What do we mean by 'self'?

There is a tendency in K groups to talk about thought as though it were an agent of responsibility: “thought wants this, thought doesn’t want that”, etc.

But is ‘thought’ an entity in its own right that can be held responsible for good and evil actions? What is the difference between thought and ego (in this usage)?

At its most fundamental, thought is a neurological movement in the brain that aids an organism in making sense of its environment. It is essentially a cognitive extension of the senses.

Can a sense be considered ‘selfish’? - or is this a projection onto thought of our traditional ideas of moral agency?

That is, all moralism concerning selfishness - being accountable for selfish actions - is based on the idea of the self as a moral agent, as being a bearer of moral duties.

But is this moral agent anything more than a psycho-social construct?

We shame people for being selfish because there is an entirely reasonable social necessity for doing so - i.e. to stop people from being criminals, terrorists, etc.

But is there any fundamental ‘bearer’ of this social morality?

Usually we say yes there is - it is the person or self. The person or self is considered the bearer of responsibility and agency, capable of performing good actions and bad actions, and so culpable of reward and punishment

But what is this ‘self’?

Traditionally there is the assumption (usually not made explicit) that the self is a unique, irreducible, indivisible entity - a fundamental essence (something permanent, unchanging, real).

But is there such a thing?

Although various parts of the brain are involved in creating our sense of self-consciousness, the ‘self’ as such is not a physically detectable entity (it does not weigh 21 grams!).

All organisms have their own uniqueness (based on their particular sets of genetic make-up, individual experience and learning, etc).

But what we call ‘self’ or ‘ego’ is the concentration or focus of sensibility (in an organism) that enables the organism to make sense of its environment to help it survive.

This functional centre is not ‘real’ (in the sense of being a transcendentally real ontological subject) - it is merely a centre of sensory information like the iris in the eye.

All animals have this functional centre - it is probably connected to proprioception (the body’s awareness of itself in relation to its environment).

So there is no way to get rid of the functional centre without destroying the body.

This functional centre, like a centre of gravity, draws to itself associations and memories (i.e. knowledge) that enable the organism to thrive in its given environment.

Over time this creates an illusion of personal identity. This personal identity is not fixed. It is impermanent and constantly changing.

The ending of the ‘self’ is therefore not the ending of the functional centre, but of the accumulated psychological contents that have become unnecessarily associated with this functional centre.

It is these accumulated psychological contents that create selfishness and psychological suffering in the organism.

‘Ego death’ or ego-loss is the temporary or complete cessation of any identification between the organism and these psychological contents.

What do others think about this?

It ‘helps’ to listen to some of the things K has said in this regard. For example, his statement to Bohm in the Ending of Time when they are ‘deep’ into it and Bohm asks “what about the death of the body? And K brushes it off “oh that’s just a triviality “. …Alright if that is so, what have ‘I’ been missing? A ‘triviality’! To the ‘self’ it is no such thing. The self considers the death of the body a momentous thing! It considers ‘death’ a momentous thing. The ‘fear’ of ‘death’ , of not being, etc resides in the self. Fear of that ‘triviality’.

1 Like

The self is a process and is real in the way that any process is real: as a continuous unfolding.

Yes, this seems to be so.

But where does this fear come from?

Obviously all animals and sentient creatures have an instinctive fear of being harmed or destroyed. Fear at that level is purely a survival instinct. Animals do not lay awake at night worrying overmuch about dying (as humans do).

So is the fear of death simply the transference of this instinctual fear of harm to the sphere of the psyche? - the ‘psyche’ being the accumulation of (psychological) memories and experiences with which the brain (or functional centre) is identified.

So if that identification can be cut, there is no more fear of death?

On the subject of moral agency, wouldn’t we say that the dawn of any true moral responsibility is the intuition or perception that my consciousness is not separate from the consciousness of the world?

That is, the perception that my hatred or ill-will contributes to the hatred and ill-will in the world (which eventually manifests in acts of hatred, such as terrorism and war).

But if by ‘self’ we simply mean

the accumulated psychological contents that have become unnecessarily associated with the functional centre

then this process is not a necessity in the way other neuro-biological processes are necessary; meaning it can end (or be emptied) without loss or harm to the body.

1 Like

The fear is psychological and based on a misunderstanding. The self taking itself as ‘real’ ie. an individual, sees that the body gets old and disintegrates, it projects an image of the ‘future’ when that will happen to ‘its’ body and there arises the question
of what will happen to it. Fear, insecurity…and then centuries of concern of what would happen to the ‘soul’ when the body ‘dies’.All based on the occupation of the brain by a self image and a belief in psychological time, a time to ‘become’ and dividing ‘life’ from ‘death’; division created where there is none. That’s the ‘wrong turn’ we’ve heard so much about.

On self & the fear of death : fear of death might be the main purpose of the self.

Are you defending a view (your view, Krishnamurti’s?) of the self rather than simply exploring? That is how it feels to me, but I may be wrong. (I trust you’ll tell me if I am!)

Or rather isn’t it the brain (or functional centre) taking the self as real - which is primary misunderstanding?

The ‘self’ can’t take itself as real because it’s not real - the ‘self’ is simply the accumulated psychological contents that have become unnecessarily associated with the functional centre (or brain).

So it’s not the ‘self’ that fears - it is the organism that has unwittingly transferred its instinctual survival instincts to the preservation of the psyche.

The anthropologist and psychologist Ernest Becker believed that fear of death was the main human motivator, the main driver of life, culture, religion, identity. You’re in good company!

I don’t feel I’m defending a view - it just popped into my head last night (when I was posting on the Freedom from the Known thread) that I have never sat down and asked myself properly what I mean by the word ‘self’.

Obviously, I have read a few things from other people about it - what K has said, what the Buddhists have said, what the Hindus have said, etc. But I am not consciously defending any particular view of Krishnamurti’s, the Buddhists, etc.

Thanks for the explanation. We owe it to each other here to keep each other honest, right? I know I value good and relevant challenges to what I spew forth.

James my understanding of this very important subject makes me read your post in this way:

I can’t take myself as real because I’m not real - I’m simply the accumulated psychological contents that have become unnecessarily associated with the functional centre (or brain).

The ‘problem’ as I see it is in taking oneself as being separate from the ‘self’ , as Rick put it : just another unfolding process. In that way the self retains its dominion.

One possible contributing factor to my starting this thread is that I was recently browsing through a book by the author Michael Pollan in which he describes an experience he had when taking a psychedelic.

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content. There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news…

To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or—it comes to the same thing—widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature.

I’m sure some of us have had a similar experience - with or without the aid of psychedelics - and so reading this passage made me reflect a little on what this ‘self’ or ego really is.

There’s also the question for me: who or what is morally responsible for ‘selfish’ actions?

In both Krishnamurti as well as Buddhist circles there is a strong moralistic attitude that militates against being selfish - a lot of ‘self’-blaming and ‘self’-shaming going on.

And so I was asking myself who or what is the actual bearer of this selfish action?

What is this who, this ‘self’ that people are talking about with such conviction?

The passage is compelling. Never having taken psychedelics I have little grasp of the context. But many friends have taken LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and they all seem to more or less describe a similar personal and subjective experience while ‘under.’ Maybe we could say the experience of self is inherent in conventional states and the experience of non-self in psychedelic states?

What is the self we refer to subjectively, and what is it objectively? How does the self exist?

This is tricky Dan. I don’t want to jump to conclusions in language like that.

We are asking: is the ‘self’ (i.e. something we have been taking to be real, as real as the body is real) real?

It is a reality created by thought (as K would put it). But thoughts are not agentive - there is no moral responsibility in being a thought.

I should say that I have never taken Psilocybin, LSD, or any of those famous psychedelics. But it has happened on a couple of occasions that this sense of no longer identifying with the self or ego has taken place, and so the passage resonated with me.

For me the conventional sense of self came back pretty quickly; but I can’t rule out that this has to happen. Maybe for some people (like K? like the Buddha?) the sense of self just dissolves and doesn’t come back?

In Buddhism they don’t deny that there is a conventional ‘self’ that continues to exist for the purposes of communication, practical life, etc. K obviously had a robust character, a conventional personality. But at the core there was no-one there?