You are Not the Character You are Playing
As humans, we tend to identify with the roles and characters we consider ourselves to be.
However, Buddhism teaches us that these roles and personas are only mental constructs and do not represent our true nature. Therefore, it is essential not to limit ourselves to these conditioned identities and to seek to discover our true nature, awakening.
In various Buddhist traditions, it is taught that human existence is subject to impermanence and suffering. According to this view, we are not unchangeable and immutable beings but beings in perpetual change and evolution. Thus, the concept of identity is considered illusory, as it is subject to the fluctuations and vicissitudes of life.
In this article, I will explain how to free ourselves from our conditioned identities to access greater freedom and inner peace. We will also learn to develop an attitude of benevolence and compassion towards others, who are also changing and evolving beings.
The illusion of an unchanging self
The illusion of an unchanging self is a widely held belief that claims that our personality, thoughts, and emotions remain unchanged throughout our lives.
This idea is often reinforced by the illusion of the continuity of time, which gives us the impression that each moment is an extension of the previous one.
Identifying too much with the character you play
As human beings, we are used to attaching ourselves firmly to the character (father, mother, nationality, etc.) and roles or preferences (jobs, relationships, passions, hobbies, etc.) that we play in this lifetime.
Our roles shape entirely who we are. These roles are just a tiny part of how we appear to others. Even though they give us a sense of purpose and belonging, they don’t wholly determine our authentic selves.
We go beyond the labels and identities we choose for ourselves. However, it can be hard to grasp and attain because we often need to catch up in our external roles.
Knowing who we are can bring us benefits like understanding ourselves better, being kinder to ourselves, and feeling more fulfilled. This can also help us build more genuine relationships with others.
The Buddhist View of the Self
Buddhism differs from many cultures, including Christianity, because it believes no permanent self-identity exists. Instead, it sees the self as constantly changing.
In Buddhism, the concept of self is seen as an illusion or a construct created by the mind. The belief is that the notion of a fixed, unchanging self is a delusion that causes suffering and leads to attachment, craving, and aversion. This is because when we identify too strongly with our self-concept, we become attached to our desires, fears, and perceptions, and this attachment creates suffering.
The idea of not having a fixed self in Buddhism significantly impacts how Buddhists understand themselves and their role in the world. So, we’ll look closer at this concept of fixed selflessness and why it’s so important in Buddhism.
Impermanence and the Self
If we want to understand the Buddhist view of the self, we must first understand impermanence. Impermanence is a fundamental concept in Buddhist philosophy that refers to the constantly changing nature of all things in the universe.
The Buddha taught that all things, whether mental phenomena, material objects, or experiences, are in a state of flux and constant change. This understanding of impermanence is central to the Buddhist worldview.
One of the main implications of impermanence in Buddhism is the realization that everything is transient. This means that everything we hold on to, be it people, things, experiences, or even emotional states and ourselves, is bound to change or disappear at some point. Therefore, clinging to anything is a source of suffering and delusion.
By understanding that everything is constantly changing and nothing is static, we can begin to let go of our attachments and find inner peace.
Anatman: the impermanent self in Buddhism
In Buddhism, anatman (or anatta) refers to the idea that the self is not a permanent or immutable entity but impermanent and constantly evolving. This notion challenges the belief in a fixed and unchanging self, often seen as an obstacle to achieving wisdom and liberation in the Buddhist tradition.
According to this perspective, our self, or the character we play, comprises five interrelated aggregates (or skandhas): bodily form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Each of these elements is itself impermanent and interconnected with the others, thus creating an experience of self.
At death, the five aggregates that make up our experience of self dissolve, which means that the character that we were, with its tastes, preferences, and personality, ceases to exist. Only consciousness and karma continue reincarnating into a new form of life. What we are is this fundamental consciousness.
Why do we believe in a fixed self?
We often think that our identity is fixed and unchanging, meaning we see ourselves as staying the same over time. Our experiences, memories, and desire to clearly understand who we are all contribute to this idea of a stable self.
We tend to identify with our beliefs, values, and personality traits, assuming these traits are intrinsic to us and remain unchanged throughout our lives (and even after!).
Identified with a fixed self
As humans, we cling to the idea of a fixed self to find stability, a sense of control, and identity. This belief is deeply rooted in our Western culture and is reinforced by our social, cultural, educational, and religious institutions.
Here is a list of reasons why we tend to cling to the idea of a fixed, permanent self:
- Stability: The idea of a fixed and permanent self gives us a sense of stability and continuity in our lives.
- Identity: We need an identity to distinguish ourselves from others and to give us a sense of belonging to a group.
- Control: If we believe we have a fixed and permanent self, we feel we can control our life and environment.
- Reference: We need a reference point to understand our place in the world.
- Reassurance: The idea of a fixed, permanent self can reassure us that we have meaning and direction in life.
- Consistency: If we believe in a fixed, permanent self, we can maintain consistency in our thoughts and behaviors over time.
- Story: We need to believe that our personal story is consistent and meaningful and that our self is integral to that story.
- Tradition: The belief in a fixed and permanent self is embedded in many cultural and religious traditions, reinforcing its importance for many people.
- Comfort: The idea of a fixed, permanent self can be comforting in times of stress or uncertainty.
- Facilitation of interpersonal relationships: The idea of a fixed and permanent self can facilitate interpersonal relationships by allowing us to understand and predict the behavior of others.
Believing in a fixed self gives us stability, a sense of control, and a defined identity. However, it is essential to remember that our identity is constantly evolving and changing and that we are more than this character that we will play for more or less a hundred years.
Negative consequences of clinging to a fixed self
In Buddhism, clinging to the idea of a stable self can have negative effects. Indeed, since the self is considered an illusion or a mental construct, becoming attached to a fixed self can cause suffering and slow spiritual evolution.
Here is a list of the negative consequences of attachment to a fixed self:
- Suffering: The Buddha taught that clinging to the idea of a fixed self is the root of suffering because it causes us to identify too closely with our ego-driven concerns and limitations. It can prevent us from seeing things clearly and connecting with others and the world around us, which can cause pain and confusion.
- Rigidity: When we cling to a fixed image of ourselves, it can make us rigid in our view of the world and our behavior. It can keep us from discovering new perspectives or experiences and limit our ability to adapt to changing situations. We can get stuck in a certain way of seeing things and refuse to change or grow.
- Judgment: When we are attached to a fixed image of ourselves, it can cause us to judge others based on whether or not they resemble that image. This fixation can lead to negative thoughts and feelings of self-dissatisfaction. Likewise, we can judge and criticize ourselves excessively when we do not conform to this image.
- Isolation: If we think that our identity is fixed and unchanging, it can cause us to isolate ourselves from others and not want to discover new experiences or points of view. We may fear losing our identity and who we are if we explore new or different things.
- Fear of impermanence: If we hold onto a fixed idea of who we are, we may become afraid of change and impermanence. We might worry about losing our sense of self and not knowing who we are if we change or grow. This fear can stop us from trying new things or taking risks and keep us in our comfort zone, even if it no longer fits us.
As you can see, clinging to a fixed self can negatively impact our mental well-being and spiritual growth.
It is important to understand that our sense of self constantly changes, and clinging to a rigid identity can prevent us from living fully and thriving.
Overcome the illusion of a fixed self
As we saw earlier, Buddhism views the self as constantly evolving and interdependent.
This notion of impermanence runs counter to the Western idea of a permanent self, which can create cognitive dissonance that is difficult to accept.
However, by adopting this Buddhist perspective and recognizing the impermanence inherent in all things, one can overcome the illusion of a fixed self and cultivate inner peace and tranquility.
This process requires a deep understanding of the nature of reality and a willingness to let go of clinging to the idea of a fixed, unchanging self.
Practical tips for letting go of your ideas of a fixed self
If you want to let go of your ideas of a fixed self and embrace impermanence, some practical tips can help you along the way.
By following these tips, you can gradually develop a more detached and flexible perspective on the evolving nature of the self.
Here is a list of practical tips for letting go of your ideas of a fixed self:
- Practicing Meditation: Meditation is a key practice in Buddhism for cultivating a deeper understanding of the impermanence and interconnectedness of all things, including the self. By practicing meditation regularly, you can learn to observe the fluctuations of your mind and develop an increased awareness of the changing nature of your thoughts and emotions.
- Cultivate benevolence: Buddhism advocates compassion and benevolence towards all beings, including oneself. By cultivating these qualities, you can see and treat yourself with kindness rather than judge or harshly criticize yourself for your mistakes or weaknesses. It can help overcome the attachment to a fixed self-image and adopt a more fluid and open view of your identity.
- Practicing gratitude: Being aware of the positive aspects of your life and feeling gratitude for them can help reduce attachment to a negative self-image or restrictive thought patterns. By practicing gratitude regularly, you can develop a more balanced view of yourself and your life, which can help dissolve attachment to this fixed self-image.
- Mindfulness: By being mindful of your thoughts and emotions and observing them without judgment, you can develop a deeper understanding of the changing nature of your inner experience. It can help you realize that your identity is not fixed but rather constantly changing.(Read about the benefits of mindfulness)
- Practicing non-attachment: Non-attachment is a key concept in Buddhism that involves detaching from specific outcomes or expectations in life. By practicing non-attachment, you can learn to be more flexible and take a broader, more open perspective on life and yourself, which can help dissolve attachment to a fixed self-image.
In summary, it is important to remember that we are not defined by the character we play in our lives. We tend to cling to a fixed sense of identity, which can limit our potential and prevent us from discovering the richness and diversity of life.
By challenging our assumptions about who we are, we can see ourselves in a new light and cultivate a more flexible and adaptable sense of self. The Buddhist perspective on the self can be helpful in this process of self-discovery.
We can use techniques like meditation, mindfulness, accepting impermanence, non-attachment, and practicing gratitude to achieve this. By experiencing letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities and live a more authentic, fulfilling, and meaningful life.
Ultimately, by breaking free from our attachment to a fixed self, we can experience greater freedom and inner peace.