What is the “self”?

What is “self”? What is this thing that you call “me”?

Every night, almost everyone in the human race surrenders a state of consciousness for a state of unconsciousness — we go to sleep.

When you’re asleep, are you aware that there is “some-one” who is sleeping?

Think carefully before you say “yes”, because the “you” that is saying “yes”, when one looks really closely, is actually a retrospective you — it’s you after having woken up.

In other words: You can be aware that you slept, but not that you are sleeping.

While you are asleep, there is actually no real-time awareness of being asleep. There is actually no-one who is sleeping — there is merely sleeping.

When you dream — are “you” actually dreaming? If so – then why are dreams so hard to remember? After all, they only happened like an hour ago? And why are dreams so raw — so… unrefined? The highs are high, and the lows are low. Why?

My answer: because the “self” is only vaguely online during dreams, and it’s likely that during most dreams, there is merely a “flow” of experience, but it’d difficult to pinpoint “the one” having that flow. The flow can be searched for the one having it, but “that one” is not found.

During “lucid” dreams the self is unusually strongly online — have you ever had a lucid dream? Do you notice how they never last very long at all — and you tend to wake up during them — and usually rather quickly?

… What is it like to wake up?

Have you ever paid close attention to the first few seconds of consciousness while “you” are waking up?

I’m talking literally about 2-3 seconds’ worth of time.

If I were to catch you on second 0, and bombard you with simple questions about your life:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. How old are you?
  3. What day is it today?

For that second, you’d find yourself unable to answer those questions… it would take you several seconds to be able to summon the answers.

Every morning, “you” reboot, like a computer hard drive disk spinning up.

And in a mere few instants, awareness of a multitude of things comes online:

  1. “it’s morning, I have slept the whole night”
  2. “I am Shawn”
  3. “I am thirty years old”
  4. “It’s Tuesday today — I am going to work”

That’s what “self” is. It’s the part that is reading this article. It’s the part that is parsing these words. It’s the part that awakens every morning.

The “self” is … many things…

  • Spatial awareness (my hand is “over there”)… The feeling that there is “some-one” riding around in your head, somewhere behind your eyes…
  • Time awareness (“it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon”)…
  • The voice in your head (“That’s weird, I wonder what …”)…
  • Value judgement (“this ice cream flavour is better than that one”)…
  • Narrative (“and then mum left us”)…
  • Appropriation (“I am having this experience”)…
  • Intent (“I want X”)…
  • Preferences (“I like X”)…
  • Meaning (“why is this happening?”)

But probably one of the most insightful and surprising of all… The “self” is a great cause of suffering.

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