“Moralists say we have to overcome our selves because they are selfish

Psychotherapists say most people’s aren’t working well, and need tune-ups using their expert understanding of how selves should work

Spiritual teachers say we have somehow misplaced and forgotten our true selves, and must go on quests to find them

Most implausibly, Buddhists say the self does not exist—and, worse, many pop science writers agree!”

“Mostly, though, we try not to think to much about questions of self; it is anxiety-provoking, and experience shows it usually doesn’t lead anywhere useful.”

“Then these stances claim that there is such a thing (but maybe you have the wrong sort); or that there isn’t one (and you are stupid and doomed if you disagree); or that there ought to be one (so you need to create or find it); or that there ought not to be one (so you need to get rid of yours).”

“boundaries are always nebulous: vague, changeable, and purpose-dependent. This is especially true of the self/other boundary. Where we draw it varies according to what we are doing—and rightly so. The same applies to boundaries between different parts of the self (insofar as it is meaningful to speak of “parts of the self” at all).”

“we apply bits of all these stories about “self” in different circumstances”

“These combine in extra-confused ways. Some people claim that your self really doesn’t exist, and it is bad, so you need to get rid of it. Some claim that you have a hidden True Self, and it is the same thing as having no self. Some claim this True Self is The Entire Universe.

All such confusions come from the assumption that “the self” must live in something like a house, with solid walls that stay put and keep hailstorms outside and your pet aardvarks inside. Crazy ideologies begin when insightful people notice the self/other relationship not working like that, but lack a framework for understanding nebulous boundaries.”

“Recognizing that the “boundary” between self and other is both patterned (non-arbitrary, partly predictable, somewhat reliable) and nebulous (ill-defined, unstable, purpose-dependent) dissolves all the confused stances. I call this complete stance “intermittently continuing.” Here, “self” is not a thing; it’s nebulous patterns of interaction. It is sometimes useful to say “selfness” or “selfing” to underline the non-object-ness.

Having abandoned the confused stances, there’s much to say about selfness in the complete stance. And this is all fascinating and often useful. But it’s important not to overvalue the details (so I will reluctantly limit my discussion). There’s more value simply in dissolving self as a problem. Once you firmly set aside the confusions, what remains doesn’t require a lot of fussing over.

For the complete stance, meaningness lies in dynamics: patterns of interaction. To understand any particular dynamic, you have to look at aspects of both “self” and “other,” and also the “boundary” between them. (I’ve put scare quotes around all these to underline their nebulosity and non-object-ness.) Typically, most of “the self” and “the world” are irrelevant to a dynamic, so they are the wrong conceptual categories.”

“The problem is not with the house, nor with the world outside the house. The problem is an activity that actively transports creatures across the boundary. Discussion with your daughter reveals that her biology teacher has told her that aardvarks eat bugs, and the biggest bugs she could find were tarantulas, so she thought your pets would especially enjoy them. A misconception easily corrected; problem solved.

Meaningness is like this, I will suggest. It is neither objective nor subjective: neither outside the self, nor inside. Rather, meanings are patterns of activity that cross the nebulous self/other boundary.”

“l. It contradicts the ideal of a unitary subject with free will, because activity is always a dynamic, improvised collaboration with nebulous-but-patterned otherness.”

“Any causal analysis of activity has to trace high-frequency loops of mutual influence that cross the self/other boundary. We cannot make independent choices because the permeability of that boundary—via perception and action—means we are never independent. It is futile to try to force interactions to conform to a preconceived idea of how they should go.

We cannot even control ourselves, because phenomena switch frequently from “self” to “other” and back; because “parts of self” have nebulous boundaries themselves; and because they are often more closely coupled to “other” than to other parts of self. As a dramatic example, when two people fall in love against their better judgement, each person’s emotions communicate more with the other’s than with their own more dispassionate thoughts.”

“Intermittently continuing means learning to be comfortable with the ambiguity and unpredictable changeability of selfness. That requires attention, courage, hard work, and good humor. However, it frees you from neurotic self-obsession, and increases the effectiveness and enjoyability of your relationships.

Supple, skillful selfing makes for satisfying, successful interactions. Firm and fluid othering enables us to play with the self/other boundary—whose interpenetrating nebulosity and pattern become a source of amusement. We can co-construct our lives as art projects in the shared space of meaningness, not inside or outside, but between and surrounding and pervading us.”