Can You Find Your ‘I’?

Does Your Self-Concept Truly Exist?

When you become embarrassed or feel strong emotions, your concept of self feels physical, the idea that ‘I’ am being affected seems real. However, this is not the real truth.

In Buddhism our conscious concept of self (or ‘I’) is unavoidably associated with the selfish nature of the Ego. Dharma practice (the conscious application of Buddhist philosophy) therefore aims to reduce our attachment to the Ego by recognising that ‘I’ does not exist. In fact, ‘I’ only exists as a concept of your mind.

In the scientific world, the Buddhist ‘I’ is referred to as the ‘Observer’ –  the conscious entity which seems to reside within us and has the ability to observe internal emotions and thoughts. Consciousness itself still remains a mystery as no one really knows what it is or where it comes from.

Can You Find Your ‘I’?

Follow this Buddhist thought experiment using personal experience and logical thought analysis:

  1. Sit quietly and notice your thoughts. Notice the ‘I’ observing your thoughts. Conclusion: The ‘I’ therefore is not your thoughts because it’s able to view your thoughts as a separate entity from them.
  2. Notice that you naturally refer to your mind as “My mind” as if the mind is a possession of the ‘I’ and your mind belongs to ‘I’. We instinctively understand that the mind is not the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ is something separate from it. Your mind also has varying states of awareness (when asleep, in a trance-like meditative state and fully awake for example) and yet your ‘I’ remains a separate constant and unchanged entity. Conclusion: The ‘I’ is not your mind.
  3. We say the same about our body parts such as “My Leg” or “My arm” so, once again, we inherently refer to the ‘I’ as something separate from our body and it’s parts. Also, we can lose many parts of our body and the ‘I’ still remains unchanged. Conclusion: The ‘I’ is not the body or it’s parts.
  4. Is the ‘I’ an amalgamation of body and mind? Having established that the ‘I’ is neither body or mind, it’s impossible for them to become ‘I’ in combination. Two things which are not an experience cannot become an experience together. Conclusion: The ‘I’ is not a combination of body and mind.
  5. So, what are you left with? Conclusion: Nothing!

The thing which causes you to feel as if negative emotions are affecting you – ‘I’ –  does not exist. 

The thing we think is being affected by events and circumstances does not exist inherently. 

Of course, you (the conscious ‘observer’ within you) does exist conceptually but not in true reality.

In 2007, John Updegraff and colleague Eunkook Suh (cool names!) published a research paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology which suggests people with a more abstract concept of themselves (i.e. as energy or universal consciousness) are happier in comparison to those who view ‘I’ as a ‘solid’, separate and physical object.

This is supported further by numerous studies into the benefits of meditation which shows regular meditators to gain an increased sense of oneness and connection. In contrast, non-meditators tend to hold a more separate and disconnected view of themselves. “I am separate”.

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