"Self" and "soul" are closely related. Both words point to the notion of something within us, or that is us, which stands apart from the world in a transcendent sense.
What I just wrote points to the absurdity of believing that it is possible or necessary to cultivate our self or soul.
If self/soul is something within us, then it isn't actually a core reality, since the us it is within encompasses a lesser self/soul. If self/soul is us, we're already that which we are, so nothing needs to be done.
By contrast Buddhism and Taoism, along with modern neuroscience and certain philosophies, say that our sense of self is an illusion, even though it seems real to us. So does a mirage, but that illusion can be dispelled by coming closer to it.
The problem with the self illusion is that it is tied into our sense of being someone who is aware of objects that are separate from our subjectivity. I wrote about this in a previous post about Jay Garfield's book, "Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self."
(First post about the book is here.)
Garfield speaks about the times our self illusion drops away in a chapter called Immersion -- Selfless spontaneity and skillful living. Some excerpts:
So far, we have been emphasizing the degree to which the illusion of self is natural and almost unavoidable. But this does not mean that we succumb to that illusion at every waking moment. There are times -- perhaps more than we realize -- when we don't represent ourselves as selves at all, when we spontaneously engage with the world in ways that implicate no sense of self.
And indeed, these may be the most pleasant and rewarding moments of our lives.
...In order to get our minds around the experience of selflessness, it is useful to recall the deep connection between the sense of self, the understanding of experience in terms of subject-object duality, and of action in terms of free agency.
To take ourselves to be selves, as we saw in chapter 1, is to take ourselves to be subjects with a very different mode of existence than that we assign to our objects. It is to regard ourselves as standing against the world rather than as being embedded in it. And it is to take our self-knowledge to be immediate, as opposed to the mediated knowledge we have of our objects.
Each of these modes of self-awareness is an aspect of subject-object duality, of taking experience to be a relation between these two entities of entirely different kinds. That polarity of subject and object in our experience is tantamount to the reification of a self. So, to the extent that we have experiences that are nondual in character, we are experiencing ourselves without positing a self.
We can make the same point about agency. To see ourselves as selves is to see ourselves as free agents acting upon the world, capable of agent causation that initiates actions on motives, actions whose causes lie entirely within us.
...This is how subject-object duality looks in the domain of action. In perceptual experience the subject is divorced from the world and located as a spectator of it. By analogy, in action the agent is divorced from the casual nexus and acts freely upon it.
Once again, then, to the extent that we experience ourselves as fully immersed, and not as freely initiating actions directed upon objects, our agency is nondual in character: we act without superimposing the self or the duality between self and other implicated by the sense of causally independent agency.
Garfield then relates the Taoist story of Butcher Ding. He was so skilled at cutting up an ox, his knife slices through the animal, dismembering it, without ever needing to be sharpened. Garfield says:
This reminds us of another aspect of the nonduality of our experience. We do not exist outside of our environment, perceiving it as subject, acting upon it as agent; we are nondually immersed in it, with no clear boundary between ourselves and everything else.
This tale might appear to be anti-intellectual, or to suggest a complete abandonment of self-awareness. But that would be to read it incorrectly. The Zhuangzi does not mean to say that in achieving spontaneity, or selflessness, one gives up entirely on the ability to think and to calculate.
As Ding says, "whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety..."
I think that this is the most important moment in this parable, although it is easy to overlook. Careful, calculating thought can also, the Zhuangzi suggests, be spontaneous, and can be conducted without positing a self.
We can become absorbed in thought, in solving a problem, or in a complex conversation or debate just as easily as we can become absorbed in carving an ox.
...We hence see that it is not the presence of explicit thought that distinguishes ego-involved experience from ego-less experience. Instead, this distinction reflects the degree of immersion in activity and so the degree to which explicit awareness of oneself as standing outside that activity is diminished.
...When we are completely immersed in activity -- whether the physical activity of carving an ox or the cognitive activity of thinking about how best to carve that ox -- our sense of self, and with it, the experience of the duality of subject and object in experience, vanish.
There is only the experience of a flow of activity.