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Identifying With A Finite Self

All our troubles start the moment we identify with a finite self. There’s really no way things can work out for us once we do this – no way at all. If we think that they can then this is illusion, this is samsara. Once we identify with the fixed and finite self we’re headed for disappointment after disappointment. And yet at the same time we are of course constantly hoping that things will work out for us. That’s pretty much what we do all the time – we hope that things will go our way; we hope that things will work out for us. Why would we bother otherwise, we might ask?



This is therefore a strange kind of life that we’re talking about here – a life where nothing ever can work out and yet where we are continually hoping that it will. It’s clearly not exactly what we’d call a very good situation; it is in fact hard to imagine a worse one!



Needless to say, we don’t see our situation as being like this. We don’t see things like this at all. For the most part we believe (or seem to believe) that things can pan out for us if we put in the effort – we are convinced of this. if we can’t get stuff to happen the way we want it to then it is either because we aren’t trying hard enough or because we’re not going about it the right way. Sometimes, it’s true, we are gripped with the very disagreeable feeling that things won’t ever work out for us (no matter what we do) and when this happens we see it as a type of unfortunate (and unaccountable) aberration. We might call it ‘being negative’ or ‘thinking negatively’ and we see the cure for negative thinking as ‘thinking positively’ instead, the implication being that if we are thinking in a negative way then this is because we are (unaccountably) not making sufficient effort to think positively. It’s a ‘no-brainer’ that negative thinking is stupid (and possibly even immoral) waste of time and that we should embrace thinking instead!



But – going back to our original point – why should it be the case that things are never going to work out for us once we have identified with this finite sense of self? What justification do we have for coming out with such a negative statement, the type of a statement that no one in their right mind would (surely) ever want to take seriously? Everything comes down to this business of ‘identification’. As we started off by saying, all our troubles begin the moment we identify with the fixed of finite self. The root of the problem is very easy to state – the reason the act of identification is synonymous with the start of all our troubles is simply because what we’re identifying with doesn’t exist. We have identified with something that isn’t real, and so how could things possibly be expected to ever work out’ on this basis?



What we are saying ‘is us’ is an abstraction, a half-baked notion, a mere idea and nothing more. What we have identified with is a collection of definite statements and ‘definite statements’ – by their very nature – are abstract rather than real.  Definite statements are ‘simplifications of something that can’t be simplified’. They are descriptions (or definitions) of something that is far too complex ever to be described. When we do fall into the trap of defining something that is too complex ever to be defined (or simplifying something that can never be simplified) entropy is incurred, and it is entropy that trips us up every time, without us even knowing we are being tripped up. Entropy, we might say, is the ‘invisible enemy’ which is always getting the better of us.



When we simplify what can’t be simplified we end up in a very peculiar situation. Something very peculiar then happens – we lose sight of what we can’t simplify (or can’t define) and end up as a result in a world that is made up entirely of our own oversimplifications, our own definitions. We don’t however see the world that we’re living in as being made up of our own oversimplifications or definitions, we just see it as ‘the world’. And as for all of the stuff that we’ve ‘left out’ of our equations, we never give it any thought. As far as we’re concerned therefore, it just doesn’t exist…



What we’ve just said here is of course just another way of talking about entropy. Entropy is ‘what we’ve left out without knowing that we’ve left anything out’. Entropy is the information that has been irreversibly lost from the system. Entropy is ignorance that we are ignorant of. We have said that entropy functions as a kind of ‘invisible enemy’ and the reason we have said this is because of what it does to us – what it does is that it ensures that all our efforts come to nothing. It ensures that nothing works out for us…



“How does entropy do this?” we might perhaps ask. If we do ask this however then we are missing the obvious – how can ‘ignorance of which we are ignorant’ not act against us in our endeavours? Whatever I try to do on the basis of my ‘model’ of reality, and the whole point of a ‘model of reality’ is that has some kind of genuine relationship to the truth; if there is this blind-spot there however (this ignorance of whose existence I am ignorant) then very clearly the validity of my so-called ‘models’ (or ‘theories’) must be called into serious question. Whatever I do I do on the basis of my understanding both of where I am now and where I want to be in the future as a result of my goal-orientated action. All control and purposeful action is predicated upon our understanding of the situation we’re in, and the situation we want to be in. Given therefore that our understanding – which we take to be literally true – is based upon ‘a simplification that we cannot see to be a simplification’, how can we expect anything ever to work out for us?



Even understanding what constitutes ‘working out’, what constitutes a ‘successful resolution of the problem’ is misguided, misconceived, misunderstood. What we call ‘working out’ is simply an extension of our original confusion! It’s a prolongation of the original confusion, an exacerbation of the original confusion. What we call ‘the correct solution’ is simply a restatement of the error we started off with, which we keep aiming at (and putting all our hopes on) as if it were actually something new. We never really get away from our original error (or ‘original confusion’) and that is the nature of our predicament.



Our predicament is that we keep on trying to move on or get away from where we are when the truth is that we can’t. We keep on imagining that we can move on (or perhaps that we actually are doing so) but the bottom line is that this never actually is the case. Whether we notice it or not, we are continually being thwarted, continually being frustrated. Even our understanding of ‘what the problem is’ and what we would ideally like to do about it is in error. Our perception of ‘what the problem is’ is the original misunderstanding, and our projection into the future of what the correct solution to the problem would be is a faithful extension of that original misunderstanding.



What we can’t get away from (and can’t see for what it actually is) is a pure self-contradiction. All definite statements are self-contradictions – we just can’t see it. All literal descriptions are self-contradictory – they can’t help being so since the lack of perspective that is inherent in literalism can’t produce anything else but paradox, and paradox – when not seen for what it is – always leads us around in circles. Paradox that cannot be seen as paradox is illusion, is samsara. All simplifications of reality contain the same ‘flaw’, for the very same reason – because there is only the one point of view involved. Beware of a man of one book”, says Goethe. The moment we go beyond the ‘one point of view’ we leave behind the realm of easy answers, and venture instead into ‘the complexity of the real’.  Reality is actually infinitely complex, it is infinitely complex because it doesn’t come with any possibility of viewing it from the outside.



The reason all simplifications of the world lead nowhere is because they relate only to themselves, because they only make sense when they are understood by reference to the one framework. If reality contains all frameworks – and is at the same time ‘contained’ by none – what can we hope to achieve as a result assuming our necessarily limited way of looking at things is ‘the only possible way’?  And yet this is the only way that the thinking mind can work – it has zero possibility of operating in any other way. The thinking mind works by separating one opposite from the other and this is the essential ‘simplification’ of which we are speaking. All our mind-produced simplifications (or ‘models’) of the world are self-contradictory because they still include the opposite that they have excluded. We just can’t see that they still contain it! The only thing that isn’t self-contradictory is the unsimplified world; the unsimplified world is the ‘paradoxical world’ – the world that we can’t ever explain to ourselves.



If we start off by identifying with a self-contradiction that we can’t see to be such then of course we aren’t ever going to get anywhere, much as we would like to. All of our attempts to ‘get somewhere’ are simply going to be enactments (or re-enactments) of the original self-contradiction (which is to say, all of our attempts to escape from the jaws of the self-contradiction that we can’t see to be such are also going to be self-contradictory). One opposite always contains the seed of the other and this is the suffering (or dukkha) that the Buddha spoke of in his First Noble Truth.



We might possibly ask why we can’t get around all of this frustration or self-contradiction by not identifying with an over-simplification of the universe? Why can’t we solve the problem by not identifying with something that isn’t real? In other words, why can’t we identify with a self that is real, a self that is ‘whole’ or non-abstract’? This might seem to be a reasonable question. This question is however very easy to answer – it just isn’t possible to ‘identify with the real’! To identify with something is to ‘simplify what can’t be simplified’. We can only identify with what we can understand, and what we can understand is never real…






Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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