Issue Abstract

A new approach in studies of the Self:
Its development, function and relation to consciousness

In the vast literature about the Self within philosophy, psychology and more recently within the neurosciences and psychiatry, one finds a plethora of different notions and approaches to the Self. The questions posed and attempted answered are whether the Self has any real existence, i.e. is there something of ‘substance’ being referred to by the notions of ‘self’, ‘I’, and ‘me, or is the Self a mere narrative construction, a cognitive representation, or is the self a linguistic artefact, or a neurological induced illusion?

Most can agree that it is natural for us to have a ‘sense of self’; however there is, despite huge research efforts, very little consensus concerning the nature of the ‘self’, ‘me’ or ‘I’ of which we have this sense, or how it is constituted.

These questions have been central to Indian and Tibetan philosophy for the last two thousand years. Recently published dialogues (Siderits, Thompson and Zahavi, “Self, No Self?”, Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) between Western philosophers and scholars of Eastern Buddhist traditions, drawing on hundred years old texts with rich insights about consciousness, self-reflection and Self, seem to show that while much of Western philosophy go along with and investigate our common sense view of the Self in order to more precisely describe what this Self might be, Eastern philosophical investigations of the Self begin with the “suspicion” that the sense of Self itself might be importantly mistaken. Indeed, according to Buddhism and other spiritual wisdom traditions (i.e. Sufism, Taoism, Christian Contemplative Mysticism and Jewish Kabbalah), the ego or self has no real existence, but rather is made up, as modern ego and object-relation theories would put it, of thoughts, self-images and ego structures that we somehow come to identify with as “me” and “my self”. These structures determine what we take ourselves and reality to be but, tragically, according to the wisdom schools, they are barriers which separate us from experiencing the vast potentials of our consciousness and what we and reality truly are. Consequently, it is the aim of the practices of these schools to work towards the resolution of these ego and self structures - and thus to reach the ultimate realisation of our being, consciousness and human potentials.

Today there are quite a number of realised masters within contemporary wisdom schools, most of them living ordinary modern (non-monastic) lives that have attained No-Self being. Many of them draw on knowledge from modern Western psychodynamic theories in working through the ego and self issues of their students. Some of these masters have been invited to discuss their insights and lived experiences concerning consciousness and the
self/no-self issues in their work towards the No-Self state (see Target Papers) and to exchange knowledge
concerning the origin, nature, purpose and development of the Self with researchers within different academic areas, e.g. developmental psychology, psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience and philosophy (see abstracts in Academic Papers) - thereby providing inspiration to look afresh and develop new theories and approaches that might help advance their researches.