The Blog of Brian Stanton

The Self Illusion: Searching for the Thinker of our Thoughts

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I’ve made a habit in this blog of pushing back against our most basic intuitions. Today will be no different. The way we feel doesn’t always accord with reality.


We feel, in fact, like a self. A thinker thinking our thoughts. An observer observing the world around us. There is a felt sense of control over our actions. The self is, of course, the one in control.


And yet where can this self be found? Not in any one place. The brain and nervous system are a frenzy of electrical and chemical activity. Thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise from this chaos, but it’s impossible to say where they come from. Remove one half of the brain, for example, and the other half is sufficient for consciousness.


There’s simply no hiding place for a little man – a central ego – inside our heads. If we are anything, we are our bodies. But that’s not how we feel.


“We feel like we’re riding around in these bodies as though we were a kind of passenger in a vehicle,” says philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris. “We feel like we exist behind our eyes in a way that we don’t exist behind our knees […] we feel like a locus of consciousness inside the head.”


Harris goes on to cite research that supports this claim. In the study, subjects ranked an object as “closest” to a cartoon figure when it was positioned near the character’s eyes. (As opposed to near its chest, legs, or anywhere else.) We feel, intuitively, like there’s a command center beneath our visual field. And our intuition, in this case, has led us astray.


But besides its inherent falsity, what’s the matter with maintaining our sense of “I”?  


Plenty. The truth is – feeling like a self is the same as being lost in thought. And we’re lost in thought, it seems, most of our lives. Problems arise from the depths of our gray matter and - instead of noticing this strange phenomenon - we tack on the self. We identify with our thoughts.


This isn’t to say that all thinking is bad. We need it to live. And maybe some people have enlightened thoughts 100% of the time. Speaking for myself, however, my typical mode of contemplation doesn’t sparkle with the wisdom of the Buddha. Instead I engage in petty internal squabbles that climax in embarrassing outward displays.


Me: I really shouldn’t check email so much

Me 2: (Foreboding silence)

Me: It’s just a bad habit - I need to cut it out

Me 2: (pphphph sound with lips, complete with spittle)


If you saw this demonstration in public, you would bolt down your espresso and briskly clear the scene. Yet we do this all the time – on the inside - and consider it completely normal. We’re always chattering to ourselves. At best, we think of something mildly interesting. At worst, our minds flap around like Trump’s hair on a windy day.


There isn’t, unfortunately, a lazy man’s – or lazy woman’s - solution to this quandary. But we can train our attentions to better notice the vagaries of thought. In doing so, we begin to deconstruct the self - the voice in our heads - the thinker of our thoughts.


“It is when there is inattention that there is the observer and the observed,” writes the Indian adept Krishnamurti. “When you are looking at something with complete attention, there is no space for a conception, a formula, or a memory.”


The self, it seems, can be shattered through a special kind of focus. This attention is not the same as thought, but rather a noticing factor developed in the mind. An introspective intelligence. In meditation, one doesn’t think about the breath – one simply feels, or notices, it. In the same way, we can perceive thoughts without mulling over them.


And once your attention is tuned up, simply turn it inwards to target the self. “Who?” you might ask, “is behind my eyes, looking out at the world?”


Perhaps, in asking this question, you’ll come to the startling realization that there’s nothing to find. Nothing you might call a self. In fact, this discovery can be a liberating one.


One Tibetan monk described this feeling of transcendence more plainly. “No self, no problem,” he said. 




Print Sources

Krishnamurti, J. Freedom from the Known. New York: Harper & Row, 1969. Print.

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