The Essential Self

I recently celebrated my 48th birthday.  50 is breathing down my neck.  Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but lately I have been contemplating the idea of the self.  Since Sarah started on her journey of seizures, it seems that most of my identity has been centered on special needs parenting.  After 14 years, I’m wondering if any of the old me is left.  So, I’m asking: Who am I? How do I define myself? How does who I am now differ from who I thought I’d be at this age?

The sense that we are individuals – the experience of personhood, separate and distinct from others – is a fundamental element of the human experience.  Over the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have attempted to define and prove the existence of the self.  Supporting evidence includes the presence of a separate body that is born, ages, and then dies, and the conception of the self as an entity with a unique story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Another definition of self is a continuous stream of subjective experiences or awareness that can not be shared directly with others.

Essentially, all of these notions are contingent on the assumption that the self actually exists in the first place.  Buddhists are famous for claiming that it does not.

Why are you unhappy?  Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.                                                                                                        ~Wei Wu Wei

When asked to tell others about yourself, how do you answer?  Our initial response is usually to tell our story.  The photos below illustrate significant parts of my story: I was born in Louisiana, graduated high school in Texas, went to medical school, trained as a pediatrician, had kids and, as a special needs parent, advocated for children with Dravet syndrome.


We are the main character in our own narrative.  Who we are now was shaped by our past experiences, family, culture, and religion.  What was your childhood like?  The quality of your education? Your health? What was your place in the social hierarchy?

I am not a bum. I’m a jerk. I once had wealth, power, and the love of a beautiful woman. Now I only have two things: my friends, and… uh… my thermos. Huh? My story? Okay. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child…                         ~ Steve Martin in The Jerk

We build our resume with the labels we apply to ourself: wife, physician, mother, meditator.  Around the time of his second divorce, a friend of mine commented on the major shift in self identity he was undergoing:  “I never thought of myself as a divorcee.  I always saw myself as the family guy, the one with the stable marriage.”

We also create self identity with our hopes and plans for the future, like the waitress who just knows she will be a famous actress one day.

The problem with basing our identity on our story is that it changes.  When asked the question “Who are you?” how would you have answered 20 years ago?  How will you answer 20 years from now?  Is the injured athlete who can no longer compete still the same person or someone else?  What about the evangelical Christian who loses their faith and becomes an atheist?  The day of Sarah’s first seizure is burned into my memory.  The person I was and the healthy typical child she was both died that day.  I grieve their loss still at every birthday, every milestone of normal childhood that we don’t celebrate.

Gil Fronsdal, an insight meditation teacher, says, “There is a strong human drive to identify with certain things as defining what this self is. We identify ourselves with our thoughts, feelings, consciousness, volition, personal characteristics, or with a sense of continuity. Held lightly and provisionally, such identifications may be useful. Held tightly, they are self-limiting. If we expend the energy to cling to anything as the definition of the self, we will sooner or later suffer. In order to find a deeply abiding peace, we need to learn to let go of any attachment to or habit of fixating on self-identity.”

Due to the many unexpected plot twists, our story is not a reliable foundation for self definition.  Byron Katie asks, “Who would you be without your story?”  Similarly, Howie Cohn asks his students to consider the split second before you start thinking about who you are; before descriptions, memories, hopes and plans arise in your mind.  Who are you in that interval prior to your idea of self?  Is there an essential self that is not dependent on changeable, inconstant factors?

What about more intrinsic characteristics like gender, race, or personality traits?  After double mastectomy for cancer, some patients feel they are less of a woman without breasts.  Transgender children suffer greatly as they realize that their innate sense of self identity does not align with the body they were born with.  Consider the Asian child who is adopted by the European family and knows nothing of Asian culture.  If you suffer from anxiety or depression, does that define you?  The majority of cells in your body are bacterial, not human.  Approximately 20% of your DNA originally came from viruses!  When examined closely, we find that none of these apparently concrete elements truly represent an essential self.

According to the Buddha, all things are impermanent and subject to change – are unreliable and unsatisfactory – and, therefore, can not be taken as self.  In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha gives the following instruction:

Any kind of form [feeling, perception, determination, consciousness] whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.”

Instead of NO self, it is more accurate to summarize the Buddha’s teachings as NOT self. Instead of saying the self does not exist, we train in asking the question, “Is this self?” “Does this define me?”  “Is this really who I am?”

Of course, it sure feels like I have a self. I can feel my body sitting on the chair, feel the keyboard beneath my fingers, sense my thoughts as I type.  No one else shares my life experiences, unique perspective, or circumstances.  If you take away the ego – the sense of a self who is doing and feeling these things – what is left?  Without the ego, there is no one who is seeing, only vision and awareness of vision.  There is sound and awareness of sound, touch and awareness of touch, etc.  Ultimately, that’s all there is.  The parts of the brain responsible for perceiving experience have been well mapped, but no one has ever located the center responsible for the sense of self.  You can search, but you can’t actually find anything else but the awareness of sensory phenomena.

Self identity is the process of differentiating self from other.  We naturally place boundaries – this is where I end and other begins.  But, awareness doesn’t stop at the boundary of the skin.  Therefore all that is included in awareness is part of self.

Interestingly, recent theories from modern neuroscience on the nature of consciousness mirror the Buddha’s teachings. According to the Integrated Information Theory, consciousness is created by the brain when it integrates sensory information coming in from the various sense organs.  Your brain continuously invents a self by seamlessly weaving together a complex web of information from the billions of neural connections in the nervous system.

Finally, all of a sudden the crowning truth dawns on me.  Self-origination isn’t an impossible feat pulled off by someone else, far away, once and for all, long ago, but is going on right here and right now.                            ~Douglas Edison Harding

The truth is, I am all of these things: I am a doctor and a special needs mom.  I’m a Buddhist, a middle-aged woman, and a liberal American.  Yet, none of these attributes defines me.  They are constructs I use to interact with the world.  How I define my self changes over time, as I move through the various life stages, and on a moment to moment basis to suit the current circumstances.

Mindfulness coach, Stephen Schettini says, “The problem is not that you don’t know who you are. The problem is that you think you should.”  The process of continually creating a self identity is exhausting.  Rather than trying to answer my original question “Who am I?”, can I let go of the suffering of becoming – stop the continual process of self creation and just be?  Can I rest in the reality of the present moment; interact with the world as it is, as I am at this moment, without imposing a self?


Explore other resources on the myth of the self:
The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood
Howard Cohn Dharma talks: Loving the House that Ego Built and You Are Not What You Think
Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self,  Joshua Knobe
A Philosophical Identity Crisis, Philosophy Now article by ethicist Chris Durante
Brain Pickings, The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change
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8 Responses to The Essential Self

  1. Lynne says:

    Who am I—hard question and we answer with a list of attributes that “define” us. You say they are merely constructs we use to interact with the world. I find this very helpful.

    It’s comforting to realize that we don’t need to “impose” a self at all, but it’s still hard to let that go. That difficulty, too, seems to be part of our DNA, along with the bacteria.

    Your question at the end could be a mantra or prayer to help alleviate the exhaustive suffering of constantly creating identity:
    “Can I rest in the reality of the present moment–interact with the world as it is, as I am at this moment–without imposing a self?”

    Thank your for this penetrative piece.

    • Vipassana Momma says:

      Dear Lynne,

      I don’t think we have to let it go completely. Maybe just lighten our grip on our self-imposed identity and recognize it for what it is. Be more loosely defined, maybe a bit ambiguous. Perhaps, in this way, we can have a more intimate relationship with the present moment – interact with it more deeply without the artificial separation of self and other. It’s interesting to think about. I’m not sure how easy it is to do in practice.

  2. Susan Sears says:

    Thank you Angela. It’s amazing how similar our road’s. Your perspective , helps to put a reference to my feelings.

    • Vipassana Momma says:

      I’m glad you continue to find this blog helpful. I was so sad to hear about Liese. All the best to your beautiful son.

  3. Beautiful, exhaustive post with so much to reflect on and chew…

  4. This is a Dharma Talk. Call it “Truths of the Self.” Your wisdom is shining✔️

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