I saw that ordinary people believe they have a self and that everyone they meet has a self. They think of it as within the body. Because it is not like that, I have shown that the self is not there in the way it is thought to be. This is expedient means, the right medicine.
But that does not mean there is no self. What is the self? If something is true, is real, is constant, is a foundation of a nature that is unchanging, this can be called the self. For the sake of sentient beings, in all the truths I have taught, there is such a self.
-- Buddha, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra
There are two distinct versions of the Mahaparinirvana sutra, a fundamental text whose subject is the final days and sayings of the Buddha's life. The version in the early Buddhist Pali Canon, like other texts of that tradition, denies that there is any real self. The citation above is from the Mahayana Buddhist sutra (first two centuries CE) that offers a quite different view of human self. Are these two traditions of Buddhism actually disagreeing with each other? It depends on what we mean by "the self." And that is not just a subject for introspection. It has significant implications for how we see and interact with our world.
There is something universal and endearing in the drawings of very young children. These stick figures, box houses and animals and the relationships among them are also our first models of ourselves. They express our earliest understanding of who we are, without the rigidity of the conscious self that we acquire by about six years old, the age of reason.
Up to two years of age, an infant's brain operates mainly at the lowest EEG frequency delta waves of less than 4 cycles per second. From two to six years old, progressively more theta waves of 4-8 cycles/second become the norm. In adults, both these frequencies are characteristic of hypnotic trance. They are suggestible and programmable states, linked to the subconscious mind. Young children subconsciously model the information they need to survive and thrive in the home, in the process absorbing many of their parents' beliefs and behaviors.
We don't much employ the higher frequency beta waves of active, focused consciousness (over 12 cycles/second) until puberty. By that time we believe the emerging adolescent self is within our body. Sometimes we are painfully aware it might not actually "be there" in the way our peers seem to assume, but we're not usually aware of an alternative understanding.
Schooling does not often help. Rather than investigating what the self really is, and what brings it happiness, contemporary education has become a largely utilitarian project. It orients us outwardly to social competition for identity, job, consumer goods and a mate. It reduces the totality of the self to a narrowly-focused ego and social self.
Self-esteem vs self-destructiveness:
What about the key emotional factor of self-esteem? The Dalai Lama has remarked that our mother is our first guru. And the psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out that there is nothing more conducive to giving a child the experience of what love, joy and happiness are than being loved by a mother who loves herself. Indeed, self-acceptance and self-appreciation are the basis of self-esteem.
Neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen calls these qualities an internal pot of gold that good parents share with their offspring. What their fortunate children absorb is a lifetime capacity for empathy, resilience and love. Sadly, as everyone knows, there are other instances where the pot contains baser, or even toxic elements that become seeds of later self-destructiveness.
The ecological self:
The philosopher Arne Naess was a co-founder of Deep Ecology. He observed that people who are mature in their relationships can spontaneously identify with all living beings. He proposed that humans have an ecological self, which consists of that with which we identify. To take one pressing example, the Earth in all its splendor and biodiversity is now at risk of runaway global warming caused by our burning of fossil fuels. It will not be spared this devastating fate unless many of us realize and express strong identification with the whole community of life.
Naess believed that as we develop and mature through the fulfilment of our inherent potentialities, the self deepens and broadens. This process, which he termed self-realization, is not the one-dimensional, narcissistic fulfilment of ego trips. Genuine self-realization leads us to see ourselves in others. We take pleasure in their self-realization as well as our own. In fact, there is awareness that the self-realization of others is not separate from our own.
That understanding provides a much sounder basis than moral exhortation to help us accomplish something beautiful, resilient and environmentally sustainable. It has a special relevance for our response to the global ecological crisis, because both environmental science and ethics have (so far) failed to overturn the deceits of consumerism.
The consumer self:
When "self-realization" is misinterpreted as a lifetime of ego trips, we gulibly identify with the simulated realities of the media, and the consumer goods its advertisements promote. The weaker our intrinsic self-esteem, the more likely we are to develop what social psychologist Clive Hamilton calls a consumer self.
A transformation in the meaning of consumption from "meeting needs" to a way of "acquiring identity" has been going on for decades. Contemporary advertising builds up powerful symbolic associations between products and attractive psychological states. Compelling as they are, neither the products nor their associations provide any genuine identity or fulfillment.
At the core of the consumer self is a gnawing dissatisfaction that keeps it addicted to getting and spending. Economic growth, Hamilton points out, no longer creates happiness. Unhappiness sustains economic growth. The consumer self is a victim of corporate psychopathic fiction.
The universal Self:
What the Buddha calls the real, foundational and unchanging self in our beginning quotation above is termed the Self in Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta. For the Buddhist non-dual system of Dzogchen, the Self is a synonym for the Buddha-nature and the ground of all.
Gandhi, the great proponent of nonviolent social activism, saw no distinction between non-duality and social action: "I believe in advaita. I believe in the essential unity of all that lives -- What I want to achieve is self-realization, to see God face-to-face, to attain liberation. All my ventures in the political field are directed to this same end."
Ecological philosopher Thomas Berry extended this identification to the whole universe as "a communion of subjects, rather than a collection of objects." There is practical importance in such principles. They can sustain us as we work to replace the grandiose self-destructiveness of our civilization with a new ecological modesty and wisdom. Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the appropriate sense of proportion as follows: "It is false to say that humanity is the most excellent being in the universe. The most excellent being in the universe is the universe itself."