I recently watched, and enjoyed, the Apple TV show 'Severance.' Now I know that psychological Sci-Fi thrillers may not be your cup of tea, but like all the best examples of the genre it chooses to ask some very interesting questions, in this case on the nature of 'self.'
Without giving away any spoilers (just in case it is your cup of tea) the premise of the show is that scientists have developed a brain implant that can switch on - or off - memories. By doing so people can partition their lives into two, where the memories from one 'life' are completely separated from the other. In the show, individuals choose to be 'severed' so that when they are at work they have a completely different set of memories to when they are outside. Thus the person while at work has no memories - or knowledge - of their outside life and, conversely, while going about their daily life they have no memories of what they did or experienced at work. The show thus asks questions about whether the two 'versions' of the individual are the same or different people, and also raises ethical questions of whether one 'version' can be abusing the other - even if they are physically the same person and entered into the situation voluntarily.
I won't go into more details about what transpires, but I think anyone who has read any Buddhist thinking will be immediately recognizing some of the core of what is being explored - specifically the relationship between our experience of memory, and our sense of 'self.'
Memory is a very powerful part of how we tend to see ourselves, and we intuitively feel that it is part of what makes up our 'self.' And yet memory is extremely complex and nuanced, with the ways our brains process and recall things being far from reliable. We all have to come to terms with the fact that our memories are fickle, and can be lost, distorted or fabricated. Memories fade, we misremember, we can even be lead to believe we experienced things that we did not. So while our memories my seem very dear to us, we cannot say that they define us. In fact, if we go through all the things that we might think do define us - such as our memories, our bodies, our minds, our plans, our hopes, our personalities, our values - we will find that not a single one, no matter how dear or how tied up to our sense of self, actually is our self.
This idea - that no matter how deeply we contemplate each of these things we will not identify them as self - is called 'anattā', usually translated as 'not-self.' We are taught (in e.g. The Ananda Sutta) that 'all phenomena are not-self.'
Now, there is a very common misconception here that what this is saying is that there is no self. This however is a misconception - if you read the short Ananda Sutta linked above you will see that the Buddha explicitly refused to say that there was no self. Instead, he emphasized the true insight, that all phenomena are not-self.
What does this mean? For us, it means that the things that we might cling to as being our 'self' - our bodies, memories, personalities - are not intrinsically 'self.' By beginning to weed out our attachment to these things we can start to experience liberation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in his essay No-self or Not-self?:
...the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?
So while these questions might make great fodder for Sci-Fi thrillers, for us we can use them as stepping-stones, identifying on each step one less thing we need to cling on to.
I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Self and Others.' When we do metta (loving-kindness) meditation one of the things we realize is that our natural separation of 'self' and 'other' is arbitrary - that drawing a line around 'me' is misleading and does not define 'self.' Please feel free to use this fully guided audio meditation in whatever way you feel helps you in your practice.
"No-self or Not-self?", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013,
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