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The core teaching of Zen is that understanding the true nature of self is of the utmost importance to living a life that is liberated, compassionate, generous, wise, and skillful. Mindful examination of a subject like the self classically involves something akin to deconstruction; once we recognize the component parts of something, our sense of it as monolithic thing or force is undermined. I parse “the self” into six aspects, and discuss how each relates to our practice.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Some Definitions of “Self”
The First Aspect of Self: Individuality
The Second Aspect of Self: Awareness
The Third Aspect of Self: Personal Interest
The Fourth Aspect of Self: Being-Consciousness
The Fifth Aspect of Self: Our Agenda
The Sixth Aspect of Self: Belief in an Executive “I”
Awakening to the Emptiness of Our Executive “I”
Conclusions about the Six Aspects of Self


The core teaching of Zen is that understanding the true nature of self is of the utmost importance to living a life that is liberated, compassionate, generous, wise, and skillful. This “understanding,” of course, isn’t just intellectual. Given that we are nothing other than our self, we can understand its nature through our direct, personal experience.

But how do we go about understanding the true nature of self? Many Zen students feel somewhat overwhelmed and confused by our tradition’s apparent obsession with self – the emptiness of self, true self-nature, letting go of attachment to self, etc. It can help to apply an ancient Buddhist method to our study: Mindfulness. I don’t mean moment-by-moment attention to your physical experience (mindfulness of the body), but mindfulness as applied to an important aspect of our experience. I discuss this kind of mindfulness Episode 79 – The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, with respect to careful and methodical study of your own direct experience of things like mind states, positive factors of enlightenment, and the arising of and passing away of dukkha.

In many cases, the mindful examination of a topic involves something akin to deconstruction of our experience. For example, we might glibly label something “anger,” but if we look closely our experience of this emotion, it has many different aspects: Physical sensations, coursing stress hormones, mental narratives, habit energy, an impulse to protect, and more. Once we recognize the component parts of something, our sense of it as a monolithic thing or force is undermined.

Similarly, if we deconstruct the self in a methodical way, it may at the very least invite us to consider the nature of self in a whole new way. I’m going to do some deconstruction of self in this episode and leave you with the various pieces to contemplate.

Some Definitions of “Self”

Inevitably, no matter how mature and noble we are, no matter how much practice we do, the self is of primary importance to us! The self is us, and as we move around the world autonomously from any other self, we are at the center of our own world.

Still, if we really think about it, self is hard to define. I think this is primarily because we refer to a whole bunch of different things by using the terms “self” and therefore it defies a single, clear definition.

Let’s let Dictionary.com offer a few definitions to get us started:[i]

1. a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality: one’s own self.

2. a person’s nature, character, etc.: his better self.

3. personal interest.

4. Philosophy:

a) the ego; that which knows, remembers, desires, suffers, etc., as contrasted with that known, remembered, etc.

b) the uniting principle, as a soul, underlying all subjective experience.

Synonyms of “self” include individual, being, identity, and personality.

As I parse out various aspects of self, I’m going to avoid using the term “self” in the terms I choose for its different aspects. I want to avoid filling your mind with the amorphous but expansive concept of self that is attached to the term – a concept that, despite its vagueness and problematic nature, we nonetheless tend to think we understand fully. Note that my six aspects of self do not directly correlate with any traditional Buddhist list. My list bears some resemblance to the Five Skandhas (See Episode 108 – Buddha’s Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self) but doesn’t exactly match. You’re welcome to take issue with exactly how I parse out the different aspects of self; the important thing is to contemplate the matter and see whether any of your views or assumptions get challenged.

The First Aspect of Self: Individuality

The individual is the fundamental unit of life in that an individual can be differentiated from other beings and cannot be broken down further into constituent parts without loss of life.

Our individuality is real, tangible, and undeniable. Our unique, autonomous, separate body is our manifestation in the dependent dimension of time, space, and causality. No other individual shares our exact perceptions, thoughts, emotions, intentions, or fortunes. We end up with unique characteristics, skills, tendencies, relationships, possessions, experiences, and memories. The fascinating reality of individuality defines our life, making us simultaneously interdependent with all things and poignantly separate from all things.

There is no escaping this kind of selfhood, and there is no need. Individuality is part of what it means to be human – or to be any form of life! Buddhism does not deny the reality our individuality in any way. In fact, it requires us to embrace and be responsible for it through moral, compassionate, and skillful conduct.

The Second Aspect of Self: Awareness

As long as we are alive, we are aware in some way. The scope and nature of that awareness may change depending on conditions – such as when we are asleep, or reading a good novel, or fully engaged in a task – but there is always some awareness of something. Perhaps aliveness can be thought of as synonymous with awareness.

Our awareness of things in the world around us, and of things within our own body and mind, makes it possible for us to respond to the world, and take appropriate action to look after the well-being of our individuality. But the value of awareness is not just in its utility – it’s also what allows us to appreciate being alive.

Awareness in its most basic sense is perhaps the aspect of self which most closely resembles our true nature, in the sense that it’s as if awareness is the result of a universal life force that manifests in and through our individuality. “Our” awareness is fundamentally no different than awareness as it manifests in any other being, or in any other way. However, our true self-nature is no self-nature, so ideally we don’t even equate it with “our” awareness.

The Third Aspect of Self: Personal Interest

Fundamental to being an individual with awareness is a sense of personal interest. This fundamental unit of life evolved with the instinct to preserve itself, and then to reproduce itself. If it hadn’t, it would have died out long ago!

So, we have feelings – according to Buddhism, the most basic of feelings are of attraction, aversion, and indifference. As we encounter things, our individuality has evolved to move toward what seems beneficial, away from what seems threatening, and to ignore what doesn’t seem to matter much to us. We also have instincts to seek things like shelter, relationships, sex, food, safety, comfort, and status.

Our personal interest arises for us constantly. For example, this room is too cold (or hot). This way of spending my time is worth it (or I should go do something else). I like people’s admiration because it tells me I am socially secure. I seek that possession or experience because it is pleasant.

From the Buddhist point of view, our personal interest can be a motivating factor behind some of our problematic behaviors, but in and of itself it’s just what it is. It’s very basic and uncomplicated, manifesting simply as attraction, aversion, or indifference. It’s only with the addition of the other aspects of self that we can really get into trouble – but also have the capacity for practice.

The Fourth Aspect of Self: Being-Consciousness

I didn’t want to use the term “self-consciousness” here because, as I mentioned earlier, then we figure our human self-consciousness is the capacity to be conscious of something we call the self, which we assume to be an inherently real, enduring, independent thing which is self-evident and very familiar to us.

Instead, I chose the term “being.” Here are some Dictionary.com definitions of “being”:[ii]

  1. the fact of existing; existence (as opposed to nonexistence).

  2. substance or nature: of such a being as to arouse fear.

  3. something that exists: inanimate beings.

  4. a living thing: strange, exotic beings that live in the depths of the sea.

When it comes to our being-consciousness, the critical piece is that we are conscious of being an individual who persists through time.

We can better understand the nature of being-consciousness if we compare our experience with that of an animal. Now, to be fair, there is evidence that many animals have some degree of being-consciousness (such as crows who notice if another crow is watching when they hide their food, and consequently go back and move their treasure when the other crow has left). It’s likely some animals have significantly more being-consciousness than others, but I think we can conclude from the relative simplicity of their behavior that some animals pretty much live in the moment.

selfFor example, on a recent hike I got a good look at a pika. This is an incredibly cute relative of the rabbit, with short ears. Pika live in large rock piles in the mountains. They peek out of the safe spaces in the rocks and make a loud squeaking call which is commonly heard, but you rarely see one. The pika I saw obviously had individuality, awareness, and personal interest. If he or she had survived to adulthood, it was after at least a year of searching for food, making a den, and avoiding predators. Certainly, this pika experienced attraction, aversion, and indifference as it went about its daily life. It probably finds some things pleasant (such as the taste of tender new shoot of grass) and some things unpleasant (such as being pursued by a predator).

However, it seems unlikely that the pika has being-consciousness – a kind of meta-awareness, not just of things happening now in the world and within, but an awareness of being an individual who persists through time. The Pika is probably not sitting there on its rock reminiscing about yesterday, when it ate some delicious grass. It’s probably not comparing itself to other pikas, brimming with pride about the amount of vegetation it has stashed away in its burrow to eat later. It’s probably not thinking about tomorrow, hoping it doesn’t get too hot.

The Fifth Aspect of Self: Our Agenda

This brings me our next aspect of self: Our being-consciousness allows our personal interest to be transformed into an agenda. From our basic feelings of attraction and aversion, and our basic, instinctual inclinations to survival and reproduction, we are able to assess our current status and make a plan for how to maintain or improve it.

You can see why an agenda would be something advantageous to evolve. We’re no longer limited to our instinctual responses – we might contemplate our situation and decide to store a lot of food for the winter even if the external signs are suggesting a mild one. We can form complex societies where our survival rate is increased but where there are relationships to navigate, where we need to imagine what others are thinking and act accordingly. We can innovate ways to make ourselves even more comfortable and secure. We don’t know why being-consciousness evolved, but from the point of view of natural selection, it’s really about us being able to have agendas that increase our survival and reproduction.

The word “agenda” has rather negative connotations, suggesting forceful, self-centered activities by an individual or group, enacted without much regard for what others want. However, the definition of the term – basically, a plan, or a list of things to be done to achieve a certain aim – is neutral. As an aspect of self, our agenda can be beneficial or harmful, and most of the time our agendas probably fall somewhere it between. A beneficial agenda might be to save money in order to invest in our children’s education. A harmful agenda might be to seek revenge on someone who has insulted us.

Our Buddhist practice can also be seen as an agenda: A plan for how to decrease suffering for self and other, and to cultivate wisdom and compassion. A core part of practice is becoming aware of our agendas and noticing where they are beneficial and where they are not. An agenda that is consistent with our practice goals, and with our deepest aspirations, and which is also effective at fulfilling those goals and aspirations, is what in Buddhism we call skillfulness.

The Sixth Aspect of Self: Belief in an Executive “I”

However, we often find it difficult to give up or change some of our agendas, or to adopt new ones. This brings me to the sixth and final aspect of self according to my current way of deconstructing it: Belief in an Executive “I.” As I’ve discussed numerous times on the podcast, including Episode 151 – The Emptiness of Self and Why It Matters, we have a belief that there’s an inherently-existing, independent, enduring “I” behind everything we do and experience. That inside our individuality, awareness, personal interest, being-consciousness, and agenda is an unchanging essence, soul, witness, or actor.

We rarely, if ever, question our sense of Executive “I,” and assume that it goes without saying that our other aspects of self would deflate like empty balloons if it weren’t for the master of the house. We believe our Executive “I” possesses and experiences the other aspects of self, but exists, somehow, separately from them, or at least in addition to them, like a miraculous new substance arising from the combination of other ingredients. It seems obvious to us that the I is the One who we seek to protect and promote with our agendas. Our language reinforces our sense of self with just about every other statement we utter: I have individuality, awareness, personal interest, being-consciousness, and agendas. I experience awareness and being-consciousness. I decide my agenda, and I enact it. Without me, these other aspects of self would be meaningless.

Our belief in an Executive “I” is a step of abstraction beyond being-consciousness, although certainly it is dependent on being-consciousness. It is also possible to have an agenda without involving a belief in Executive “I,” which is likely what is experienced by some very intelligent animals who demonstrate grief and altruism. (An agenda free of Executive “I” is exactly the goal of the bodhisattva, which I’ll get to in a moment.)

Once we add a sense of Executive “I” to our life, things get much more complicated. Now, when we contemplate the future and create our agendas, we imagine our enduring “I” will be there to suffer the disasters or reap the rewards. In the meantime, it is the “I” who is in charge of forming a clever agenda and carrying it out, and the conclusions we draw about our Executive “I”’s competence has a profound affect on our psyche. The “I” becomes the subject of complex narratives about our lives, leading us to compulsive self-referential thinking, comparing ourselves with others, ambition, fear and anxiety about the future, and regrets about the past. We develop an extremely complex and abstract sense of self because we sort everything we encounter into the categories “I,” “me,” “mine,” “not-me,” and “not-mine.”

This is where our problems arise, and where we create dukkha – dissatisfactoriness or suffering – for ourselves. Pain and discomfort can’t be avoided sometimes, but dukkha is the extra misery we pile on to our experience because we compare it to how we want it to be. I suppose it’s possible that a being complex enough to have an agenda could feel frustrated when its agenda is foiled, even if it didn’t have a strong sense of Executive “I.” However, I doubt such a being’s short-term dissatisfaction would be anywhere near as miserable as the dukkha many of us human beings experience every day. We can create dukkha in response to something as subtle as perceived microaggression that happened a week ago at work. Or we can feel dukkha about incredibly abstract or theoretical things, such if we think back to a decision we made as a teenager that had a significant impact on the course of our life, and then imagine the possible results of a different decision, and then conclude that a different decision would have made us happier, and then feel dissatisfaction with our life!

Awakening to the Emptiness of Our Executive “I”

The funny – or perhaps tragic – thing is, our belief in an Executive “I” is a delusion. Unlike all the other aspects of self, it doesn’t exist. Our sense of it is very real, but that sense isn’t pointing to anything at all. There’s no master behind the phenomena of individuality, awareness, personal interest, being-consciousness, or even our agenda. All of those aspects of self function perfectly well without a CEO (chief executive officer). This is the teaching of Zen, the conclusion of modern psychology, and something verifiable in our own, direct experience.

As I’ve mentioned before (Episode 151 – The Emptiness of Self and Why It Matters and 2019-03-15 Off-Week Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True), in his book Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright talks about experiments that suggest our sense of Executive “I” evolved not so much to direct our thinking, decisions, and actions, but to explain our thinking, decisions, and actions – to ourselves and to others. It became important in the evolution of human social groups and language that we present ourselves to be rational, reliable actors who have good reasons for what we do.

The beautiful thing is that we can recognize our sense of Executive “I” as just that – a weird mental phenomena we evolved to weave everything we’re aware of into a coherent narrative. It’s possible to examine and challenge our sense of Executive “I” through practice and let go of our belief in its inherent reality. This is what we mean by awakening to the “emptiness” of self – specifically, awakening to the fact that there is nothing behind our sense of Executive “I.” This insight is very liberating, because obsessive self-centeredness no longer makes sense, and we’re freed from the compelling narratives about “I, me, and mine” that usually rule our lives and cause dukkha. When we’re able to let go of our belief in an Executive “I,” we can wholeheartedly create and enact agendas that we’ve skillfully chosen as a bodhisattva, without getting attached to the results or agonizing over how all of it relates to us.

Conclusions about the Six Aspects

In conclusion, let’s review the six aspects of self and how they relate to our practice:

  1. Individuality – The fundamental unit of life, not a problem as long as we act morally and compassionately
  2. Awareness – A lovely and necessary component of life
  3. Personal Interest – A natural part of being an aware individual, manifesting as attraction, aversion, or indifference, and not a problem in and of itself
  4. Being-Consciousness – Consciousness of being an individual who persists through time, a capacity that makes the fifth and sixth aspects of self possible
  5. Our Agenda – Plans we make to achieve the things we want, whether our goals are selfish or selfless, shallow or profound, including the intention to do spiritual practice
  6. Belief in an Executive “I” – A delusive belief that there is an inherently-existing, enduring “I” which possesses and directs the other aspects of self. Recognizing our sense of Executive “I” is just a mental phenomenon is key to spiritual liberation.

Fortunately, belief in an Executive “I” is not an all-or-nothing thing. Our belief can be extremely strong, even fanatical, or it can soften over time. We may reach a point where we strongly suspect our sense of Executive “I” is a delusion – to the point that we don’t trust it much anymore – but we still doubt that we can do entirely without it. I like to call this a spectrum from “more self” to “less self,” or “lighter self.”

One way to work on challenging your belief in an Executive “I” is to work on disidentifying with your agendas. Again, it’s not that plans are inherently bad, but when we’re attached to them, it’s inevitable because we perceive them as important to the well-being of the “I.”

Hopefully I’ve given you something to ponder with this deconstruction of the self!



[i] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/self

[ii] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/being


Picture Credit

Image by makieni777 from Pixabay


212 - The Wisdom of Play
219 - Being the Only Buddhist in Your Family – Part 1