Buddha believed that if we were able to have the courage to face our fear and observe the self, truthfully, as it is, we were likely to discover that there was little to fear. Buddha himself deliberately did the most fear inducing things that he could do at the time that he lived. At times he placed himself in great danger. He probably did this deliberately to provoke the greatest anxiety in his own mind to prove to himself that he could face it and overcome his fear.
The anxious simply fear their own minds. Anxiety is fear of one-self. We have to face our own minds and find out the truth about what is in them. Buddha believed our minds consisted merely of a stream of never-ending images, thoughts and emotions coursing through us incessantly. Most of these are involved in the task of problem solving with regard to the variety of issues that our daily lives throw up for us. Our worldly environment throws up endless problems for us to solve. We fear our ability to solve these problems and often avoid facing them. They then become exaggerated in our minds. The fears grow and the anxiety that we feel begins to overwhelm us. We are always surprised that when we have the courage to face our problems head-on, without defensiveness they rarely seem as fear invoking as anticipated. It is a simple truth that nothing in life, when faced directly, is as our fantasy presents it.
Most of us live in ignorance of the reality that we can all cope with almost anything in life when presented with it. It is the fantasy that is impossible to face! Julius Caesar’s injunction “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant taste of death but once’, has echoes in this regard. Behavioural psychology would call this ‘extinction of anxiety’ in the face of ‘exposure to fearful stimuli’. Buddha might more call it more simply just facing reality, facing the truth, facing your fear. The process of becoming self-aware in all its manifestations is the path which leads to finding out for yourself what your authentic self really is, or in other words, who you really are.
Buddha believed that facing reality extinguished fantasy. In our terms that means that facing our fears causes anxiety to disappear. Fears can always be faced. It is anxiety that one finds impossibly difficult.
One of the problems in establishing one’s authentic self lies in the fact that we are not one essential self but many aspects or systems working together that we believe represents one self. We know that these systems are all interconnected but we just don’t know as yet how most of this occurs. We tend to think of ourselves as unique and unchanging but this too is untrue. All the subsystems that make up our self constantly change throughout our lives.
Everything about us changes all the time. One expression of one’s self -capacity is our IQ which for decades was thought to be an unalterable reflection of an one’s intellectual capacity. This we now know was incorrect. We understand now that IQ changes with dependence on many factors including environment, education, occupational opportunity and self-confidence. Studies in the 1960’s used as an attempt to prove that black people had intrinsically lower IQs than white people established a position held onto rigidly by many academics at the time and beyond. Disappointingly for racists worldwide we now know unequivocally that underprivileged children do actually have underprivileged IQs. In the developed world IQ is known to have been going up for more than thirty years. Every additional year of study adds points to your IQ.
If one assesses one-self simply by assessing what one does as in ‘the doing self’ then the one great problem with assessing people simply on behaviour is that however characteristic that behaviour is, people’s behaviours actually do change. People behave quite differently depending on their psychology, their education, learning and the situation and the time of being observed. You can quite easily change the way you think, feel or act and this is known by all psychiatrists.
Questions about the self always throws up interesting speculations in relation to where this self may be located in the brain. Finding where the self is in the brain has been an exercise that went on for many years without success. No-one could find it! The conclusion was that there was no such thing as a self in the brain. It was clearly a construct and people wrote books about this. This was a position that was in accord with the more extreme Buddhist positions which also emphasised the absence of a self known as anatman.
In more recent years a frisson of revelatory excitement could be sensed in the hearts of neuro-science when it began to be intimated that when one considered being one’s self one went into a reverie that invoked diminished activity in the areas of the brain most commonly associated with consciousness, with concurrent increased activity in the midline or medial structures of the brain known as the default mode network. This network has since been shown to be a far more extensive and encompassing than originally thought including many other cortical areas as well as connections with the hippocampus amygdala and thalamus and other sub cortical areas. It is activated when people are involved in self -referential processing, autobiographical thinking and also envisioning aspects of the future. So although this network may well be involved in some aspects of the conception of self its exact relevance to the idea of self and who one is remains unclear. The excitement has died down considerably.
I think it has just re -illustrated the point that the brain is far more complex than we have imagined it to be. Some thoughts regarding other parts of the brain involved with the concept of a self have arisen. Parts of the emotional brain system such as the amygdala and hippocampus are now commonly known to be related to emotional experiences (such as anger and anxiety) and memory respectively. Originally thought to be fairly independent in action these two parts of the limbic system are now being shown have far greater interconnectedness than previously thought. They work together far more intimately than they were initially given credit for. When the amygdala is strongly stimulated as in anxiety, memories are etched into our minds far more deeply than previously understood due to its close interconnection with the hippocampus which is also now understood to be involved in emotion. It is now suggested that the amygdala-hippocampus axis may also be significantly involved in determining our concept of self. Our self-concept is related to our memories of our experiences in the past. It is believed that we actually create our sense of self from these past memories. Our conceptualised futures are closely related to our past memories and this all adds to who we believe we are.