Why do we think we have unchanging selves?

Extract from Chapter 1: The Self I Don’t Believe In

There are several reasons, I believe, why it seems natural for us to assume that the self is static and permanent when in fact it is not. The first of these is that we’re simply not very good at detecting change. Imagine this: you walk into a university building to be interviewed as part of a psychology experiment. At the reception desk a young man takes the consent form that you hand to him, and tells you you’ll need to receive an information packet and then go to another room to be questioned. He ducks behind the counter, picks up the packet, hands it to you, and gives you directions. It’s just an ordinary encounter. Nothing unusual. You glance at the information you’ve been handed and go on your way. The bizarre thing is that the person who ducked beneath the counter and the person who stood up to hand you the form were different people! They looked completely unlike each other. They were different heights, had different hairstyles, and wore different clothing in different colors. They spoke in different voices. And you didn’t notice—or at least the vast majority of people don’t notice. This was a psychology experiment that was carried out by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University.

In an earlier experiment, Simons had another experimenter stop passers-by on a university campus to ask for directions. In the middle of the exchange, two men carrying a door would rudely walk between the two people. Afterwards, the passers-by were asked if they’d noticed anything unusual. Half did not notice that the person they’d been talking to had been switched for another person who had a different appearance, build, and voice, and who was wearing different clothes. That’s a lot of change not to see. But these experiments, which illustrate what’s called “change blindness,” have been repeated in many different forms, and change blindness is our default method of perception, or of non-perception.

There are web sites you can visit that give you the opportunity to test your ability to notice change. Typically, two photographs alternate, with a brief moment of blankness between them. There are what you might expect to be obvious differences between the two photographs—in a scene of an aircraft at an airport, for example, a building has been photoshopped from one version of the image—but it can take many, many attempts to see the change. Once you see the change, it seems obvious. But right up until the point where the difference comes to your attention, you’d swear the two photographs were identical. And remember, unlike in the college campus studies mentioned above, you know that changes are taking place and you’re actively looking for them. The change is there, and it almost seems as if our brains resist seeing it.

A large part of the explanation for change blindness is due to the fact that the brain can only deal with so much information at one time. In the reception area where the participants largely failed to notice one receptionist being replaced by another, there was a lot going on. There was furniture. There were signs, the sound of the air conditioning, the exchange of pieces of paper, verbal instructions to process, textures and colors on every surface, smells—and of course part of your brain is already taken up with thinking about things like, “Am I on time? Will I enjoy this interview? When will I get paid? Did he say the waiting room was the second door on the left or on the right? I wish I’d been listening more closely. I never pay attention.” The average person can only keep around seven things in conscious awareness at one time, and only about four things in visual short term memory. We’re so busy selecting the few things that are absolutely crucial to the task we’re involved in that there’s not much attention left for other things—like noticing that the person staffing the reception desk is now taller, dressed in different clothes, and has different facial features. The most famous change blindness experiment involved showing a video of a basketball game. Participants were asked to count how many times one team’s members passed the ball to each other. The participants were so busily involved in this task that they failed to notice someone in a gorilla costume walk slowly across the basketball court, right between the players! This experiment highlights more than any other the limited processing capability of the human brain.

The point here is that if we don’t even notice that a person we’ve been talking to has been replaced by someone else, or can’t notice a missing building as we repeatedly switch back and forth between two photographs, how are we going to notice that our selves are changing? Just as we look at two different receptionists, one after another, and think they are the same person because we detect no change, so we see different “selves” emerging one after another within ourselves, and assume that this is the same person. Even though there has been change, we assume that the self is unchanging. Moment by moment, our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and emotions are changing, reconfiguring, and creating a new self. Continue the process of change—accompanied by change blindness—for years or decades, and we start to assume that there has in fact been no change, or that the change has been purely superficial. Thus we may think that there is an unchanging core to ourselves that has experienced the changes to our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, etc.

The breathing earth

Extract from Chapter 11: The Air Element

There is a sense in which the Earth does literally breathe. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry said in his classic work of children’s fiction, The Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Imagination, as we’ve seen, can help us to visualize what is invisible to our physical senses, but sometimes to see the essential you need satellites and supercomputers. Scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, using data from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite, have made visible the planet’s respiratory cycle by imaging the extent of photosynthesis in both the oceans and over land. The work of photosynthesis is visualized as bands of color, pulsating in rhythm with the seasons. The resulting images provide a stunning view of the earth breathing, showing the expansion and contraction of photosynthesis over a period of years and allowing us to appreciate the Earth as a living organism.

I look again and again with wonder upon these animations, where dry data representing millions of measurements are translated into beautiful bands of shifting color over the oceans and the land. I see something that resembles a breathing child. The southern hemisphere is like the child’s belly, while the northern is like the chest. The flowing patterns in each hemisphere differ, but move synchronously, one rising as the other falls. I feel a sense of tenderness and a powerful desire to protect this small sphere. These animations take us beyond the capabilities of our unaided senses, allowing us to see patterns too subtle and taking place on too long a timescale for even an astronaut in space to discern them with the naked eye. And watching these images, there comes a sense of belonging. If the earth is seen as a breathing organism, then you and I are the cells in its body.

In losing my sense of myself as a separate being, I find myself to be something grander. I find myself to be part of a living global system of miraculous complexity, where water becomes air, where air becomes living creature, where living creature becomes rock, where rock again becomes air. I find myself to be part of an astonishingly complex web of mutual dependencies powerful enough to shape the destiny of an entire planet, powerful enough to create an atmosphere and separate—as the god Enlil did—heaven and earth. I find that I am Gaia, and Oceanus, and Enlil. In losing my self of myself as separate I am not diminished, but augmented. I am augmented physically—seeing myself as part of a greater whole—and also filled with an expansive sense of wonder, and appreciation, and compassion.

The six element practice

Extract from Chapter 2: An Encounter in the Workshop

The Six Element Practice is a systematic analysis of the self. The reflection looks at the self in terms of:

  1. The Earth Element, or everything solid within the body,
  2. The Water Element, or all that is liquid within the body,
  3. The Fire Element, or the energy that allows for metabolism,
  4. The Air Element, or everything internal that is gaseous,
  5. The Space Element, or the form constituted by the physical elements (you can think of this as your appearance)
  6. The Consciousness Element, or the emergent property that arises from the other elements, by which they become conscious of themselves.

You’ll recognize the first four of these elements as the classical elements, which were used as an organizing principle from Ancient Greece to the European Renaissance. Aristotle modified the Greek four element system by adding a fifth element called aether, which roughly corresponds to space. Aether is the “substance” that the heavens and heavenly bodies were made out of, and, incidentally, it was the last of the classical elements to go to its conceptual grave, being widely accepted in science until its existence was disproved by an elegant experiment carried out by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in 1887. The classical element model was modified by Arabic and European philosophers and scientists, but of course it turned out to be inadequate and was replaced by the more elegant and flexible model of the chemical elements that we know today.

One might wonder, what can be the purpose of reflecting on a primitive scientific model that has long been superseded? The answer is simply that Gautama was not making scientific claims about the nature of the self. He was not particularly interested in investigating the chemical structure of the body or of the world. The Six Elements merely provided a handy way of analyzing the mind and body in order to appreciate the essential truth of impermanence. By seeing how each of the elements flowed, and how each of the elements has its origin in that which is “not self,” we can begin to undermine our notions of separateness and permanence. In essence, we could do that just as well by substituting Earth, Water, Fire, and Air with the contemporary chemical elements (plus energy), appreciating how each flows through the body. However, since there are about ninety naturally occurring elements, the meditation practice would be rather long.

While the later Buddhist tradition tended to see the classical elements not as physical realities but as qualities of experience (Earth is resistance, Water is fluidity, Fire is temperature, and Air is mobility) there’s no hint of this in the discourse or elsewhere in Gautama’s teachings that I know of. The examples chosen to illustrate the elements in the earliest stratum of Buddhist teachings describe them in terms of simple physical realities, with Earth being that which is solid, Water being anything liquid, etc. The Elements were seen as being interpenetrating, so that a solid log, for example, contained not just Earth but also the other three classical elements: it can emit Air and Water if heated, for example, and when it becomes very hot it can release its latent Fire.

With each of the five physical elements Earth through Space (Consciousness takes a different approach) there’s a pattern of investigation we go through. This pattern of investigation helps us understand how nothing that constitutes the self belongs to us in any real way, and thus can’t constitute a static and separate entity. After all, how can “I” be made entirely of stuff that is “not me”?

Here’s a brief example of how I approach the Earth Element within the traditional form of the reflection: First we bring the Earth Element within the body—everything solid—to mind. We then reflect on everything solid in the outside world. We consider that whatever is solid within the body comes from the outside world and will return (and is presently returning) to that outside world. We visualize this, and thus see the Earth Element as flowing relentlessly through the body. We realize that there is in reality no “me” earth element and no “other” earth element; there’s just one Earth Element. We come to see the earth element as “borrowed” from the outside world. We don’t own it. We simply identify with it as being “me” and “mine” during the brief time it is passing through this human form. Lastly, having connected with the flowing nature of the earth element, seeing it as being more like a river than a static thing—something that can’t be owned or held onto—we reflect, “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.” We begin to let go of the act of identifying with the element.

We repeat this pattern of reflections with each of the subsequent elements in turn, with the exception of the consciousness element, where the emphasis is rather different. Traditionally, the emphasis with the reflection on Consciousness is not on the element coming from the external world and returning to the external world, but simply on realizing how our experience is a flow of events—such as sensations, feelings, and thoughts—arising and passing away. It is this flow of events that constitutes what we call consciousness. Consciousness is not seen as being something separate that “has” experiences. Consciousness is the activity of experiencing.

The Six Element reflection is designed to challenge the notion of the self being separate and static. The reflection encourages us to see:

  • That everything that we identify with as being ourselves in fact comes from outside of ourselves, so that the “self” is made up of stuff that was originally “not self,”
  • That everything we identify with as being ourselves will eventually no longer be part of ourselves,
  • That everything we identify with as being ourselves isn’t really a part of ourselves even when we think it is,
  • And that in fact there’s no physical support for the separate or permanent self we like to believe we have.