Archives for posts with tag: self

In my previous post about Wholeness, I said that recognizing when Wholeness is acting in our life is both tricky and simple. In this post I’ll start with the simple and show how I resolve the tricky.

The key to recognizing Wholeness is in the experience of resonance and dissonance. When we resonate with something there’s a feeling of internal rightness and harmony. When something feels dissonant it feels out of place or somehow wrong. Think about when you hear the wrong note played or when you see a word mispelled. Resonance and dissonance are both intuitive experiences that are mostly felt in the body or in a wordless kind of knowing.  When I notice either of them, I usually know that something is right (or wrong) with my world. Sometimes, however, it’s a little harder for a couple of reasons.

First, the experience of resonance (dissonance) may be subtle and flitting and therefore easy to miss. We may have even trained ourselves to ignore those feelings for various reasons. If that is the case, I believe that practicing and paying more attention when those experiences arise could help.

The second and more pernicious reason starts with the ego’s tendency to interfere. The ego is often driven by desire or fear, giving rise to feelings of craving or aversion accordingly. Craving and aversion are gross sensations and with the support of ego behind them, are much harder to ignore than either resonance or dissonance. As a result I often find myself moved by craving or aversion, completely ignoring my experience of resonance or dissonance.

The tricky part, then, is in telling apart aversion from dissonance and craving from resonance. I’ve noticed a couple of different ways to tell them apart:

  1. Paying attention to the self-contraction. This feeling of tightening in the gut that tells me that fear or desire are involved. The self-contraction is a clear indicator of aversion (desire) at play.
  2. If I notice that I am somehow personally invested in the result of something, this is another clear indicator that I am driven by aversion (craving). Wholeness is already whole and therefore not invested in anything. The ego, on the other hand, is very much invested in things turning one way or the other; for the ego, most anything means life or death.

My ongoing practice of learning the recognize Wholeness includes paying attention to and learning to trust my intuition and conversely, becoming suspicious of my own motives whenever I notice contraction or an investment I things turning out one way or another.

Another practice that supports the dual practice above involves journalling and self-reflection, mostly around the theme of shadow work. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

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Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

Working With the Self Moment by Moment

Sitting at a coffee shop paying attention to my experience, I notice that my attention is resting behind my eyes; I am the observer. Now, a contraction in my chest and the thought “did they see me looking at them?” I don’t like being that self. Another moment passes and I am now the one listening to the conversation at the table behind me. So it goes moment by moment, “I” become a different part of my experience…

The experience described above is like seeing the individual frames of a movie. If we slow down the projector just enough we can notice that in fact we are watching a fast changing series of still images. The mind seamlessly translates those still frames into one continuous moving image. Similarly, the mind takes all those individual moments of identification with self-thoughts, with memories or with bodily sensations and translates them into one “phantom” experience. This phantom is what we imagine ourselves to be.

Mindful attention slows down the projector, allowing us to notice those individual moments as they scroll by one by one. This is a first step in piercing the illusion of an abiding self and the realization that my idea of who I am is in constant flux. It may not be easy to constantly keep up this practice. Fortunately, there is a sensation we can use as a reminder – the sensation of clinging otherwise known as the ‘self-contraction’.

The act of clinging is often accompanied by the somatic experience of a contraction around the heart center. We may cling to a story about ourselves, or to a fear of losing a part of ourselves. In my experience this clinging is common to many instances of holding onto a rigid sense of self, and supports the belief in this “phantom” core self. If we start looking at these moments of clinging, or contraction, more clearly, noticing when they arise and when they fade away, we may start to unravel this deeper layer of self and open up to a more fluid way of being.

Summary

We’ve looked at different ways that the experience of the self manifests in our lives. Starting with the personal sense of self, or the Ego, and the interpersonal sense of self, we saw how those parts of the psyche can be helpful as we interact with the world around us and also how they become a hindrance. We then moved on the Witness and looked at two ways to use the experience of witnessing to move towards greater freedom. Next, we got a taste of Eastern theories of self, or Atman. Finally we looked at working with the moment-to-moment experience of the self to see how we can find freedom in every moment.

It is important to remember that our goal is not to destroy the self or kill the ego (although the ego may feel that way sometimes). Rather, we are trying to reduce clinging, to create more space and to allow a more fluid engagement with our moment-to-moment experience.

 

Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

The Witness
Looking closely I can notice the experience that I am the one looking through my eyes; I am the one listening or thinking; I am the one all of this is happening to. I feel calm and comforted by this connection. In a world of continuously changing phenomenon I rest, safely held, in the solidity of the witness. What a relief!

The experience of the Observer, also called The Witness or sometimes The One Who Knows is exactly as its name implies, an experience of some entity sensing the world through my physical faculties. The Witness is ever-present; according to some traditions it continues even through dreams and deep sleep. Often the Ego identifies with the experience of witnessing and enhances it with an aura of agency. I’ll describe how to recognize this egoic clinging in a later section.

Just as Ego is neither good nor bad, there is nothing inherently wrong with the experience of witnessing. The problem begins when we identify with it. This ongoing process of identification supports the illusion of separateness. It keeps us apart from the world and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of experience, which is ever changing and empty of inherent solidity. Challenging this identification, therefore, can be liberating.

One way to begin unraveling the apparent solidity of the observer is by simply resting in the experience of witnessing itself. When embodying this experience as completely as possible we give up the illusion of solidity and see reality in its luminous, ever changing, ever present existence. We also begin to notice that those sensations we so often split off from the rest of the field of experience are an integral part of the field, just like every other sensation.

Another way of working with the witness is asking the question: “Who is having this experience?” By continually asking ourselves this question we can notice that the observer is not as solid as we imagine it to be. We see it moving around in the body, shifting between different senses, and yet the mind insistently claims that all those different experiences are the same thing. Can that be true?

Atman

No discussion of the concept of self would be complete without discussing “true-self” and “not-self”. These two views of the self originated in ancient India and are now becoming more influential in the West mainly though the influence of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In this section I will introduce these two perspectives in the hope that this will serve as a starting point for further exploration and as a background for exploring the sensations of self as described in the next section.

The sanskrit term Atman (sanskrit: self, breath) as used in several ancient traditions from India refers to the true self, the soul or the spirit that animates all life. Some Hindu traditions point to the feeling “I Am,” a realization of being, of presence, that goes beyond the body and beyond mere concepts. This experience, it is taught, is contact with Atman, one’s true self.

Non-Dual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (advaita, sanskrit: not-two) develop this teaching further to the realization that the practitioner is one with everything, that there is no separation between Atman, the true-self, and Brahman or Godhead, the essential creative force, Divine, All. Since Atman and Brahman are not two but one, it follows that our essential nature is oneness with everything.

The Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Pali: Anatta) came about in direct reference to the search for Atman that dominated the spiritual environment in India during the Buddha’s time. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains that the Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self is not to be understood as a doctrine or dogma but as a strategy to reduce suffering. Through recognizing that any phenomenon that arises in consciousness is not worthy of being clung to as self, we dis-identify with all phenomena, thereby moving beyond suffering.

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.