Differentiating the unself

There’s been a flurry of stuff posted about selves and unselves recently. Sarah Perry did this great piece on the Essence of Peopling and the same day David Chapman wrote beautifully about Selfness. And I noticed that they both coined phrases and words related to (not)-self-(ing)-ness.

Some days later, writing a tweet in reply to a conversation between @KevinSimler and @sarahdoingthing (in which they were clarifying which type of a loss of self had been referred to further up the conversation tree) I wrote ‘selflessness’ then deleted it for ‘self-loss.’ Then the tweet turned into several in which I also used ‘non-self’. Then I deleted them and started writing this, which gave rise to the birth of the unself.

We’re using vocabulary that doesn’t yet exist because we need a better lexicology of the unself. ‘Self-loss’ ‘no-self’ ‘not-self’ and ‘non-self,’ and ‘selflessness’ get used interchangeably, often get confused with each other, and can mean different things.

Here’s some of their meanings:

Flow

Immersion in process. The experience of runners, musicians, sky-divers, racing car drivers. Absorption in movement so that there is no sense of self differentiated from environmental context, nothing outside of the activity itself. Paradoxically one feels still, complete, within the movement.

Staying aware without thinking

Heightened thought-free awareness, achieved most usually while the body is motionless. Diverse meditation instructions involve letting go of thought. Some people say it’s even possible to function ordinarily without ever thinking.

Non-individuality

How we used to be before Western Individualism. We weren’t ‘selves,’ we were defined by our familial roles and social relationships. Anthropologists and sociologists write about the non-concept of individual self in pre-modern societies.1

Selfless activity

Compassionate action that, in the ideal, finds individual desires irrelevant. This meaning sometimes merges with the non-individual meaning so that being ‘selfless’ slurps around incoherently between the two axes.2

Selflessness

There is no such thing as a fixed, solid self. Self boundaries change and are permeable; self is subject, not object. ‘Self as process’ or ‘self-ing’ could fit here. Like everything else, self is subject to change, it doesn’t exist inherently.

‘I’ don’t exist

My ‘self’ is an illusion. This derives originally from the concept of anatman. In its pure form, this is not about elusiveness of self or identity (what I’ve called ‘selflessness’ above) though in contemporary jargon it’s often taken to mean exactly that. ‘I don’t exist’ is an argument that the self is non-material, maybe a product of mind. Often in this kind of thinking there is a ‘real’ world somewhere else.

Conceptual dismantling of a coherent physical object into parts (if you break down a table into its constituent pieces, where is the table?) sometimes accompanies the ‘I don’t exist’ meaning of unself, as proof of its irrefutable rightness. This is a buggy argument. If you follow it to its logical conclusion you arrive at ‘selflessness’ not ‘I don’t exist.’

These are a few meanings of lossy self that came to mind spontaneously. There are probably obvious others I’ve not mentioned. Let me know.

It’s tempting to say these experiences and concepts of lossy self have an overall meaning, but I think that’s wrong. ‘Losing myself’ playing an instrument is simply different to heightened thought-free awareness when I’m meditating, or my understanding that my self isn’t a fixed entity; different in experience, behavior and effect. Different flavor, different fit. They’re held together by their erosion of the concept of self-ness, not by their experiential sameness to each other, so they don’t have the same meaning, contextually.

That’s why I think we need to develop lexemes for the unself that are clearer and more extensive than those currently available.


1. I recommend Fei Hsiao-Tung’s 1947 classic ‘From the Soil’ about Chinese society, and his essay on America ‘land without ghosts’: The Shallowness of Cultural Tradition. (pg 171)

2. Selfless activity as a function of non-individuality is a coherent concept but it’s not usually descriptively graphed that way.

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3 thoughts on “Differentiating the unself

  1. It’s worth noting that if we take the idea of no-self seriously, the space of unselfy states should be vastly larger than the space of selfy states. It makes me wonder if the state of “flow” describes the generic set of mind states that people had before the self got societally reified- one conscious state per action pattern as opposed to a single conscious state that’s supposed to be able to cover everything.

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  2. Freud’s essay The Uncanny comes to mind as pointing at perhaps another, distinct form of unselfness:

    I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

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  3. Thanks for the comments.

    @The Lagrangian Your comment got me thinking about quantifying states of unself, or mapping them out along different qualitative and quantitative axes. But I have a bad habit of system-creation that I want to avoid, so I’m resisting. The upside is it helps you think through different frames into a field, so that you’re less likely to miss seeing patterns. But, yes, moving between somewhat distinct mindstate-immersions seems more accurate a description of human reality than the sometimes sought single unchanging state.

    @David Nice example, thank you. Yes this, including out of body experience, could be a distinct category. Experiencing yourself objectively feels quite strange. I’ve heard others say it can be very creepy, but that’s not been my experience.

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