Self & Character Sheets

I said I was going to write about meditation, but some tweets I saw on Twitter have aimed me in a different direction: the concept of no-self. Since this is a tricky thing to get your head around, let me come at it from an angle I understand better than Buddhist philosophy: role-playing games.

In Dungeons & Dragons, you portray a character who’s represented by a list of numbers and descriptors. One of the numbers represents how strong your character is; another how healthy or wounded you are; and so on. You also have a list of skills you’re good at, a list of what you’re carrying, perhaps a list of spells you know, etc. All this information can be written down on a few pages which are jointly called your character sheets.

Other role-playing systems also use character sheets. Different games have different information on their sheets, depending on what’s important in the game—a game about superheroes needs different information than, say, a game where you play a pirate or a spy—but all RPGs distill a character down to a page or two of attributes.

Games have to work this way because games need rules, and the number of rules needs to be small enough that people can actually remember them. Inevitably, then, games simplify life, and character sheets are severe simplifications: you can’t really sum up a complete person in a few pages.

More generally, every representation of a person is a simplification. For example, a 400-page novel is just a long character sheet. With subtext, a novel can suggests depths that aren’t explicitly on the page, but it’s still small in comparison to actual life.

Even a very long novel is short compared to a lifetime. I just took a look at audiobooks of War and Peace, and they run between 60 and 70 hours. That’s a lot of reading, but it’s still less than three days. A good novel makes you feel as if you know the characters exceedingly well, but you don’t actually “live” with them very long at all.

Now back to “no-self”. My personal take on this is that your idea of who you really are is just a character sheet. It’s a simplification that misses so much, it blinds you to reality. It’s always off-base. The truth is that we’re constantly changing; right now we may be angry but thirty seconds later, we’re wondering what we’ll have for supper, and then if there’s anything funny on Twitter, and so on.

This isn’t just a symptom of modern distractibility—the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago. The human condition is that we change from second to second. Even scientifically valid personality profiles like the Big Five are only another type of character sheet. They may be useful in some contexts (just as character sheets are useful when you’re playing a game), but they aren’t the unchanging truth of who we are.

So what is the truth? How do we get at it? The answer isn’t finding the “right” character sheet that will encapsulate our “self” correctly. The answer (according to the Buddha) is to give up trying to find an encapsulated self at all. Just pay attention to your body and mind in this moment…and in the next moment…and in the next. Avoid trying to make a character sheet of who you “really” are overall. Just know what’s happening in the moment.

And that takes us back to meditation…which I really will try to talk about next time.

{Image of Stormbringer character sheet in German from Ingo Willms, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D from Wikimedia Commons}