The other day I was looking in the mirror and suddenly felt disconnected from myself. This brought me to ask myself, “What am I?”
I realized that this question is not easy to answer, because I am not a fixed or static entity. I am a dynamic and evolving being, constantly changing and growing. I am not defined by my appearance, my roles, my achievements, or my possessions. I am not limited by my past, my present, or my future. I am not bound by any labels, categories, or stereotypes.
When you experience yourself as a self, you are experiencing an illusion. There is no actual self in your head, but your brain creates one by integrating various inputs from your senses, memories, thoughts, emotions, and social interactions.
The sense of self is a product of the social brain
How does the brain create the illusion of the self? According to Bruce Hood, a psychologist and author of “The Self Illusion”, the sense of self is a result of different regions in our brain trying to combine our experiences, thoughts, and behaviors into a narrative. This narrative gives us a sense of continuity and coherence over time and across situations.
However, this narrative is not fixed or stable. It is constantly updated and revised based on new information and feedback. It is also influenced by our expectations, biases, and motivations. It is not a faithful representation of reality, but a selective and subjective construction.
Moreover, this narrative is not independent or isolated. It is shaped by our social context and interactions. We learn who we are by comparing ourselves to others, by adopting social roles and norms, by conforming or rebelling to group expectations, by seeking approval or validation from others. We also construct our self-image based on how we think others perceive us, which may or may not be accurate.
In other words, the sense of self is a product of the social brain. It is not something that we are born with or that we discover within ourselves. It is something that we create and recreate throughout our lives in relation to others.
The benefits and drawbacks of the self illusion
Why do we have this illusion of the self? What are its benefits and drawbacks?
One possible benefit of having a sense of self is that it helps us navigate the complex and dynamic social world. By having a sense of who we are and what we want, we can make decisions, plan for the future, communicate with others, cooperate or compete with others, express ourselves creatively, etc.
However, having a sense of self also has some drawbacks. One possible drawback is that it can make us suffer unnecessarily. By identifying with our thoughts and emotions, we can become attached to them and resist them when they are unpleasant or unwanted. When we identify with our roles and achievements, we can become dependent on them and fear losing them when they are threatened or challenged. Furthermore, by identifying with our opinions and beliefs, we can become rigid and dogmatic and reject those who disagree with us.
By clinging to our own identity and image, we can become defensive and insecure and avoid change and growth.
How to transcend the self illusion
Is there a way to transcend the illusion of the self? Can we experience ourselves in a different way?
Some people claim that they have had experiences of losing their sense of self or expanding their sense of self beyond their usual boundaries. These experiences are often described as mystical or spiritual experiences that involve a sense of oneness with everything or nothingness.
These experiences can be triggered by various factors such as meditation, psychedelics, near-death experiences, etc. They can have profound effects on people’s lives such as reducing their fear of death, increasing their compassion, enhancing their creativity, etc.
However, these experiences are not easy to achieve or maintain. They require special conditions or practices that may not be accessible or suitable for everyone. They may also have some risks or side effects such as confusion, dissociation, psychosis, etc.
A more practical way to transcend the illusion of the self may be to simply become more aware of it and question it. By realizing that our sense of self is not what it seems, we can loosen our attachment to it and open ourselves to other possibilities.
We can also cultivate a more flexible and inclusive sense of self that can adapt to different situations and perspectives. We can recognize that we are not just one thing or one way but many things and many ways depending on the context.
We can also develop a more compassionate and empathic sense of self that can connect with others without losing ourselves. We can appreciate that we are not separate or different from others but interdependent and interconnected.
By transcending the illusion of the self, we can enrich our experience of ourselves and reality. We can discover new aspects of ourselves that we didn’t know existed. We can enjoy more peace, joy, and freedom in our lives.