Self Is Fiction

“There is no attainment of a higher self in Buddhist theory; instead, only an exposure of what has always been true but unacknowledged: that self is fiction.”
–Mark Epstein
Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective
New York: Basic Books (1995) p. 154

Pay attention to the last three words from the above quote: self is fiction. It’s difficult for Westerners to accept this genuinely Eastern principle. We in the West strive daily to “do things,” to “make things happen” in our lives.

Our Buddhist friends from the East see things very differently.

Although we like to assume that we can improve our “selves” through hard work and persistence, we forget one vitally important truth: self is fiction. Contrary to what the plethora of self-help books at our local Borders might proclaim, the self is not an object we can manipulate to our liking; it is not a thing, like a rock is a thing or a chair is a thing.

In reality, the self is an illusion we use for staying grounded; it’s like the ropes tying down a hot air balloon that, if it were not anchored to some fixed entity, would float into the sky without anyone manning the controls. Rather than allowing the balloon simply to be, to let it exist in its current elements, we wish to tighten the ropes of self that, while keeping us “safe,” never grant us true freedom or the wisdom to accept that we are inherently nothing.

The truth is, we are all balloon-like and we are already floating, even if the gravity of self wishes to tell us otherwise.

The self is a fantasy, a futile attempt (out of our yearning for attachment to something, anything) at achieving an inkling of permanence in an ever-shifting world. We try to make our “selves” into things and end up failing miserably.

This is why, as Epstein points out, “there is no attainment of a higher self in Buddhist theory.” How can one reach a “higher self” when no self existed in the first place?

One thought on “Self Is Fiction

  1. nytsmasher76 November 13, 2008 / 8:43 pm


    Though seeming illogical as your last statement is…It is true but the point of Buddhism is that there is no self, refers to the unchanging self or the self that is not the least influenced by other outside factors…

    The “self” and the “environment” are ultimately one. This is elucidated in the Lotus Sutra, the ultimate teaching in the Mahayana Canon.

    As you tend to the whims of the ‘self’ suffering ulitmately results too…


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