The Big Idea: Drawing the Line between your Self and the World

By Welmoed van Ens

When someone asks you who you are, what do you answer? Do you tell them about your family, your friends? Do you tell them about your studies, or something you’re passionate about? Your age, your gender, where you were born? Probably.

Remember that the question we asked was “who are you”. Realize that most of the things we answered are things outside of you. Apparently we define ourselves by the people we relate to, the things we do, our position in space and time. Isn’t that a strange definition for something as personal as our Self?

Before we continue our investigation, I would like to introduce you to Sankara. Even though this Indian philosopher has been dead for over a thousand years, he still had a thing or two to say about how the Self, and his ideas are still relevant.  Sankara was no fan of defining our Self by external characteristics. He called this superimposition: when we take the attributes of one thing and stick them onto a different thing, forgetting that they are not actually the same. That would mean mistaking your relationships, grades, appearance, age and activities for essential parts of your Self.

“So… what’s so bad about that?” you may ask. The answer might at first sound a bit fluffy, especially to the non-humanities majors, so bear with me. It goes as follows: when you define what something is, you unintentionally define what it is not. If we say that our Self includes our friends and family, we exclude every other person on the planet. If we say that our self is our home country, our campus, our town, we exclude the rest of the world. By defining the being, we define the non-being.

“Great. So then how do I define the Self?” According to Sankara, you simply don’t! Your Self cannot be defined by things outside of you, nor is it your body or your mind. The only way to describe it, according to him, is as an experience, an awareness. You are aware of your thoughts, in the same way that you are aware of the taste of your dining hall panini, and your thoughts are no closer to your Self than that panini. As soon as we start attributing certain characteristics to the Self, we are superimposing.

“And why exactly should I care?” An excellent question. Defining our Self through superimposition is a problem because we tend to stop caring about things outside of ourselves. You are not my friend, therefore I shall not help you fix your tire. That is not my country, so I’m not about to get involved in its famine, draughts or war. If only we stopped trying to define our self, our thinking would be less dogmatic and we could look at the world more openly.

In reality, it is not very practical to approach everything and everyone that crosses our path with equal interest. A side effect of being human is that we have limited time and energy. The way you define yourself can help you decide how to spend it. However, realize that the distinction you make between your Self and the world around you is an arbitrary one. It is you that decides where to draw the line.


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