What is the self?

Imaginary triangles, Buddhist texts, and psychedelic ego-death

An artist painting himself: his ‘self’ — whatever that means (Source)

Part I

The Freudian ego

We’re all familiar with Sigmund Freud’s tripartite division of the psyche into the id, ego, and superego. In this structure, the ego is a mediating factor which balances the wild and socially-unacceptable impulses of the id against the civilized demands of the superego.

Our psychical bedfellows, according to Freud (Source)

The ego as gestalt

The Freudian ego is a demarcation, readily apparent in our speech, which selectively includes and excludes mental contents from the space of self-identity. To understand how these contents can be distorted, we need to understand the ego as a gestalt.

Pareidolia and distortion

So far we’ve established that the ego is like a gestalt, only instead of being imposed on our field of vision, it’s imposed on the field of mental contents which constitutes our self-identity. To understand how this imposition comes about, we first have to understand pareidolia.

The ego-structure

Let’s call the gestalt which constitutes the ego the ego-structure. Like Freud’s ego, it’s responsible for a process of distortion and transformation. But instead of being a distortion of id-impulses in accordance to the rules of the superego, it’s a distortion of the facts and experiences we encounter in the world as a function of our self-identity, analogous to the way that paradeiloia distorts our perception.

  • Driving home from a party, we remember the events of the past night in a descriptive, linear manner (provided that not too much alcohol was involved). But as the date of the party continues to recede weeks and months into the past, you’ll inevitably find that certain moments are remembered less, and certain moments are remembered more. These may be joyful or embarrassing moments, involving others or totally private, full of feeling or strictly abstract: but no matter what, whatever personal significance they have on you that day will ensure that they’re crystallized in your mind as the party plunges further into the past.
Parties consist of moments to remember, but equally so, of moments to forget (Source)

Part II

Transcendental unity

Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who demonstrated that our experiences are presented to us under certain conditions. We find that things are ‘out-there’ in space, and ‘moving’ in time: these aren’t features of the things in themselves, but rather, mental categories which we use to encounter and interpret the world.

Naked perception

In chapter 4 of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we find a good description of the self as transcendental unity. The best way to understand it is to see how this self is inherently paradoxical.

An illustration from the Tibetan Book of the Dead

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

We shouldn’t forget that The Beatles were a major artistic expression of the philosophical wisdom of the 1960s, and as such, it’s no surprise that they give us an excellent description of the transcendental subject.

Five men who glimpsed the eternal bliss of the naked present (Source)

Ego death

We’ve read about the distinction between the self as ego-structure and the self as transcendental subject. Now we take a trip to psychedelia for a striking example of the transition between the two.

Huxley describes his psychedelics experience in this book


In our everyday awareness, the self takes the form of an ego-structure, which distorts our present experience in a way that’s equally deleterious as it is constructive. But through meditation, we are capable of expanding our awareness so that the self takes the form of a transcendental subject, which doesn’t impose any structure to our experiences but simply lets them be.

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