We have a modular mind with conflicting modules in our mind
Where is “I” in my body? Isn’t it a funny question? Since we are so sure about the answer, we seldom think about this aspect of Self. However, this is a highly debatable question in philosophy as well as in neuroscience. Let’s first examine our physical body. Over a lifetime, all of us change significantly.
As an adult of 68kg, I have about 34 trillion (34,000,000,000) cells. In every minute, 300,000,000 (30 crore) cells die and are replaced by new cells. In about 7 to 10 years, most of the cells are replaced. Baring a few cells in the brain and some other parts of the body, all other cells are replaced. I have a new physical body.
Given that my body has changed completely, how is it that my Self, my identity, remains intact?
Is it because of the fact that my name, my family, and my background stay the same throughout life?
Or is it that my body changes so slowly that I and others usually don’t notice the changes?
Suppose there is a bus and that has a name. It’s standing in one fixed place in a city. Every year, someone replaces one part with another identical part. After 20 years, when all of its parts have been replaced, people still call the bus by the same name.
Unlike this bus, however, “I” is a lot more than a body. It is an amalgam of physical body, mind, emotions, experiences, etc., and all of these constituents of “I” are changing constantly. It means there is no permanent Self in me. In that sense, the Self is not real.
That’s why the question about Self becomes very relevant and perplexing too.
Buddhism Theory about “I”
In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of “non-self,” that there is no permanent Self or soul. It means we have no fixed Self. It doesn’t mean that we have no Self or that it doesn’t exist, simply that it is impermanent.
It essentially means that everything is constantly changing within our physical body. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, and millions of biochemical processes are changing.
Nothing is static in us. In Buddhism, “I” consists of five aggregates, namely — body, feeling, perception, mental formations (emotions) and consciousness. If we examine these five constituents, we see we have no ultimate control over any of them.
Moreover, their properties are not associated with the Self. All the aggregates of being are not “mine.” If ‘I’ has no control over any of the aggregates, then obviously there is no CEO in my body.
If we observe ourselves for some period, we see in our mind whenever we make any choice or decision that conflicting ideas emerge. Like when we switch on our TV, immediately conflict arises as to which channel we should watch.
One part of self is saying I should see the news channel; some other part of self is insisting I must enjoy some entertainment channel because I am tired and need relaxation. Suppose I decide I should catch up on the news.
Now a new conflicting situation arises as to which channel. Which of my three favourite channels will I choose? Likewise, our mind harbours multiple states having varying degrees of conflict with one another. Hence, self consists of numerous conflicting drives, which continue to compete with one another.
Since there is no CEO or conscious Self in our body, many parts of selves strive to catch our attention and dominate. This is why our mind is usually in a somewhat unstable and conflicted position.
Take another example: I am very fond of eating sugary desserts like ice cream after dinner. Almost daily, my mind is in a conflicting situation. One part of self always insists that unhealthy treats be avoided after dinner. However, other part argues that nothing would happen if I were to take ice cream today – just this once, and in moderation. Every day the same situation arises.
It’s a typical case of conflict between short-sighted self and long-term self.
Each one of us comes across such conflicting desires. At those moments, “I” keep on struggling to make a balanced choice. Since there is no in-charge of Me inside, we keep on facing such dilemmas all the time.
Theory of Modular Mind Conflicting modules in our Mind
There is a theory of modular mind, which states that our mind has a number of modules that are acting separately at the same time. There is no part of self that controls or coordinates these modules. They don’t report to any authority stationed in our brain/mind. When we are in conflicting situations, different modules are active and trying to dominate the others.
Noted American journalist and science author Robert Wright explains:
“Your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—a module for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behaviour.
And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part… This model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.”
Our mind is quite often full of contradictions, conflicts, and inconsistencies because there is no controlling self in us. So-called conscious self almost always thinks it’s in charge of us. However, the fact is the conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority controlling our mind and its various modules that are experiencing conflicting drives.
The self is not real, hence illusory in nature. But there are ways to make conscious-self strong and decisive. That can be done through mindful living.
For mindful living, we should try to live in present with higher level of self-awareness. Mindfulness is the key to enhance self-awareness, conscious behaviour and mindful action in our life. Mindfulness is nothing but be present on the moment and observe whatever is happening around us in non-judgmental way. We shouldn’t react but respond in conscious way.
It’s not easy to become ‘mindful’ and conscious, it needs regular mental exercises such as meditation and practice of mindfulness. While eating, walking, working, interacting with others, we should be mindful. This is nothing but mindfulness.
Meditation Practice to Dissolve Egoist Sense of Self
As we practice meditation, our egoic sense of self gets ‘lighter’ or ‘dissolve’. It means our ego becomes weak day by day as our practice over a longer period. As ego weakens, our strong sense of identity also becomes more and more weak and the stage may come when there is almost ‘no-self’ in conventional sense.
This is what happens when meditation practitioners do rigorous practice for years together. During meditation, precise and deep attention shows them emptiness everywhere. The ego, the outer façade of identity, gradually goes away and ‘true self’ remains. The time comes when they start seeing ‘no-self’ in their psychosomatic body.