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Virtual Self / Actual Non-Self

I feel two truths that both feel equally true.

On the one hand, I know that selves don’t exist. Everything I’ve learned through my work in semiotics, philosophy, mysticism, and cognitive neuroscience has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that “selves” are constructs of language, culture, and power, that selves are the illusions of our own misunderstanding, and an illusion that keeps us separate from the transcendent non-self that we truly are, and most explicitly, that selves are only the temporary effects of our cognitive machinery.

On the other hand, I know that selves do exist. Everything I’ve learned through my friendships and romantic relationships, through hard work and personal growth, and my research into psychology has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that my “self” is a fact that I must love before I can love others, that I must harmonize my public self with my repressed self in order to become a whole, healthy self, and that this work is hard and must be done with courage, vulnerability, and wholehearted dedication to authenticity.

This past summer, these two truths weighed down on me as a painful contradiction. What was I to believe, knowing that my mental health and my relationships to others relied so heavily on the “self,” while my philosophical and spiritual beliefs so clearly understood the fiction of the “self”? Old habits die hard, and in this moment of conflict I wanted a clear, definitive resolution. I wanted to figure out once and for all which option was the Truth.

Of course, the answer was right in front of me. For years I’ve been chewing on the idea of “Both, and yet Neither” – why would this moment be any different?

The above diagram was my attempt to sketch-out visually the self / non-self dialectic. On the left side is the realm of “self,” the space of personas and shadows, of egos, and of the hard work of individuation. This is the space of intimacy and vulnerability, as so well articulated by researcher Brene Brown.

On the right side is the realm of “non-self,” the space of the void and the collective unconscious, the space of spiritual practice and the transcendent function. Between these two rests our embodied materiality – the fact of being a living organism with access to both realms. This diagram is thus a crude schematic to help myself understand the interplay of this dialectic. (This was a few months before refining this schema to the Void Mandala diagram, which I feel to be much more conceptually accurate). My main goal with this drawing was to ask, “How do self and non-self interact?” This question, of course, is the driving question behind Being & Death.

Virtual Actual Real

My central goal with understanding self and non-self as a “Both, and yet Neither” is to honor the reality of both sides, while holding strong the greater reality outside of either distinction.

About a year ago I was meeting with the digital anthropologist Tom Boellstorff. We were discussing virtual worlds like “Second Life,” and I off-handedly compared this game to the “real world.” With that phrase, Professor Boellstorff stopped me and clarified: “Paul, we compare the virtual world to the actual world. Both of these worlds are equally real.”

This distinction hit me like a revelation. Of course – both are absolutely real, only one is “virtual” and one is “actual.” This exact same logic can be applied to the self / non-self dialectic, as I do in the above notebook page. Selves exist, but they are virtual. Non-self exists, and it is actual. Both, however, are completely real. This mustn’t be forgotten. Most of us go about our daily lives only believing that selves are real. Many religious aesthetics remove themselves from life under the belief that only non-self is real. In reality, both are real. Thus, the question for Being & Death will be, “How do we honor both?”

BayN of BayN

This final notebook page is slightly more abstract, but basically articulates this same point again in different language. The realm of duality, of language and selves, is the virtual world. This is the world of opposites and binaries. When we “Both, and yet Neither” these dualities, we arrive at the Void, or the Tao, or God, or whatever word you prefer to use. This void-realm is actual.

However, we make a mistake if we end here. The actual world isn’t the “end” of the line in some hierarchical sense – it’s just another side. Thus, we have to “Both, and yet Neither” the very idea of “Both, and yet Neither.”1 We haven’t exited duality just by proposing a realm of non-duality, since “duality and non-duality” simply form a new duality, just as “self and non-self” form a new duality. The key, therefore, is to embrace both, but by doing so, also embrace the reality that lies beyond the both – the neither. Thus, the BayN of BayN is the reality that both contains and transcends the virtual and the actual worlds.


1. [This idea is not uncommon. See the “emptiness of emptiness” in Buddhism, or the “negation of a negation” in Hegel, or to “revolutionize the presuppositions of the revolution” in Marxist thought.]

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  1. Pingback: 7: Practicing Love | Live The Questions

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