For good reasons I don't believe in a human "self." Or a non-human self either. But this doesn't mean that I deny people exist.
This notion of no-self can be confusing.
To some, no-self implies oneness. Yet it is obvious that I am me and you are you. We have different bodies and different brains. There are connections between us, but we are distinct entities.
I've found it difficult to explain both to others and myself how the non-existence of a self is compatible with the existence of individual human beings.
Re-reading part of "Living As a River" today, I found that the author, Bodhipaksa (born Graeme Stephen), did a good job delineating the difference between a conventional self, and the sort of soulful entity that generally is viewed as our "self," especially by religious believers.
When we're talking about a conventional self, then, we mean one where the individual recognizes him or herself as an individual and acts in accordance with that recognition. In other words there is some degree of reflexive recognition and reflexive action.
...Our assumptions about our selves, however, transcend mere self-recognition. The understanding of the self against which the Buddha argued vigorously, and which many contemporary scientists and philosophers also dispute, is the notion of a self which is unchanging and separate.
We assume those qualities belong to the self, not so much as part of a thought-out philosophical standpoint arrived at after careful deliberation, but as an instinctual response. This response is at least partly based on the fear of acknowledging our existential situation as fragile and transitory creatures, but also based on a number of perceptual distortions that we'll examine shortly.
...If we identify certain attributes of the self as "essential," then it stands to reason that the core self must be something unchanging. After all, if something is essential, it must be permanent. Although this kind of thinking predominated at the time of the Buddha, he disagreed that there was an unchanging core to the self. Instead he saw the self as composed of a number of ever-changing processes.
...So in effect we own nothing, and therefore nothing that constitutes us can be seen as constituting a self. So this is the kind of self I do not believe in. I do believe I have a conventional self, which right now is busy typing words on a keyboard. I see my body and recognize it as me rather than you. I experience a flow of experience that is unique to me.
But what of anything beyond that? I do not believe that I -- or you, for that matter -- have a self that is permanent and separate. And when I talk about belief and non-belief I am not talking about "blind faith." I mean to say that my experience is that I do not have a self of this sort.
This also is the experience of neuroscientists who fail to find anything permanent about human consciousness/personality, whether we call this "soul" or any other word, that is separate and distinct from the goings-on of the brain.
Thus the self is, basically, the mind and body in action. The self is an ever-changing process, not a static thing. I wrote a blog post about Bodhipaksa's book called "Live as a river -- fluid, dynamic, interconnected." Here's some Bodhipaska quotes from that post.
...The self is, in a simile I'll return to frequently, like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be permanent? There's no borderline we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river begins.
...We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes.
...Consciousness is not an entity that sits within us, awaiting contact with the outside world; rather it's a series of activities that arise in dependence upon contact with the world.
...I will not be suggesting to you that you do not have a self. I will simply try to demonstrate that the self is not what you take it to be, and that it's our idea of having a definable self we must let go of.
...I'll suggest that we cease clinging to the idea of having a self so we can embrace a life that is spontaneous and flowing, like an athlete "in the zone," with a mind clear, focused, and non-grasping.
This morning, during my re-reading of Living as a River, I came across a passage that reminded me of a video I shared recently on my other blog. Bodhipaksa said:
Instead we find ourselves living attentively, spontaneously, and joyfully. Creativity wells up in us without conscious intervention. We know what to do and what to say without even knowing how we know. And we weave around life's obstacles joyfully, with, in the words of Montaigne, minds that are "universal, open, and ready for all things."
That's how I felt land paddling on my longboard at the Venice Beach (California) boardwalk last Saturday. I had to weave around a lot of obstacles -- people, bikes, medical marijuana salesmen, all kinds of things.
As noted above, mostly I didn't have time to consciously think about what direction I was heading or how fast I should go. I just flowed with my experience of the boardwalk.
Fun time. Life goes better with no-self. I only ran gently into one person, my wife, though I had some close calls -- as the video shows.