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The Illusion of Self

Each of us tends to think of him- or herself as a distinct being, a “self” that is both separate from other people and separate from our bodies and our perceptions, thoughts and feelings.


We consider our “selves” to be individual beings that live from one moment to the next, continually having mental experiences that we see as belonging to us.

Indeed, our assumption that we exist as distinct beings is so embedded in our psyches that it is almost inconceivable for us to seriously examine the notion that this perception of “self” could be false. After all, we remember certain events we had in our past which suggests a continuing consciousness that is aware of perceptions, emotions and thoughts that it considers to be “its own.” In addition it appears to us that we can at any moment become aware of our mental and emotional states by turning our focus inward. Not only can we desire something but we can also have the awareness of that desire; moreover we can remember our having that desire. Through such awareness and remembrance we come to assume that we are individual beings, separate selves that are distinguishable from our bodies and our mental states and from other people.

There have been, of course, many challenges to this “common sense” view. According to Gautama Buddha (d. c. 483 BCE), one’s emotions, perceptions and thoughts come and go, following one upon the other, and it is a mistake to ascribe them to a self. He taught that such a self is in fact an illusion and that the way to recognize this truth and free oneself from this illusion is to observe one’s experiences without identifying with them, without thinking of them as belonging to us. We ought to strive to be detached from our thoughts, perceptions and emotions. So, for example, when we experience anger, we should simply observe the state of anger as occurring in this moment, without identifying with the emotion and thinking of it as belonging to a self, i.e., us. In practicing this kind of non-identification with our mental and emotional experiences we may rid ourselves of the illusory self and experience reality.

David Hume (d. 1776 CE), the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, relied on reasoning from rigorous empirical observation of his inner experience to conclude that our notion of the self is an illusion. When he looked inward he could not find a separate entity above and in addition to his thoughts, perceptions, desires and passions. He wrote, “We are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement.”1

Some recent neurological studies support a similar view of self. According to these studies, our brain constructs a self in order to make sense of our rich mental life and to be able to adapt to new surroundings.2 There is no evidence to suggest that in reality there is any such thing as a self above and in addition to these mental episodes. These studies suggest that the self is nothing more than a collection of our thoughts and emotions at any given time.

Sufism also views the concept of self (nafs) as an illusion. It teaches that in order to reach the truth the Sufi has to become liberated from this illusion and once so liberated will no longer experience an individual self, leading to the annihilation of that self in the divine. There is a wonderful story about this in Attar’s Elahi Nameh:

Someone once asked Shibli (d. 946 CE) who first showed him the path to God. Shibli replied that he was guided by a dog that he once saw at the edge of a pond. The dog was very thirsty, but seeing its own face reflected in the water, thought that its reflection was another dog and was so afraid of this “dog” that it could not drink. Finally, no longer being able to endure its thirst, the dog suddenly jumped into the water, whereupon the other dog disappeared. Shibli continues, “Having learned from so clear an example, I knew for certain ‘I’ was the illusion before myself. I vanished from myself and so I propose a dog was my first guide upon the path.”

In Sufism the self (nafs) is real and at the same time illusory. It is real insofar as we perceive it, but it is illusory in the sense that our own perception of self does not correspond to something real. It is similar to our perception that a straight stick half immersed in water is bent. Our perception that the stick is bent is real. Yet the bend is an illusion; in reality the stick is straight. Many Sufis have likened our experience of self to our experience of a mirage in a desert. Rumi writes in his Masnavi:

Don’t become united with yourself at every moment, like a donkey stuck in the mud.
You see a mirage from a distance and you rush; you fall in love with your own discovery.

But unlike Buddhism, which sees liberation from self    in detachment and non-identification with the self, Sufism advocates an all-out war against it in order to be liberated from its illusory stronghold. Many great Sufis of the past practiced different methods to combat this self. Some chose asceticism, repeatedly denying the self what it desired; others followed the path of blame, behaving in a manner intended to cause other people to condemn them and thus denying their nafs any pride in respect and praise from others. Still other Sufis practiced the unconditional love of God, serving and loving others to rid themselves of the self ’s relentless demand for attention.

But one thing they have all recognised is that one cannot wage a war against the illusory self by him- or herself. The reason for this is simple: one can’t use the illusory self as a weapon to destroy itself, just as one can’t use a knife to cut itself. This is why for centuries Sufis have pointed to   the deceitful nature of the self, which cannot be trusted to do anything other than preserve itself. As Rumi says in his Masnavi:

If the self tells you to fast and pray,
It’s but a trickster, hatching a plot against you.

Thus, whatever method one uses, it must be prescribed by someone other than oneself, hence the importance of a guide to prescribe the right medicine to dispel the illusion of self.

There still remain, however, some fundamental questions about how one can lose the self and what exists beyond the self. How do we “realize” that our perception of self is an illusion, assuming that we are not convinced by Hume’s arguments based on introspection? By “realize” I mean a subjective perception or experience of the illusory nature of the self. This sort of realization is something that is made manifest to the individual in a manner different from an objective, scientific determination based on, for example, experiments in neuroscience.

Even more fundamentally, how do we know that what lies beyond the illusory self is “real”? The neurologists whose studies “prove” the illusory nature of the self do not claim that this insight alone actually frees one from the false perception that there is a self, nor do they assert that it leads one to any understanding or experience of the divine.

For most people, a conviction that there is a reality outside the self doesn’t come through intellectual argument or reasoning. It comes through moments of ecstatic experiences in the world when we encounter the sublime. In such moments, which may come about in meditation, through our experience of nature or painting, music, poetry and other forms of art, or “out of nowhere,” we feel as if we leave our selves behind and become part of a more profound and inclusive reality. Such experiences lead us to suspect that there is more to reality than the experience of our own selves. They also instill in us a sense of longing for the sublime, a desire to return to the state of unity, with no consciousness of self.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire, the other is to get it.” It is the human condition that one is never satisfied with his or her situation, always seeking new hopes and ideals. Yet, the satisfaction of one desire seems always to be followed by the arrival of new ones.

Perhaps the realization that one’s desires are infinite and one will never be in a position to satisfy them makes us realize that we are suffering from an illusion, the illusion of thinking that we can satisfy something that can never be satisfied. The longing we experience for a reality outside ourselves becomes even more intense once we truly comprehend the illusory nature of the self.

But what actually happens in a state beyond self is not so susceptible to being described in words. The reality of such an experience lies at the heart of all mystical traditions.

1 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, IV, VI.
2See, for example, Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2012.