Featured Articles

We Don't Exist, Never Have, Never Will

There is no you. The story of the Self is useful up to a point, but it is a complex work of fiction, and it has become a pernicious fiction.

Ponder a recent experience, such as peering at traffic from a bridge or noticing an unusual piece of litter. Who was having the experience? What concepts was it filtered through? How did you process that experience, versus how you felt the Big You was supposed to process it?

Who is the Big You? Where is it located? The brain? The belly? The chest? What is its organic composition? Is it a system of organs or a pattern of firing synapses? Would it fit in a wheelbarrow? What is it, exactly?

Most of us believe very deeply in the Self and behave as it if it were a real thing. Human beings, tribes, and civilizations live and die for its glorification. But simply because we behave as if something were true does not make it a law of physics.

Perhaps it wouldn't even be so bad if it stopped there. But we drag our bodies into this, too. We horribly miscast them in stories they don't understand. We starve ourselves, destroy our health, and walk around physically wounded because that's what we believe the Self would want.

Our ancestors survived by finding patterns in a blizzard of chaos, by determining what information to ignore and what to pay attention to without putting too much thought into it. When you are physically mauled by a bear, you suffer in a different way from the way that you suffer when your neighbor is mauled by a bear. That's useful information.

But the Self story spun wildly out of control. It took over for genuine appreciation of experience. We began to indulge the Self at the expense of the spirit, the soul, and the senses. We dreamed up grandiose fables about the Self to which reality could not and will never measure up. The story of the Self began to comment on itself, almost exclusively. It became a tragic black comedy. It got all postmodern and stuff.

Believing in the Self as an article of gospel faith is often excruciatingly painful. In the past, I have written silly apologia for my own ego. I take it all back. Living in service to my ego has caused me to operate, much of the time, from a place of unspeakable anguish. It is the major component of my crippling anxiety, grinding depression, and precarious physical health.

More precisely, it is the primary thing separating me from appreciating real experience. It prevents me from fully immersing myself in a toe-tapping song, a pint of sorbet, or a California sunset. I always have to filter it through what the Self would want. The Self could not care less. It doesn't even exist.

My remembering mind often takes a wildly different view from that of my experiencing mind. My experiencing mind can persist through a day that is to be endured, not enjoyed, and suffer tremendously. My remembering mind can reflect on that day and remember the disarming laughter of the person in an adjacent cubicle, or the way the sunlight hit the floating specks of dust, and regard it as not altogether unpleasant. It may even put my experiencing mind through the exact same day all over again. It's almost as if those two have almost nothing in common.

People are creatures of habit but we do change. We are not fixed entities. We change all the time. We did, just now. Did you catch it?

When we stop living in servitude to our Selves, we can stop regarding other people as distinct entities. This frees us up for a remarkable wealth of empathy, patience, or productive arguments at the least. Yes, humans take actions and actions have consequences. But to judge the action and not the moral fiber of the person is a much kinder and more fruitful approach. Selves cannot be Greater Than or Less Than if they don't exist. What if we spoke to people not as distinct Selves, but simply as people who sometimes do hurtful things? What sort of cells make up "moral fiber," anyway?

So au revior to the Self. Thank you and goodbye.

It did not die peacefully, because it never lived. It was never born in the first place. There will no doubt be a period of mourning for what we believed it was and could be, and for all of the foolhardy plans we had for its future glory. But I believe we will be better off on our own. Vital disciplines such as self-care and self-compassion will flourish without its shackles. Let the Self go. Go outside. Breathe.

Vote for this article to appear in the Recommended list.

Site developed by the IDP and Genalo Designs.