Archive for the ‘Self’ Category


Monday, January 7th, 2008

Is this what I am, an ephemeral chimera? My gut feeling says, no. There is a will, a drive which springs from a level which is not available to the conscious mind. Consciousness – what it is and how it works, its relationship to the brain, dominates current discussion. Intentionality, the will, is hardly mentioned. Love, not at all. Yet it is becoming more and more clear to me that the will, especially as love, is equally important in understanding not only what it means to be human, but life itself. There is a desire, something akin to the much derided élan vital, which marks all life, especially human life. Our concepts are too static. We are guilty of Whitehead’s ‘misplaced concreteness’. To live is not just to be but to be doing, to be engaged, to be projecting oneself. The current preoccupation with consumerism has distorted our perception of what it means to be. We see ourselves as static entities consuming entertainment, food, pleasure and experience. Like Jabba the Hut we have become immobile. We need to shed the heavy and restricting bulk of our wealth and possessions. In order to give oneself and to be engaged in the flow of life and love one needs to be light, mobile and unencumbered.

Self and religion

Friday, January 4th, 2008

It strikes me that much of what I read about the self treats it as something static. Alan Combs in The Radiance of Being describes the self depicted in the Vedanta. This is atman, the eternal, unchanging source of the multi-layered structure which is the human being. This self is surrounded and eclipsed by a series of sheaths. These seem to be levels of awareness, ranging from the lowest, physical awareness, to the highest, rapture or bliss. All these exist together and progress is a progress in awareness not in being. He then goes on to compare the Vedanta model with those of Ken Wilbur and Jean Gebser. These follow the same pattern, though the names and the number of the stages may differ. They seem to me to be an attempt to join two contradictory ideas – becoming, growth and development with that of an eternal, unchanging substance. How these might be combined seems as intractable a problem as that of the mind/brain.

I see the self as a process of becoming in a much larger, a cosmic, process of becoming. I don’t know whether each individual self is necessarily eternal. I believe it has the capacity to become so. The soul is not an eternal, unchanging substance but a person who emerges from the dynamic process of relationships which is the cosmic process. The essence of being a person is being in relationship. It is a new complex of relationships which calls the person into being. The relationship of the mother and the father leads to the union of the sperm and ovum. This new entity grows and develops until a consciousness emerges and it becomes a person. A little later the person becomes self-conscious, caught up in a network of interactive relationships. Some of these relationships are positive and fulfilling, drawing out its potential. Others are neutral, while still others are harmful, damaging its ability to relate to others in an open and loving way. They turn it in on itself, creating a sense of isolation from and incompatibility with others. It is easy to see how important it is that the positive relationships should far outweigh the negative.

Nevertheless, however many the positive relationships and however few the negative, there is one problematic relationship which sooner or later impinges on a person’s awareness, and that is the relationship with existence itself. Eventually each person encounters the cold and impersonal reality of the brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. These immediately put all personal relationships into perspective. They are ephemeral; transient episodes in an all too brief life. Against the backdrop of history most lives are like shooting stars, flashing briefly into view and vanishing without a trace. It is no wonder that so much modern philosophy is negative and pessimistic. What can it offer except the encouragement to shout defiance at the blind meaninglessness of such a fate. It was in answer to this that religion was invented, or was it discovered? I think religion is an attempt to make sense of, to rationalise the awareness of the transcendent which has always been part of the human dimension. This is not something we can deal with as we deal with the other factors in our lives, like food, shelter and society. So we try to bring it down to a level we can cope with using myth, ritual and story. But never quite successfully. In the end all our human coping strategies fail and we find ourselves facing a dreadful (literally) void. This is the horizon of being, of existence itself. Beyond lies the greatest journey of all but, in spite of the glimpses we have had in the past, it takes a mad, blind courage to believe in the beyond. The myths and the rituals and the stories can help a little but there is no escaping the emptiness, the empty darkness and the absence. This too is part of the process.

Bursting the bubble

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I am still, after all the years of my life, trying to get a grip on myself. I should be getting better at it but it is still a struggle. My age helps. I can no longer dream the dreams of a young man. A year ago, less, that bothered me and I often wallowed in nostalgic ‘if only’ day dreams. No longer. I have caught a glimpse of the greatest goal of all and, unlike the adventures of youth, this one is within my reach. 

All my life it seems I have been pursuing God in one way or another. And many times, like the Zen parable, I have caught a glimpse of the ox. But it has always been my pursuit, my journey, my goal. Self has always intervened so that even the most self-sacrificial acts were in fact a disguised form of self-aggrandisement. This is why they all came to nothing. Now self has nothing to look forward to except diminishing faculties and eventual extinction. This was once the nightmare I could never bring myself to face. Sudden death? No problem – to be welcomed even. After all I believe in life after death. The gradual decline into the obscurity of senility – that was the nightmare. But now I know that (to paraphrase St. John) I must decrease so that He may increase. Self is the greatest obstacle to God realising himself in our humanity. The self is like a bubble, an inflated skin empty inside. It is often beautiful, with shifting iridescent colours. Dancing in the air above the waves it can rejoice in its freedom and think itself sufficient to itself. It does not realise that it came from the deep sea and that soon it will burst.


Saturday, October 6th, 2007

I woke up this morning thinking about this question of self. The problem for most of us, at least in the West, is that we see ourselves as substantial and enduring entities. I am the same person I have always been. I may have changed physically, and many of my ideas, my likes and dislikes, even my values may have changed, but I am still the same person I always was. This is the common perception.

This perception is reinforced by the Christian idea of a soul. In some way my soul is me. It was directly created by God at the moment of conception. When I die the soul will leave the body and go to Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven where it will wait until the Last Day and the General Resurrection, when the bodies of all who have died will rise and be united with their souls. Then those in Purgatory will join those in Heaven for an eternity of blissful happiness while those in Hell will remain there for ever.

When one looks carefully at this worldview a number of questions emerge. Is the soul substantial, i.e. the essence of a human person; that which makes it what it is? This is the Christian position, one which is based on Plato and Aristotle. It is dualistic, the soul is separable from the body and has an independent existence after death, at least for a time, until the General Resurrection. The earlier New Testament tradition, on the other hand, is not dualistic. The person is a living body. If there is to be life after death it can only be for a risen body.

Of these I prefer the NT version. One can imagine oneself as a mind within a body, detachable from it, at least notionally. But more generally our experience is that body and mind are two aspects of the same thing. Each affects the other profoundly. The idea of a detached mind, or soul, raises many problems. How can a soul, a mind, a purely spiritual entity have feelings, emotions and moods?

Past and present

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Meditation gets you firmly fixed in the now. Only the present is real. We can only act, only be, now, in the present. Yet the past weighs heavily on us. We carry it into the present ‘now’. If only I had said… If only I had not done… If only… We are constrained by what we have done, or left undone, by regrets, by guilt. The past no longer exists; it is over, finished, it cannot be changed yet its power to affect the present still lives on.

That was very badly put. It treats the past as though it was some external force, some extrinsic agency which shaped and determined us. But this is not the case. The past does not exist. Only ‘now’ exists and in this ‘now’ are memories. What you are now is the result of what you thought and did in previous ‘nows’. I can understand now why many Buddhists understand reincarnation, not as a succession of lives, but as being born continually into the present. We are born anew into this moment, this present ‘now’. We emerge from the womb of past ‘nows’, shaped and determined by them. If we do nothing the impetus they generated will carry us into this present moment, passively accepting that shaping and determination. We will continue to act and react as we have done previously. Our freedom to change, to remake ourselves now is constricted by the inertia of memory. We may talk about fate, or say, ‘I am what I am,’ or, ‘What will be will be.’ These are either excuses for our inability to take charge of the now, or they are an inference to cover up our lack of understanding of what it means to be a human person.

In meditation, as I focus all my attention on my breathing and on being aware simply of this present now, I realise that I am not my mind, no more than I am my body. Like a butterfly constantly fluttering about, my mind is rarely still. Quite independently of my will, which is trying to remain focused on my breathing, it keeps up a constant inner dialogue with itself, delving into memories, embarking on voyages of fantasy, flittering from one topic to the next. One moment it is anxious, the next fearful, then dreamily nostalgic. It is quite another world this inner world of the mind and it has very little to do with this real world of the present now – unless, of course, I allow it.

Mead and Watsuji say that the social self is an achievement. What we have achieved has depended on how much control we took of the present moments. How much control we can take depends on the influence of the past and the social context of the present. For some these can be liberating, for others they can be oppressive. It also depends on our vision of what it means to be human. It is tragic that there are so many people who have been damaged by their past and present experiences and who have little hope of being able to change because they have no other vision than that of their present context.

Meditation is not easy. It takes great effort to maintain concentration. Eventually, however, comes mindfulness and the acute awareness that only the present now is real; that the past can influence this now only if it is allowed to; that what I am is what I make myself to be in this moment. Memories, moods and feelings can all be ignored, relegated to another time and place. Only now is real and now I can be…? What I can be depends on what I understand and on what I believe.

The psychologist T. S. Lebra sees the structure of the person as having three dimensions : the interactional self, the inner self and the boundless self. The interactional, or social, self is an ongoing event, the result of the developmental process of education (especially language) and moral socialisation. The inner self is the ongoing dialectic between the I and the me constantly bringing forth new syntheses. It is a world of feelings and fantasies, moods and imagination. The boundless self – that is the most interesting one of all. It is the self we all need to discover.

I – me

Monday, October 1st, 2007

The relationship between the I and the me is not as straightforward as Mead makes out. He gives the impression that the I emerges into the present moment from the context of previous me’s, constituted by past events and relationships, and the relationships continuing into the same present moment; that this I is undetermined and in a position to be creative and introduce novelty. My impression is that this is not normally the case; that the I is, more often than not, determined by the present context, what the existentialists would call inauthentic existence. The I in fact is not an I but is subsumed into the me. The person is carried along by the tide of events and relationships accepting the me imposed by the generalised other. In order for the creative I to emerge a space needs to be created between it and the present me. This is usually generated by a crisis, or some crucial event which distances the I, forcing it to examine the present situation, which causes it to stand back, to put things into perspective.

Even then the I may not be in a position to be creative and innovative. It may be too constrained by the pressures and relationships of the moment, it may lack the imaginative resources to break free. Mead fails to take into account the energy generated by these surrounding events and the corresponding inner strength required to abstract from them. This inner strength needs a foundation, a base, a fulcrum from which it can exert itself. This may be a supportive relationship, it may an awareness that one’s being is rooted in Being. One of the advantages of meditation is that it does create this distance. It allows one to see how ephemeral are the shifting events and relationships. It brings into awareness the inner still point, the unmoving (and unchanging?) centre. I am reminded of the Chhandogya Upanishad:

In this body, in this town of Spirit,

there is a little house shaped like a lotus,

and in that house there is a little space.

One should know what is there…

What lies in that space does not decay when the body decays,

nor does it fall when the body falls.

That space is the home of Spirit.

Every desire is there.

Self is there, beyond decay and death.

Self and the Void

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

It is not quite as simple and straightforward as I made out yesterday. In addition to the observing by the I there is an inner monologue that never really stops. Every datum of experience, physical factors like an itch, or a belch, mental factors like a stray echo of a memory, a feeling, an emotion, each provokes an internal comment. It is almost as though the experience is not registered as an experience until it is commented upon. The comment then becomes the initiator of a train of thought drawing the I with it and away from simple objective observation. As the meditation progresses the periods of simple looking become longer and the inner comments come less regularly, but they never entirely disappear.

I can see now where Benjamin Whorf got his idea that thinking requires language. “Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” The trick, I imagine, is to master the ability to disengage the I from the monologue, allowing the monologue to weave its pattern in the background, while focusing on the experience of breathing in the foreground. It is at this time that the question of ‘self’ comes to the fore. Who is thinking? Who is observing? It is noticed that in the thinking mode there is not just one self. Each train of thought, each memory, feeling and mood seems to call out a slightly different self, sometimes a very different self. These selves are not coterminous with the I-self of the observer. The I-self is simply the observer, detached from these various selves, just observing ‘Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out.’ Who then is the I-self? There are various definitions of the social self from Zen to James, Mead etc. According to Mead

the self, conditioned by its social relations inherited from the past at the Me pole, must unify them all with a free creative act of emergent synthesis in the present at the I pole. It is this bipolar nature of selfhood wherein the emergent I in the present always responds to the socialised Me from the past which constitutes the asymmetrical, irreversible and cumulative nature of time’s arrow as a creative advance into novelty.

As a description of the self as an ongoing process this is fine but it does not really answer ‘Who is the I-self, the observer?’ All the other selves, the me-selves, to use Mead’s words, are the emergent synthesis in a particular present of a me constituted by social relations inherited from the past. But the I-self in meditation has detached itself from these. While he is aware of them in the background, as an observer, in the present foreground he is simply aware. What he is aware of does not constitute him, as awareness of social relations in the past helps constitute the me-self. In fact his awareness hovers on the brink of a void (sunyata) What is observed does not give rise to the observer. On the contrary, it is the observer who brings into (his?) existence the observed. To say, in Whitehead’s words, that the I-self, is “an act of emergent synthesis whereby each occasion of experience includes all previous actual occasions as elements in its own constitution” might help explain the origin of the I-self but it does not say who it is.

The question ‘Who?’ can only be answered in relational terms. Normally it is enough to say he is the son, husband, father, employee of… etc. But there are two occasions when this is not enough. One is when facing death. At this moment one faces the cessation of ones existence. All the past and present relations which constitute the present me now mean nothing because there is no future. This is a defining moment. In the next instant the relationships which make me who I am will end. Who am I now as I face this closure?

The other is during meditation when the I-self faces the Void. This Void is not different from that faced at death. The other day I said that meditation can lead to an awareness of oneness, of union with all that is. This is a not uncommon experience. But I think the experience of the void is more fundamental. Everything that is is relative, contingent, empty, as the Buddhists say. All that is has emerged from the fullness of the Void. This is a paradox that I want to comprehend. Here lies the answer to ‘Who am I?’


Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Reading James’ theories on the self last night in Odin.* It is interesting that he formulated the idea of the process self before Whitehead but it just goes to show that new ideas rarely spring fully developed from the minds of their proponents but have a long gestation period, more often than not in other minds. I felt hesitant and doubtful about James’ insistence on the self as a momentary experience replaced by the next succeeding self. However, this morning at meditation I was able to concentrate for relatively long periods at a time on just breathing. It was very apparent that the lapses into reflective thought, which were sparked off sometimes by external, sometimes by internal events, were haphazard and accidental. They were exactly the discontinuous moments of experience described by James. In each episode the subjective I was wholly and unreflectively involved. I was the ‘I’ of those thoughts and feelings at that moment. A moment later I would become aware of the drift into discursive thought and focus again on breathing and simple awareness. Now what brought about that transition?. One moment I was wholly caught up in subjective inwardness, in the next I was the detached observer of physical and mental events.

According to James the self is also defined in terms of the focal field of attention and although we ‘identify our focal self with the centre, our full self is the whole field’. Now what exactly does he mean by our full self? He goes on to say that ‘There are an irreducible plurality of selves, all private yet overlapping and co-penetrating with the others through their relational fringes’, and ‘Individuals are continuous with other selves and God in the subconscious.’ How can there be a plurality of private selves that are at the same time continuous with others? Does his idea that every self is fringed with relations, both to previous selves and to other selves, answer the question? Certainly I can see where the idea of a series of selves emerging from the stream of conscious experience comes from. I can see too that the concept of the self – private and subjective – yet with a fringe extending into the fringes of other selves can answer some of these questions.

*(Odin S.; The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism, SUNY Press, Albany 1996)

Love and self

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

I have been reading Chogyam Trungpa – The heart of the Buddha. It seems very sound. Thomas Merton was very struck by him when he met him on his last journey in India. His description of the boddhisatva ideal is as uncompromising as anything in the Sermon on the Mount. That the then Cardinal Ratzinger could describe Buddhism as ‘spiritual autoeroticism’ shows profound ignorance and is deeply shaming for the Catholic Church. The more I think about it the more the concept of ‘betweenness’ helps explain why love is the religious imperative that it is.

The imperative to love runs all through the Old Testament, Deuteronomy immediately springs to mind, and the prophets, Hosea especially. It is even more explicit in the New Testament – in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in John, in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 15 and in John’s first letter. Two things, however, seem to have clouded the purity of this ideal. Greater importance seems to have become attached to the imperative to believe. The simplicity of John’s, ‘He who loves, loves God,’ as the essence of religion, became, somehow, less important than the necessity for justification by faith. Faith, not love, became the touchstone of Christianity. This trend achieved absolute importance with the Protestant Reformation. The other thing was the adoption of the monastic ideal of flight into solitude so as to be able to devote all one’s time to loving God. In other words, to love God directly was better than loving him by loving one’s neighbour.

So far all this is a bit simplistic. There are complicated reasons why the imperative to believe rather than to love became dominant and these need to be examined. To what extent are the factors which led to gnosticism at work here, I wonder? There is also the fact that it is easier to distinguish who belongs to your group, sect, or church by making the criterion beliefs and attitudes rather than love. After all, almost everyone can claim to love. John is quite clear. ‘He who loves, loves God.’ As is Paul, ‘The greatest of these is love.’ Every other virtue is particular and applicable only to the here and now. Only love transcends all boundaries. Why then did it not become the only and ultimate criterion? Why did faith in dogma supersede it, a faith which became ever more refined and particular in the doctrinal controversies of the first 500 years? Was love too general? Was love too demanding?
Whatever the answers to these questions there is no doubt that Christianity became increasingly sectarian and tribal, first in the struggle with various heresies, later with the distinction between Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and later still with the multitude of churches and sects which developed as a result of the Reformation. There is also no doubt from the appalling crimes of the Albigensian Crusade, the Crusades against the Muslims, the Inquisition, the religious wars in Europe, the treatment of the indians in North and South America etc., that love was no longer a relevant criterion.

In contrast to all this Buddhists have never instigated holy wars or pogroms. They are inclusive rather than exclusive, willing to accept whatever is good and helpful in other religions rather than insist on universal conformity. Unlike Christians, who have rarely had a problem in justifying violence, Buddhists have never justified it. There have been exceptions to this in the last few years in Sri Lanka and Burma but these tend rather to prove the rule than deny it. Buddhists do not use the word ‘love’ much, if at all, but they have much to say about compassion. There is the ideal of the compassionate Buddha who postpones his salvation so that he may help others find theirs. The boddhisatva ideal aspires to sanctity in order to be able to help others.

The difference between the two religions is in large part due to the concept of self. In Christianity there is the belief in a permanent substantial self, or soul and it becomes supremely important that this soul should survive death and achieve eternal happiness in Heaven rather than eternal punishment in Hell. It follows from this that the believer should be able to distinguish between those who are destined for Heaven from those destined for Hell so that he can belong to the group who are going to be saved. The criterion of love is too broad and too general. It includes repentant prostitutes and compassionate thieves, ordinary mothers and everyday friends. Many Christians need something more specific and less general, something that will set them apart from others and let them know that they are on the right path. Hence the importance of faith and keeping to the rules and we are right back with the Pharisees whom Jesus criticised for precisely that.

Selfless love is difficult for those who attach such great importance to the self. Those who have achieved it are those who have discovered something greater than self. Jesus knew this and preached it uncompromisingly. ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his self?’ He knew that selfless love, agapaic love, was the only way. Paradoxically, the self had to die in order to live. This is hard to accept. It goes against ordinary common sense. It is much easier to believe in rituals and credal formulas which offer balm to the self and the guarantee of future bliss. But Jesus had discovered this love and the reality of the love that lies beyond self. So had Paul, ‘I live now not I but Christ lives in me.’


Thursday, September 6th, 2007

Reading Odin on the social self. The Japanese concept of ‘betweenness’ (aidagara) is very interesting and needs thinking about. It means that which exists between two people when they are relating to each other. The focus would seem to be on the dynamics of the relationship which is seen as an end in itself. It is the relationship which makes me ‘you’ to the other and the other ‘you’ to me. In other words the relationship is creative, making ‘me’. ‘I’ exist as a result of this relationship. According to Hamaguchi,

‘While in the West the self is primarily an individual so that relationship to others is secondary, in Japan the self as kanjin (self in context) is primarily a member of a social context, including society and family, and only in a secondary sense to be regarded as an individual…The reason why self consciousness of the Japanese is formed this way is because self and others are in a symbiotic relationship, and they regard their own existence as largely dependent on the existence of others.’ (Odin S.; The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism, SUNY Press, Albany 1996 p. 73)

We in the West would agree that our existence is dependent on our relationships with others, but only ab initio. The difference is that we believe that these relationships have brought into existence a permanent, self-sustaining entity which may, if it wishes, exist independently of others. And so relationships are seen as a means to an end, to be entered into and abandoned in so far as they serve the needs of the individual. In Japan, and Korea and China, the relationship (aidagara) is the dynamic no-thing (ku – emptiness) which exists between people.

‘Buddhism provides Christians with an opportunity to know and experience that the true reality of the person does not consist in being an indivduum, a given entity; rather, the true self is radically, essentially, constantly in relation to other selves and to all reality; its ‘being’ is constantly one of ongoing dependent ‘co-origination’; its being is relating. Therefore the true self is a selfless self, constantly losing-finding its self in its relations with others.’ (Crook J., Fontana D., Space in Mind: East-West Psychology and Contemporary Buddhism, Element Books, London 1990)

It is this emptiness, this space, nothingness, betweenness that is important. This is where the focus of attention should be. Not on the other as other, not on me as me, but on the dynamic space between us. This betweenness is what makes me me and you you.

The more I think about this ‘betweenness’ the more it seems a key concept. If, as I believe, we are all linked, then even casual and superficial relationships are important. They have a part in making me me. They have a part in setting the general tone, the climate in which we live. How we act towards the other depends on who that person is. The other is a lover, friend, family member, or an enemy, someone we dislike and distrust, or a non-person, a functionary fulfilling a role, a stranger passing in the street. In the first two categories the focus of attention alternates between me and the other. For example when falling in love, or when one has a sick child, it is the other who matters more than me. My happiness depends on, and is subordinate to, their attitude to me, or their well-being. When it is an enemy, or someone disliked the focus is on me and the threat they present to my well-being. Non-persons, functionaries and strangers do not really exist for me – though if such a person is in trouble, threatened, or in danger, their plight might awaken my awareness of our common humanity. In Western society individualism, and often possessive individualism, goes very deep. There is an unspoken assumption that the individual has the right to put himself/herself first, even though this may cause suffering to others. We allow fathers and mothers to abandon their families. We allow businesses to put profit for the few above the needs of the many – in other words we place a greater value on money than on people. Greater importance is attached to those with power, influence and money than to others. As a result society is polarised, riven by factions and special interest groups. Children are abused, or abandoned and left to fend for themselves. The unemployed are relegated to an underclass, surviving on handouts but not able to participate in society. There seems to be no way out. We deal with the symptoms but not with the disease. We try with palliatives and sticking plaster to deal with the most blatant wounds but the underlying illness is not even perceived.

The concept of ‘betweenness’ (aidagara) is, perhaps, a way out. It removes the focus of attention from the ‘me’ and the ‘other’ and focuses it on the relationship between the two. If the relationship is good, positive, life-giving, enhancing then both parties are enriched and affirmed. If the relationship is negative, destructive, cancerous then both parties are hurt and diminished by it. There can be no enhancement of the individual at the expense of the other.