My journey from churched to churchlessness pretty much can be summed up in this fashion:
I used to believe that I had (or was) a distinct, unified, immaterial soul or self. Now, I rejoice in the understanding that there's no non-physical "pearl" of Me; I'm a collection of material stuff just like everything else in the universe is.
Julian Baggini says this in his terrific book, The Ego Trick: What Does It Mean to Be You?
A cart is not an illusion just because it has no existence other than by the correct arrangement of its parts. The only thing that doesn't exist is an object which is somehow independent of its parts. In the same way, the self clearly exists, it is just not a thing independent of its constituent parts.
I borrowed the "pearl" imagery from Baggini, who contrasts this with the more accurate notion of a "bundle" in explaining the nature of the self.
Image courtesy of MyPoolSigns.com
This, of course, is very much in line with the essence of Buddhist philosophy.
Baggini just bases his view of the self on solid neuroscientific and psychological evidence, whereas Buddhism is prone to mix valid semi-scientific insights with metaphysical speculation. Buddhism and Baggini agree, though, on the ever-changing, dynamic, relational, interconnected nature of what we call "self."
Here's a good summary from Baggini.
To put it another way, the self is a construction of the mind, one flexible enough to withstand constant renovation, partial demolition and reconstruction, but one that can be brought down if the foundations are undermined.
The idea of the self as a construction is one that many want to resist, because it seems to imply that it is not real. But of course constructions can be perfectly real. It is important to distinguish between "mere constructs," which exist solely as ideas, and real constructions, which we pick up, use and live in.
The "average American family" is a mere construct, but the house at 127 Acacia Avenue is a real construction.
There's much beauty in this bundle understanding of the self. More so, really, than in the religiously-based pearl conception of an enduring soul or self.
And this isn't only because almost all of the demonstrable evidence, both experiential and scientific, testifies to the truth of the bundle theory (truth is more beautiful than falsity).
There's something inherently appealing about perceiving myself as a humble interrelated part of the whole that is our universe, rather than a lofty independent bit of being whose genuine home lies in a separate supernatural realm.
This is tough stuff to talk about. Hard to express even to myself; harder still to convey in words to someone else.
My main point is this: sometimes commenters on my blog posts accuse me of giving up on the spiritual search. That's absurd. I've been looking for truth my entire life. (As have we all, right?)
After about forty years of believing that through meditation and other means it was possible to cast off crude layers of materiality -- body and mind, basically -- and reveal the pristine pearl of the soul that was my genuine immaterial self, I realized this conception was almost certainly wrong.
I'm nothing special. I'm not separate from everything else in the universe. I'm transitory, not eternal. A complex collection of physical parts and processes, not a pure pristine blob of godly something or other.
I can relax. Let go. Let be. There's no mystery of self or soul to reveal, no journey back to heaven to fret about, no worries about salvation or sinning.
I've talked about this before in several previous posts about Baggini's book. Probably will again. Like his subtitle says, What does it mean to be you? is an all-important question. See: