A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.

— Albert Einstein

Mystics throughout the ages have told us that the self is an illusion and that it is in ‘ending the self’ that true freedom lies. Today, neurobiologists confirm that there is no ‘ghost in the machine’, and yet we have a very embodied experience of the world. We seem to be at the centre of all our experiences, and the sense of who we are seems visceral and real. Moreover, we exhibit fairly consistent patterns of behaviour over time. These patterns are so predictable that they seem to inform the images others hold of us and we hold of ourselves. The patterns and images put together give us a strong feeling that each of us is a unique personality. The most confounding experience is that of agency. We have a sense that there is ‘someone’ acting. Therefore we reward and punish people for their actions and motivate one another to act in particular ways. Our everyday experience rebels against the idea that there is no one at home.

On the other hand, the minute we ask a few difficult questions this certainty is shaken. Where exactly is the self located? Is there one central agency in the brain controlling all functions? Who am I, stripped of all roles, likes and dislikes?

How does one reconcile the biological sense of being a person with the unanswerable questions posed above? This article hopes to do so by exploring two aspects of our experience of the self: the autobiographical self and the biological self (terms borrowed from Antonio Damasio, see for example Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain).

The biological and autobiographical self

According to neurobiologists, the human brain is continually mapping the body, and this map is represented in the brain. We experience this as a coherent sense of where we are in our physical location and orientation, a sensitivity to changes in our body state, a clear sense of ownership of our bodies, an awareness of the boundaries of our body and also of the environment we find ourselves in. In other words, we have a very strong sense of being alive as a distinct organism. I would like to refer to this sense of being alive as a separate entity as the sense of having a ‘biological self’. It is likely that the biological self is brought into being afresh, from moment to moment. From this perspective it makes perfect sense that we experience the world as if we were at its centre and that we attribute experiences as happening to ‘me’.

What about the autobiographical self? Along with a sense of being alive, we also have a sense of being a person to whom the body belongs. The person has properties and attributes, which go well beyond the body. Every time we experience something, we experience it as happening not just to the biological entity, but also to this person. The experiences seem to build and contribute to an ‘autobiographical self’. In other words, this other sense of self carries with it a narrative and an autobiography. The autobiography is rich with experiences, ideas, images, evaluation, likes, dislikes, achievements and failures. Moreover, we experience other human beings as entities with autobiographies, and our narratives are deeply enmeshed with one another. From the time we are born till we die, not only are we continuously constructing our autobiographical selves through our own experiences, images and evaluations, but are also adding the experiences of our ancestors as well as the ideologies and beliefs we inherit from our culture. Our stories become part of, and feed into the larger narratives of, humankind.

Our brains come equipped with some special abilities which further add to the construction of the autobiographical self. For example, we can think and plan for the future and recall our past. We can map and model reality, and we have a very powerful imagination. All this creates an autobiographical self which seems to have an independent life, with the body as only one of its many attributes. Our narratives and the narratives of the people with whom we relate completely occupy us. How are the two selves related? One of the hardest problems in the study of consciousness is the question of how a biological organism can give rise to an autobiographical self. Perhaps we will never answer this question, but we can definitely observe that when the autobiographical self experiences something, it automatically leads to a change in our body state. Perceptions about the world and about ourselves change our body chemistry. And when we become aware of changes in our body state, these in turn impact the narrative of ourselves. This close interplay gives rise to our embodied sense of self.

Let us now look at the age-old question of who we are, from the perspective of the biological self and the autobiographical self.

Who am I?

It would be safe to say that we are biologically separate entities going through life and being conditioned and shaped by our experiences, storing these experiences to be retrieved when needed. What then of the autobiographical self? The main content of the autobiographical self is memories and images stored over time. While it seems, as we mentioned before, to take on a sense of independent existence, on close examination it seems to exist only by virtue of its content. Krishnamurti (Madras 1978) expresses this very powerfully:

So the nature, the inmost nature of the self, when you have gone through all the layers of the self, the essence, is nothing. You are nothing. On that nothingness, thought has imposed the superstructure of consciousness, consciousness being the content.W ithout the content there is no consciousness, the content being your religion, your particular god, your puja, your anxiety, your sorrow, your pain, your hate, your love. All that is the content of your consciousness, obviously... You understand what thought has done? You are absolutely nothing. All this superstructure has been built by thought, and thought is the response of registration. Do you see what thought has done?

On an earlier occasion (Saanen 1974) talking about the structure of the self, he says: And we make such an enormous fuss, such a struggle to maintain this structure. Would it then be far-fetched to say the autobiographical self is a mere construct, or to use Krishnamurti’s words, just a ‘bundle of memories’?

Daily life

The reader might wonder what this fine hair splitting about the self can possibly have to do with his or her daily life. I think everyone will agree that over the years our brains have stored a great deal of data about others, the world and ourselves. Let us look at this storing process for a moment. The first thing to note is that the data is not stored neutrally in the brain: on the contrary, it is stored with emotional content. So when we retrieve a particular piece of information, it also comes with these emotions.

The next thing to observe is that the storing process is notoriously erroneous. Memories are stored selectively, influenced by the emotional state we are in. They are highly subjective and can often be shaped and changed over time. Is all the content of the narrative false? Of course not; many of the things stored are factual, but stored in a very skewed and biased manner. The simplest way to test this is to have several people recall an event they all have undergone and watch the so-called ‘Rashomon effect’ unfurl. The difference in interpretation that each person has of the same event is often astonishing!

Every stimulus, whether it originates from outside ourselves or from our own internal cogitations, seems to trigger a change in our body state. Apparently, we are biologically programmed to evaluate each change in our body state, to check if it has moved away from equilibrium (homoeostasis) and act accordingly. So if we sense either a threat or a reward to the system, we respond accordingly. Our brains map the change in the body state, and we become conscious of the mapping through thoughts and feelings. We describe this stimulus as having happened to ‘me’. The minute the sense of ‘me’ arises, there is the potential to access the many layers of stored data about the ‘me’ that one has accumulated over time. Each response in turn conditions us and contributes to the content of the autobiographical self. So we are constantly responding to life from our conditioning. One of our basic assumptions is that this complex mechanism has given human beings an edge in meeting life. But has it? It definitely has helped us to come up with complex models of the universe, to control and manipulate our environment to an extent that no other species has done, and to produce all of art and culture. Yet, humans also create immense conflict and suffer enormously, both individually and globally. We have also, through our activities, brought life on the planet to the brink of extinction. What has gone wrong, and has it any connection with the autobiographical self?

It is not hard to see that the root cause of human conflict and our impact on society and the environment is a deep sense of alienation and separation. Perhaps this sense of separation arises because of our inability to recognize that events are only happening to a biological self and not to an autobiographical self. The biological self is, as we said, created from moment to moment, and its purpose is simply to become aware of what is happening to the organism at that moment. It is the autobiographical self that perpetuates the moment and creates a sense of continuity over space and time. We can think about and evaluate ourselves and our lives, or remember what someone has said or done to us in the past, or start worrying about the future. The visceral impact of the emotions generated by such thinking makes it appear that the autobiographical self is real and actual. In turn, this sense of things really happening to us makes us spend our lives trying to nurture and protect a ghost that does not exist.

Freedom from the self?

Is it possible to be free of the autobiographical self? The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger’s description of the problem in the introduction to his book Being No One is fascinating:

[N]o such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever was or had a self. All that ever existed were conscious self-models that could not be recognized as models. . .Y ou are such a system right now, as you read these sentences. Because you cannot recognize your self-model as a model, it is transparent: you look right through it. You don’t see it. But you see with it... This is not your fault. Evolution has made you this way.

Are we biologically doomed to have an autobiographical self, as the above passage seems to suggest? According to teachers like Krishnamurti, it is possible through an act of insight to see the self for what it is and be free of it and still live a highly functional and intelligent life. What about ordinary folks like us for whom insight does not seem to lurk around the corner?

It seems to me that we can come to the following understanding. If the biological self is being created from moment to moment and is necessary for our survival, it does not make sense for us to end it. What about the process of creating the autobiographical self? The paradox is that any attempt and the very desire to end it seems to add to its narrative and perpetuates it. What then are we left with? Plenty it seems! There is great scope to understand aspects of self-inquiry such as self-knowledge, ‘emptying the content of our consciousness’, living in the present and mindfulness. We can realize that events in the present are happening to a biological self and not to an autobiographical self, however real they appear. We can appreciate that learning about ourselves is not an additive process and, in fact, is about learning about our conditioning and how we respond from it. We can pay attention to how our narratives are being created, influencing our perceptions and relationships. Furthermore, we can become aware of the maya that the autobiographical self creates and not be caught in its web.