The Illusion of Self
edited: Thursday, February 06, 2003
By Dennis Lewis
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003
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This short article by Dennis Lewis explores how the illusion of
"self" enslaves us more than any other illusion we may have.
It is no secret that we live our lives under the sway of many illusions—both about ourselves and others. There is one illusion, however, which enslaves us more than any other: the illusion of self, or "I."
The great philosophers have all had to grapple with this question of "self." Some have equated self with God, others with the soul; still others have maintained that self is an illusion, that we are simply complex "organic" machines set into motion by internal and external stimuli. In a sense, all these views are correct. As human beings each of us has a self, or at least the possibility of a self. But our consciousness is so narrow and so easily attracted to every fleeting impression that we never really experience this "self" as a whole.
To be sure, we are entitled to refer to our entire organism and its various manifestations as “myself." In reality, however, our actual experience of ourselves seldom takes in our whole being. We say "I" to one feeling, conveniently forgetting others that may contradict it. We say "I" to one thought, forgetting that five minutes ago we believed its exact opposite. The problem is not that we have different and contradictory thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, but rather that we take certain of these as sacrosanct, as "I," identifying our whole being with them and losing sight of the rest of ourselves. This not only causes great difficulties in our lives—one part of ourselves may in a moment say or do something for which other parts have to pay or take responsibility for years afterward—but it also cuts us off from our own possible growth.
For those trying to live more consciously, this constant "identification" with, or attachment to, whatever thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we are experiencing must not only be seen but also stopped. For if conscious growth means anything, it means movement from part to whole, from potentiality to actuality, from the many small "I's" of our constant identification with everything in and around us to the big "I" that begins to become visible when we struggle with this identification.
As human beings, we yearn to be whole. We yearn to experience the intensity and breadth of our own being. But this yearning is easily overlooked in our daily lives, where almost everything conspires to support our illusions. For no one else really cares about our own inner development the way we do. Most everyone—our business associates, our mates, our family, our friends—sees us more or less from a particular angle and wants us to fulfill their own expectations. They see our growth in terms of an increase in what they like about us and a decrease of what they don't like. Unfortunately, we often approach ourselves the same way. We tend to identify ourselves, our "I," with what we or others like most about us. The things that we don't like we tend to relegate to "not I," to the periphery of our being, as a problem that "we need to work on or change
This approach to ourselves, while seemingly reasonable, entrenches us ever more deeply in our illusion of who and what we are. Instead of looking honestly and impartially at ourselves, we look to see only what supports the assumptions we already hold. Instead of recognizing that our being contains possibilities for growth that we can barely even imagine, we hold tight to mental and emotional definitions and structures that keep us imprisoned in our beliefs, opinions, and other habits. And fueling all these assumptions and definitions is an underlying attitude toward ourselves and others of "self-importance." We believe that our particular sense or definition of ourselves is so important that it should be respected and shared by others at all times.
Obviously, every human being is and should be important—especially to himself or herself. But the self-importance, the egotism, that underlies most of our exchanges with the world is mostly illusory, an emotional state that narrows our awareness and makes it nearly impossible to experience anything real or new about ourselves. "I" believe this. "I" did that. "I" feel this (and so should you). And all said with an emotion that clearly shows what is at stake—our own sense of self. And when people don't respond to this sense of self the way we think they should, we react inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, feeling, saying, and doing things that will directly or indirectly support our self-importance.
To study the illusion of self we need to challenge our self-importance. We need to allow ourselves to be in conditions where our self-importance is called into question. For it is this habitual overriding sense of self-importance that hides our confusion and fragmentation from the light of consciousness and keeps us from feeling the need for real transformation
To understand this better, next time someone catches you in a contradiction, instead of retreating to a defense based on self-importance (well, I changed my mind, or you didn't hear me properly the first time, etc.), simply observe yourself inwardly and use the contradiction as an opportunity to expand your sense of yourself. Whatever you do, try not to identify with either one side of the contradiction or the other. Try to keep both sides in sight and to use this duality as a doorway into your yourself.
Another useful experiment is to decide in advance to listen to yourself when you know you will be speaking with someone. Listen to how you use the word “I.” See if it’s possible to say that word without any identification. If you do hear yourself saying "I" with that particular emotional coloring that bespeaks identification or attachment, use this impression as a reminder to try to perceive what is going on in your thoughts and feelings at that moment. If you are quick and impartial enough, you will observe that some kind of movement is taking place inside you—a movement of your energy and attention. And you will also see that it is the experience of this movement that can open you to a more global perception of yourself.