This was initially written for my master’s in consciousness program, and has been edited for this post.
“self is a process, not a thing or an entity…. [It] is a process of “I-ing,” a process that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the I-ing process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing” (Thompson, 2015, pp. xxxi & 325).
The idea of ‘self as a process’ is that the present moment is the expression of self. In other words, ‘self’ is continually unfolding and enacting itself with each passing moment. The self may identify as the body, a set of memories, or with such things like a job title. We can see these identification patterns all throughout our society. Self is the notion of a constructed ‘I/me/mine’ entity. Nevertheless, this identification with memories and constructs of the ‘I/me/mine’ is not the true nature of self. Rather, self is a cyclical process that arises, continues, and collapses, only to emerge in another phase. Process refers to phasic changes for a dynamic system. The self is much less a static thing defined by fixed concepts, but rather an ever evolving process of expression, learning, and interactive relationships.
This paper will argue that instead of this constructed, contracted ‘I,’ self arises in each felt experience. It will communicate that self (or ‘I’) can be deconstructed to reveal that self is embodied and one with all in the cosmos. The self is placed in the larger cosmos via personal experiences, Buddhist teachings, and cognitive neuroscience. Theoretically and experientially, some of us may experience this as what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being. We inter-are with everything. The self continuously emerges as a process in an interactive relationship with the larger cosmos, alongside everything in that cosmos. I would like to stress the significance of this cosmic turn as it necessitates inter-being.
A Personal Tale
I can recall an instance from several years ago when insight of ‘I as a process’ came to me from my mindfulness meditation practice. I had been meditating in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Naht Hanh with senior dharma teacher, Peggy Rowe-Ward, regularly for about a year. Upon intuitively grasping the insight of impermanence (everything is constantly changing), I could not stop myself from running to Peggy to share the insight, to which she responded with a bemused “yes, of course.” I observed that thoughts, the cosmos, the cells that made up the body, and my constructed definition of self, were all constantly changing. The result of this insight led to a significant shift in mindset.
I realized that ‘I’ was capable of change, because everything is continuously in a process of shifting. Nothing is, was, or will be permanent. The freedom this brought was due to the container of Buddhist thought within which it arose. Otherwise, I may have fallen into the grasp of nihilism. Instead, there was an experience of learning relaxation and gratitude for the present because of its impermanence. The belief that I had an identity, with clear demarcations of what my identity was and was not, was relatively smoothly released. This release allowed for more flexibility around the construct of my identity. In other words, my self was a process.
We can see the process of how we tend to construct the self in meditation, like I shared in the personal tale above of my initial insight into the impermanent self. In slowing down the doing, via mindfulness, we can parse out the moments of perception, and hopefully spot the construct of the self. Modern neuroscience has some interesting input for this process as well.
The Buddhist Pali Abhidhamma literature precisely defines the perceptual process, which can illuminate our discussion on self. Lancaster (1997a) links the Abhidhamma with cognitive neuroscience through his creation of the ‘I-tag’ theory to illustrate how the “unified ‘I’” is a post-hoc construction which merely gives the illusion of unitary control” (p.6). He posits that it is only in the javana (translated as ‘running’) stage of perception in the Abhidhamma that the ‘I’ arises and access-consciousness (knowing that you see, for example) is experienced (please see Lancaster 1997b for more information on the other perceptual stages in the Abhidhamma). The ‘I’ gets involved to ‘tag’ the experience, “thereby ensuring reasonable coherence and continuity between successive constructions of the unified ‘I’” (pp.133-134). In other words, the self is undergoing a continuous process of emergence in every moment in time based on perceptual stimuli. In this emergence, it mistakenly forms the “stream of consciousness” (James, 1982 quoted in Thompson, 2015). This is like when we watch a movie. The images flip so rapidly that we get the illusory perception of continuous movement on the screen. The same happens with the self. The self arises rapidly in every moment of perception, creating an ‘I/me/mine’ scenario, and mistakingly perceives that the self is a continuous entity. Yet, the self that arises in this moment is not the same ‘I’ that arose in the past because each ‘I’ is contingent on the present.
Modern neuroscience research posits a feedforward sweep and recurrent processing for the perceptual process. First, the feedforward sweep rapidly updates the whole brain on a sensory input, which is argued to be an unconscious process (Lamme, 2018). Next, the feedforward sensorimotor transfer translates the newly acquired information into action. For example, what do we do when we see a glass about to fall off the table? We quickly catch it before we really know what happened. Then, recurrent processing broadens the network of interactions across brain regions and “grows in size and complexity, making responses of neurons in this network more and more interdependent” (p.3). Lamme states that phenomenal-consciousness (the experience of seeing, but not knowing that you see) arises in recurrent processing. Lamme uses the research methodology known as ‘backward masking’ (when a second sensory input blocks the awareness of the first input, thereby ‘masking it’ from access-consciousness) as evidence that the feedforward sweep is unconscious. However, Heleen Slagter’s research with experienced Vipassana meditators in the ‘attentional blink task’ contradicts this (quoted in Thompson, 2015). Slagter’s research shows that experienced meditators improved their performance on attention-demanding tasks, and held conscious awareness of multiple sensory inputs because of an ability to drop stimuli quickly and not have them ‘stick’ to awareness. If stimuli did not ‘stick,’ then there was access-consciousness of other stimuli. Therefore, I posit that Thompson (2015) supports the Abhidhamma literature that with trained meditative practice, some of us can become consciously aware earlier on in the perceptual process.
Therefore, I propose that with increased awareness of the perceptual process, we can thus increasingly be aware of the moments we generate our sense of self, and observe that it is a process. However, in my opinion, where we acquire access-consciousness of a stimulus is still up for discussion. Nonetheless, I do stand that meditative practice can widen the band of consciousness, thus making conscious that which was previously unconscious (or preconscious).
Another camp of those who look at the self and perceptual processes argue that self is illusory. Frankish (2016) makes an argument for the illusionists (as he calls them), writing that “introspection delivers a partial, distorted view of our experiences” (p.6). He connects this to the self as well, by arguing that our internal representations of ourselves and others leads us to project these representational properties, thereby assuming “stable, persisting selves” (p.5). The ‘self is illusory’ argument is somewhat in line with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching that the self is empty (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2012). I do acknowledge the problem of semantics and translating ideas between cultures (for more on this see Lancaster, 1997a). The similarity is that both refute the entity of self. However, they make different conclusions, which I will go into soon.
Before I do that, I wish to put forward the question of usefulness: How useful is it to look at the self as an illusion? If the ‘I’ is an illusion, then what follows is that living is senseless and meaningless — what I do does not matter nor how I am being. In other words, looking at the self as an illusion brings a nihilistic conclusion to life. Perhaps, this is what is real and true. Or, perhaps, it is more supportive to this process of living to make a different contextual choice by following the trajectory of Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s, along with Buddhism’s, conclusion on the self is that it is empty (2012). I reference Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary here on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra of Avalokiteshvara, ‘he’ being Avalokiteshvara. The question is: “Empty of what?” The answer provided is:
It is empty of a separate self. But, empty of a separate self means full of everything. […] Each can only inter-be with all the others. So he tells us that form is empty. Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.
Let me now attempt to bring this Buddhist teaching of no-self with Frankish’s (2016) illusionism. I would like to offer that the illusion is not of a self, but rather the illusion is of a separate self. We can understand the illusion of a separate self from a mystical perspective that the web of life connects all. We can additionally understand this from Thich Nhat Hanh’s powerful teaching of inter-being. Inter-being is the teaching that “one contains everything, and everything is just one” (2012). I contain my ancestors, the beliefs of my culture, the cloud, the rain, the sunshine, the dirt that grows my potatoes, and the caterpillar. So, the illusion is that the self is a separate construction, but not that the self is an illusion. The self is a construction, not an illusion, and these are two different perspectives (Thompson, 2015).
The academic discussions above mostly limit the self to the brain and the mind. As if, self is only something that can be analyzed through mental processes. I would argue that we are still placing too much emphasis on the ways of knowing that are rational and intellectual.
Furthermore, omitting the body, the intuition, the mythical, the mystical, and the interpersonal from self has horrible repercussions on Western culture, which is seeping into dominating the whole of humanity via globalization.
I believe that a perspective of a separate self has repercussions like ecosystem collapse and economic inequalities, because we are failing to realize our inter-being. We are overemphasizing the mental realm, and forgetting that the self is in a living body interconnected to other systems in the cosmos. As a caveat, this is my intuition; but I’m not alone with my suspicion as Kastrup (2018) supports this perspective with his argument that all “living organisms are dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness” (p.125). Additionally, James Lovelock makes an impassioned plea with the Gaia Theory (2006). Gaia Theory states that organisms, or selves as I would like to write, are interacting with one another and the larger environment of the planet to form a complex system that is self-regulating and self-sustaining for life. If we continue to theoretically separate ourselves from this complex system with our constructed notions of self, then we will annihilate most (if not all) of humanity along with much of the other dynamically complex systems on this planet.
Altered states of consciousness can provide a glimpse of the self that is different from the psychological notion of the self as being illusory and/or solely in the mind; thereby expanding the boundaries of the self (Barušs, 2012; Thompson, 2015). A personal experience of an altered state brought about by Hatha yogic practice, expanded the boundaries of the self to where I could kinaesthetically feel at one with my surroundings and the vibratory nature of life. I would say that this was an experience of inter-being with the cosmos. I agree with Presti (2017) that we should not dismiss altered states from our studies of consciousness and the self. Mystical experiences from altered states of consciousness are especially conducive to arriving at the paramount conclusion of inter-being (Combs & Krippner, 2003; Forman, 1998; Taylor & Egeto-Szabo, 2017; Yaden et al., 2017).
Embodying is putting self in the living body. We cannot examine self as only a construction through the lens of mind/brain consciousness such as the feedforward sweep, memory, and other neurological phenomenal, as we see from Frankish (2016) Lamme (2018), and Lancaster (1997a, 1997b). Rather, I believe it is more comprehensive to understand that the cognitive self is in a living body, rather than separate from it which is supported by Di Paolo and Thomson (2014), Fuchs (2017), Kyselo (2014), Thompson (2011, 2015), and Thompson & Stapleton (2008). Kyselo (2014) called this shift in cognitive science the embodied turn. A holistic view of placing the self in the body is phenomenologically necessary.
The enactive approach, as defined by Di Paolo and Thomson (2014), is a right step in this embodied turn. They argue that the body is a self-individuating, autonomous system. To elaborate more, the ‘I’ is not the body (Kyselo, 2014). Yet, “cognition depends constitutively on the living body” (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014, p.68). For example, cognition and emotion are identified as important for self-regulating processes in the embodied self (Thompson & Stapleton, 2008). This is not a reductionist approach of reducing the constituents of self and consciousness to its physical parts. The ‘I’ is intricately woven with the body, although it does not equate the body. This is different from the notion that many selves can reside in one body, like in multiple personality disorder, because those selves are still connected to a body (Stephens & Graham, 2017). Kyselo (2014) agrees that the ‘self is embodied,’ adding that it is increasingly accepted by academia.
Now, the next step is to look at the embodied self within the larger dynamic systems of the world, and the cosmos. Kyselo (2014) calls it the social turn to answer “the gap between individual and others” (p.2). Kyselo is careful to not simply state that the social environment is the context for the body and the self — i.e., the body-social problem — but that “an organism’s identity is ontologically relational and interactively constructed” (p.5). Just because the embodied self is its own self-individuating system, does not also entail its independence from other systems (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014).
In other words, we have a self that arises in each moment of consciousness, and this self is also arising in its interactions with the milieu.
There is a dynamic co-emergence of self and environment that is a reciprocal relationship —it is ‘participatory sense-making’ (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014; Thompson, 2011). The embodied self undergoes a process of sense-making as it interacts with and adapts to its milieu (Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014; Thompson & Stapleton, 2008). The self as process interacting with its milieu must not be reduced to terminology like ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ because these are reductionist assumptions about interactive, dynamic systems (Thompson & Stapleton, 2008). There is one further step that I would like to take here that I do not read the others as taking. This step is that the environment is all that is in the cosmos. We inter-are, to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s language, with everything that is.
So, our self is interactively constructed with all that is in the cosmos.
Our self does not merely emerge out of internal processes or interactions with other humans, but the self arises out of interactions with everything — the tree, the cloud, the hummingbird, the soil, the moon, Earth, our beloved, the mosquito, and the virus. I like to think of this as how electromagnetic fields interact with other electromagnetic fields, in a continuous act of influence in space and time.
I propose another term to refer to this turn: the cosmic turn. From the embodied turn to the social turn for cognitive science, we can also engage in the cosmic turn.
This finds support amongst new paradigm thinkers like Jacobs (2017), proponents of past-materialist perspectives like Beauregard et al. (2018), and philosophers of cosmic consciousness like Kastrup (2018).
The cosmic turn thus places the self in its rightful process in the cosmos. It is imperative that we transform the way we think of the self. We can conclusively move away from the ‘I’ as an unchanging entity. The self is a process that arises moment by moment due to internal and external processes with all that is. The cosmic turn increases the complexity of the self because it no longer looks at the self only from cognitive perspectives of the mind, and places the self holistically in the larger system of the cosmos. All of our processes are woven with the processes of the cosmos at a scale that is perhaps difficult to meta-cognize due to the complex nature of systems within systems.
We are running the risk of humanity’s extinction, to put it bluntly. Perhaps it is time to remember our rightful place in the universe. We are a part of a greater web that holds all that is. We must stop separating the self as process from the body, world, and cosmos. Old-growth trees being cut down in the Amazon impact the self in Canada in ways that I cannot even begin to fathom. We are in a holistic system, where interactions are continuously bringing the self into presence.
Furthermore, there is so much mysterious beauty with relaxing into the web of life that connects all and realizing that we are a process and in process with everything else in the cosmos.
We are not only in process with other persons; we are in process with all that is, both seen and unseen, both felt and unfelt. In this cosmic turn of process, we may lose track of the linearity of time as processes fold in and out of each other outside of direct causality. Taking the self as process in the cosmos outside of the dimensions of time and space is left as an idea for another exploration.
In summary, I hope that this paper bridges self as process to the larger dynamic system of the cosmos. There is no self, other than the illusory feeling that it is a constant one and that it is separate from its surroundings. The self is a process of continuously arising. It is not only embodied, but it is inter-connected to all that is. We must put the self in the body, the body in the world, and the world in the cosmos. If we fail to realize the complexity of how these processes inter-are, we fail on many fronts. We fail to understand our cosmic connection, our rightful place in nature, and perhaps the acknowledgement of how badly our species has run things amuck. It is imperative that we shift our worldview on the self and bring about a cosmic turn.
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