The temporal self

I understand the self to refer to something dynamic, ever-changing, and composed of a plurality of faculties or attributes which are themselves ever-changing and none of which have any intrinsic primary over or superiority to the others. I do not understand the “self” to be a thinker or will as opposed to an actor or agent, nor an actor or agent as opposed to a thinker or will.

Rather, thought, will, and action, as well as sensory perception, emotions, desires, imagination, reason, the mind’s eye (i.e., that which perceives ideas and thoughts “internally”), etc. are among the plurality of faculties or attributes that constitute the self.

Most importantly, the self is not monolithic, static, or monistic. It is not, in other words, a unity that underlies or overrides the aforementioned attributes/faculties or which can be reduced to any of the aforementioned attributes/faculties. The self is just a shorthand term for this plurality of attributes/faculties taken in the aggregate. No elements of this plurality of attributes are permanent or static.

Furthermore, it is my understanding that there is no substantial duality between body and mind. The dynamic processes that constitute what is conventionally labeled the self are both physical and mental and the physical and mental aspects of these processes cannot, as far as I can tell, be separated from each other. In other words, any separation of these aspects of the processes in question would inevitably lead to an incomplete understanding of them.

This self is not separate from the world of experience, but an integral part of it. It is not detached from it in any way but on the contrary cannot be adequately understood without treating it as part of the larger physical and social processes of which it is a part.

That is not to say that the ego, or the sense of individual selfhood which arises within the dynamic and ever-changing processes that constitute the self, cannot be examined as a process with its own unique attributes. Of course it can. It is only to say that a full understanding of the sense of selfhood, or of any of the other attributes or faculties of the self for, cannot be understood apart from the history and the surrounding physical and sociocultural practices in which the attribute or faculty in question continually arises and continually changes.

The Atman or Ultimate Self

In addition to the self described above, which I would qualify as the “temporal self,” it is my belief that underlying the plurality of attributes/faculties which constitute what is conventionally called the self, there is an awareness which is permanent and witnesses the rising and falling of these attributes and the activities associated with them. This underlying awareness is known as the Atman in Advaita Vedanta, and some (but by no means all) philosophical/theological systems have a similar concept which they label with a different name.

I believe that this permanent underlying substratum of awareness exists on the basis of direct experience, i.e., experience as this permanent underlying awareness.

It is not even possible to have an experience of this permanent underlying awareness, for it is who or what one ultimately is. Put another way, this underlying awareness is not any particular mental-physical state but that which observes the arising and falling of all particular mental-physical states.

As I understand it, this permanent underlying awareness is quite literally supernatural because it exists prior to the arising of nature and all of nature’s attributes. However, as that which witnesses all things, including all things natural, it is not accurate to say that this permanent underlying awareness is separate from or cut off from nature. While this underlying awareness is permanent and all things encapsulated by the term nature are temporary, it does not follow that the one is thoroughly divorced from the other.

* I will note that the Hindu scriptures upon which Advaita Vedanta and the other traditions of Vedanta are ultimately based, the Upanishads, use the term atman to refer to both this permanent underlying awareness and the conventional self or dynamic plurality of attributes described above, at least in my reading of them. However, I will only use the term Atman to designate the permanent substratum of awareness which I believe underlies that plurality of attributes conventionally labeled the self.