The Hidden Self


I wrote the core ideas found in this blog article on “The Hidden Self” while I was in my car stuck in a traffic jam on I-5 south of Dunsmuir, near Mt. Shasta. I was about 10 cars back from the cause of the roadblock. Stretched across three lanes of a sharp curve in the highway was the flatbed of a semi that had overturned. It looked like it had rolled a few times before crushing the cab. Underneath the flatbed was either a car or part of the cargo container (I couldn’t tell which when I drove by it after waiting over an hour). It too was totaled. A helicopter was the first emergency vehicle on the scene, then followed police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck, and a bulldozer. The emergency workers quickly did their jobs, but there was nothing for medics to do, and the helicopter flew off empty-handed. When I joined the crowd of people who got out of their cars, there was barely anyone who remarked on the obvious tragedy and their good fortune in being stuck in a long line of traffic instead of inside the accident. I was glad that I had meandered through Dunsmuir, stopped at a deli, took my time before hopping back on the freeway. I could have made it past the accident or I could have been in it. The trouble with such accidents is that you never know if it could have been you had you made other choices.


“Atman,” a Sanskrit term associated with the higher self may refer to a hidden self. The Pali term ajjhattam,” literally meaning “higher self,” which I translated as “inner lord” in my novels, (though it is usually translated in the Satipatthana Sutta as “internal”) may give credence to this other meaning of being the innermost self, the hidden self.

By hidden, I mean, that it comes into and out of awareness and does not lodge itself within our constant stream of consciousness. It is not ever-present, but rather something that emerges when you look at your face in the mirror, when you fear death or illness, or when you are verbally attacked by someone and defend yourself.

This hidden self may just be a voice in your head, a way of holding your body tight, bracing for action, or it may be a story of who you are, what you deserve, what you believe. But when the hidden self appears, it often makes us think it is not going away. This is especially true with a grudge, an ambition, a seemingly realizable desire, a fierce longing. When those emerge, the self they belong to seems dominant, everlasting, and intractable. These periods of being embedded in a seemingly unchanging self can give our lives the unsatisfying experience of striving for the wrong things. And, upon a second look, we may ponder of the power of the hidden self to create a world that we are all too familiar with, with its loops of thought and emotion, moving in and out of painful states of mind, and how it keeps that world going from its cave inside our heart-mind.


I couldn’t help linking these two themes together, for the hidden self is a key player in our fears and hopes of an afterlife, even if we consciously believe there isn’t one. Usually, here we think of a soul that either lives in a heavenly or hellish realm of existence or one that re-incarnates in the womb of various creatures (mostly humans and pets).

At least one person, perhaps two or more, died in that auto accident on I-5 I mentioned earlier. Whoever it was had to face the reality of his or her body no longer breathing, never again being able to move, sense, or cognize. What made it possible for that person’s body to be alive was gone. Whatever that is, whether it is called a soul, a self, a life force, or life energy either vanishes altogether or moves on somewhere.

Let’s say it moves on somewhere. What does it take with it? The Buddhists would actually form this question inversely: Something, namely one’s karma, keeps moving on, and it requires a body and mind to incarnate. Karma precedes and becomes a necessary condition for future rebirth. Out of karmic formations, consciousness comes to be, as does a body. So, the hidden self is just another karmic formation, without any identifiable existence outside of the mind and body that is then formed.

For the Buddhist practitioner, any self, whether it is one’s personality, shadow, anima, animus, soul, or spirit is an ongoing patterning that grew out of actions performed in the past. It just doesn’t feel to be part of a pattern, and only when we step out of it and look around, can we see that what we call self is embedded in a dynamic pattern of experience.

If there is no actual self living on in this life, then there would be no self living on after death. The question of what will happen to me when I die is similar to what will happen to me if I no longer see my experience in terms of self.