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Losing the self-religion?


I have a Buddhist friend who spent a year in a monastery in India. He describes it as a life-changing experience, but says that in the end he had to leave because his awareness of the illusory nature of the self was becoming too frightening. He felt himself disintegrating. So he returned to civilization and its pleasures, of love, play, immersion in daily life.


Think of the implications of abandoning a personal outlook on the world. It isn’t psychologically possible to completely abandon it, but you can at least imagine what that would entail. To live in such deep truth would probably mean not feeling emotions anymore, because those grow out of the “personal” mode of experience. “You” would no longer be attached to things, to possessions or even personal desires. There would be a kind of overcoming of the separation between you and others; you would feel an identity with all living things. You’d achieve a profound equanimity, but on the other hand life would cease to be exciting and fun. Everything would be impersonal, which, to me, sounds like death or something like it. (Buddhism has a sort of anti-humanistic quality.)


I’m fond of romantic love, for example. But it’s disturbing to know that this person I love is just a social construction, that “she” is little but a mysterious psychological unity among memory-fragments and sense-perceptions and bodily states and desires a few of which periodically well up into consciousness. I have to ignore this fact, or rather push it to the back of my mind, in order really to live and to love. Luckily, that isn’t hard.


It’s worth pointing out, too, that, given people’s experience of self-unity, it does make sense to talk about things like integrity, selfhood, personality, etc. Despite their being “artificial constructions,” these concepts are meaningful in our merely human world. 

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