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Self, are you there? Self???

Eddie Vedder

Come to send, not condescend.
Transcendental consequence.
Is to transcend where we are.
Who are we? Who we are.

Eddie Vedder



Who are we? Is there a self? What is real about me and what is a figment of my imagination?

I’ve pondered those questions often. I found some great insight in reading Buddha’s Brain this summer on this topic. Why should you care? When you understand and practice, it will make you feel better.

Definition of “self – (noun) A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action

Here’s a short summary from Chapter 13 of the book. The sense of self as an object experiencing life or an owner of your actions does not exist. Yes, we feel this way, but there’s nothing supernatural about it. Seeing yourself as the owner of your actions and experiences in a coherent story form is an evolutionary by-product. It is there. It does exist, but it exists because we’ve trained it over thousands of years as a species and many years as an individual to help us make sense of our world and tie our life together.

The self helps us make sense of our interactions with others and allows us to have psychological continuity. We humans are much better at remembering a story than independent, isolated facts about our existence. Can you think of a more interesting main character in the story of your life than the neural networks resting between your ears? There’s no point in denying the selfness of yourself either. Going against evolution usually isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

What we view as our self is just a part of us. The neural networks in your brain that represent the self are only a small part of the brain. You as an individual are so much more. We can get by quite well in many areas (thoughts, plans, actions) without leveraging the self.

The self is constantly updating itself. When I talk to you today and talk to you tomorrow, I’m talking to two different people at least from one perspective. You’ve gained experiences over that day that make you different. This is easier to envision over time. Imagine the person you were at 10 years old and the person you are now. Most people would recognize that there are substantial differences between you at those two ages, although there are likely many common threads that remain. We don’t want to think of those two people as different though, since it throws off our worldview and generally makes our brains hurt.

Why think about the self being optional then? When we focus too heavily on the self, our life often gets worse not better. Think of how you feel when you’re focusing on yourself more than others. You typically feel selfish. Your world grows smaller. How do you feel when you focus on others? You often feel generous. Your world gets bigger. Humans have a fundamental need for social connections. When we feed that social beast, we feel more human. The world makes sense. When we focus inward, we shrink a bit of our humanity.

The next time you feel yourself stammering “I, I, I, I, I, I…” like John the Stutterer, let your ego fade. Let your sense of self disappear. Realize that the world isn’t out to get you. Take a walk. Think about the big picture. See that the world is connected. There’s much more to life that the small neural network, that sense of self living between your ears. Notice the birds. Play with a dog. Call a friend. You’ll feel a bit better. Your spirit will grow a bit larger. You will be a bit more human.


To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.