It didn’t always feel this way to be somebody. The boundaries of self were not always so clearly drawn; the borders between each person and the rest of the world were not always so well fortified. Before the modern era, most people did not believe they were in charge of their own lives or could decide for themselves about its meaning and purpose. Furthermore, it seems quite safe to say that, prior to just a few decades ago, virtually nobody held the notion that “you can be anyone you want to be in this lifetime.”
The concept of self—along with the innermost sense of what it feels like to be a person—has changed over time. A nomadic tribesman of 500 B.C., a medieval peasant woman, and a modern middle-class corporate employee all have very different ideas about their place in the cosmos, their self-importance, their personal freedom, and their relationships to the forces of nature and to other people. Who we think we are depends to a significant degree upon when and where we are born—upon which wave we ride in the river of biological and cultural evolution. We don’t create our self as much as the evolving idea of self creates us.
The Buddha taught that liberation grows out of the recognition that we are not self-created, independently-existing beings. One way to shatter that persistent illusion is to recognize how much of our personal identity is defined by the culture we are born into and, in turn, how much our cultural definitions are dependent on the evolution of consciousness. What each of us calls “I” or “me” is the result of multiple causes and conditions coming together—it is beyond individual choice or control. Even a cursory glance at the sources of our being will show us how interwoven we are with all of history and life.
The self that most of us now carry around inside—the modern Western self—has its own life story, which is our common biography. Perhaps more than any other quality, what distinguishes this modern Western self from that of other times and places is the feeling that we have of control over our lives. The belief that most of our decisions are freely made, independent of external conditions, forms the core of our concept of self.
Most premodern people did not have the sense of individual autonomy that we now hold. Instead, they felt themselves at the mercy of some anthropomorphized god or spirit. In his now-famous study The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes claims that in early Greek culture “the gods take the place of consciousness.” Jaynes cites passages from The Iliad that indicate that the Greeks who lived circa 1000 B.C. had “no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will.” Each individual heard the thought process as voices of the gods, an interpretation that today we would call schizophrenic. Even Agamemnon, the king of men, justified his behavior by saying, “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus…. Gods always have their way.”
Five hundred years later, a radically new self emerged in the Hellenic world, as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle heralded the apparent power of each individual to manipulate the contents of his or her own mind. It was no longer the gods’ voices that we heard inside our heads but our own instead. The assumption that people could think and reason for themselves began the separation of the individual from the gods as well as from the rest of the world and the cosmos. If any justification was required for this act of hubris, we could just say, “consciousness made us do it.”
Throughout most of human history, not only was one’s ultimate fate in the hands of the gods, but hardly anyone believed that he could choose the roles he would play in life. In most premodern cultures, an individual was born into a certain religion, social status, and geographic area—and that was that. There was no such thing as “upward mobility” and hardly any sideways or outward mobility.
We now seem to believe that we have almost complete choice over the circumstances of our lives. If challenged, however, many of us would admit that we aren’t really independent of nature, genes, culture, other people, even chance or fate. Yet most of us continue to live as though we were calling all the shots. Our belief in our own free choice is so deeply conditioned that we have barely enough freedom to disbelieve it.
This modern Western self that we carry with us can trace its ancestry back to both the Greek philosophers and their emphasis on the individual’s power of reason and to the early Christians with their focus on each individual’s soul and its separate damnation or salvation. Carrying these “memes” of antiquity, the thoroughly modern self was born during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, in the era known as the Enlightenment (poorly named according to most Buddhists). This modern self came alive and grew into maturity alongside democracy, capitalism and science.
A new type of human consciousness seemed to emerge, one with a greater mental facility than had existed ever before. The Enlightenment thinkers became so enamored of their newly discovered mental abilities that they declared themselves independent of the external world. They stole power away from God and placed it in human hands, and they took truth away from the church and gave it over to human reason and science. At least in theory, humanity—and by extension the individual—was freed from any outside authority or conditions.
With Enlightenment consciousness, individuals grew more and more identified with their own mind. The mind was the source and center of the personal self and was capable of knowing and controlling the external world. The new, all-powerful mind could determine its own truth, morality and satisfactions; therefore, it didn’t need the church, the king, the community or—if one felt really powerful—even God. It seems somewhat ironic that just as Enlightenment science was proving that the earth was not the center of the universe, Enlightenment philosophy was granting that exalted place to each individual.
Although the modern Western self went through its adolescence in Europe, it reached full maturity in America, the land of individualized license plates. According to Robert Bellah and his associates in their classic sociological study Habits of the Heart, the contemporary American identity has been shaped by two streams of thought, both focused on the individual—namely, utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism.
Utilitarian individualism is really the Protestant ethic, emphasizing the qualities of endurance, stoicism and self-reliance. (“Self-Reliance” is the title of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essay which spoke clearly to nineteenth-century Americans.) Expressive individualism, a legacy of the Romantic movement, placed great value on the unique and passionate soul which feels deeply and lets its feeling be known. The early American poet Walt Whitman, the champion of expressive individualism, began his famous book Leaves of Grass with “I celebrate myself.” That sentiment still echoes through the “me decades” of the late twentieth century and the New Age.
According to historian Warren Susman, an important shift in the American view of self took place in the later part of the nineteenth century. Susman studied the popular advice manuals of the time, which were distributed by physicians and preachers, and found that the defining quality of an individual began to change from “character” to “personality.” A person of character is a Northern European, Victorian-era ideal—he or she is mannered, moral, hard-working, self-sacrificing. In contrast, a personality is unique, flamboyant, interesting, attractive to others. To develop a personality is to learn how to stand out, to achieve social status regardless of one’s moral or utilitarian value. To have character was useful if you were trying to start a farm, found a new city, or settle the Wild West. A personality was important if you wanted to sell something.
With personality as the core of the self, the sense of individual freedom was further extended. People got the idea that they could create whole new identities, or at least build images or facsimiles of who they wanted to be. Suddenly it seemed possible to escape even the most basic dictates of nature and birth.
The self that lives in us at the close of the twentieth century has an extreme sense of its own autonomy and separateness. In the mirror of our culture and in the mirrors of our private bathrooms, we see only the individual which is, of course, a distorted image of reality. We think and act as though we are living disconnected from and independent of the external world, outside of any context or gestalt. Upon examination, we find that this sense of selfhood is a kind of delusional state, a bizarre form of schizophrenia in which we label all the different voices in our heads as “I” or “mine.” Believing they all belong to us is as far-fetched as believing they all belong to God.
The self we carry inside us is a phenomena of nature. We can’t blame it on Saint Augustine, Descartes, Adam Smith, Emerson, Whitman or anybody else. Besides, with all its faults, this modern self has brought with it the development of social and political freedoms as well as great material comforts—it’s the old Faustian bargain. And very few of us would trade places with a medieval peasant, even if it meant having a deep feeling of interconnection with the world, because it would be a medieval peasant’s world we were interconnected with.
In spite of the blessings, it is growing increasingly obvious that the modern self is somehow out of balance. As psychologist Philip Cushman writes in his book Constructing the Self, Constructing America, “Modern individualism seems to be producing a way of life that is neither individually nor socially viable.” Our separation from the world has grown too great, and as a result both we and the world are suffering.
The Buddha’s teachings of nonself offer both relief from and a corrective to our civilization’s extremes of selfhood. Perhaps that is why those teachings appeal to so many people in the Western world today. Perhaps the growing popularity of meditation practices is a sign that the evolving self is now seeking a new equilibrium, a middle way. It just might be that we have become masterful enough to see through our own hubris and are coming to a more sane and satisfying understanding of who we are in the world. Maybe the modern self is just now coming unstuck as it makes its way, as Ken Wilber writes, “…from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious, on the way to its own shocking recognition, utterly one with the radiant All, and we awaken as that oneness.”