A metaphor for the self

The Buddhist Writings say that there is no individual self which is gaining, or achieving; only a combination of elements with a certain appearance, from which stem actions and results. These results propagate through the world of being, according to their efficacy, conducing either to its betterment or its detriment. They endure in the sense that friends and progeny will continue to play out the thought forms and actions that were begun by the original doer.

The doer, however, is not a concrete entity with his own existence per se. Rather, he is a “recognized” entity, just as a table is recognized by having four legs, and a tripod by having three. The reality of the table is in its substance and appearance, whereas the concept “table” is applied afterward, and serves only the role of nomenclature. By naming it a table, this does not create a “table essence”, just as by naming myself “John” I do not create an ego essence. “John” is a term applied to an aggregate, evolving pattern of arms, legs, ideas, and words, which (who) generates actions that result in an impact on the world.

This confluence of diverse elements which have cohered under the title of a “person”, strives toward perfection. If the idea of perfection is misunderstood, the progression will be downward; if it is properly understood, it will tend upward. The choices that it makes in this progression are the very choices that produce the actions and results which propagate and endure according to their nature.

But name does not convey essence. If an individual is a pattern of motives and constituents, and this pattern moves in a collective form – each part consulting with the other parts continuously – the result is a coherent pattern that can be distinguished from its background. The distinguished element is given a name, as happens with most things that can be differentiated from their environment. But a confusion arises when this aggregate of non-essential elements is misconstrued as having an essential reality solely because of its apparent cohesiveness.

What is the self then? Perhaps the self is like naming a cloud formation, and then becoming attached to it and fighting for its continuation in a particular form. No energy is ever lost in the Universe, and the water particles that make up a cloud are extremely difficult to destroy (atomically speaking). So there is no reason to fear a destruction of the essential reality of the cloud. But if it is the form or shape of a cloud that we are attached to, this is a thing extremely liable to change, and nearly impossible to preserve for anything longer than a short time.

And yet, the cloud is not non-existent: it is made up of a substance. Form is impossible without substance. So perhaps it is that this substance is our reality. While the outward form is changeable and evanescent, the inward element of which it is constructed is not so likely to change.

Man displays two categories of attributes from which one could deduce a substance. The first category is material appearance, and concerns the things he is made up of, and the particular actions he performs. These things could be classed as the elements perceivable to an animal, and hence belong to the animal kingdom (such as weight, color, shape, etc).

The second category concerns attributes which man partakes of alone, and experiences independently of the animals, such as honor, truthfulness, glory and beauty. Through right motivations we can express these using the medium of our actions. But through wrong motivations, everyone knows that an honorable act with a dishonorable heart is far from virtue.

Paired with our physical form there is a mental/emotional form that is constantly changing in configuration, and which might be called the “psychological self” – apart from the “self” that is our physical self. This psychological self also evolves, and constitutes patterns that are constantly changing toward perfection. If we imagine that this inward self is also unreal, and only a nominal description of an aggregate pattern of tendencies and strivings, then in order for it to exist it must also be formed from an essential substance which is real and does not disintegrate or change. This would be the “soul” of man, in the same way that water vapor could be called the “soul” of a cloud.

Imagining further a sky populated by unique cloud souls, distinguished by the particular water molecules that make up their form. While these may change form and achieve a lesser or higher degree in the sky, they are never destroyed. Through change, they may acquire a beautiful shape, or they may fall to the earth and have to endure many days in the soil before being taken up into the sky again to assume other forms. In this metaphor, there is a substantial reality, and even distinct, perdurable essences, but no self or permanent “image”.

Imagine as another example the life-cycle of a particular atom. It begins independently, existing as hydrogen in the vacuum of space. Then it may fall to Earth and become bonded with oxygen to form water. If this water is pure, it may be used by a plant to build up part of its cell wall. If this cell is healthy, an animal may consume it for food. If the animal finds the cell salutary, it will include it in its tissues. If the animal is in good condition, a man may slaughter it for a meal. If the flesh agrees with the man’s bodily needs, he may make it part of his own frame. If useful, the body may take it up into the nervous system, to aid in the functioning of the brain. This service might facilitate in the generation of a noble thought, and better the virtue of the man. The man may then extend his hand in service to humanity, and thereby win his way into paradise.

Otherwise, the atom might never have been attracted by the gravity of the Earth, and remained alone and desolate in the wastes of space; or at each step it might have fallen into a lesser condition of existence, and not been deemed worthy of becoming part of a higher reality. In both situations, however, although the “name”, the “form” and the “station” of the atom may have continued to change such that its “personality” at each stage was entirely unrelated to its original condition, yet it’s essential reality as an atom of hydrogen – single, indivisible, indestructible according to physical laws – was never altered or diminished. What changed was the role it had, and the part it played in effecting a transformation toward Godly attributes in the world in which it was a participant.

Had the atom choice, and if its choice had led it toward becoming a servant to the man’s reality, one might say that it had achieved a certain perfection. Imagine further that it were made cognizant of the benefits imparted by that participation, and in a sense received the blessings of the man’s activity, even though far too lowly – according ot its own reality – to be called responsible for them. What joy there would be for that atom! But if the atom’s choices had led it to become a sickness to the plant or animal, it would have ended in the dust, to be trampled down by a world not made any better by the atom’s efforts, and which perhaps it might have aided had it only willed to do so. Where is the plant now to absorb that atom into its tissues? Where is the animal that would consider eating dust? When will a man walk by who is willing to place dirt in his mouth? Until, by the grace of God, some reconfiguration of the world occurs by which the atom is given another chance to continue upward in the cycle of life, it will be forced to endure and suffer according to its own unwillingness to obey: powerless to move itself from its lowly condition.

Like a drop which becomes part of the ocean, and is not destroyed but can never be found again; perhaps in this way were are meant to dissolve ourselves into the arms of the Beloved. Man is like a leaf which has blown from the Tree of Life, cast about by the tempestuous winds. Perhaps his only hope is to yield himself to the soil, submissive, lowly, there to be consumed and disintegrated. And thus shorn of self and reduced to his true elements, he may finally be reclaimed by the Tree who bore him. In this there is no destruction evident, only transformation toward the goal of nearness.

A drop of water is the best source of analogy I’ve found: A drop is made of the essence of water, which exists within the ocean. This essence, no matter how dissolved the drop might ever become, is never destroyed. When the drop leaves the ocean, it acquires independent form, but nonetheless its reality as a drop of water is unchanged by this separation. Should it rejoin the ocean, it will give up its momentary independence, but its essence will remain as it has always been. For the drop, there are a million questions to be asked: size, shape, location, etc.; but for the water, there is only one: is it near or far from the Source of its Being.

So, there is a “self” which is the separate drop, and then there is the God-created self, or soul, which is the water that constitutes the drop. Sartre and Krishnamurti, I believe, are referring to the former definition when they say that the self does not exist (i.e., it has apparent form only, not essence). As `Attár writes:

In ceasing to exist separately it retains its beauty. It exists and non-exists. How can this be? The mind cannot conceive it.

This second view of self-which-is-not-self is what allows the Bahá’í teachings about the soul to agree with the Buddhist teachings that there is no self at all. I am including an essay below, written a little while ago, that further investigates this theme.

Despite all this, our seeming “essence” is still contingent, a borrowed existence that derives its being from the One Source. “self” is a mirage, while self is the real image; and yet, without the constant shining of the Light, even that image would cease to exist. If we become like moths, we will care only about the Light, and not the images it illumines or makes possible – and certainly not the shadows they seem to cast.

The thought of this station causes fear, and a struggle to reclaim a “foundation” for our being, since such selflessness implies an unwavering trust that in the midst of this absolute nothingness (for us), all is glorious (in Him). As long as we lay claim to any sort of being, I wonder how we can ever appreciate the true meaning of Being. And yes, God has granted us an eternal soul that we might forever know and worship Him; but even this does not truly exist on the uttermost planes of His being.

Were the eye of discernment to be opened, it would recognize that in this very state, they [the Manifestations of God] have considered themselves utterly effaced and non-existent in the face of Him Who is the All-Pervading, the Incorruptible. Methinks, they have regarded themselves as utter nothingness, and deemed their mention in that Court an act of blasphemy. For the slightest whispering of self, within such a Court, is an evidence of self-assertion and independent existence. In the eyes of them that have attained unto that Court, such a suggestion is itself a grievous transgression. How much more grievous would it be, were aught else to be mentioned in that Presence, were man’s heart, his tongue, his mind, or his soul, to be busied with anyone but the Well-Beloved, were his eyes to behold any countenance other than His beauty, were his ear to be inclined to any melody but His voice, and were his feet to tread any way but His way.1

When I think only of my own awareness (per se), I realize it has only one attribute: nearness or remoteness from God. Otherwise, even its seeming independence from others is simply a token of God’s limitless powers of creation, and a sign of His to be wondered at.


  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 180