Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series based on a short paper I submitted for my Psychology of Spiritual Awakening class. I’ll update the links here as I post the rest of the piece, hopefully I’ll get through all of it in a week or two. For now, here’s a brief overview:

  1. Introduction & Psychological Ideas of Self (this post)
  2. The Witness & Atman
  3. Working With the Experience of Self


Introduction
At some point in our development the mind identifies a part of our overall experience as special. This aspect of experience is split off from the rest and is given the special role of the self. This sense of self becomes an almost constant companion to us manifesting in different ways, sometimes helpful, sometimes less so. In this paper I will explore some of those manifestations, how we can understand them in terms of eastern and Western theories of self and how can we work with them to bring greater freedom.

This terrain is both wide and deep. Yogis, mystics, philosophers and psychologists have been at work, mapping this terrain for over two thousand years. I do not expect to cover it all in this paper but I hope this serves as an introduction and offers a few practical ways to approach this experience. I will start with aspects of the self that may be easier for the reader to relate to. Most readers are probably familiar to some degree with the personal self (Ego) and the interpersonal self (Persona, Super-ego). I will then move on to the sense of the Observer or the Witness that is described in many traditions. Next, I’ll introduce some views of the self that originate in the ancient East and finally I’ll describe a way of working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self that I’ve found helpful in developing a more flexible sense of self.

Psychological Ideas of Self
The personal I, often called the Ego, serves two main functions and can be experienced in both of these functions.

  1. Maintaining my own view of myself. This is the ongoing story constructed in my mind about who I am, what I do, where I come from and where I am heading.
  2. The agent. This is the part of the mind that is busy planning and acting in the world.

The Ego is very helpful in moving through the world; without it I would be quite lost; however, clinging to the this part of the psyche too strongly can be limiting. When identified with the Ego we often find ourselves in opposition to world, threatened by those who oppose our views or unwilling to share our resources with those around us. Instead of seeing the ways in which we are similar, related and connected to everyone else, we notice our separateness and therefore our basic loneliness.

If we pay close attention we can become aware of the continuity of the self over time. Looking back on my memories, there is the sense that all of this has happened to one person – me. My memories from high school and my hopes and plans for the future have all happened and will happen to this same person. This is another face of the Ego, which allows me to feel continuity in my personal experience and to plan for a better future. At the same time, it helps perpetuate old self-views, opinions and hurts. It may be helpful to question this experience: where is the person that read the previous sentence? Am I really the same person I was when I was 5 years old?

The interpersonal I is composed of Jung’s persona and Freud’s super-ego. This is the part of the psyche concerned with the way in which I function in society and the way I’m seen in society. This is the part of me that is concerned with belonging to the in-group. Another way the interpersonal self is experienced is as the judgmental voice, warning me of violating the group’s unwritten rules. This aspect of the psyche is helpful in navigating the complex relationships we find ourselves in, be it with family, at work or with friends. Just as it includes one group it excludes everyone who is not a part of this in-group. Those seen as outsiders become easy to ignore or even vilify, leaving us with a narrow view of humanity and often justifying cliquish behavior, violence, or even war.

According to Jung the Persona1 (the mask, the way we present ourselves to others) is collective in nature. The Persona is the Ego’s attempt to approach society’s notion of the ideal person. A large part of Jung’s individuation process involves becoming aware of and then letting go of the constructions of the Persona, making room for more authentic self-expression.

So far we’ve been exploring manifestations of the self that are well studied in Western psychology but there are manifestations of the self that Western psychology did does not pay much attention. In exploring these parts of the self, especially our relationship to them, there is the possibility of great freedom. This possibility has been explored at great depth in many different Eastern traditions. In the next section I will present that possibility and how we may experience it.

1 Jung C.G. (1972) Two Essays of Analytical Psychology. Collected Works vol. 7 Bollingen Series.

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