A reader sent me this interesting lecture from Stanford Lecturer Kelly McGonigal about the neuroscience behind self-referential processing. She sums up the main point of her argument thusly: "we carry the seeds of suffering in our own minds, primarily through the human mind's habit of carefully constructing and then rigidly defending a sense of self that is based on our preferences, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our personal stories and that it's this churning of the self machine that gives rise to so much of our daily suffering."
It discusses whether there is some way to have a self-awareness that does not engage the self-referential processing, i.e. an experiential self that is not based on the narrative of self-referential processing or the stories we tell ourselves, but rather is based on "the awareness of the constantly changing feelings, thoughts, and things going on in our environment". The answer is yes, but only among people who are trained in meditation. My personal experiences and anecdotal knowledge regarding sociopaths suggests to me that this would also include sociopaths, who naturally have a weak sense of self (see also here), and seem to experience self-awareness almost entirely as the experiential self, not the self-referential self (using her lexicon).
It's interesting too that this lecture was apparently given at a Buddhist conference. I have never bothered to learn much about Buddhism, but people have frequently remarked here on how the sociopath's detachment from self and lack of anxiety regarding outcomes is what many Buddhists hope to accomplish in order to achieve Nirvana. And sociopaths just happen to be born that way.
Here's what the reader wrote:
There's 3 categories in the experiment:
2) recent meditators
3) experienced meditators
My understanding of what happens:
Category 1 feels the pain, then thinks "how long will this go on, why me? oh shit? get away, get away!"
Category 2 feels the pain and focuses on their breathing. They ignore the pain as best they can by focusing on something else. Meditation has given them the ability to concentrate, so they concentrate on something other than the pain.
Category 3 feels the pain and tries to feel and examine it as best they can. They are so busy doing that, moment by moment, they aren't thinking, "why me, how long will this go on" etc. because when they really focus on what they are sensing, as opposed to how things aren't how they would like it, they lose their sense of self.