Video: Harvard Buddhist Psychologist on the Constructed “Self”

I thought this short video was a beautiful summary and illustration of Buddhist philosophy from Dr. Daniel Brown, a Harvard Psychologist and Tibetan Buddhism scholar. I believe this philosophy may similarly be found in most of the world’s religions, framed in a multitude of different symbols. This is perennial wisdom.

I thought this short video was a beautiful summary and illustration of Buddhist philosophy from Dr. Daniel Brown, a Harvard Psychologist and Tibetan Buddhism scholar. I believe this philosophy may similarly be found in most of the world’s religions, framed in a multitude of different symbols. This is perennial wisdom. I’ll describe some of these further down. (Transcript under video.)

The Sun is Always Shining

Western self psychologists tell us that we’re not born with a psychological sense of self. It develops somewhere between 12 and 24 months when representational thinking develops. What it means is that the self is constructed. The more I have a strong sense of self the more it serves as a central organizing principle for my daily experience. It provides continuity over time and space. So over the course of my life, time elapses, and I feel like the same person. That’s what the mind does, it constructs. It constructs an “out-there” world. Visual forms are constructions. The sense of self is a construction. Sound is a construction. You look at time in a certain way and you can see beyond time, and even that is a construction. And the trouble is that we tend to make those constructions too real, or too solid, as if they’re independently existing. The consequence of that is that we reify the world, making it too real or too solid. And that has two negative consequences. One is, it has grab. A lot of the suffering in my daily life is organized around self grab. And second, it has the capacity to obscure my true nature. And if you start looking at all of these constructions of mine as constructions, and see beyond them, then you get back to how it’s all basically constructed in awareness. The whole show is made from the expressive lively aspect of awakened awareness. A metaphor is like the sun. At some point the clouds clear away, and we often say the sun came out, but that’s not exactly correct. The sun is always shining, except that from our perspective of being under the clouds we can’t see the sun is always shining. It’s like that with the awakened mind. The limitless, boundless, awakened awareness is always right here.


Bryce here again. I think the Judeo-Christian symbols of “Adam and Eve” in the “Garden of Eden” are symbols of the innocence and purity of selfless experience in all of humanity before we develop a sense of self, before this “self” is constructed in human consciousness. I think this happens for each of us when we are born, and in our early childhood, but it also happened on a much greater scale in the evolution of Homo sapiens as a species, and perhaps is a stage in the evolution of consciousness as a whole.

During human evolution our consciousness became more and more complex, and we began to develop a much greater sense of self, or self-awareness, recognizing our selves as independent beings. We recognized our bodies as the organism which houses our consciousness. We began to develop very complex likes and dislikes, complex emotional states, we begin to remember things for much longer and make associations between many things, and we begin to develop a “knowledge” of what we think is good and bad. “Good” things often build up the sense of “self,” and “bad” things harm the sense of “self.”

This happens on the individual scale as well, in our early childhood and adolescence. This development of “knowledge” of things I think is the symbol of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” We “partake” of that tree as our consciousness develops, and that construction of “self” is intensified and established in our complex “knowledge” of the surrounding world, and of the perceived dualistic nature of reality.

This development of complex consciousness is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, such complex consciousness allows humans to be extraordinarily creative, able to build complex networks, systems, buildings, artwork, structures, inventions, and societies. On the other hand, it also causes us great suffering. We take our “selves” too seriously, and fight to protect this particular “self” and build up this particular “self.”

This often also bleeds over into our tribe, club, religion, political party, or nation. We come to think that we are a separate individual living independently in the world, separately and singly from all the rest of creation. Our tribe that thinks like we do is like our extended “self,” our “collective self.” The way that we think, and our tribe thinks, is the one and only correct way to think. We think our constructed stories and symbols of reality are the only correct stories and symbols.

Our own sense of “self,” or ego, becomes our tempter and adversary, or “Satan,” causing us to do and say things in order to defend and aggrandize itself, to protect its fragile sense of being separate and single in the world. As it does this, it builds itself up, and suffers even more because of it. The ego becomes even a greater investment and liability that must be protected at all costs. And so the cycle continues, leading to more and more suffering.

These negative aspects of self consciousness are all an obfuscation of our real Being, blinders to what we are on a much deeper and more fundamental level, and erroneous in many respects. If we look past this constructed “self” we can see that each organism, and each part of creation, is a part of a much greater whole, radically interconnected and interdependent on one another. No one really exists separately or singly from all of creation. We are immersed in an ocean of Life all around us, and are a part of it all, a manifestation or emanation of the All. This is our true nature, our true Self.

The ego, or sense of “self,” must fall away, pass away, be sacrificed, be “crucified” in our minds, in order for us to perceive this true nature within us, known by the symbol of “Christ,” the “Messiah,” “Buddha-nature,” or “Atman.” Knowing our true nature saves or liberates us from our own ego, or deeply disturbed and suffering sense of “self.”

We come to know that we are not this particular “self,” but we are Life, we are Awareness, we are Consciousness, we are Presence, we are Light and Energy that is animating this corporeal material frame, that is breathing Life into our bodies. We are part of the Truth of existence, of Being, of this Ultimate Reality, this “God.” We are “God” that has “Incarnated” in this body of flesh and bones. The complex construction of “self” in our minds is an illusion which blinds us to this Truth.

Like clouds which block the sun, our egos or sense of “self” completely blocks our perception of the reality of what we really are, which is as radiant as the Sun (our energy is derived from our sun). This Sun is always shining within us, but we often can’t see it. We don’t even know it’s there. We are ignorant of our own deepest Being, lost in a “lone and dreary world” of our own mind’s construction. Occasionally there may be breaks in the clouds, and we sense a deep Love and a tremendous sense of Peace as the Light shines from within.

Through spiritual practices such as meditation, contemplation, or centering prayer, we allow that ego or sense of “self” to subside in our mind, it diminishes, falls away, fades away, dissolves, and is annihilated. This is “repentance,” a turning away from what we thought we were (ego, the constructed sense of “self”), and towards reconciliation with what we really are, One in “God,” a Oneness or Nonduality with all of Reality as a Whole. It is metanoia, the original New Testament Greek word translated as “repentance,” meaning a “change of mind,” or “above/beyond [egoic] mind.” This is also the “atonement,” or better written, at-one-ment. We realize that we are One with the Universe, with Nature, with Reality, with Truth, with Life, with “God.” We always have been. In this we “partake” of the “Tree of Life.”

The thoughts of the mind which maintain the constructed sense of “self” clear out of the space of consciousness, and we perceive consciousness in its Innocence again, awareness in its Purity, a Selflessness at the ground of who and what we are. It is our return to the “Garden of Eden,” and the Presence of “God.” We perceive that we are One with all of Reality, that there is no separation, no alienation with creation. We are that Creation. We are Being. We come to know that we are boundless, infinite, and eternal. This is known by the symbols of “salvation,” “redemption,” “resurrection,” “liberation,” “enlightenment,” and “awakening.”

These symbols may be found in most of the world’s religions, and in science as well.


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