Thinking, Self, and Reality

The book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, implies our predominantly irrational tendencies. Kahneman's "remembered self" and "experiencing self" are contrasted in his later experiments in assessing happiness. The remembered self wins; in fact the experienced self is not remembered even though it is more closely related to reality and experience. Subsequent brain-scanning experiments have shown that when subjects are absorbed in an experience, like watching an absorbing TV drama, the parts of the brain associated with self-consciousness are not merely quiet, they’re actually shut down (“inhibited”) by the rest of the brain. The self seems simply to disappear.

Other psychological experiments demonstrate a sharp distinction between personalities types; happy outgoing personalities tend to be optimistic to the point of being unrealistic, depressed personalities tend to be more realistic or accurate. What is remembered and repeated is shaded, memories of optimists tend to be rosy, while the depressives tend to grey. Optimistic views are much more popular, so our shared "knowledge" may be rosier than is warranted. Kahneman calls this "pervasive optimistic bias", and relates it to his "planning fallacy"; e.g., most projects prove much more costly and take much longer than originally estimated and planned.

Most actions are immediate and intuitive, based on heuristics and unconscious factors, while more deliberate actions are rational consequences of both circumstances and of what we believe about ourselves, the remembered self. One's actions and speech reflect many conscious and unconscious biases. Kahneman wrote about our tendencies to act immediately with great confidence. albeit frequently wrongly. He notes "Nothing is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it".

Key points (from Kahneman’s last chapter):

Ego and Self

In order to relieve neurotic problems and to enhance happiness, a psychologist may guide a patient in modifying his/her egocentric sense of "I". Scientists, particularly neurologists, know  "I, me, and mine" as constructs of the physiological brain that extends to the unconscious. There is no central core or "I", no controller, owner, or container of our experiences, instead everything and every being is interdependent, and each of us includes many feelings and thoughts that influence our actions, and decisions.

A waking remembered self is comparable to a remembered sleeping self, i.e., a remembered dream. When we first enter sleep, the mind rests, there is no Self and no dreams. But later we dream; we may experience ourselves in the dream as the central character, as one of many characters, or even as in watching a movie, absorbed in the dream but not personally involved. Dreams can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Similarly, in our waking experience we may be in any of a variety of moods, each with different degrees of "Self", or feelings of ownership or personal involvement in what is happening.

My theory now is that our sleep states are analogous to our waking states of consciousness, and ego. Our dreaming states are grounded in complete unconsciousness, deep sleep with no dream activity. Analogously, our waking states are grounded by fully awakened consciousness. Moods, desires, aversions, preferences and/or habits of thought lessen, shade and shadow just being awake. Desires, aversions and intentions are based on the remembered self, a construct of mind that may be shaded or tinted by what we would like the truth to be. We darken the truth when we plan, imagine, or remember Self in terms of our desires and attachments, and thereby diminish our ability to wholeheartedly be.

Humans, and probably all living beings, may consequently have two poles of experience, Unconscious and Awake, both without self-consciousness in the usual sense of that word. Our dreams and ordinary waking experiences are derived from and reflective of the polar opposites, complete unconsciousness and complete awakening. We associate permanent unconsciousness with death. Permanent complete awakening in some sense implies eternal life; albeit perhaps only in being liberated from our delusions of solidity and separateness as "myself" or "I", the controller, container or owner of the totality of Self.


Buddhism goes further, observing that there is no graspable "I" or Self; instead what is perceived as "I" changes. "Self-nature, while inconceivably wondrous, mysterious, and profound, is ungraspable and imperceptible." Actually Buddhism goes much further, "no self" is one of "three marks of exisitence", namely suffering, transience, and no self. Questions about life after death including future lifetimes are not addressed by Buddhism, although one Buddhist teacher, when asked "if there is no I, what is reincarnated?", famously answered "neuroses".

One can pay attention to diversions and personal desires at any moment, and even brush away the distraction of believing in something to be done, accomplished or attained. Instead simply be awake in ordinary mind here and now. Each individual life continues unto death of both the body and mind, but also unto the no-death of each individual's ongoing influences. While Buddha taught "no self" he also taught taking good care of oneself through practice, as well as through compassion for and appreciation of life, including one's changing ideas, beliefs, views, and circumstances.

Sitting meditation, shikantaza, has no personal bias, mood or ego. We disappear in sitting meditation, but what remains may be called awakened mindfulness, present presence, or big mind -- inclusive non-discerning awareness/consciousness. Considering zazen meditation, my zen teacher Kobun said "One must disappear in the sitting. That is the only way." One of Kobun's teachers, Suzuki Roshi, in "Zen Mind Beginner Mind" writes "when we sit we are nothing, we do not even realize what we are".

The experience of "just sitting" in zazen may be, in Kahneman's terms, "purely experiential". For that matter, "being here now", mindfully and wholeheartedly, may also be purely experiential. Remembering and considering the consequences and results of the activity, and considering next steps and alternatives, divert from wholehearted activity.