average person in the street reports. At present we do not know how a physical system like the brain could ever produce those non-physical experiences like the conscious self. In fact, it is turning out to be a very hard problem to solve. We may never find an answer and some philosophers believe the question is misguided in the first place. Dan Dennett also thinks the self is constructed out of narratives: ‘Our tales are spun, but for the most part, we don’t spin them; they spin us.’ There is no self at the core. Rather it emerges as the ‘centre of a narrative gravity.’ […] The self is an illusion created by our brain. […]

It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self, as the idea is neither scientific not is this the first time the concept has been dismissed for lack of empirical support. […]We know the self is constructed because it can be so easily deconstructed – through damage, disease, and drugs. It must be an emergent property of a parallel system processing input, output, and internal representations. It’s an illusion because it feels so real, but that experience is not what it seems. The same is true of free will.

Jan Westerhoff (‘What are you?’ in New Scientist The Collection No 1, The Big Questions, 2014, p 99)

So, many of our core beliefs about ourselves do not withstand scrutiny. This presents a tremendous challenge for our everyday view of ourselves, as it suggests that in a very fundamental sense we are not real. Instead, our self is comparable to an illusion – but without anybody there that experiences the illusion.

Yet we may have no choice but to endorse these mistaken beliefs. Our whole way of living relies on the notion that we are unchanging, coherent and autonomous individuals. The self is not only a useful illusion, it may also be a necessary one.

Thomas Metzinger (‘Cognitive Agency’, in J. Brockman (ed.), This Idea Must Die, 2015, pp. 149-151)

Thinking isn’t something you do. Most of the time, it’s something that happens to you. […] Western culture, traditional philosophy of mind, and even cognitive neuroscience, have been deeply influenced by the Myth of Cognitive Agency. It’s the myth of the Cartesian Ego, the active thinker of thoughts, the epistemic subject that acts – mentally, rationally, in a goal-directed manner – and can always terminate or suspend its own cognitive processing at will. It’s the theory that conscious thought is a personal-level process – something that by necessity has to be ascribed to you, the person as a whole. This theory has now been empirically refuted. As it turns out, most of our conscious thoughts are actually the product of sub-personal processes, like breathing or the peristaltic movements in our gastrointestinal tract. The Myth of Cognitive Agency says that we’re mentally autonomous beings. We can now see that this is an old complacent fairy tale. It’s time to put it to rest.

Recent studies in the booming research field of Mind Wandering show that we spend roughly two-thirds of our conscious lifetime zoning out – day-dreaming, lost in fantasies, autobiographical planning, inner narratives, or depressive rumination. Depending on the study, 30 to 50 percent of our waking life is occupied by spontaneously occurring stimulus-and-task-unrelated thought. […]

One global function of Mind Wandering might be called ‘autobiographical self-model maintenance’. Mind Wandering creates an adaptive form of self-deception – namely, an illusion of personal identity across time. It helps maintain a fictional ‘self’ that then lays the foundation for important achievements like reward prediction or delay discounting.

Czeslaw Milosz: from ‘Ars Poetica’

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person…

Stephen Mitchell: The Sense of Proportion

There are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.
Each galaxy contains at least one hundred billion stars. Each
star illuminates an uncounted number of planets, each of which
may support inconceivable forms of life.
From most points of view, the green earth is smaller than
an electron.
All this is happening within your mind.

Octavio Paz: Between Going and Staying (translated by Eliot Weinberger)

Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.

The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theatre of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 12, 2016.

3 Responses to “The Self Illusion”

  1. thanx for the wonderful reminders peter…

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