Buddhism and its relationship with identity, life narratives, and the Self (article)

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People argue and believe that a narrative is core to one’s identity, and without one there is no inherent meaning life, but what I find interesting is that in Buddhism, the very idea of a complete detachment from the self, the notion of having no self at all, is actually one of the highest forms of enlightenment there is.

To shed your own narrative and illusion of a self is almost the ultimate goal.

One criticism of this is that it falls easily into Zeno’s paradox; at what point does the “present” exist? In an hour? A minute? A second? The deeper you look the more the argument seems to fall apart, because if people believed in a disconnect from a past and future self, then they may find there is actually no present self at all. Perhaps that’s true.

But is that really a problem?

I believe that one can lead a perfectly moral and good life with barely a notion of having a Self, with little attachment with one’s past or future besides the one you would have with a particularly close friend you shared many experiences and lessons with.

I’ve actually viewed a lot of my life narratively for a long time. Growing up I wrote stories just to understand my life, in a way that’s almost textbook diachronic.

It surprised me that although I identified very strongly with a narrative life, that I may not fully agree with it after all.

It does seem that as much as a narrative can liberate oneself and provide meaning, context, and identity, it can also be terribly restrictive and egocentric.

If we are to view our lives in a literary fashion, we inherently define ourselves within our own definitions of literature. That may be different for everyone, but there must be an inherent sense of cohesion and consistency; that is why cognitive dissonance is so distressing to humans. And why it’s also a prominent cognitive bias — we often must lie to ourselves to maintain our own coherent narrative, rather than accept our contradictions, simply because our story must “make sense.”

Even if our view of a narrative is the most open minded, free view, there will still be restrictions — at the very least, the idea of a beginning, middle, end — a linear timeline, a progression. And for that to be the case there may always be memories we attribute more meaningfully because they follow such timeline more consistently, even if we consider every experience of ours to be important. There will always be ones we ascribe more significance to, or at least choose to focus more on in our narrative.

So what if one were to completely reinvent themselves overnight? Someone with a fully narrative sense of self may be suitably distressed, even in the sense of an identity crisis. On the other hand, another perspective may be to see that as natural, liberating even, because one need not pull a thread of narrative through time to arrive at the self.

Back to the notion of “a good life” though. Does a good life mean a happy life, or an ethical one? The ethical one may be easier to address, because a person who unsubscribes from narrative identity need not be inherently reckless, impulsive, or lack commitment or loyalty. The idea of an ethical, moral life can and often is tied to an identity of self, but this isn’t a prerequisite, as long as one is able to separate from one’s own ego.

If we take the idea of no self, that doesn’t inherently mean that you lose all sense of responsibility or connection to the goodness of the universe. You may not identify with a Self at all, but simply feel as if you are a part of the moving universe, and hold yourself as you would hold any life in this universe, as a force for good. You can feel responsible for the well-being of others, you can have best friends, partners, whilst still not believing that you need a bottom line ego to want the best for them simply because they are tied to your identity. Is it not enough to want the best for loved ones as they are as much a part of this universe as you are? And if you don’t exist as a past or future in your mind, do you necessarily absolve yourself of morality or do you feel an even stronger sense of it being fully grounded in the present and not constrained by an identity’s coherence and story?

The idea that you must identify with your past and future self lest you be a selfish, job quitting, family leaving reckless animal is a rather oversimplification of the idea of no self or an ever changing state that doesn’t identify with a story.

Why don’t you just quit your job then, if your future self isn’t even yourself? Well, aren’t humans capable of caring for more than themselves? Even if I don’t think “future me” exists, and that I myself (if I even exist in a present) will not experience the stress and financial downfall of that action, does that stop me from caring about the future poor soul who must struggle with unemployment and inability to pay next month’s rent?

Isn’t love just as honest when you connect with another human knowing that tomorrow, next week, in 10 years, you will be utterly different people, but will still vow to grow and change and become new again and again by each other’s sides anyways?

No self and no ego — or even an ever changing, never concrete one — is a difficult concept for anyone to embrace because of how naturally a human mind falls into narrative views of the self. Not that that is inherently worse, but it is reassuring to know that you do not need a linear story or attachment to any identity to be a content, ethical, and loving person.