Mescaline Revelations: Hume, Buddhism, and the Illusory Nature of the Self

Hume, Buddha, and the self

One of the most interesting aspects of psychedelics is how the experience ties into philosophy. I am especially drawn to the notion that they can attract one to – or concretise – certain philosophical ideas, theories, and systems. For example, in The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide (1882), the psychologist William James wrote how the nitrous oxide trance provided him with “the conviction that Hegelism was true after all”. For me, an experience with mescaline hydrochloride provided a visceral confirmation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of the will-to-life, his attendant views on compassion, and the moral worth of non-human animals.

As with many other potentially valuable insights gained on psychedelics, these ideas matured and gained more meaning after a period of personal reflection. During this particular mescaline experience, a mixture of visual imagery, intuition, and perspective-shift led to another philosophical insight; specifically, about the illusory nature of the self. After some time spent digesting this, I was able to draw on a philosophical theory to better make sense of it. I then later discovered a separate (but connected) idea that further illuminated this experience, as well as a subsequent journey with mescaline.

The first theory I used to interpret the experience, relating to the nature of the self, was David Hume’s bundle theory of the self, while the second was the Buddhist model of the five skandhas. In this essay, I would like to describe the part of this mescaline experience in which my normal conception of the self was challenged, and how – through integration – I came to connect this experience with both the Humean and Buddhist perspectives on personal identity. Moreover, I will add how a later experience with mescaline helped me to better understand the juxtaposition of Hume’s bundle theory with the Buddhist teaching on the five skandhas.

The Centreless Self

During the peak of my mescaline experience, seemingly out of nowhere, I started to perceive meaningful imagery with my mind’s eye. I was seeing a sequence of visual images of myself – specifically my facial expressions going through changes. Each facial expression was distinct, associated with a disposition, a feeling, a state of mind, or a particular quality of myself. These phantasmic impressions showed me morphing from deflated, gloomy, and negative to elated, upbeat, and positive. I could see an irritable version of myself, and a calmer version of myself.

Several variations manifested before the insight running through these images became clear: there was no core – no centre – behind any of these expressions. I seemed to be exploring all the different moods and personality traits that make up how I appear to myself, yet I could see no central identity that was common to all these changing states.

I was well aware – conceptually – of the idea that the self is illusory. I had discovered cognitive scientists like Bruce Hood who claimed that everyone experiences a strong sense of self, but that beyond this experience, there is nothing we can identify as the self. A useful analogy is the Kanizsa triangle, a perceptual illusion whereby we see a triangle, even though no triangle has been drawn. Our brain ‘fills in the gaps’, as it were. Hood states that our brain performs the same trick when it comes to our impression of the self. He describes the self as a useful narrative that connects our experiences, thoughts, and behaviours together, helping us to act in an advantageous way in the world.

As a social animal that evolved in tight-knit groups in order to survive, a sense of self or personal identity can have adaptive value. When cooperation becomes essential for survival, it is important to coordinate people’s actions and strengthen interpersonal bonds. A sense of self may have been formed, in large part, through the internalisation of the way in which members of a social group perceive and evaluate individuals. Coordination can then be facilitated when your self-concept aligns with how other members of the group perceive you as an individual. This feeling of a private self means that self-esteem and self-feelings (for example, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride) can arise, both of which have social functions. Self-esteem can serve as a cue for your relative standing in the group (your status and role); it can indicate your level of loyalty, bravery, trustworthiness, kindness, and intelligence; and finally, it tells you how accepted you are by other group members. Self-feelings are useful, too. For example, guilt motivates an individual to assure group members that he or she will adjust their behaviour in a favourable direction.

In this way, the self evolved out of the need for social approval, affiliation, and alliances. The Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker states, “It’s to our advantage to be seen as brave, trustworthy, kind and so forth. We have the ability to float above ourselves and look down at ourselves, to play back tapes of our own behavior to evaluate and manipulate it. Knowing thyself is a way of making thyself as palatable as possible to others.”

This illusory self is real in the sense that it is an experience we have – and which we have all the time – but it is still nonetheless a story we have fabricated. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “We’re splinters & mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes.” As well as the scientific perspective on the self, I had come across the Buddhist notion of anattā (‘non-self’), the doctrine that says there is no unchanging and permanent self underlying our experiences.

However, mescaline offered me a much deeper, experiential confirmation of this perennial idea. It felt plain to me that the self was truly centreless. In each sequence of visual imagery, I recognised a way of being that I would normally attach an identity to. Under the influence of mescaline, however, the mechanism of the mind that weaves the self into these states seemed to be temporarily halted. In each expression – showing my physical appearance, moods, traits, and way of being – I could no longer see a special, unique, solid identity. Nothing about my experiences of myself revealed an essential or distinct self underneath. I felt I was just a series of fleeting personas.

Even if I introspect and think of this ‘me’ as a constellation of thoughts and personality traits, this does not genuinely create a feeling of personal identity – an identity different from everyone else – that I normally experience in everyday life. Without the usual illusion of identity at play, day-to-day experiences seem more like ephemeral changes in tone, style, and colour. There is no essential substance that persists in these changes. What I am left with are changing patterns without a solid surface upon which the patterns appear.

Upon further reflection, this new, intuitive understanding of the self felt strongly connected to Hume’s theory of personal identity, which the Scottish philosopher explicated in his work A Treatise of Human Nature (1738).

Hume’s Bundle Theory of the Self 

A Treatise of Human Nature is one of Hume’s most important and influential works. It stands out as a classic defence of philosophical empiricism (the theory that all knowledge ultimately originates from sense experience) and philosophical naturalism (the belief that only natural objects, laws, and forces exist, which thus entails disbelief in the supernatural). He expounds on his views on personal identity in Section VI of his treatise.

His conclusions arise out of his broader theory – bundle theory more generally – that considers all objects as mere collections (or bundles) of properties. In this way, a tree has properties such as greenness, the roughness of the bark, branching patterns, being a type of plant, etc. – but there is no tree beyond these properties; there is no unifying substance called ‘tree’ that underlies the changes the tree goes through, or that exists separately from these properties. According to bundle theory, we cannot conceive of an object except in terms of its properties, and so the notion of a substance inherent to these properties is a fiction, with the self being included as one such figment of the imagination. This stands in opposition to substance theory, which posits that each object has a bare particular, an element that is distinct from – and can exist independently of – the object’s properties. This bare particular is thought to be without any properties but still very much real (so not something abstract).

As a philosophical naturalist, Hume rejects the notion that there exists an immaterial soul that persists over time, and as an empiricist, he aims to explore the nature of the self using introspective experience, just as one often tends to do – either spontaneously or intentionally—in a psychedelic state. Through the lens of introspection, Hume concludes that the self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement”.

This description certainly aligns with my experience of the self under the influence of mescaline. I saw properties of experience, succeeding one another, and constantly changing. If there was anything that I could pinpoint as the self, to be able to say there I am, it could only be a bundle of ever-changing properties. Yet this meant that the normal idea of an integrated and precise self really was just a mental projection, a useful conceptual category like the idea of a ‘tree’, which helps to make sense of the world and navigate through it, but which does not refer to anything substantial.

We have a tendency, Hume argues, to confound the idea of a “perfect identity” (a soul, self, or substance) with the idea of “a succession of related objects”. We mistakenly interpret “a distinct idea of several different objects existing in succession, and connected together by a close relation” as an “uninterrupted” identity. For Hume, this “close relation” consists of “resemblance, contiguity, or causation”. But upon close examination, there is nothing about the relation between perceptions that really encapsulates our everyday feeling of selfhood. According to Hume, our tendency to confound identity with relation – to ascribe an identity to variable and interrupted objects – is what leads to the fiction of the self, “a fiction, either of something invariable and uninterrupted, or something mysterious and inexplicable”.

Again, in the succession of images of myself that I saw during this mescaline experience, there was no thread of personal identity connecting them all together. Moreover, I noticed that these changing bundles were marked by uncontrollability, unpredictability, and diversity. I did not feel there was a ‘me’ in control of these changing states. There was no sense that each variation was just a brief diversion away from a predictable self. And out of all the various bundles, there were none that particularly stood out as strongly indicative of a singular identity. Indeed, Hume is keen to point out that we have no constant impression of the self:

It must be some one impression that gives rise to every real idea. But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same through the whole course of our lives, since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other and never all exist at the same time. It cannot, therefore, be from any of these impressions or from any other that the idea of self is derived, and, consequently, there is no such idea.

Elsewhere, Hume states that our selves are simply composed of different perceptions:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death and could I neither think nor feel nor see nor love nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is further requisite to make me a perfect nonentity.

Here we can see both Hume’s empiricism and naturalism at play. For when the self is viewed solely from the point of view of perception – which is the ground of knowledge for the empiricists – we discover no unified or coherent self. In addition, Hume is arguing that upon physical death, we would be “entirely annihilated” – there would be no continuation of the self. In this way, examining the self during a psychedelic experience can be a way of bolstering philosophical naturalism, in that it becomes difficult to identify a supernatural self, an immaterial essence that is ‘you’ that can survive death. Instead, the bundle of properties making up the sense of ‘you’ can be described in purely natural terms, as awareness, a physical body, feelings, thoughts, habits, idiosyncrasies, and demeanours – all without supernatural connotations. When all these properties go, so too will the self.

I was somewhat familiar with Hume’s bundle theory before my experiment with mescaline, but it was only after this psychedelic experience that I properly incorporated this idea into my worldview. This experience, which I suppose aligns with Hume’s insistence on observing the mind, illustrated to me the insightfulness of introspection, a state of mind that is often stimulated and heightened during a psychedelic experience. However, seeing my ‘self’ from this different vantage point did not necessarily resolve the potential issues associated with Hume’s theory.

For example, one of the most common and enduring responses to Hume’s theory is: If the ‘I’ is nothing more than a bundle of perceptions, then what is it that ties these perceptions together? Other bundle theorists, such as Bertrand Russell, postulated that a special relation called compresence (a togetherness) connects bundled properties to one another. This term refers to a relation that is usually considered ontologically primitive, special, and unanalysable. This relation holds between qualities experienced simultaneously, between qualities that overlap. In Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Value (1948), Russell notes that this overlapping or compresence “is not itself to be defined logically; it is an empirically known relation, having … only an ostensive definition”.

We experience compresence when we experience different events together at the same time (such as an itch, the temperature outside, the greenness of the leaves, the sound of a dog barking, the smell of flowers, and so on). Likewise, we can experience this compresence in the context of the self when we experience the simultaneous presence of our physical appearance, emotions, thoughts, desires, interests, plans, etc. The existence of a bundle, including the bundle imagined as the self, also depends upon this relation of compresence. Simply enumerating properties does not constitute a bundle. Overlapping must be involved.

However, my mescaline experience relating to the self – and subsequent consideration of it – has not illuminated this notion of compresence in any definitive way. During my experience, I did not ponder how I experience perceptions simultaneously, nor did I question why this bundling relation should exist. Could a sense of self not have evolved or been made manifest without this bundling? Is it not possible to have all our perceptions alongside a fictitious self that is based on a separate and distinct perception? In addition, while I applied (without intending to) the kind of scepticism to the self that Hume also applied, I did not push this questioning of assumptions to its limits.

For instance, whilst I was able to visualise myself as nothing more than a bundle of qualities and a sequence of bundles, I did not know what qualities – if any – I could eliminate while still retaining my sense of self. This pertains to the ship of Theseus thought experiment, which asks us to question when – if at all – an object loses its identity through the gradual loss or replacement of its parts. If I were to eliminate my physical body, appearance, and expressions from the bundle, would I still feel a sense of personal identity? Would I lose just a degree of it? Is personal identity even something that we can feel degrees of (since such identity is felt, at least, to be precise)? Then there is the question of whether some qualities in the bundle are more central to identity than others. Do personality traits have more identity-forming powers than moods, for example? Of course, the very fact that I am now asking such questions may not have even happened if it were not for the openness and novel thinking encouraged by my mescaline experience, so in that sense, it does have a real connection to these thought-provoking questions, which I am asking many years after the experience took place.

There are still other criticisms of Hume’s bundle theory of the self that I do not feel my mescaline experience has helped to resolve, either in terms of the experience itself or in terms of how I have integrated it. The philosopher Nelson Pike, for instance, raises the following question:

Given that the mind is simply a collection of experiences (as Hume said), by what principle shall we distinguish between the perceptions making up your mind and the perceptions making up mine? Providing an answer to this question is often taken to be the crucial problem confronting any advocate of the bundle theory of the self.

Indeed, if I examine my mescaline-induced experience of the bundled self, what is the principle that allows me to section off ‘my’ supposed bundled self from someone else’s? What is it that creates this sense of belongingness, where I can distinguish my fictitious self from that of others? In Hume’s opinion, we find resemblance among our perceptions due to memory; we remember past perceptions, and this remembering allows us to connect our many varied and successive perceptions together. Through the “frequent placing of these resembling perceptions in the chain of thought”, we gain the sense of “the continuance of one object”. Hume concludes that: “the memory not only discovers the identity, but also contributes to its production, by producing the relation of resemblance among the perceptions. The case is the same whether we consider ourselves or others.”

We also see our successive perceptions connected by a cause and effect relation. Understanding this relation, whereby we see one perception leading to another, depends on the faculty of memory. Without memory, Hume believes, we would never be able to imaginatively construct a sense of self. And I can see the truth of this when I reflect upon my mescaline experience. While I may not have been recalling actual events when I was in a certain emotional state (since the images I was seeing seemed more creative), I can nonetheless recognise that these mescaline-induced images were, in some way, drawn from my memories. Furthermore, based on the assumption that I have unique memories of my perceptions and that my localised brain exclusively produces these memories, it makes sense that I will see my bundled self as distinct.

We can still question, however, whether there is an adequate criterion that allows us to divide perceptions into individual bundles. It is one thing to recognise that memory contributes to personal identity and quite another to understand why some perceptions are included in the bundled self but not others. For instance, I have memories linking together my perceptions of others and the world around me, but why does my sense of self often seem to exclude these perceptions? Under the influence of mescaline, I did not perceive in myself the qualities of inanimate objects, plants, animals, or other people; all of the qualities related to the self appeared to be restricted to the spatio-temporality of my physical body (and all the thoughts and moods demarcated by my body).

Of course, it is useful for the mind to delimit certain perceptions, with some belonging to the self and others relating to the rest of the world. The brain has evolved mechanisms to conjure up this convenient, illusory self, and there is a neural basis that shapes boundaries between the self and others. Nevertheless, it is also true that, under the influence of psychedelics, the neural networks contributing to the sense of self can be dampened and the boundaries between self and others can dissolve. Even if it is not clear what the exact principle is that divides perceptions into individual bundles, modern neuroscience and the experience of ego dissolution at least illustrates that this principle can be tampered with, changing – or completely breaking down – the boundaries of the bundled self. The malleability of the self and the possibility of having conscious experiences without it (in the state of ego dissolution) seem to bolster Hume’s ideas on personal identity.

Pike does, nonetheless, stress another potential flaw with Hume’s bundle theory. Hume claims to ‘look within’ and discover only a collection of perceptions in his self, but what is it that is doing the looking and the discovering? The same question equally applies to my altered state: When I was thinking about myself, did this thinking itself belong to this bundle known as the self, or was it something of a different nature? Hume denies the existence of a transcendent ego, a self that is more than just a bundle of perceptions, but he seems to refer to this kind of ego when he writes about observing and thinking about the self. I, too, was examining and having realisations about the self. Was I a bundle experiencing itself (like looking in the mirror)? Was I a bundle looking at this other, separate bundle called the self? Or was I an observer that was not a bundle of perceptions?

It may be that ‘looking within’ does not require a sense of self, that this introspection (which is more than just mindful awareness) could be its own kind of bundle. Yet even if one views the sense of self from the point of view of mindfulness, which, unlike introspection, is non-analytical, it is difficult to ascertain whether such awareness is a bundle or not. The simple quality of noticing could be a distinct property – not made up by a bundle of multiple properties – but, it is also possible to imagine the opposite.

While I have become more strongly convinced of Hume’s theory, the mescaline experience and my later analysis of it have in no way ironed out all of the potential issues with this theory. This fleeting experience, nevertheless, has ended up inspiring many questions and avenues of thought, which appears to be one of the key lasting effects of psychedelics. This experience did not provide me with a flawless revelation about the nature of the self, but it did provide a powerful conviction of a specific philosophical theory, similar to James’ experiences with nitrous oxide.

Next, I would like to draw on the notion of the five skandhas, as taught in Buddhism, as this concept bears a striking resemblance to Hume’s bundle theory, as well as to my personal experiences with mescaline.

The Five Skandhas 

The five skandhas are elucidated in the Heart Sutra, one of the most important sutras (Buddhist scriptures) in Mahayana Buddhism. Skandhas in Sanskrit (or khandhas in Pali) can be translated as ‘heaps’, ‘aggregates’, ‘collections’, or ‘groupings’. In the sutra, Avalokiteśvara – the Bodhisattva of Compassion – is addressing Śariputra – one of the disciples of the Buddha – and is describing how all phenomena are fundamentally empty; that is, empty of fundamental essence. This Buddhist notion of emptiness is referred to as śūnyatā. Avalokiteśvara famously states in the sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” And he explains to Śariputra that the fundamental emptiness of phenomenal reality can be known through the five skandhas.

In Buddhism, the five skandhas are what constitutes a person and personality. They give rise to our sense of self. The Buddha also catalogued and detailed the five skandhas in the Anattalakkhana Sutta or the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic, found in the Pali Canon (the earliest and most complete collection of Buddhist scriptures). They are as follows:

  1. Form (Rupa in Sanskrit): This refers to matter, something material that takes up physical space and which can be perceived by the senses. Rupa includes the material form of our bodies.
  2. Sensation (Vedana): This skandha refers to the physical or mental sensations we experience when our sensory faculties come into contact with objects in the external world (according to Buddhism, the mind is included as one such sensory faculty). These sensations can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
  3. Perception (Samjna): This is the faculty that recognises. It is what we might call thinking. This refers to our capacity to conceptualise and label things through our association of things with other things (e.g. I register and label a tree as a ‘tree’ because I associate it with my other experiences of trees). Context, too, features in perception, as we are able to recognise objects based on the context in which they exist (e.g. I recognise a dish as food because I see it served in a restaurant).
  4. Mental formations (Samskara): These mental formations include all volitional actions, both good and bad. Buddhists interpret actions as mental formations because the mind precedes all actions: an impure mind precedes a certain way of speaking and acting (leading to suffering) while a pure mind precedes a different way of speaking and acting (leading to happiness). Samskara includes all the mental imprints and conditioning that objects trigger within us, a process that initiates action. Biases, prejudices, attitudes, interests, and predilections belong to this skandha.
  5. Consciousness (Vijnana): This refers to awareness of an object and our ability to discern its components and aspects—and there are six types of consciousness, with each one consisting of one sensing faculty as its basis, along with a corresponding object. In Buddhism, these six faculties include the five sensory modalities we are familiar with (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), plus the sense organ of the mind. One example of consciousness would be visual-awareness, which has the faculty of sight as its basis and a visual form as its object. For mental-awareness, the mind is the basis and an idea or thought would be its object. Vijnana is dependent on the other skandhas.

The Buddhist conception of the five skandhas aligns with both Hume’s bundle theory and my mescaline-induced experience in some important ways. Firstly, the terms ‘heap’ and ‘aggregate’ are interchangeable with ‘bundle’. Thus, both the Buddha and Hume are essentially viewing the self with the same kind of conceptual framework; both see the sense of self as made up of component parts. According to the Buddhist and Humean perspectives, these distinct parts are bundled together, and it is through this bundling that the sense of a single self is created.

Like Hume, the Buddha taught that there is no real self occupying either an individual skandha or the skandhas collected together. The Buddhist scholars Damien Keown and Charles S Prebish write: “Canonical Buddhism teaches that the notion of a self is unnecessarily superimposed upon five collections or aggregates (skandha) of phenomena…”. In the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic, the Buddha asks his followers: “Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self”?” To which the monks respond: “Indeed, not that, O Lord”. The Buddha rejected the notion of atman in Hindu philosophy, which refers to an individual’s true self – their inner, unchanging self or soul. Atman is eternal and beyond identification with phenomena. In Buddhism, on the other hand, there is still no true self that exists apart from the five skandhas (the Sanskrit translation of anattā or ‘non-self’ is anātman, which means the opposite of atman).

Each skandha, and the five skandhas together, are characterised by śūnyatā; they are empty of any intrinsic, fixed essence. For this reason, they must be empty of true selfhood (anattā), as a self implies an unchanging essence. No self possesses the skandhas. No self underpins them. This selflessness or anattā also accords with the Buddhist concept of anicca (impermanence), which teaches that all things are impermanent and changing, and that any feeling of fixity (including the sense of having a fixed ‘me’ or ‘I’) is illusory. Indeed, like everything else in phenomenal reality, the skandhas are temporary and conditioned. Just as in Hume’s analysis, the skandhas are always in a state of flux. Indeed, Hume captures the essence of anicca and anattā in A Treatise in Human Nature, when he states:

The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.

The Varieties of Introspection

It is curious to note here just how closely Hume converges with Buddhist thought. Hume never explicitly refers to Buddhism in his philosophical writings, nor is there any record of him speaking or writing about Buddhist philosophy in general. The first Western philosopher to take Buddhism seriously and incorporate its ideas into a philosophical system was Schopenhauer. While living in Weimar, Germany, in the early 1800s, Friedrich Majer – a historian of religion and acquaintance of Schopenhauer – introduced Schopenhauer to Eastern philosophy, which led him to read Hindu texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the early Buddhist texts.

Schopenhauer said, “If I were to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I would have to consider Buddhism the finest of all religion”, and at times he referred to himself as a “Buddhaist”. Schopenhauer was undoubtedly impressed by Buddhism, although he claims he formulated most of his ideas before ever coming across the religion (although this is questionable) and only later realised the similarities; Schopenhauer, in line with Buddhism, argued that life is characterised by suffering and that this suffering is rooted in desire. Perhaps Hume too independently developed a system of thought that had affinities with Buddhism, without exposure to it. After all, it is not unheard of for the same or similar philosophical ideas to emerge in times and places that are disconnected from each other. This is known as perennial wisdom, and it can be accessed in different ways, such as through meditation, introspection, or psychedelics. Whether introspection takes the form of Hume’s, the Buddhist’s, or the psychedelic explorer’s, all forms can lead to a singular truth, the same realisation: the unreality of the self.

Nonetheless, Alison Gopnik – an affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley – has pointed out that it is possible Hume made contact with Buddhist philosophical views, potentially via the influence of Jesuit scholars at the Royal College of La Flèche in France. Charles Francois Dolu was a Jesuit missionary who resided at the Royal College from 1723–1740, a period which overlapped with Hume’s stay. Dolu had extensive knowledge of other religions and had first-hand experience with Theravada Buddhism since he had been part of the French embassy to Siam (now Thailand) between 1687–1688. Dolu was also acquainted with Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary who visited Tibet and studied Tibetan Buddhism from 1716–1721. This means it is at least possible Hume heard about Buddhist ideas through conversations with Dolu.

Whether or not he did, it is still intriguing to note even further similarities between his philosophy and Buddhist thought. One correspondence we find is between Hume’s introspective argument against the reality of the self and the Theravada Buddhist practice of developing vipassanā (‘insight’ or ‘clear-seeing’). The aim of developing vipassanā in meditation is to gain insight into the true nature of reality. This means understanding the truths of anicca, anattā, and dukkha. In Buddhism, anicca, anattā, and dukkha are known as the three marks of existence, which refers to the belief that all life is marked by impermanence, egolessness, and unsatisfactoriness (or suffering). The Mahayana tradition diverges from the older Theravada school of Buddhism through its emphasis on gaining insight into śūnyatā, the idea that all forms lack ‘inherent existence’, which is related to the concept of anattā. We can think of anattā as an aspect of śūnyatā since the former refers specifically to the emptiness of selfhood, an essential self, whereas the latter encompasses the emptiness of a fixed essence in all things.

In any case, through vipassanā meditation (which allows one to discern conditioned phenomena), one can learn that anicca, anattā, and dukkha define the five aggregates. To practise vipassanā, you want to cultivate certain qualities of mind, including sati (‘attention’ or ‘mindfulness’), which refers to the quality of paying attention to experiences without clinging to what is pleasant or being averse towards what is unpleasant. The Buddha’s explanation of mindfulness and how to practise it is found in the Satipatthana Sutta (the Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness). The development of concentration (samadhi) is also conducive to insight. Concentration differs from mindfulness in that it requires forcing the mind to remain focused on a single object (such as the breath). It is a strongly effortful activity. Concentration can also be referred to as one-pointedness of mind.

Mindfulness, in contrast, chooses the object of attention and simply notices when attention has gone astray. It involves effort too, but it is gentler in nature compared to concentration. Concentration does the real work of holding attention steady on a chosen object. It is through concentration that one develops samatha (meaning ‘tranquillity’, a calming and slowing of the mind). When the mind is calm, you will be able to see your experiences more clearly. Samadhi is a prerequisite for insight. By developing mindfulness, concentration, and calmness in tandem, you will be primed to understand the nature of the five aggregates.

The practice of vipassanā meditation may not necessarily be identical to the introspective awareness employed by Hume, but the qualities of mind involved in each are very closely related (vipassanā is a kind of introspection, after all). And both ways of looking inward yield the same result: the recognition that the self is a non-substantial collection of experiences. Another similarity between Buddhism and Hume is that the two are opposed to substance theory. Buddhism does not accept the existence of an underlying essential substance but instead, like Hume, views reality in terms of elements that are constantly combining and recombining.

While the specific categorisation and definition of the five skandhas may not fit my mescaline experience exactly, there are, nonetheless, some interesting parallels. For example, when seeing images of successive selves, a series of bundles, I could pick out distinct features or categories that made up the bundle, such as my physical body (rupa) and mental formations (samskara). I could see the variety of rupa (e.g. different kinds of facial expressions) and samskara (e.g. negative and positive states of mind). Like the five skandhas, the different qualities making up my sense of self were interrelated, so that particular thoughts, attitudes, and feelings correlated with certain physical expressions and demeanours. This experience also naturally helped to reinforce both the notions of anattā and anicca.

One of the noticeable differences between the five skandhas and Hume’s bundle theory is that the former is more systematic, given how it acts as a system of classification, dividing the bundle we call the self into five distinct aspects. Hume, on the other hand, does not view the self in this systematic way but instead sees it more generally as a collection of many different perceptions. We can glean another key difference between the two philosophical theories when we look at the intentions that Hume and the Buddha had when presenting their ideas. While Hume was simply trying to enlighten the reader about the illusion of the self, the Buddha was drawing attention to this illusion because of the additional belief that the five skandhas cause us to suffer. To the Buddha, gaining insight into this truth will help to liberate ourselves from suffering.

The Self Illusion and Suffering

In Buddhism, the skandhas are also called the five aggregates of clinging (Pañcupādānakkhandhā in Pali) because they are attributes that we crave and cling to, and it is through this clinging that we experience dukkha (this concept is often translated as ‘suffering’ but it more broadly means ‘unsatisfactoriness’ – life as dukkha is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism). To understand this, we need to examine the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, which states that the cause of suffering (or dukkha) is craving, attachment, and clinging. (Craving is not the only cause of suffering; Buddhists also recognise ignorance and hatred as causes, although craving is considered the principal and most obvious root of our discontent.) The Buddha said there are three types of craving (or tanha in Pali): “craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, and craving for non-becoming.” It is clear what sensual pleasures would include (e.g. food and sex); ‘craving for becoming’, meanwhile, refers to the desire to become this or that (e.g. wanting to be rich, famous, and powerful), while ‘craving for non-becoming’ pertains to the wish to get rid of something (e.g. wanting to eliminate a certain physical or personal characteristic).

Craving causes suffering because of the truth of anicca – anything we gain can be damaged, broken, lost, or stolen. Every gain will always be temporary and subject to change. We suffer when we want the things we have gained to be permanent. When we have this mindset, losing what we possess brings suffering, as does the fear of losing those things. Craving also brings suffering in the following ways: we become dissatisfied after not getting what we want, we become dissatisfied after getting what we want but realising that it does not meet our expectations, and we become dissatisfied after finding out that the satisfaction of a craving is never enough (since fulfilling one desire just causes others to arise). Hence, craving never leads to lasting satisfaction. It instead makes feelings of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) inevitable. Schopenhauer, too, emphasises this point when discussing his concept of will (a blind, unconscious kind of desire and striving that directs our behaviour). In his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation (1818), speaking of the will, he writes that:

…its desires are unlimited, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives birth to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its craving, set a final goal to its demands, and fill the bottomless pit of its heart.

We can now connect the relationship between craving and suffering to the Buddhist conception of the self. Our cravings for both becoming and non-becoming (the last two types of tanha) often relate to our sense of self: we want to be a certain way and also to lose certain qualities. These cravings cause us to suffer, however, because we do not feel satisfied until our self is the way we want it to be. Moreover, the truth of anicca makes the self a source of suffering because any state of becoming or non-becoming that makes us happy is only temporary. When we crave fleeting aspects of the self to stay the same, we are bound to be disappointed.

But the connection between selfhood and craving also runs much deeper than this. In order to cling to or crave something, you need two things: a clinger and something to cling to. You need to see the world as divided up into ‘me’ and ‘the world separate from me’. Yet according to Buddhism, this notion of separation is illusory; and furthermore, it is because of this illusion that we crave, cling, and grasp onto things. The belief in a separate ‘me’ that must be promoted and indulged is what leads to insatiable craving. If we continue to see ourselves as an ‘I’ separate from the world, then craving – and therefore suffering – will continue. The nature of craving also encourages emotions like jealousy, hatred, and fear to arise, which cause others to suffer too (think of the harm that can result when you act from the place of these emotions).

Part of ending our suffering involves relinquishing our attachment to the skandhas. And we begin this process by overcoming our ignorance about them, by seeing through the illusion. In this way, the Buddhist outlook is both normative and soteriological. It is normative because it makes a value judgement about the illusory nature of the self; it postulates that our attachment to this illusion has undesirable outcomes. And the outlook is soteriological because it teaches a way of relating to the skandhas (non-attachment) that can save us from our suffering. Hume’s account of the self, on the other hand, is simply descriptive. He does not claim that identifying with this bundle of perceptions leads to suffering; he merely states that this identification is mistaken.

Evaluating Bundle Theory and the Five Skandhas, in Light of the Psychedelic Experience

Following a subsequent experience with mescaline, I have come to find much value in the normative and soteriological aspects of the five skandhas. During this powerful experience, I found myself joyously lost in an ecstatic state, with my subjective personal identity completely dissolved. At one point, however, I could see my sense of self in my mind’s eye, like in the previous mescaline experience that I described earlier. Yet, the image of this self appeared differently. This time I was looking at a negative self-image, based around deprecating and limiting beliefs about myself. This image appeared tiny and mirage-like, and as with all mirages, I was able to discover its insubstantiality. I let it disappear into nothingness, and upon this letting go, a feeling of bliss and peace washed over me.

The amalgamation of the five skandhas can also be referred to as the ‘small self’ or ‘false self’ – and these descriptions resonate strongly with this subsequent mescaline experience. I was able to view my self-image detachedly as an observer, so that it appeared in the distance and separate from myself. Normally, I am identified with this small self, which makes it feel close to me and undeniably real. During this experience, however, this sense of self appeared as flimsy as a hologram. I no longer saw my habitual self as possessing the reality I thought it had. Moreover, I understood that this familiar sense of self, which had not been serving me well, was not something set in stone. It could be different.

The negative value I attach to this small self – and the relief accompanying its dissolution – underscores to me an advantage of the Buddhist perspective over Hume’s. Buddhism supplements the insight about the fictitious nature of the self with wisdom about the inimical effects of clinging to this fiction. However, the application of this wisdom should not involve an intention to eradicate the sense of self. As is consistent with the Buddhist view on the cause of suffering, the point is not to get rid of the thing which one clings to, but to refrain from clinging. Suffering arises not from the experience of pain, pleasure, or the self. It is caused by attachment to those experiences. I have since tried to think of this mescaline experience in terms of the principle of non-attachment, which does not mean a lack of interest in positive or negative experiences or giving up those experiences; it means not allowing these experiences to own you. Practising non-attachment involves experiencing the self – and benefiting from this experience – without becoming ensnared by it. In daily life, if I find myself caught up in the concerns of the chattering, insecure ego, it is helpful to recall the image of my small self. This re-imagining then recreates the same sense of spaciousness and detachment, and, in turn, the same feeling of unburdening myself.

To reiterate the point made at the beginning of this discussion, a sense of self has great utility. Belief and imagination work to fabricate the self because a more solid sense of identity allows us to live coherently and carry out activities. Hence, the normative and soteriological aspects of the five skandhas do not imply that one should reject the self in everyday life in order to alleviate suffering, only that one’s relation to the self needs to change.

Connecting these lessons to my own ego-dissolving experience, the fruitful path to take seems to involve building and strengthening a healthy ego, so that all aspects of life – lived from the egoic standpoint – can be fulfilling. After all, viewing oneself, others, and the world through the lens of a negative and limiting ego will lead to negative and limiting experiences. At the same time, having a detached (but not indifferent) attitude towards this secure sense of self will stave off the dangers of clinging. This creates a balanced self that avoids the unnecessary extremes of both self-centredness and self-abnegation.

 

This essay originally appeared in issue XXXIII of the Psychedelic Press journal.

2 Comments

  1. Alex
    November 2, 2021 / 8:11 am

    Thank you for such a coherent & deep analysis of the construct of ‘Self’.
    My experiences with psychedelics confirm yours. It is interesting in our ‘Self’ driven times that they are now being considered as ‘medicines’ to ease depression/anxiety- states, from a Buddhist perspective, created by the illusion of Self & attachment (craving) & aversion.
    Perhaps it would also be helpful to consider how/if Jung’s ideas on Self/Collective unconscious/Archetypes contribute to an understanding of this?
    Also the importance of the Buddhist idea of an Absolute Self (Awareness) working in tandem with the Conventional (Conditioned) Self – the Middle Way.

    Is it possible to provide a bibliography for your article?

    • Sam Woolfe
      Author
      November 2, 2021 / 9:07 am

      Thanks, Alex. It’s interesting these experiences can all lead to the same conclusion. I think Jung’s ideas on the Self can definitely help contribute to an understanding of how issues like depression are related to issues with the sense of self; in a Jungian sense, disharmony between the unconscious and conscious, or a lack of individuation, leads to many psychological problems in his view.

      The sources I drew on for my essay are hyperlinked throughout, but I would be happy to send over the bibliography that’s included in the original essay in print.

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