How extraordinarily complex is your cognitive self-image structure? Not complex enough, and most likely wrong on several points.
Though our self-images are often self-sustaining, because we hesitate to take actions that would challenge them, and we tend to focus on information that confirms them. We rarely force ourselves outside of the box.
One important way in which humans deal with the chaos of life is by creating cognitive maps. Cognitive maps help us to find food, shelter, companionship, entertainment, security, and lots more. Cognitive maps don't have to be perfect to work well, they only need to be good enough to work most of the time -- especially when the maps are shared widely throughout a society. Yet, we rarely notice that our cognitive maps are imperfect, we usually act as though our knowledge of the universe (and our human society within it) is the universe, and we don't often trouble ourselves with meditations regarding what we do not know.
Our imperfect cognitive mapping abilities apply to ourselves as well. If you listed all of your self-characteristics, some of them would be wrong. The picture as a whole would be incomplete, inaccurate, and imprecise. For example, have you ever heard your own voice on a recording device? It doesn't sound like "you", does it? It sounds weird to your ears. You are used to hearing your voice from within, not from without, and unless you are a professional singer or voice personality, you probably don't pay any attention to what your voice sounds like even to yourself. You probably freak a little bit when you hear a recording of your own voice, if you are like most people ;-)
Well, your self-image represents your actual self poorly in other respects also, not just with regard to your voice. You don't look like that person in the mirror, you know. That person in the mirror is, of course, a mirror-image, flipped backwards right-to-left and left-to-right. Plus, most mirrors distort your image a bit, and most mirrors are too small to allow you to see your entire body at once, and a single mirror doesn't allow you to see yourself from other angles. You probably have no idea what you look like from certain angles that other people see all the time ;-)
And, your psychological self-map probably reflects your true self even worse than a mirror does, because you don't get the same sort of instant feedback that a mirror provides when you think about your personality characteristics. Not only do you lack instant feedback, but your personality-map usually causes you to experience your personality as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time you make a decision based on "I am [characteristic X]" you have created a self-fulling prophecy.
One by-product of a vigorous Buddhist meditation practice is a gradual dissipation of the self-image (along with many other faulty cognitive maps). Buddhists spend a lot of time doing nothing, and focusing on their present surroundings. While this might sound boring and useless, under proper direction a student of the Buddhist path will experience many insights during his meditations. Mainly, these insights are about the way we create dramatic stories about our lives, full of opinions and judgments and faulty assumptions, because we want our lives to be a certain way -- instead of attending to and appreciating the way our lives are, as is.
We attach great symbolism to arbitrary events, we selectively remember and exaggerate key events, and our stories about reality become our memories about reality, and we believe these memories to be true. Instead, scientific research has shown that our memories are limited, biased, and faulty.
A Buddhist meditator realizes that his memories are merely memories, that his fantasies about the future are merely fantasies, and that reality is the stuff around us right now, the 4-D perceptual well, the perceptions assaulting our skin and its specialized sensory organs. His knowledge, his imperfect cognitive maps, can be useful ways of meeting his needs, but that is all they are.
It can be unsettling to think that our current ever-changing surroundings & perceptions are all we really have. Typically we create cognitive maps containing relationships and possessions to comfort ourselves, and we think that these relationships and possessions are stable, and permanent, or at least we try to make them so. Because we don't want to sit still and realize how imperfect and impermanent are all our perceptions and knowledge.
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