What is the self?

While giving someone one of my business cards the other day, I stopped to look at it. I had forgotten how enigmatic my stated profession sounded: Self-Healing and Self-Expression. The other side of the card only says, “What is the self?”

Putting a question on my business card seemed like a great idea at the time, a question I really don’t know the answer to. It also seems like a good idea to take a stab at answering that question now, since after all, the purpose of having a business card is to offer something.

So, what is the self?

Simply put, the self is whatever we identify with. Of course identifying with anything that stays the same is a mistake and hence vain and delusional. Another unfortunate side effect of concocting a fixed self from what is constantly changing is that we dissociate from everything else. The Buddha had it right. “There is no self in the created or the uncreated.” That is, there is no entity with characteristics that that are separate or unchanging. Nevertheless, the process of identification is a something we deal with relentlessly throughout our lives whether we believe in the personal self or not, so simply telling ourselves there is no self isn’t very helpful.

We are conditioned to identify with things continuously because we live in separate bodies. Because we have bodies, we prefer pleasure over pain. Even when we transcend that, we still prefer truth over wrong doing, and will do so until the day we die. It is painful to live in the tension of the dualistic nature of being embodied, and no one is exempt from this longing for wholeness. Anyone who denies this is either living in materialistic denial, in abstract conceptual escapism, or in Nirvana. Contemplating the self can also be fluid and freeing, however if embracing the sense of “I am” is approached as a loving act of surrender, an expansion, an exploration and kindling of  genuine interest.

It may be useful for some people to remember that there is no self, because it releases the mind from being isolated within form. Indeed such a schema would be merely a prison, a mask, an addiction, an imposter, a misunderstanding. How can we move beyond the confines of our body and out of the fiction of thoughts? By sensing and understanding what the soul is experiencing in this moment, which could be either spiritual or physical.

I am not my past. I am not my hopes and fears about the future. Rejecting these definitions of the self is liberating. It is not helpful however to deny the soul, though it is easy to see why people attempt to do so. One may have an aversion to strong emotions without the skills to channel them. It is tempting to try and escape into rationalism or codependency. Science tries to measure things objectively, but wouldn’t it be more helpful if it helped us ease our misery? The same is true of philosophy. Every perception we have is colored by our feelings. What is the use of knowledge unless we understand how our feelings manifest reality?

Matter and information exist unto themselves. They are dead and do not require life on earth. It wouldn’t matter if one of our more moronic world leaders decimated all life on this precious planet if we were only concerned with matter and information. Those things are already perfect. They cannot be lost. Feeling them, perceiving them, loving them and integrating them could be lost though, if this great experiment of reclaiming the soul, of becoming human, were eradicated. Enduring, and eventually balancin strong feelings are the territory we must tread to protect and evolve the soul, which is at stake.

The work of becoming human is to accept being a conscious intermediary between mind and body. The point isn’t to reject the material and spiritual worlds. We simply must embrace soul life as well. Soul life is a felt realm that makes the qualitative content of the spiritual world accessible to the quantitative world of  matter, through developing the nervous and endocrine systems. These fragile systems of organs, offspring of the elements of air and water, are required for anything to be experienced consciously or unconsciously. We cannot know things as they are; we can only know them subjectively. While our awareness is fragmented by the senses in time and space, we cannot know the Gods with the naked eye, but we can live into their stories acted out by marionettes, the planets, the elements and the organs of the body. The more we study these things we are able to cultivate good qualities in our feeling life.


Wisdom has been incarnating for a long time through minerals, plants and animals, but we only integrate it into consciousness when we understand that feeling good is not a selfish act. We can truly be happy when we are at peace with death, because then we can enjoy pleasure without clinging to it. There are spiritual forces much greater than ourselves who do not share the privilege of having bodies. They created the world we live in and will survive after our bodies perish. We are accountable to them. The sacred responsibility we have to our ancestors and future generations is to surrender our addictions to pursuing vain agendas, to remember that the alchemy of the inner life is collective. There are many people choosing this perspective.

It’s shirking the work to pretend that conditioning doesn’t effect us or that it doesn’t matter. There is no fixed identity to the soul, yet it cannot be denied. The body alone cannot perceive the mind; it is a corpse. The mind cannot perceive the body; it is universal and has no organs of perception. Conditioning, the process of transformation, is the soul. The soul is experience. Experience is the true self. Everyone’s conditioning is unique, but it is not static. And we do have free will, how we make meaning out of what we experience. The true self is connected to everything else, obviously through cause and effect, but also through a matrix of qualitative pool of information/consciousness/spirit that exists beyond spacetime. The Human Being, the soul, has access to this liminal space, existing between the body and mind, and can begin waking up there. What is unconscious can become more and more conscious through disciplined inner work, and what is conscious can become more unconscious as we ennoble our faith. Animals experience things, and Gods understand what influences experience, but only human beings can learn to do both. To evolve is to experience more and more sensitively and deeply, to act out, within the story, whatever meaning our minds have learned from the unique path of our heart’s desire. To wake up is to enter the feeling life without taking it personally.


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