263 – No Self

Photographer: 919039361464473

Do you think of yourself as a “self”? What if we had no part of us that was an enduring self? How would that change how you acted in the world? Today I want to talk about the idea of how we would view the world different if there was no self.

Who Am “I”?

“It is not so much what happens to you as how you think about what happens.”

― Epictetus

“Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas.”


How do you think about yourself? Meaning, when you refer to the “I” that is you, what do you think of? I know for me, and a good number of people, we think of this “I”, the “me” part of us, as our core, as the pilot of our bodies and our consciousness. This is the “I” is also referred to as the ego, and we consider is a core part of our identity.

The reason that I’m talking about this idea is that this morning I stumbled on an article ( that claims that the self as most of us think about it does not exist. At first, I was skeptical, but as you well know, I’m always curious to take in other perspectives and if there is something useful that I can add to my world view. The author, Chris Niebauer is a neuropsychologist, and he does a pretty job of convincing me that there might not be a “self” in the way that we know it.

Thinking of the “I”, the pilot that is us the navigates us through the world is pretty consistent in the western world. But in the eastern world, in traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and others, they hold the idea that there is no self and that what we think of as the “I” or ego, doesn’t actually exist. The self is just an illusion. The self then is a phenomenon that happens because of the process of thinking. That without thinking, the self does not exist.

I think the best line in the article is when he says, “The self is more like a verb than a noun”, meaning that unless the mind is thinking there is no self. The self is a process, and only exists when thoughts are happening. As a side note, this might explain why we have around 60,000 thoughts a day, as the mind is in a constant cycle of reinforcing the self.

He points out that neuroscience has made tremendous progress in the last few decades as far as mapping out what parts of the brain handle which tasks. We know where the language centers are. We know which areas of the brain handle recognizing faces or the emotions of others, but there is no place in the brain where the “self” resides.

Split Brain

Niebauer also talks about different experiments and incidents that have happened throughout the last century have taught us much about brain is creating our sense of self on the fly, that it is not something that is permanent and fixed.

Where they made some real progress in this area was working with patients who had suffered from severe epilepsy. These patients had the corpus callosum, which is the communication layer between the two hemispheres, severed, so that they now live with what is called a “split brain”. In doing this, the patients no longer suffered from debilitating seizures, but their hemispheres no longer communicated properly. This allowed scientists to perform some fascinating experiments.

They would give instructions to the right side of the brain by showing them cards with instructions to just one eye. The right brain is the acting portion, and so when they would show them cards with actions such as “stand” or “laugh”, the patient would stand or laugh. But when they would ask them why they stood or laughed, the left brain, which is the “interpreter”, would answer the question. Since the left side had no knowledge that the original instruction that came the right side of their brain, it would try to explain things by using what information it did have, and would make something up in an effort to make sense of what was going on.


“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

— Marcus Aurelius

So what exactly does this mean? According to the author it means that there is no single self or pilot that is in control of us. The left hemisphere is constantly interpreting what it thinks is going on and gives meaning to it on the fly, which guides our actions. This interpreting process is what tells us in real time what we like or don’t like, if someone else is angry or sad. In other words, unless this interpreter is giving meaning to something, there is no self that is acting or piloting us.

The other part that was interesting to me, is that the left brain was wrong, but was convinced that it was right. Even those of us with normal brains will try to make sense out of what we are experiencing and come up with an explanation. We hold onto that explanation and believe it to be correct, but we can see through those experiments that it is just a perspective and not necessarily the truth.

For me as a software developer this idea of the self being a combination of thinking processes is easy to imagine. When you work on code in most modern languages, a program is not just some big monolithic file of code. It is usually built with different modules that handle different aspects of what the application needs. There’s the UI library that handles the visual elements and user interactions such as pushing a button, or clicking a checkbox. There are modules that help you make calls to external datasources. Each of these are combined and stitched together to create an application. There is no application unless all of these elements are working together and doing the things that they were designed to do.

This also reminds we of how memories work in the human mind. We know for example that memories are not something that are just held in our minds like videos stored on a hard drive. Our brains actually recreate our memories on the fly each time we recall them, so each time we remember an event, we are not watching something fixed, but we are recreating something slightly different. It’s like our brain has the basic story and tries to fill it in. This is why when people are asked about things in the past at various times, they may remember things that are generally the same but over time they begin to change into something that isn’t really all that close to the original event.

I Am Who I Think I Am

“I think, therefore I am who I think I am.”

— 2NU2

“There are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is perspective.”

— Marcus Aurelius

So why is this important? Why should we worry about whether there is a self or not? For me, it is an interesting way to think of the mind. It shows that the stoics were quite ahead of their time. If the self is really just a construct of our thinking, and that, according to stoics, our thinking is one of the things that we have control over, then we have a lot more control over who we are as a person than we thought we had.

In this view, the self is not some static unchanging entity sitting somewhere in our brain. We are a unique combination of ever changing thought processes and sensory inputs coming together at a specific moment in time. How we feel and think at any given moment in time is a combination of all of those elements, and therefore who we are is in a constant state change.

If we look at the self as a product of our thinking, then who we think we are and how we think about ourselves is very important. Our self image, who we imagine ourself to be is something that is up to us. It is not a static thing. It is something that is always changing and more malleable than we like to think. I think this is why we are often easily swayed by the opinions of others. If our self is a product of our thinking, if we let others have too much influence over how we think, they can influence how we think and thereby change who we are.

We Are What We Do

"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts."

— Marcus Aurelius

Because we are in a constant state of change, and the self is always in flux, it is important that we have tools to help us on a daily basis. Because the self is not just a static, fixed thing, we can’t just do something once and expect it to be a lasting change. It is something that needs constant attention. This is why mindfulness, practices, rituals, and habits that help us to think better are so important for us to implement. By thinking better, we become a better person. We create a better self.

The habits that we develop are thought patterns that have become engrained into a part of us to the point to where they are almost automatic. Therefore our habits are a part of our “self” as well. We are what we repeatedly do, which is why when we are able to understand the deeper thought patterns that drive our bad habits, it makes it easier to change them. Just trying to change a habit without understanding it is possible, but you are more likely to succeed when you understand why you have the habit.

If we think of the self as thought, then meditation an important way to get to know ourselves. If you are unaware of the thoughts that you have each and every day, then it’s really hard to know who you are. Therefore a daily meditation practice allows us to know what we think. The more we know what we think, the more we understand what makes us who we are.

As always, I’m going to recommend journalling as another way to get to know ourselves. If we hold this view that the self is nothing but thinking, then recording our thoughts is another way that we get to know ourselves. These podcast episodes are often an outgrowth of me just sitting down and writing about what I’m thinking in an effort to get to understand myself better. I’m also a strong proponent that clear writing leads to clear thinking, so the more time you spend writing and organizing your thoughts on the page, the better your thinking, and the better self you create.


The idea that there is no real “self” and that we are simply a product of our thinking is a fascinating perspective. Just as with other theories of consciousness, it’s hard to say whether it is correct, but for me, I think it is certainly a useful model. If our self is created by our thinking, then we have the opportunity to choose who we want to be, and by improving our thinking, we improve our “self”.

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Coffee Break stoicism Tranquility

143 – The Quality of Your Thoughts

The Quality of Your Thoughts


As human beings, we have an amazing gift – the ability to be conscious of our own thinking. How are you taking advantage of this gift? When we are unaware of the thoughts running through our head, we are relinquishing control of our mind to the old habits and patterns that we have created in our lives and letting ourselves run on autopilot.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius is teaching us here that when we spend our time on thoughts that don’t help us on our path to virtue, we are making ourselves unhappy. The stoics remind us over and over that we are in control of the thoughts we entertain and those thoughts lead to our choices, which lead to the outcomes of our lives.

From the moment we wake till the time we fall asleep, our minds are constantly churning through thoughts. Much of this thinking is just everyday thoughts to get through the day such as what to have for breakfast or what clothes to wear. Some are more life-changing such as whether to ask out that person we’re interested in, or what career options to pursue. But many of the thoughts we have are ones that go partly or even completely unnoticed, just buzzing in the background. Maybe we’re annoyed by a snarky comment from our partner earlier in the day. Maybe we’re worried about something we overheard from our co-workers gossiping. Often, we ruminate on thoughts about things we can’t control, and we don’t even notice it.

The thoughts we entertain are a key part of the process of creating the life we want. Our thoughts are what create our emotions around the events and people in our lives. They help create the impetus to action, and better actions lead to better results. When we use our reason, rather than our default reactions, we are able to find patterns of thinking that are not helpful and replace them with better patterns, that helps us to see the world from a more useful perspective.

And the reverse is true. When we make judgments and focus on thoughts about how crappy life is, then the kind of life we’re going to create is one of negativity and unhappiness. For example, if I sit and think about how someone has wronged me and they owe me an apology, or if I focus on something that happened that I think is unfair and I wish it would change, I’m focusing on things that I can’t control. I’m painting a picture of the world that is negative and one where I’m powerless.

How would using your ability to observe and notice what thoughts you are thinking, change your life? What kind of thought patterns could you change that aren’t serving you? When we slow down and take that time, we can see if the thoughts that we think benefit us, or if they are a hindrance. With more conscious awareness, we can make active choices, rather than simply letting our minds run amok.

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”


The first part of gaining some more control over our thinking is to limit distractions. We have so many things distracting us in our lives. We try to multitask at work with dozens of tabs open in our web browsers, and emails filling up our boxes, vying for our attention. We carry around a lethal weapon of mass distraction in our pockets. With our phones connected to everything on the planet at all times, it’s so easy to find ourselves perpetually entertained. How would your life change if, when you have a few minutes to yourself, rather than reaching for your phone you took the time to be bored, and to just sit and think?

As an example in my own life, for about two months I was playing a poker game on my phone. At first, it was fun, and a bit exciting as I played against an AI and got the feel for the game and improved my skill. I would get that little burst of dopamine every time I pulled off a great hand or a great bluff. But after a while, I began to notice that I was reaching for my phone and opening the game any time I had a few minutes to spare. Often, those few minutes would turn into 30 or 60 minutes to finish a game. I would play it when my partner was talking to me, giving her less than my full attention. I realized that it was not serving me, so I deleted it off my phone. Strangely, I felt some apprehension in doing so, and while I’m glad I did I noticed throughout the last week that I would reach from my phone and start to scroll to the game when I had some free moments. I would catch myself and instead open a book or just pause and think about how I had become a bit of an addict to that game.

The next part of gaining some control over our thinking is to be aware of our thinking. Meditation is all about this idea of being aware of the thoughts floating through your mind. I know that some people think that meditation is about clearing your mind, and while that is one form of meditation, the main purpose of meditation is about slowing down enough to be aware of your thoughts. When we can see our thoughts, we can look at them objectively, dispassionately, and we can ask ourselves, “How is focusing on this thought helping me a be a better person?”

When you do begin to notice your thinking, be careful not to judge yourself when you do think negatively. Just notice that it’s a thought you are having and that you have the option of what you want to do with it. You can just decide if that thought is one that serves you or doesn’t, but remember, it’s just a thought.

If sitting with your thoughts is hard for you, then sit down and write out your thoughts or, grab your phone start a voice memo and record your thoughts for a few minutes. Don’t worry about writing or saying the “right” things, just get them out as soon as they come into your head so that you can observe them later.  Once you have them out of your head, then you can start to see where you might be unconsciously focusing on things that aren’t serving you. You can decide to let them go. You can tell your brain, “I see those thoughts, and it’s okay to let those go.” No judgments, just observation.

Learning to improve the quality of your thinking is something that anyone can do. The more you can limit your distractions, slow down and notice your thinking, and use non-judgmental and reasoned thinking to focus on the thoughts that are useful, you clear much of the negative mental chatter. When you can quiet down the noise, you are able to train your mind to create thinking that helps you find inner peace, and stay more focus on the task at hand.

Coffee Break Tranquility

107 – Tranquility Within Your Realm

Tranquility Within Your Realm

“It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.”

― Marcus Aurelius


Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Coffee Break

101 – Mindless Pap

Mindless Pap

“Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest. It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.”

― Epictetus


Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash