In his The Alleged Nonexistence of the Self chapter, Wright offers some advice.
Continue to entertain the proposition you've probably been entertaining your whole life, that somewhere within you there's something that deserves the name I.
And don't feel like you're committing a felony-level violation of Buddhist dogma just because you think of yourself as being a self.
But be open to the radical possibility that your self, at the deepest level, is not at all what you've always thought of as it being.
If you followed the Buddha's guidance and abandoned the massive chunks of psychological landscape you've always thought of as belonging to you, you would undergo a breathtaking shift in what it means to be a human.
If you attained the state he's recommending, this would be very different from having a self in the sense in which you've always had one before.
Basically, what Wright means by this is that it's possible to look upon our emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and such as not being in the realm of good and bad, nor as being lasting parts of who we are.
Nothing lasts. Nothing stands alone. Everything changes. Everything is interdependent, connected to other things.
Think of yourself as having, in principle, the power to establish a different relationship with your feelings and thoughts and impulses and perceptions -- the power to disengage from some of them; the power to, in a sense, disown them, to define the bounds of your self in a way that excludes them.
Think of some degree of liberation being possible -- and don't worry about the fact that this would seem to imply that there's a self to be liberated. There are worse things than being a self that gets liberated.
One aspect of this liberation is being free of two illusions. Wright describes them clearly.
So, all told, we're under at least two kinds of illusions. One is about the nature of the conscious self, which we see as more in control of things than it actually is. The other illusion is about exactly what kind of people we are -- namely, capable and upstanding.
You might call these two misconceptions the illusion about our selves and the illusion about ourselves. They work in synergy.
The first illusion helps us convince the world that we are coherent, consistent actors: we don't do things for no reason, and the reasons we do them make sense; if our behaviors merit credit or blame, there is an inner us that deserves that credit or blame.
The second illusion convinces the world that what we deserve is credit, not blame; we're more ethical than the average person, and we're more productive than the average teammate. We have beneffectance.
[Defined as the way people naturally present themselves to the world, as beneficial and effective.]
In other words, if you were to build into the brain a component in charge of public relations, it would look something like the conscious self.
In the next chapter, The Mental Modules That Run Your Life, Wright shares this compelling passage.
Indeed, if there is something that qualifies as a constant amid the flux, something that really does endure, essentially unchanged, through time, that something is an illusion: the illusion that there is a CEO, a king, and that "I" -- the conscious I -- am it.
We saw in the previous chapter that this illusion makes sense in evolutionary terms. The conscious I is the I that speaks, the I that communicates with the world, so it gets access to perspectives whose purpose is to be shared with the world.
These perspectives include the sense that there is an executive self, and that it is a pretty damn effective and upstanding executive self at that!
Now, this might seem kind of depressing. I, and you, and everybody else, we wrongly believe that our conscious self is much more in control of what we do than is actually the case.
Plus, we wrongly believe that this illusory CEO or king/queeen is much more loving, effective, competent, and so on than it actually is. (Again, ignore the paradox of an illusion having qualities; this is just the way Buddhism puts things.)
I like what Wright is saying, though.
Because we think we're better people, a better self, than we truly are, most of us are harder on ourselves than we should be.
Mistakes, screw-ups, failures -- these challenge our sense of ourselves. We can't understand how someone so caring and competent could mess up so badly.
Well, this assumes that there's a caring and competent self inside our head. It's akin to a general taking responsibility for a battlefield defeat because he's in charge and should have known better than the failed strategy that his troops followed.
But what if there's no general, no CEO, no king, no one in charge? What if our brains are just highly complex entities with many different modules, or states, that come into play as different circumstances arise?
Then there would be little reason to engage in regret or recriminations for something poorly done.
We simply do the best we can with what evolution has given us. No one is in charge of our life, of all our doings. There's just things going on inside and outside our psyches.
Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it's ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show; rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show -- and in a sense, seizing control of the show.
If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I'm not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation.