Late Night Thoughts, Self

Is the Self Like an Onion?

There are numerous theories of the self.  In the West, for instance, the predominant theory seems to be that the self is an eternal and individual soul.  Consequently,  many — perhaps most — Westerners expect to survive more or less as themselves for eternity.  An interesting idea.

You get a very different take on the self from Japan, where some people speculate the self is like an onion.  That’s to say, when you delve into yourself — when you explore your self — you encounter layer upon layer as you go deeper into you self.  But in the end, what is there? 

Nothing.  Just like an onion has nothing at its core, so the self is in the end nothing.  And, of course, that means there is no immortal soul in this theory.

I tend to favor the onion theory because it comes closest to matching up with my experiences.  But what about you?  What’s your theory of the self?

22 thoughts on “Is the Self Like an Onion?”

  1. I think the self is just a point of reference, a perspective, something to organize things around. I think that is similar to the onion idea. Although, I do wonder about the past-life memories people have under hypnosis. Perhaps the self in the past-life could be an onion too?


  2. @ Kysha: That’s quite interesting to think of the self as a perspective. Thanks for that suggestion!

    @ George: “Onions are seeds…” Yes, and the self seems at times to be fertile. Good point!


  3. Self is interesting when others reside inside. I am no longer singular yet have a singular identity and personality. Self is a reflection of how the external interacts with your emotions.


  4. I think the need/desire to define “self” (especially the western idea of “soul”) is simply a reflection of our unwillingness to accept our biological realities: We are born, live for some indefinite period of time (during which we may succeed in our only “purpose”, to procreate), and then, eventually return to that state of non-existance we occupied before we were conceived. “Self”, it seems to me, is nothing more nor less than our awareness that we are currently in that state of existance that takes place between our conception and our inevitable demise.


  5. I’ve been thinking about something similar lately which might add to this idea of the onion-self. I was wondering how people define what has value… specifically the sense of self-worth or self-value. Everyone that I know, that I’ve heard in stories, that I’ve experienced, has a need for meaning. That meaning often is defined by the self, at least in western culture. In eastern culture, it is defined by “we” to a stronger extent. A different sort of self that is a collective being. Perhaps that is why those who like the Eastern-onion idea can be “nothing” at the core, because the core is not what holds worth.

    I find it interesting that most people I talk to, if I say to them “I am worthless” then they would try to tell me that is not true, and say things to make me feel better because the only reason someone would say that is because they feel bad about themselves or have little confidence. Is is possible to be “worthless” or to have no value, and be happy? Is a sense of self, and sense of value of the self, necessary for it? I think I like that onion idea, too.


  6. Today as I walked along the beach, I tasted my salty tears as they rolled down my cheeks, returning to the ocean from which they first came.

    Everything I am is or was part of something else. The earth, the sky, the ocean, the stars. How many ancestors did I descend from? That’s not nothing. That’s just about everything.


  7. I have felt that the ‘self’ is of onion-like nature – aspects of the self grow in layers, each layer containing the same essence but it’s development dependent on external variables, so, if you cut that onion-self in half to expose the growth rings and the variations in their fleshiness it is simple to see the ease or struggle of the essential ‘self’ at different times of the life cycle of the onion-self. It is much like the annular rings of trees showing the stresses or variables which impact on life over a long period of time. I am in my sixties now and find my concerns and questions about life are much the same as in earlier periods of my life. The nutrients of experience yield variations of pungency to my different decades, but the essentials have always remained the same. G


  8. @ Brian: Would you say the self is more than just how the eternal interacts with one’s emotions?

    @ Paul: It does seem to imply those things, but the metaphor also seems to imply that the self is nothing. So, putting it altogether, what is it, exactly, that lives on? Karma?

    @ Harvey: I think there is a reluctance to view things — especially oneself — as impermanent. Hence, we look for some way or another to think of ourselves as permanent.

    @ Briana: We may have a need for meaning, but it can be very liberating to be without meaning.

    @ Kysha: There’s certainly something to be said for that view.

    @ G: That’s a rather beautiful metaphor you’ve got going there.


  9. I have been listening to the science community’s search for the specific particles of the vaccuum of negative pressure that gives weight to everything in the universe. They’ve built enormous labs to find it.

    Perhaps instead of looking at everything and nothing I should be looking at what gives my life meaning and order. What is the purpose of my life, the glue that holds all the disparate parts together?


  10. The idea that most people seek “meaning” or “worth” in this existance is entirely a conditioned response, largely the result of the pervasive presence of some sort of religion that is presented to us by parents/teachers/pastors during our formative years. As I have already suggested, reality neither requires nor suggests any “greater” meaning than exists for all other living things; to procreate and, if possible, to nurture the next generation until enough of them can procreate, thus making it more likely that our species will continue to survive. That people do not find this reality comforting or choose to believe that we humans are in some way “deserving” of some greater significance in the Universe than this life can provide is, of course, why every culture we know of has seen fit to create a deity. I find the almost certain prospect of eventually returning to whatever existance I had before I was conceived in no way demeaning or frightening. It is simply “how it is” and one who understands and accepts this can go about making the most out of his/her life without wasted energy or regrets.


  11. Harvey,

    The inner pressure to find meaning is the very thing that gives my life meaning. Giving meaning to the pressure and a place for it to unfold in my life is what is meaningful to me. If I didn’t actively give meaning to this inner pressure, I would have no meaningful reason to get up in the morning. I have experienced periods of this, it was diagnosed as depression. Sometimes, when I don’t actively give the pressure meaning and direction, it will find an outlet through bad habits. When that doesn’t work, depression is also the result.

    I don’t assign any religion or spiritual idea to this search for meaning per se. I think atheists are just as compelled to give meaning and purpose to their inner pressure as anyone else.

    If we as humans are somehow compelled or “conditioned” to live meaningful lives, Why fight it? Why not make the most of it without wasted energy or regrets?


  12. It seems to me that many people fall prey to depression precisely because they feel “there ought to be more to my life than this.” If this “pressure” truly originates within, at least it may be said that religion takes advantage of such human mental frailty by promising some better afterlife when this less satisfactory one is ended. All of this, of course, is what underlies much of human behavior, regardless of the particular belief system involved. You may actually be correct in recognizing that depression may be intimately related to perceived lack of “meaning” in life, but it seems to me that religion (in particular fundamentalist Christianity)is more often the cause because it implies that all men are somehow unworthy of God’s love and that if they don’t “figure it out” in time, are doomed to eternal damnation. I fail to see how this outlook can be very comforting to most individuals.


  13. There are many other ways to find meaning in life besides religion or spirituality. I find meaning in service to others. I know people who do what I do and find no meaning in it whatsoever. To them it’s just a job and a paycheck.

    Some people find meaning through their art, writing, films, having families, pets, achievement in sports, business, etc. I don’t think it matters how I find meaning or what meaning I find.

    I think it is simply the act of seeking and finding meaning that gives my life meaning. I think finding meaning is a uniquely human endeavor and that this is what makes me human and not just an organism that procreates.


  14. Kysha:

    “I think finding meaning is a uniquely human endeavor and that this is what makes me human and not just an organism that procreates.”
    You are probably correct that only we humans either try or need to find “meaning” in our existance, inasmuch as we are the only animals who appe4ar capable of doing so. In that sense, we are different (but not necessarily superior) from all the others we know about. However, I don’t think that this one difference is what “makes” us anything special. At best, it represents one characteristic that we have evolved over the millennia, which, perhaps, has some species survival value. All of us are, whether we choose to recognize it or not, organisms whose only “purpose” or meaning is to successfully carry on that species survival. I certainly agree, however, that whatever view of life helps you to either cope with reality and/or to maximize the value you can obtain from living it (“whatever floats your boat”) is a useful mental mechanism, as long as it does not have negative impact on your fellow organisms.


  15. I think that the self is the part that considers that which is outside or apart from itself. If requested to investigate or consider itself it becomes, not so much an onion, but an endless iteration of itself, considering itself considering itself.


  16. I think we’re more like an artichoke than an onion.
    My kids are the reason I’m convinced of this. When they were born there was something uniquely ‘them’ and as they have grown there is a consistency about them that is honest to that unique initial impression I had of each.
    There is no doubt that our environment causes a build up of layers but chip away and I believe at a persons core there is something unique rather than nothing.


  17. The onion self analogy does fit with neuroscientific discoveries and experiencial phenemonology.

    Lets prove it now.

    Take away eyes or more specifically the visual cortex – end up with no vision – just darkness.
    Take away hearing – silence
    Take away smell and taste – now have seriously diminished concious awareness – but still a very vivid “self”

    Now take out the sesory motor systems and sense of touch/pressure receptors/pain receptors (essentially A,B and C neural fibers entering the brain) – seriously dramatic diminishment of awareness we can hardly imagine. (perhaps similar to a “locked in coma” ???)

    BUT – with all this the person is able to think, reason and still has a self !

    So now the serious business.

    Lets remove parts of frontal cortex – eg like the famous story of “cage” whoi has the front of his skull blown off and survived.
    Now controlling temptation, coordinating future planning, decision making – all impaired.

    Now lets remove the Barokas and various other areas to do with speech processing (its been discovered than these are not as localized as they used to believe – but generally in left hemisphere – emphasis on generally) – self talk might disappear, language structure and sybntax becoming a jumble of noises – woops forgot we took out hearing, but interal thinking would be distorted if not shut down with some raw experience instead (based on reports from stroke patients)


    The mother of all onion layers.

    Start to peel away at all the memory regions, procedural memory, long term memory, short term memory, declerative memory…….

    What is time ?
    Where is time ?
    Has it gone ?

    There are some famous cases of stroke and disease destroying the hippocampus leaving people with a memory lasting from seconds to minutes.

    So ?

    Whats left ?

    No sensory information from outside world.
    No Linguistic and self talk abilities – thinking iself impaired
    Poor if any ability to make decisions (one would assume the locus of free will, somewhat contraversial – but now person probably has no freedom of the will – or very impaired.
    ….and no memory referance.

    Whats left ?

    Take out all the visual cortex and even dreaming and hallucinating gone (i.e more than just removing outside world signals from optic nerves/eyes).

    No imagination ?
    No thought ?
    No sensory data ?
    No ability to decide ?
    No time reference ?
    No spacial reference ?

    seems like conciousness has gone – layer by layer….into oblivion.

    Then again…
    God can come back to the rescue.
    It could be that there are only neural corollates of conciousness and that memories are recorded on some sort of akashic record or astral plane – somewhat a dualistic world view.
    So perhaps when the final layer of the onion is unplugged we pop into a new dimention – we become diamonds.

    Anyway diamonds dont last forever – stick a dimond in liquid oxygen, then in a bunsen burner and in a few minutes its all up in smoke converted to C02 ! There goes the dimonds.

    Perhaps there are platonic forms and your conciousness is transported to contemplate triangles and algebraic formula for eternity. lol.

    Perhaps Gods just kidding and playing with Himself. (Can be a nasty game sometimes! )


  18. I think the only thing I tend to feel in regards to an atheist I have not met is that they are probably extremely smart. I am not an atheist but I recognize that most of them are very smart. I do not like to see them mistreated and detest the fact that they are often mistreated. I have been through more than almost any commenter has as well as Mr “Paul” and respect his decision. I disagree with it but respect it. The self can be represented by an an onion as well as it can anything else. If you never choose to create a “God” to believe in or believe in eternity you will be fine. I have been at heaven’s gate and know things that I can only reveal in speech and never in writing. It may be a delusion from six weeks in a coma before my respirator was removed. Most “Christians” say that is the only possibility. They are usually exactly as wrong as you are. Give me a call if you want but I never answer blocked caller ID because of a current lawsuit. My number is in several court filings at 5:09-cv-05151.


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