Jay L. Garfield is the Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Logic, and Buddhist Studies at Smith College and a visiting professor of Buddhist philosophy at Harvard Divinity School.
Below, Jay shares 5 key insights from his new book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self. Listen to the audio version—read by Jay himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The self is an illusion.
I’d like to begin with a little story from the 7th-century Indian philosopher, Chandrakirti. He tells the story of a man who is worried that a snake has taken up residence in the wall of his house. If you live in India, this is pretty dangerous because a lot of the snakes are poisonous. The man looks through the house, reassures himself that there’s no elephant there, and then he relaxes. Chandrakirti says, “What an idiot that guy is!”
What’s the point of the story? The snake is our self, and we often are convinced that that particular snake has taken up residence in our own homes—that we are ourselves. When we try to really figure out who we are, we might reject the idea that “I’m a body,” that “I’m a mind,” and so forth, but still that self, that snake, remains there.
It’s important to begin by identifying that delusion so that we can see how dangerous it is. I like to do that using a thought experiment: We could begin by imagining somebody else whose body we’d really like to have. I, for example, would like to have Usain Bolt’s body from a few years ago, just for about 9.4 seconds, because I’d love to know what it feels like to run that fast. The moment I form that desire, I’m telling myself that I do not identify my self with my body, because I think of myself as somebody who has a body, and who could have another body; I think of myself as the thing that owns my body. We can do the same thing with our minds—I’d really like to have Stephen Hawking’s mind when he was at his peak, because I’d love to be able to understand general relativity, gravitation, and all of that cool stuff.
The very fact that I can imagine that desire—not wanting to be Stephen Hawking or to be Usain Bolt, but to have their mind and body respectively—tells me that I don’t, deep down, think of myself as identical to my mind, but rather as the guy who has my mind, and could have had a better one. It’s that thing, the self, that stands behind mind and body—that has the mind, that has the body—that’s the target.
I think that that self has got to be an illusion. In fact, I think it’s a stupid idea, because after all, when you take your body and mind away and you ask what’s left, there’s nothing really there. It’s the idea of something that stands outside of the world—the pure subject that experiences the world and acts on the world, but is not in the world.
The 20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described that as thinking of ourselves as like the eye in the visual field—not in the field, but standing behind it. Similarly, when we think of ourselves as selves, we take ourselves out of the world. But we know that we’re just biological organisms in the world, so we know that that’s an illusion, even if it’s an illusion that evolution has wired us for.
“When you take your body and mind away and you ask what’s left, there’s nothing really there.”
2. We exist not as selves, but as persons.
A great way to get a handle on the difference between these two views is to think about the etymology of the word “person” in English. It comes from the word “persona,” which refers to a mask—and in particular, the mask that an actor would wear in the classical theater. “Persona” became a word for a role in the theater, and we still have that in the phrase dramatis personae when we look at a play. The personae are the roles, not the actors. Similarly, we can think of ourselves not as actors, but as roles.
Think, for instance, about the difference between the role of Hamlet and the many actors who have played Hamlet—Sir Laurence Olivier, Benedict Cumberbatch, and so forth. The fact that Benedict Cumberbatch played Hamlet does not make Hamlet a contemporary Englishman, nor does it make Benedict Cumberbatch a fictional character. It means that the role of Hamlet survives different particular players; it’s constituted by a story, by a fiction, by the conventions of the theater, by being played by many people.
That’s how we are. We are constituted by the social practices in which we engage, by the families in which we’re raised, and by the cultures in which we live. Just as Hamlet changes from Sir Laurence Olivier to Benedict Cumberbatch, we constantly change as we get older, as we learn, and as we engage in social interaction with others.
This is really cool, because it means that we’re not imprisoned as static, permanent selves that stand behind the world; we are beings in constant, open engagement with others. This facilitates a kind of spontaneity and better ethical engagement.
3. The no-self view has advantages for presence and spontaneity.
One of the dangerous things about the self illusion is that it leads us to thematize our experience in terms of subject-object duality. We think of ourselves as pure subjects and everything else as objects, and that really distorts life because it takes the entire world as existing as our object, and us as outside of the world. It forgets that we are actually part of the world; it forgets that when I perceive the world, I only do so through the world entering me through my sensory apparatus, through my cognition, and through my experience. In fact, I’m always part of the world, non-dually related to it, even though I’m constantly maybe superimposing a duality.
“To become really expert people, to lead virtuoso lives, we need to shed the self and recognize ourselves as persons—beings in constant, open, dynamic interaction with others and with our environment.”
The interesting point is that we don’t always superimpose subject-object duality, or thematize ourselves as transcendent subjects; there are times when we forget ourselves completely. Psychologists call these “flow states,” states when we simply forget ourselves in seamless, effortless engagement with the world. We find this in really expert performance—in great athletic performance, in musical performance, in dance, even when we’re engaged in a really great conversation with a friend, or observing objects of art, or lost in the contemplation of nature. We don’t really notice ourselves, and don’t thematize that duality.
Flow is a sign of expertise—it shows us that we’re able to do something spontaneously and without effort. When we’re in flow, we perform at our best and we’re happier, and it distinguishes a beginner or amateur from expert performance.
There’s a neat way to see this. If you think about the reasons for attending to ourselves and thematizing our experience in subject-object duality, that often works best when we’re acquiring a skill. If you’re teaching somebody to play a musical instrument or play a sport, you ask them to direct their attention to their bodies, to what they’re doing, and to their interaction with what’s around them. You stimulate subject-object duality, and that helps people get better.
But it turns out that if you ask experts to attend to themselves, to attend to their bodies, to pay attention to what they’re doing, that degrades their performance. That teaches us that subject-object duality is useful for learning, but we want to shed it when we get to expertise. That’s why I think that because the self underlies this idea of subject-object duality, in order to become really expert people, to lead virtuoso lives, we need to shed the self and recognize ourselves as persons—beings in constant, open, dynamic interaction with others and with our environment.
4. Getting rid of the self makes us more ethically open to the world.
The moment we distinguish self from everything else, the moment we superimpose subject-object duality on all of our interactions, we set the stage for moral egoism. If we are the only subject and everything else is object, that’s reason to take ourselves very, very seriously. It locates us at the center of our interactive social universe and at the center of our moral universe. It leads us to believe that we are somehow free from causality in that we simply act as independent, autonomous agents. It also leads us to treat others as though they are autonomous agents, and by doing that, we forget all the causal determinants of our behavior. We forget that what we do depends on what we believe, on what we intend, on what we see, and also on our emotional state and how we’re brought up.
“We forget that what we do depends on what we believe, on what we intend, on what we see, and also on our emotional state and how we’re brought up.”
That’s true of others around us, too. That can exaggerate our own sense of agency, leading to unjustified pride and egoism. It can also exaggerate our sense of others’ agency, leading us to blame people for things for which they really don’t deserve blame. This makes us more reactive and less responsive. It makes it impossible to cultivate genuine human connections. If we understand ourselves as persons, as ensemble actors in the same big play as everybody else, then we’re able to interact with others in a more selfless way, a way characterized by care, friendliness, a commitment to relieve their difficulties, a commitment to help others become happier as we become happier—with sympathetic joy, with the ability to take pleasure not only in our own achievements, but also in the achievements of others.
When we do that, we de-center ourselves. We take ourselves out of the center of the moral universe and recognize that we are simply one actor among many in the grand cast of the human world. That allows us to who engage with others in a kinder, gentler, more open way, and gives us a much more realistic view of exactly who we are and who others are.
5. Our lives are not autonomous, but are lived in ensemble improvisation.
I’ve been suggesting that we’re more like roles than we are like actors—that is, that we are kind of fictional beings, made up. But the words “fact” and “fiction,” in English, are actually cognate. A fact is something that’s made—we have the word “factory,” where we make things—and a fiction is something that’s been made up. These words in old English were very, very close, and they’ve only diverged more recently.
The important point here is that fictions create facts. The fiction of Hamlet creates the fact that Hamlet was a prince of Denmark, and not Ophelia. It creates the fact that Hamlet dies in the last scene. It creates the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s friends, and that fact leaks out of Shakespeare’s play and into Tom Stoppard’s.
Fictions do create facts. The grand fiction in which we participate creates the facts that we take most seriously in our lives. That also means that the fiction that we write is not a fiction that I author or that you author, but a fiction that all of us author together—a collectively authored improv fiction. That’s because we have evolved to be highly social beings, beings whose identity only emerges in interaction with others. We learn to be the social beings we are through our interactions with others, through the way our parents bring us up, through our childhood, and through our practice as adults. By understanding that we become who we are only among others, and that everybody with whom we interact has a hand in shaping us, just as we have a hand in shaping all of those with whom we interact, we can replace a sense of autonomy and isolation with a sense of fellowship and gratitude toward others.
To listen to the audio version read by author Jay Garfield, download the Next Big Idea App today: