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The Illusion of the Self

The existence of a thing that we call ‘self’ has been discussed, investigated and argued about for more than two millennium. Philosophers, Buddhists, Christians, psychologists and biologists all have shared their thoughts and theories.

What the ‘self’ is and how an understanding of its influence can support you is intriguing. I am interested not only in the views of those aforementioned specialists, but also how I can use photography as a tool for self enquiry (pun intended!).

 

Photography and the self

It seems pertinent and practical to use an artistic process, in this case photography, to relate your inner world to the outer – using all those visual tools to communicate thoughts, ideas, feelings, concepts and sensations. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “A balance must be established between two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world we must communicate.” H. Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Photography creates an opportunity to visually represent the ideas of what and who you are. You can use the visual elements of design to convey emotion, you can make imaginative use of symbol or metaphor and you can create self portraits that convey something of your self, your world and your views on who you are.

My intrigue and interest in this topic has been kindled whilst cultivating a mindful approach to photography and life experiences. In developing my  Mindful Photography Online Course I have touched upon how mindfulness provides a doorway to self enquiry and an investigation into how the concept of self may just be an illusion. I have also explored those ideas I listed in the last paragraph to investigate how you can represent your world in photos. All of this has helped me personally and by sharing my experiences through the course it can help you.

I have in the past experienced a loss of self. A severe constriction of my breathing has left me unable to be anything beyond the next breath. Over many days I experienced feeling unmanned, adrift and disconnected. I lost a some sense of who or what I was. I found this deeply unsettling and it caused huge difficulties.

When my breathing rebalanced I felt reconnected. But the experience caused me to reflect. What was it that I lost? Was there something of an opportunity arising from the experience? I don’t have the answer for you, but I continue to explore this land through my photography and writing. Do you?

 

Research

I have continued reading around the topic and have also started listening to relevant Buddhist Dharma talks. The prose below is from a talk at Gaia House, Devon by Leela Sarti entitled ‘The Illusion of Self. Equanimity and Beyond’. I found it resonated with my experience and hinted positively at how dissolving the ego can make us whole. I hope you find it useful.

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken.

There is a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterred.

There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy.

And the fragility out of who’s depth emerges strength.

There is a hollow space to vast for words, through which we pass with each loss. Out of who’s darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sounds, who’s serrated edge cuts the heart, as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole.

Whilst learning to sing.

The Autobiographical Self

We have a strong sense that we are who we are. This is reinforced and explained by a series of ‘I am’ statements. I am Lee Aspland. I am 54 years old, I am a photographer. I am a husband, father, son, brother etc. Each statement provides further clarity and determination that we are an entity, that somewhere inside of us resides a self. An independent human being, separate and distinct from every other human being.

But as you take a closer look at those statements you will note that each one of them is subject to change. Through the passage of time each one of our ‘I am’ statements can dissolve. Our notion of who we are is created over time by place, circumstance and events. It is created and reinforced by memory to become this thing that is described as the ‘autobiographical self’

“What we sense as a “self” emerges from stimuli both from within and without our body through complex levels of neural integration. The integration of memory and self is not a one-time occurrence but involves lifelong development. The autobiography of self is the accumulated unique mental narrative that emerges from our experiencing and participating in the flow of events and interpersonal encounters that reach a level of awareness critically facilitated by emotional tone. Autobiographical memory plays an important role in the construction of personal identity. An individual’s construction of themselves through time serves the function of creating a coherent and largely favorable view of their present selves and circumstances.”
Barton J Blinder MD PhD

Me, selfies and the self

I created the photo in this post to represent this idea of an autobiographical self. Each individual photo represents me at a different age and in a different role. Attached to each photo is also a memory. Each memory is both reinforced and created by the photo. I may remember the time and place of the photograph, or I may have memories attached to that time and place, or I may only have memories of the photo itself, its existence freezing a self that no longer exists.

This process where we create our identity is reinforced by time. We imagine a strong web linking each moment from our lives, each event and circumstance further defining this notion of ourselves. Photography plays a key role in this process. Each portrait captures forever a momentary self. Each photograph supporting the memory and creating a narrative of our lives.

But the reality is that each moment is gone. The person I was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago is longer who I am now. Each moment is transitory, each aspect of our self is already fading as we think of it.

The idea that the self is a product of our consciousness, our mind, constantly created, adjusted and developed is one that is well explained by neurological theory. And yet we don’t want to let go of this notion of who we are: this individual self. And why should we?

The answer to that question underpins our raison d’être – our reason for being and fuels our interest in who we are and why we are here. It is the stuff of life and has been the motivation to explore the idea that the self is an illusion. If that is something that intrigues you there are a couple of resources below you might find of interest.

Interesting talk

Here is a link to an interesting talk by Leela Sarti that explores several of these themes. It is has a Buddhist philosophical perspective, but is very much rooted in our current world and life. The talk can be listened to on the website or downloaded and replaying at your leisure

The Illusion of Self, Equanimity and Beyond the Abyss

Two overviews of the Illusion of Self

A blog post by Sam Harris: Interview with Bruce Hood author of Self Illusion

A personal reclamation of the self by Steve Taylor