In this article, we’ll explore various mindfulness practices, with the help of which one can understand “Who Am I” and can develop a sense of self that is more authentic and is aware.
During your meditation, have you discovered a “self”? Or have you found an ever-changing kaleidoscope of changing sensations, thoughts, and images? This question hasn’t been discussed extensively yet among clinicians as mindfulness practices are being adapted into Western psychotherapeutic interventions.
But advances in neurobiology are beginning to bring the question to the forefront among biological researchers. This lecture focuses on the self—the key insight by which mindfulness practices can lead us to great happiness, fulfillment, and well-being. And how mindfulness practices can change our sense of who we are.
Table of Contents
I. Who Am I? – The Sense of Self
In their original context of Buddhist psychology, mindfulness practices were designed to help us see more clearly into the nature of the self—or, to be more precise, how we construct a sense of self moment to moment.
The Buddhist tradition, and Western cognitive science, suggest that try as we may, all we find if we examine our experience carefully are sensations and images, accompanied by a remarkably persistent narrative. The “I” or “me” can’t be found.
It’s said that if we practice intensively enough, we’ll see that we’re not who we usually think we are. Instead, we’ll see ourselves as a modern physicist, biologist, or cognitive scientist might describe us.
How do we develop a separate sense of self that divides the world into objects and doesn’t notice the fluid interconnections of things— doesn’t notice that two people are part of the superorganism? Buddhist psychology outlined the process about 2,500 years ago.
And this formulation aligns remarkably well with how a cognitive scientist would describe it today.
II. Who Am I? – Sense Contact and Perception
In the Buddhist psychological formulation, our sense of ourselves starts with the coming together of a sense organ with a sense object, and then we have awareness of that object. So, this involves six senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—and the sixth sense is everything else. The sixth sense is not direct sensory contact; it’s an experience happening in the mind.
What we start to see is that we are psychophysiological organisms that don’t exactly exist. But we occur moment by moment. And the first occurrence of this involves sense contact. We don’t stay at the level of sense contact for very long. We organize sensory experience into perceptions.
Consider looking at the word “perception.” Can you visualize the letters? Are you able to see simply the shapes of letters, basically fluid forms against a contrasting background, or do sounds arise in the mind?
Another example is an image that looks like two things simultaneously:
Two faces facing one another, and the faces themselves define a goblet. As we look at it, we can see it as one or the other. And if you can picture that, are you able to see both the faces and the goblet simultaneously, or do they appear in rapid oscillation?
Most of us find that they appear in rapid oscillation—that it constellates itself as a goblet, and then as two faces. The mind kind of struggles to make it into one or another. This makes perfect sense evolutionarily because deciding between a beige rock, and a lion mattered a lot to us.
There’s a well-known video of students playing basketball, and they’re wearing black shirts and white shirts. The task that people are assigned is to watch how many times the students in the white shirts pass the basketball on the video. In the middle of the video, a big black gorilla comes in, beats his chest, and exits the stage.
When people are asked to count the number of times the students with the white shirts pass the basketball, about two-thirds of the audience simply doesn’t see the gorilla. This is called attentional blindness. Perception—what we see—is conditioned by culture, language, and desire. What happens in the video is that we’re trying to get the number right, so we don’t see the gorilla at all.
Perception constructs and categorizes omit details and fill in all sorts of missing information. Have you ever been in a situation where you were ostensibly in the same place as someone else and saw the same thing, but you ended up perceiving it very differently?
A study was done in which they took X-rays of the lungs, and they asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task. They placed a gorilla 48 times larger than the average lung nodule in the last slide, and 83 percent of the radiologists didn’t see it. And they did eye-tracking, which revealed that the majority of the radiologists who missed the gorilla looked directly at it.
Our perception is radically influenced by what’s going on with our desires. And we fill in things, too. Consider a large, circle with two small circles placed about two-thirds of the way up the middle of it. Can you visualize that? What might it be? Virtually everybody sees a face, or a few people tend to see bowling balls. We fill in details like this all the time, even though the nose (and even the thumb hole from the bowling ball) is missing.
Note: Rubin’s goblet looks like either two faces looking at each other or a goblet, depending on how you look at it.
III. Who Am I? – Emotional Tone
We don’t stay at the level of perception for very long. We add an affective, or emotional, tone to the experience. Everything that happens, we see it and feel it to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We love some things, and we hate others.
Then, we develop what is called intentions and dispositions. We try to hold on to pleasant experiences, push away unpleasant experiences, and ignore neutral experiences. When we do this over time, we develop habits of intention. We can also call them dispositions. Behavioral scientists call them learned behaviors or conditioned responses. Many of us refer to these dispositions—these habits of holding on to some things and pushing away others—as our personality.
Sense organs connect with sense objects, and that’s experienced in consciousness. There are feelings, intentions, and perceptions happening. It’s all happening at once. What mindfulness practice reveals is that it’s all impersonal—there’s nobody home. There’s simply a continuous flow of moment-to-moment experience, with a new self-being born and dying in each moment. There isn’t even a stable witness; there’s just impersonal experience unfolding.
Our normal sense of self creates all sorts of trouble. Instead of thinking of having a self, we might more accurately think that selfing occurs—because, in each moment, we’re responding out of this sense of agency, or the sense of “I.” And we respond very differently when the experiences belong to “me.” It creates all sorts of further distortions, and endless suffering comes from this. These are the self-evaluative thoughts, including “I’m better than you” or “I’m not talented” that happen.
Whenever experiences arise, we tend to not just take them as they are, or see them clearly; instead, we reflect on what they mean about ourselves. When we identify with the self, it makes pleasure and pain personal. It creates this fantasy of being able to control your experience, your insecurities, your competitive feelings, and all of these kinds of defensive things follow.
IV. Who Am I? – Identifying with the Self
Karma is associated with the teachings of many Indian cultures and also Eastern cultures generally. Karma is traditionally understood in terms of reincarnation. The idea is that how we perform in this life determines how we will be reborn in the next.
But karma can also be seen in moment-to-moment intentions. What becomes reborn is a certain constellation or attitude in consciousness. So, your intention in one moment tends to shape the perceptions and feelings in the next moment, which creates the reality of the next moment.
The Buddha said that our identity is being recreated moment by moment and that the continuity of self simply can’t be found— it’s illusory. All we have are frames in a movie and the mind’s tendency to string these frames together into a narrative, starring you, that makes you feel that you exist. And all sorts of suffering, preoccupation with what’s going to happen to you, result from this.
Carl Jung, the student, and colleague of Freud had a similar observation. He talked about what happens when we identify with some mental content and reject others. He said that when we do this, it creates a kind of split-off shadow. It’s almost a form of dissociation, a kind of splitting caused by trying to avoid pain.
So, if you think of yourself—because you have a self-concept—as being generous, hardworking, and intelligent, then your greedy, lazy, and dumb side is going to be your shadow. And you’re going to have trouble every time you have a life circumstance that highlights the fact that you’re greedy, lazy, or dumb, to some degree. And you’ll go through the world seeking affirmation of who you want yourself to be, or who you think of yourself as being.
The very construction of the self sets us up for many difficulties. Indeed, the sense of self is a universal category of experience. But it is experienced differently in different cultures. And one of the things we see through mindfulness practice is how the self is constructed not only by our moment-to-moment experience but by the culture in which we live.
We all get hooked on different dimensions or domains that define ourselves. For one person, it’s about physical beauty, while for another, it’s an athletic talent that gets the focus. This causes all sorts of difficulties.
The other thing that we discover is that there is no single self to be found. And we see this all the time in meditation practice. It can be very useful in dealing with emotional difficulties to notice if there’s no single, coherent self—to notice if there’s a committee.
Often, when we’re in distress, there are conflicts among different parts. There’s a part of you that wants to achieve more and be successful in your career. But there’s a part of you that wants love and connection and wants to spend more time with friends and family. Seeing what each part wants and needs can help us.
There’s a popular form of psychotherapy called internal family systems, which invites us to take time to recognize, Honor, and draw out the fears and needs of each of these different parts. When each part is recognized in this way, the part itself feels safer, calms down, and doesn’t need so much to run the show.
When we’re not identified with a single sense of self, this can facilitate a tremendous amount of flexibility—because then we don’t have to be one way or the other. And we can be much more accepting of our diverse, and often complex, experiences.
This also has tremendous implications for our development. Mindfulness practices, like forms of psychotherapy, become a sort of loosening process, where the goal becomes not to be more one way or more of the other way—in the sense of becoming more perfect—but to develop a sense of psychological flexibility.
There are some mindfulness-based psychotherapies like acceptance and commitment therapy, where the explicit goal is not feeling good about yourself—not even being successful in your endeavors—but simply having psychological flexibility. The goal is being able to be whomever or whatever you are in each moment.
And this provides enormous relief from worrying so much about ourselves, about how we compare to others, or about our pleasure or pain. It helps us to identify with something larger than ourselves. And this identification with something more than oneself becomes particularly important in any path to well-being.
V. A Few Effective Mindfulness Practices:
Loving-kindness practice: A brief version of this foundational practice for cultivating acceptance, both toward the contents of our minds and toward other people.
What defines me? – A brief exercise that can help us see the domains or dimensions of our personalities we use to develop a sense of adequacy or self-esteem. Useful for loosening the grip of these preoccupations.
Who am I? – A brief exercise that can help us notice how our self-concept may limit our psychological freedom.
Yes, and No: A simple, brief exercise that can help us see more clearly our tendency to resist the contents of the mind and shift to a more accepting attitude.
VI. Things to Consider:
- In your meditation practice, when and how does your sense of self arise? Is it found in bodily sensations, visual images, or thoughts passing through the mind?
- Imagine that you had a day in which you had no concerns about how others see you. How would it be different from a typical day?