Every person we meet in ordinary, daily affairs is part human and part divine, a storytelling self, often confused, dislikable, and in pain, but always transient; and a mysterious self, deathless, an image of God, worthy of unconditional love…

The Buddha, at the age of thirty-five, preached his first sermon to five ascetics, his old companions, in the Deer Park at Isiptana near Benares.[1] He told them that human existence is inseparable from suffering, that the cessation of suffering occurs by extinguishing craving, and that the liberation from craving results from ardently following the Eightfold Path.[2]

Also at Benares, the Buddha preached his second sermon, The Discourse on Not-Self, and “while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the monks of the group of five were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.”[3] Arguably, anattā, a Pāli word that literally means no-self, is the most important and most difficult concept in Buddhism, since it led the five monks to instant enlightenment, to Nirvāṇa, to “the annihilation of the illusion [of self], of the false idea of self.”[4]

Anattā follows from the most fundamental principle that Buddha taught: the impermanency of all compound things, an indisputable principle. We are born, walk around for a while, and then disappear. Civilizations rise and fall. No one can doubt that species of plants and animals come and go, that continents drift and produce mountain ranges, and that wind and water erode rock and level mountains. Twentieth-century cosmologists discovered that the universe, itself, is destined to end with the Big Freeze, a cold eventless state of electrons, neutrinos, antielectrons, and antineutrinos. Nothing lasts.

According to the Buddha, no permanent, unchanging self, soul, ego, or I exists. The self is an ever-changing compound of the Five Aggregates—matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness—the five aspects that constitute sentient life.

But if each one of us were merely a particular compound of body, sense perceptions, memories, and ideas, then no escape from Samsara, the never-ending wheel of birth and death, would be possible. The Buddha told his disciples, “There is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded…. Therefore an escape can be shown for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.”[5]

As a Westerner schooled by democracy and by capitalism, I firmly believed that I was an isolated, autonomous individual, a belief contrary to Eastern and also Western mysticism. Socrates, not the Buddha, convinced me that the self may be an illusion. In the Symposium, he related how he learned from Diotima, an old woman of great spiritual depth, that a person is always changing: “Although we speak of an individual as being the same so long as he continues to exist in the same form, and therefore assume that a man is the same person in his dotage as in his infancy, yet, for all we call him the same, every bit of him is different, and every day he is becoming a new man, while the old man is ceasing to exist, as you can see from his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and all the rest of his body…. Neither his manners, nor his disposition, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life.”[6]

Socrates prompted me to investigate if my unshakeable belief in self was the core illusion of Modernity. Since the ultimate reality of self is almost never challenged in the modern West, the view I present is mine, although I draw upon the insights of several contemporary psychologists.

No-Self: A Western Perspective

Self is a surprisingly intractable concept—obvious to common sense, yet notoriously evasive to definition by any demanding philosopher.[7] Many philosophers, psychologists, and laypersons believe the self is a substance whose essence preexists their search to understand its nature. The belief that the self is a thing is reinforced by the modern cultural precept that things exist in isolation.

Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) could not find “something simple and continued” within himself, and consequently, he denied the existence of self: “I may venture to affirm [that we] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”[8] If we are mere bundles of sensations, then we have no unity, and to speak of a particular person, say David Hume, is meaningless; however, Hume seems correct to assert that we are not simple objects, like a lamp or an ox cart.

Part of our unity stems from culturally-instilled habits of thinking and feeling. I am an American because I think and feel in a certain way that differs from that of a Lakota Indian or a traditional Chinese.[9] Culturally-shared habits of thinking and feeling, clearly, do not specify a particular person.

The principal way we fashion coherent wholes out of Humean bundles of sensations, desires, achievements, losses, and experiences with others is through personal narratives, which are universal ways we humans organize our experiences and interpret the world; from this perspective, the human being is a storytelling animal.

When we tell others who we are, we tell our life story, what has made us who we are and what we hope to become. Our idea of our self is a narrative about our successes and failures, our hopes and fears, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We care intensely about the narrative of our own life and cast ourselves as the central character, even as hero, of what we hope is a good story. Maybe, we tell ourselves and others how in the third grade we refused to learn the multiplication tables and our father scolded us, or how in the eleventh grade we tricked Sally Burnham, the most popular girl in school, into accepting our invitation to the Junior Prom, or how in college we learned to praise wine, women, and song.

For all of us, our life is a story that imposes a coherent structure on incongruent experiences, not that at times, like Macbeth, we think that our life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[10] Yet, we constantly seek meaning to our lives by highlighting certain events, ignoring others, and seeing stages and causal connections that add up to more than a tale told by an idiot.

Except on a résumé for a job or in a college application, no one defines himself by giving a laundry list of personal facts. The personal narrative we tell integrates the events of everyday life into a coherent whole, in which we are both narrator and the main character. Generally, we possess a different narrative for career, romance, and family, although, of course, many of us skilled at storytelling weave disparate tracks of our life into a single narrative.

We repeatedly tell our personal narrative, adding layer upon layer, incorporating new experiences into our stories, and often embellishing past events to such a degree that they become distorted or even fictitious. Just like young children, we develop intense attachments to certain personal stories, revisiting them again and again, for weeks, months, and even years. In this way, our self both solidifies and changes. Hence, the self is not a static thing or a substance just waiting to be known.

Our personal stories are not entirely of our own making. As infants, we do not enter life as isolated, autonomous individuals, but as members of a family and as participants in the surrounding culture. Psychologist Jerome Bruner elaborates: “When we enter human life, it is as if we walk on stage into a play whose enactment is already in progress—a play whose somewhat open plot determines what parts we may play and toward what dénouements we may be heading.”[11] The English word “person” is derived from the Latin persona and the Greek prosopon, words that originally meant the masks worn by actors on stage.

We are known by others primarily through personal narratives and entrenched habits, both ours and theirs. My wife, for instance, knows that when we go out to dinner, I rarely order dessert, and when I do, it is always something chocolate from which I take two bites, giving the rest to her. My habit of dessert-avoidance came about because my father died of uncontrolled diabetes. My wife and I, obviously, have many events in common, although we have shaped them differently in our personal narratives. When angry with me, my wife recalls my crazy gypsy life of changing jobs, moving across the country many times, and repeatedly fashioning a new life. In such arguments, I attempt to shake off the past and usually try to delete from my story the traumatic events central to my wife’s narrative or cast those failures of mine into a positive story that presents repeated setbacks as opportunities for spiritual growth. Who knows where the truth lies? Especially given that the past for the majority of us is a fiction resulting from unending storytelling.

And the future is nothing but stories, multiple scenarios to deal with the uncertainty of living. On a particular day, a young man’s story of his future may include his boss’ tone of voice yesterday afternoon, the smile of the young woman seated across from him on the bus this morning, the three-minute clip of a MIT economist assessing the effect of robotics on blue-collar employment he heard on National Public Radio before dinner, all facts that probably mean nothing, but nevertheless are woven into stories, some fantastic, all invariably useless as predictors of what will happen to him and to the world.

Around nineteen months, a child begins to use the words “my,” “mine,” and “me” and her name with a verb—“Annie eats.”[12] By twenty-seven months, self-reference is common, although the child is not telling the parents who she is; that requires a narrative. Between three to five years of age, autobiographical memory emerges, and the development of a unique personal history begins.[13] Even at this young age, the self-narrative pattern that emerges depends upon culture.

When a Harvard undergraduate was asked to think of her earliest memory, she reported, “I have a memory of being at my great aunt and uncle’s house. It was some kind of party; I remember I was wearing my purple-flowered party dress. There was a sort of crib on the floor…. I don’t know if it was meant for me or for one of my younger cousins, but I crawled into it and lay there on my back. My feet stuck out, but I fit pretty well. I was trying to get the attention of people passing by. I was having fun and feeling slightly mischievous. When I picture the memory, I am lying down in the crib, looking at my party-shoed feet sticking out of the end of the crib.” (Memory dated at three years six months.)[14]

A female Chinese college student from Beijing University described her earliest memory: “I was five years old. Dad taught me ancient poems. It was always when he was washing vegetables that he explained a poem to me. It was very moving. I will never forget the poems such as ‘Pi-Ba-Xing,’ one of the poems I learned then.”[15]

Psychologist Qi Wang and her colleague Jens Brockmeier discovered, after extensive interviews of American and Chinese undergraduates, that the first memories of the Americans were earlier and more focused on self than those of the Chinese: “The American memory has the individual highlighted as the leading character of the story. In contrast, the Chinese memory shows a heightened sensitivity to information about significant others or about the self in relation to others.”[16]

Drs. Wang and Brockmeier also studied conversations between mothers and their young daughters and concluded that “American parents often focus on the child’s personal attributes, preferences, and judgments, making the child the central character of a co-constructed story. In contrast, consonant with Confucian ethics that place a high value on social hierarchy and moral rectitude, Asian parents often take a leading role during conversations with their children and frequently refer to moral rules and behavioral expectations.” To their amazement, they found that American children as young as three often comment on “their personal roles, choices, and opinions, [while] their Asian peers make references to rules, standards, and requirements.”[17]

American parents constantly require their children to do things on their own and present them with choices: “Would you like to go outside to play or would you rather have a snack?” Chinese parents make the decision for the child on the assumption that the parents know best what is good for the child.

Family storytelling in America aims at developing an autonomous self because parents encourage independence, assertiveness, and self-expression in their offspring. Children are taught to “stick up for their rights” and to believe they can accomplish anything they desire. Chinese parents, on the other hand, emphasize interdependence, group solidarity, social obligation, and personal humility; children are taught obedience, proper behavior, emotional restraint, and the value of group harmony. Chinese as children learn to understand themselves in terms of their relation to the whole, to the family, to society, and, perhaps, to the Tao. “In Confucian human-centered philosophy man cannot exist alone,” philosopher Hu Shih writes. “All action must be in the form of interaction between man and man.”[18] In the Chinese language there is no word for “individualism;” the closest word is the one for “selfishness.”[19]

Many American teenagers cast themselves in their personal narratives as heroes in a struggle for independence. For Americans, the true hero is the protagonist of the Western, America’s unique contribution to the world’s literary genres. A Western hero, such as Shane, comes from nowhere, has no family or last name, possesses his own moral code, needs no help from anyone, and rescues the cowardly townspeople from the “bad guys” and then rides off into the sunset. He is the picture of independence, the embodiment of the isolated, autonomous individual. Such superheroes as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are variations of the Western hero. Young women in their desire for equality sometimes think of themselves as a budding Simone de Beauvoir, a burgeoning Helen Gurley Brown, or a promising Gloria Steinem.

In midlife, if an American man at a cocktail party is asked “Who are you?”, most likely he will answer by stating his occupation. “I am a computer engineer working for Intel.” If asked to say more about himself, he may say “I went to the University of Colorado,” or “I like biking to stay in shape,” or “I follow the Denver Broncos.” The descriptions that American men give of themselves, generally, are in terms of work, character, and personal likes and dislikes, and almost never include others. Chinese men, however, describe themselves in terms of social relations: “I am the third son of Lin Pang,” or “I am a member of the quality-control group of Foxconn,” or “My family and I vacation every year in Hong Kong.” American women are more like Chinese men, for they too describe themselves in terms of social relations—“I am a mother with two daughters” or “Peggy Stewart and I are the best of friends, having grown up together in Fairfield, Connecticut.”

We now see why the self is such an intractable concept that is not reducible to either memory or brain processes, for the self is a social construct that emerges from family storytelling and a personal narrative, and thus does not exist by nature the way a person’s body does. The self is not encased in the skull or hidden within the human heart, but emerges through ongoing social relations. Not lasting or stable, with no inherent essence, the self cannot be defined.

We, of course, do not deny the individuality, idiosyncrasy, and uniqueness of self. No matter where we are or who we are, we live concrete, unique lives; general people exist only in anthropology textbooks and in political theories, not in real life. Nevertheless, all humans live by stories that direct and give meaning to their lives. We moderns adopt stories from the big screen, popular music, literature, and religion to form our own personal narrative; yet, we all share a common story, for every culture tells its members who they are, where they came from, and what brings happiness. The implementation of a culture’s story generates a particular way of life that establishes the framework for social and economic relations.

The “I” we think we are is merely a combination of acquired habits of thinking and feeling instilled by the accidents of upbringing and culture plus a personal narrative. The persistence of such habits and the repeated telling of a personal narrative gives the illusion of a permanent self. That different cultures produce different “I”s is apparent from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century. In America, the “I” is quick to anger; in the Etku Eskimo community, the “I” seldom experiences anger. The American “I” wishes for others to fail and becomes envious when they succeed, while the Lakota “I” takes pleasure in the success of others. In America, the “I” is always lonely; in China, the “I” feels lonely only when separated from a lover or from the family. To understand anything, the American “I” first looks to the smallest parts, while the Hopi “I” turns to the whole. The American “I” does not accept any man’s word as a proof of anything, while the Japanese “I” seeks guidance from masters. The American “I” demands scientific proofs, while the Eastern Indian “I” wants direct experience of the eternal.

The “I,” in addition, is often an incoherent collection of habits and acquired desires, so that the “I” is at war with itself, pursuing contradictory ends. “I” may be ambitious but lazy, and as a result “I” either work like mad or do nothing at all. “I” may desire to be alone, but when “I” am by myself, “I” am lonely. “I” may have an intense desire for independence, yet crave group approval. A change of habits or desires results in a new “I.” As a child, “I” may have had a deathly fear of dogs, but now as an adult “I” own a German Shepherd and actually like dogs. Furthermore, the “I” in a personal narrative changes with repeated telling. Not one of us is the same “I” that we were five, ten, or twenty years ago.

The “I,” clearly, is an artifact fashioned by culture and personal storytelling, devoid of substance and eternal permanence. In every culture, the self is a fiction, an ongoing narrative fashioned from the raw materials of a life; however, in the modern West, the self is also a fiction in the sense of myth, because the isolated, autonomous self is founded on the false belief that things exist in isolation. Independent of the culture, we will call the constructed “I” the false self.

Every false self amasses experiences, reflects on them and itself, and sometimes proclaims to have gained insight into its past life. Each isolated, autonomous self typically believes it is the center of existence to which everything should be ordered and seeks to build up itself through the acquisition of power, honor, knowledge, and love. The false self fails to see that it is an illusion, frail and fleeting, with no more permanence than a smoke ring, doomed to disappear into nothingness with the death of the body.

Intellectually, we may have no difficulty accepting that we are self-constructed stories, and may even be glad to get rid of our stories, perhaps tales of spousal abuse, traumatic childhoods, or deep depression. Some real events leave indelible scars, and a personal storytelling shapes those real events into a coherent, meaningful story that often leads to more suffering because at the heart of storytelling is conflict. Nevertheless, deep down the storytelling habit is so entrenched that we cannot stop ourselves from telling the same stories over and over again. Our stories give stability and a certain predictably to our lives; we fear that if we let go of the stories that define us, we will fall into nothingness. Most of us are frightened of the unknown and want to hold onto a conventional understanding of ourselves and the world. But conventional reality is a product of collective illusions. To give up the stable, secure pattern of our lives, takes courage, even if our stories are of childhood neglect, disastrous marriages, or social failures. To release ourselves from the illusion of self, the Buddha directs us to meditate upon “Who is suffering?”

Following the argument, I had to conclude that the truth of the central insight of the Buddha’s—the self is an illusion—is inescapable. Yet, “I” could not help but think, and perhaps this was my ego resisting the bad news that it was merely an impermanent social construction, that the self as a combination of habits and storytelling missed something. So, I turned to Christianity to see what corresponds to the Buddha’s unborn.

The first thing I discovered is that for most Christians today the self has replaced the soul. While ancient theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas spoke of the immortality of the soul, New World Christians proclaim that the self is immortal. When a bereaved self asks a priest or pastor, “Will I see my loved one again?”, the answer is invariably “Yes,” with the implication that the desires, habits, and memories of the loved one are either immortal and live on now or will be resurrected in Christ. C.S. Lewis, a New World Christian apologist, even argued (hoped or believed) that his favorite dog would be resurrected with him.[20] The self, however, is born through storytelling and thus cannot be immortal.

I turned next to Thomas Aquinas in the hope of finding what the unborn is; he, of course, began with Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[21] Rocks, plants, and animals bear “traces” of the Creator. What distinguishes Homo sapiens form the rest of Creation is an intellect; thus, the image of God in man and woman must be the intellect.[22]

The danger in Aquinas’ understanding of the image of God is that it easily slides into the opinion that God is a Super Human, a Super Mind, merely Man writ large. Such a God is subject to every criticism of human behavior, and often thought remote, indifferent, and unjust, or taken as a tyrant demanding the morally impossible.[23]

Another approach to understanding the image of God is to reverse Aquinas’ analysis and begin with the deepest understanding of God that Christianity offers. The Patristic Fathers embraced the theological insights of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopogite[*]: God is not any of the names used in the Old and New Testaments, not God of gods, Holy of holies, Cause of the ages, the still breeze, cloud, and rock.[24] Pseudo-Dionysius insists that God is not Mind, Greatness, Power, or Truth in any way we can understand. God “cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can hold him. He is not one of the things that are and he is no thing among things.”[25] God is the Unnamable.

Surprisingly, Aquinas, the most rational of theologians, also reached the conclusion that God is beyond our comprehension: “It is because human intelligence is not equal to the divine essence that this same divine essence surpasses our intelligence and is unknown to us: wherefore man reaches the highest point of his knowledge about God when he knows that he knows Him not, inasmuch as he knows that that which is God transcends whatsoever he conceives of Him.”[26] The terms good, wise, and just do not signify the essence of God “perfectly as it exists in itself, but as it is conceived by us.”[27] Following Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas says wisdom can be applied to God in three ways: 1) God is wise, since in Him there is a likeness to wisdom; 2) God is not wise, since the wisdom in Him we cannot understand and name; and 3) We ought to say God is supra-wise, since He transcends the wisdom we indicate and name.[28]

According to St. Gregory Palamas, we know the energies of God, not His essence: “Not a single created being has or can have any communion with or proximity to the sublime nature [of God]. Thus, if anyone has drawn near to God he evidently approached Him by means of His energy.”[29] Here, Gregory distinguishes between God’s essence, or substance (ousia), and His activity (energeia) in the world. The energies of God are experienced as Divine Light, such as the light of Mount Tabor or the light that blinded St. Paul on the Road to Damascus; in Creation, His activities are present as “traces” and as a sustaining power.

Given this understanding of the God, the image of God within us means that each one of us is unnamable and known to others through our activities in the world, that is, through a socially-constructed self. We are unknowable to ourselves, although through meditation, or what the Patristic Fathers called contemplation, we can witness our thoughts, memories, and storytelling, and thus know that we are not what we witness. Through more advanced contemplation, we may experience Divine Light, the presence of God.

The Unnamable sustains all existence; the unnamable can apprehend, or mirror, all things. The core of our being is not an abstract, discursive mind that operates in time, but the unnamable, the “empty mind” of Zen Buddhism, the “pure consciousness” of Hinduism, and the “spirit” of Christianity, although all words ultimately fail to capture who we truly are. As long as we live on Earth, we are social beings and must have a self to interact with others, but we can live with the realization that the self is a fiction and not to be taken seriously. Our roles in this life are masks, not who we truly are.

Every person we meet in ordinary, daily affairs—the mailman, the bank teller, the butcher at Whole Foods, the obnoxious teenager down the street with his blaring boom box—is part human and part divine, a storytelling self, often confused, dislikable, and in pain, but always transient, and a mysterious self, deathless, an image of God, worthy of unconditional love.

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[*] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is the anonymous theologian of the late fifth to early sixth century whose works were erroneously ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.

[1] “The Buddha’s First Sermon, Known as the Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness or the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma,” in Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion, ed. Clarence H. Hamilton (Indianapolis, IA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), pp. 28-29 and “The Sermon at Benares” in The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, ed. E.A. Burtt (New York: New American Library, 1955), p. 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self in In the Buddha’s Words: An anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005), p. 342.

[4] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 37.

[5] Burtt, ed., Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, p. 113.

[6] Plato, Symposium, trans. Michael Joyce, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 207d-e.

[7] See Jerome Bruner, “Self-Making Narratives,” in Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Robyn Fivush and Catherine A. Haden (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003), p. 209.

[8] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978 [1739]), pp. 187, 188.

[9] See George Stanciu, “The Fetters of ‘Free Thought’” (The Imaginative Conservative March 19, 2017).

[10] Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, line 30.

[11] Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 34.

[12] Jerome Kagan, Unstable Ideas: Temperament, Cognition, and Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 233.

[13] Qi Wang and Jens Brockmeier, “Autobiographical Remembering as Cultural Practice: Understanding the Interplay between Memory, Self and Culture,” Culture & Psychology (2002) 8:52.

[14] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[15] Ibid., p. 48.

[16] Ibid., p. 49.

[17] Ibid., pp. 56, 57.

[18] Hu Shih, quoted by Ambrose Yeo-chi King, “Kuan-hsi and Network Building: A Sociological Interpretation,” Daedalus 120 (Spring 1991): 65.

[19] Richard E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (New York, NY: Free Press, 2003), p. 51.

[20] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), Ch. 9.

[21] Genesis: 1: 27. RSV

[22] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-I, Question 93, Article 6.

[23] See Christopher Hitchens, “Introduction,” The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. xxii.

[24] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 596A.

[25] Ibid., 872A.

[26] Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei, trans. English Dominican Fathers (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1952, [1932]), Q. VII: Article V.

[27] Ibid.

[28] See Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei, Q. VII: Article V.

[29] Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts in The Philokalia, Vol. IV, ed. and trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 382.

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