The Curse of the Self

Many spiritual/psychological paths (especially Buddhism and Hinduism) claim the self makes us unhappy. They don’t deny the bare fact of our existence.  Rather, they claim that what we normally think of our “selves” are merely transient mental phenomena, and when we cling to them, we suffer.

It’s natural to wonder why this self is such a problem. If we take Buddhism’s focus on suffering as a starting point, we can try to work it out logically: We can infer that for “me” to suffer, there must be a “me” in the first place; therefore, removing “me” removes the necessary condition for suffering to occur and hence removes suffering.  Likewise, if one equates thwarted desire to suffering, one can use a similar argument on the self’s centrality with respect to desire.

Admittedly, this is a bit simplified, and I won’t discuss the feasibility or desirability of this approach.  Rather, I will invite those who want a more systematic, non-ideological, secular treatment of the problem to read The Curse of the Self.  This book goes into detail about what this “self” is, the many ways it hurts us, and ways of overcoming it.  I’m still reading it, but what I’ve read so far is enough to recommend it.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Curse of the Self

  1. Whenever I read about this concept, I’m struck by how similar it is to the Epicurean view of death. There will be no self, so death is nothing to us. Even if death is oblivion, we will never experience that oblivion because the self will be gone. (Of course, if there is an afterlife, then all bets are off.)

    But I’ve never been able to see it as a desirable state to achieve before death. Yes, you’d be able to avoid feeling troubled about the self and its related desires, but it seems like you’d also give up the pleasures that come with that sense of self, like enjoying a good meal and knowing that you’re enjoying it. Maybe if I had a life where those things weren’t available (similar to what life was probably like for the earliest Buddhists), the idea might hold more appeal.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I agree with the Epicurean view of death, but I’d replace “self” with “consciousness”. In my post and the book, the “self” is one’s self-image rather than the bare fact of existence/experience.

      Therefore, eliminating/reducing the “self” would not eliminate joy or even all pain. Rather, it would reduce a certain kind of pain, a psychological pain that makes up the bulk of our pain.

      For instance, if I stub my toe, I feel physical pain. But I also may get angry at myself, feel foolish and so on. That’s the pain of the self. Or take an insult; the pain I feel is the pain of my self-image being challenged, and so on.

      1. Thanks for responding!

        That description seems very close to what other traditions call pride. But more broadly, I think I see what you mean. Our sense of self gives us a template for how we think things should be, and when actual things don’t match that template, we perceive suffering, when if we only took the actual thing on its own terms, we might be fine, or our suffering might be greatly diminished. If I see a small and large piece of cake, but am only offered the small piece, I might feel deprived of the large piece, where if I’d only seen the small piece to begin with, I might have been totally happy with the small piece.

        If that’s a good understanding, I totally agree with it.

  2. This issue is interesting.

    In my view the push to purge the self is Janus faced. On one hand the self may lead to great suffering as we agonize over the fact that we have failed in some aspect of our self-image. But, on the other hand this capacity for having a self-image seems to be bound up with much we find admirable. Someone who overcomes obstacles to meet their self-image presents us with something to aspire to in terms of determination and perseverance. Of course I know that you are not arguing for the purging of the self, but I just wanted to present some thoughts.

    1. In many cases it is paradoxical, and I wonder about cases in which one’s self-image is that of a “selfless” person, although even in the latter case that may be a healthier, more productive self-image than what we normally carry around.

      Maybe it’s more productive to think about not clinging to a self-image as opposed to purging it?

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