The hierarchy of self

In a rarified framework one could split systems and their behavior with respect to value into three types. The first, which I’ll call gluttons, seek only to increase value within the system. The second (called bridges) maintain an equilibrium where they don’t change the measure of value either within or outside the system. The third (called martyrs) seek only to increase value outside the system.

All these characterizations intimately depend on the self/system boundary, and can turn one into another by changing it. Consider a world with a glutton and a martyr. Value is passing from the martyr to the glutton while the glutton accumulates any of its own generated value. By drawing a new self boundary around the both of them the new system can be seen as a glutton just increasing its own value. More generally one can cut up or combine systems into these types in many ways by drawing different boundaries. How greedy or generous a system is will be relative to it’s particular self boundary.

In our lives the self boundary is not so distinct. It is more like a series of concentric circles, with the inner ones more central to the self than those further out. We have our mind, our body, our lover, our family, friends, acquaintances, etc. Possessions can be put in this hierarchy as well, with more unique and personal possessions considered more central than generic ones.

Focusing on any one circle of self can make one appear more selfish or generous. If someone gives a lot to their close friends and family and little outside (and these people do the same) then the group as a whole can be seen as a selfish system even though its individuals are not selfish within it.1

With regards to humans these concepts of self dominate decision making, and the threefold classification is somewhat beside the point. People generally only make sacrifices for those they identify with to some degree. The movement and creation of value can be seen as being dictated by the force of identification and the dynamics of self.


  1. In the context of evolution (where value is equated with existence and reproduction) this resonates with the theory of multi-level selection.

The braid of truth and value

To what extent can beliefs and values be independent? How independent should they be?

Any finite being cannot have beliefs about everything, nor update all of its beliefs with every new experience. The choice of which beliefs to focus on is one way that values constrain and shape beliefs.

This being will be taking actions based on its values, leaving it to only encounter new information from the resulting situations. The beliefs that develop are limited by this information, revealing another avenue by which values shape beliefs.

And beliefs also shape values. Beliefs about what the world is and what things exist in it directly limit what kind of things you can value. Beyond that you can also change and refine your values as you develop your beliefs about yourself and the world.

Beliefs and values seem to be fundamentally entangled. If we think of everything in terms of action (considering belief updates as actions) then these connections express that no action can either be derived from, or solely affect, beliefs or values individually. Truth and value are seen as dynamically interrelated through the medium of action.

Insight meditation

Insight meditation is a process of objectification1. As awareness is directed and sustained internally, the subterranean mass starts dividing and is refined into elements that can be seen. Now in the light of awareness they can interact with the other elements and processes in that space, and become able to be harmoniously integrated.

As objects are seen distinctly in sequence, any particular object loses its power to hijack awareness into habitual patterns. The formerly automatic forces of attraction and aversion are experienced like winds of the mind, and no longer from the position of leaves within the wind.

These programs of reaction have been carved over time, changing and reinforcing themselves each time they arise. As the process of meditation starts to uncover them the force of their history is experienced in reverse. The memories of all these diverse experiences return vividly, accompanied by a natural understanding of their causal process. This awareness itself starts untangling the causal knot that forms the root of these addictive programs.

With the gravity of habit decreased the individual can experience these triggers with a new lightness and playfulness. They are no longer just the same situation in a repeating series but rather a novel and unique one, which invites the wisdom of creative awareness.

Having developed some understanding of the conditioning behind suffering one begins to see this conditioning in others. Actions that used to be judged negatively and equated with another’s character are recognized as the inevitable overflow of the same destructive patterns observed in yourself. A door is opened to transmute these patterns into skillful and compassionate interaction with others.

Lapses of awareness are bound to happen, but a continuous effort exercised intelligently will assure the ongoing transformation from a  divided and mechanical being to an integrated and creative one.


  1. Kenneth Folk first introduced me to this idea.