Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

What is the Human "Self"?

By Titu22
Titu Barua
In ancient times the concept of the Self was the object of much attention among the philosophers of India. The Self was interpreted as individuality of spiritual existence, as the vehicle of the infinitely diverse relations of the personality both with itself and with everything around it. With great zeal and psychological detail this amazingly subtle and complex problem has been tackled, mostly at the practical intuitive level, in the various schools of yoga, which have refined their methods of self-training to an astonishing degree, making wide use of the techniques of long and systematic concentration on one thing, such as the state and functioning of the internal organs. In order to achieve complete isolation the yogis went out into the deserts, the mountains, the forests and plunged themselves into the contemplation of the world and themselves, and achieved amazing results in self-control, in changing their physical states and reaching the point of dissolving themselves in the natural whole and the total self-abnegation known as nirvana, a state of unequalled beatitude. By means of exercises evolved through the centuries the yogis achieve great self-control over both body and mind. Yoga has been practised for thousands of years and allowed its adherents to make a very subtle analysis of the gradations of the various states of the Self, the levels of its regulative functions, the specific features of its structure.
In ancient Greek culture, the problem of the Self attracted particular attention from Socrates. He thought of it as something independent, supra-personal, as a very powerful razor-sharp conscience—the daimonion by which he was guided at the most critical moments of his life. This dictating or advising Self told him how best to act.
In medieval philosophy the Self was identified with the soul, whose volitional, emotional and intellectual forces were striving for communion with God. The individual is torn between constant fear of punishment and hope of salvation, of the forgiveness of sins, of the goodness of the Lord. He feels himself a helpless toy before the absolute power of the Creator, while at the same time he carries on a constant dialog with God, appealing for his help at moments of trouble and despair and imploring forgiveness for his sins. The individual is always and everywhere watched over by a god regarded as the regulating principle in the structure of the Self. This is observed with great psychological subtlety in the "Confessions" of Saint Augustine, who identifies the sense and knowledge of Self with the sense of God in oneself. Augustine maintained that he could not even have a Self if there were no God in him as the regulating principle of his personal will. Thomas Acquinas was, in effect, proceeding from the same principle when he maintained that everyone should test his actions in the light of the knowledge given to him by God. On the whole, the Christian orientation is on personal spirituality, as expressed in the maxim: "Linger not without, but enter into thyself!"
Beginning with the Renaissance, the orientation of the Self changes sharply. Leonardo da Vinci defined man as a model of the universe. The personality sets out to reveal itself. This is the time of the triumph of individuality, the great awakening of the sense of being a person. The individual enters the arena of modern history, asserting the principle of the self-sufficient value of the Self. According to Descartes, Self means the same thing as "my soul", thanks to which "I am what I am". A thinking Self knows only one incontrovertible truth—that it thinks, doubts, affirms, desires, loves and hates. Descartes stressed the rational principle in the structure of the personality. In his philosophy the Self acts, above all, as the subject of thought, its regulator and organizer. Rejecting the Cartesian interpretation of the Self as a special substance, English empiricism regards the Self as a totality of processes. ". . .For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without perception, and never can observe anything but the perception." So the Self, it turns out, is nothing but a bundle of perceptions, which "succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement". These profound reflections of a subtle thinker show that our subjective pursuit of the essence of the Self is constantly baffled by the actual flow of the concrete sensations of the given moment, either directed inwardly or outwardly. Nothing else is perceived. This is rather like a traveler in a wood, who literally cannot see the wood for the trees. He is in the wood and therefore cannot see it as a whole. It is just the same with ourselves. Wishing to reconcile rationalism with empiricism, Kant distinguished two types of Self, the empirical and the pure. The first was the flow of intellectual processes, of various sense impressions rushing hither and thither, while the pure Self was something that had a kind of supra-individual character. Its basic function was to unite the multiform by means of pure categories of Reason. This was known as transcendental apperception, which meant the unity of consciousness, which was the essence of the Self.
According to Hegel, the Self is the individual as a universal formula embracing all personalities in general. The individual "self s" become part of the formula as a means of giving it individual expression. Hegel loathed all preoccupation with the individual and had a great bent for raising the individual to the universal, to an all-embracing formula in which everything intimately personal dissolved. In Hegel the Self as a universal formula swallows up all the concrete egos of separate individuals.
In contemporary Soviet philosophy and psychological literature the concept of the Ego or Self is usually identified with that of the personality. In my view, this is not quite correct. The concept of the personality is much wider than that of the Ego. It cannot be identified either with consciousness or self-consciousness because it also embraces something from the depths of the subconscious, and this something acts as a kind of irrational "governor" in the structure of the personality when the unconscious takes into its sinister hands the will of the individual and drives the flows of energy towards irrational behavior. This is seen particularly clearly, for example, in neuroses of obsession and paranoidal forms of schizophrenia. The person who suffers from such mental disorders becomes a prey to voices and images that command him and guide his thoughts and feelings into nightmares of illogicality and disordered conduct, void of all adaptive powers.
Man's mental world, generated by the brain and depending on its biophysical condition and the state of the organism as a whole, presents a kind of relatively independent structure, with its own logic, its own specific mental mechanisms, the elements of this structure are mental states, processes and formations. Moreover, these elements may have several values and are not all of the same value. And it is this intimately profound subject of all mental phenomena in their integral wholeness that forms the Ego. This Ego is the spiritual nucleus in the structure of the personality. It is the very deepest and most profound part of it. In its essence it is psycho-social. When people speak of "my Self", they have in mind something that is not simply personal but intimately personal in the highest degree, something extremely precious and valuable and therefore vulnerable. Hence the phenomenon of "hurt Ego", when the personality is wounded to the quick on its tenderest spot. It is damage to our Ego that causes our most painful and morbid reactions and moral suffering. The Ego is the throne of conscience itself.
The term "Ego" or "Self" also denotes the personality as seen in the light of its own self-consciousness, i.e., a personality as perceived by itself, as it is known and felt by the Self. The "Ego" is the regulative principle of mental life, the self-controlling force of the spirit; it is everything that we are essentially both for the world and for other people and, above all, for ourselves in our self-consciousness, self-appraisal and self-knowledge. The "Ego" presupposes know ledge of and a relationship to objective reality and a constant awareness of oneself in that reality.
Sensuous and conceptual images, states and goals are all part of the Ego, but they are not the Ego itself. The Ego rises above all the elements that compose the spirit and commands them, regulates their life.
Every personality has a large number of facets to its Ego—what it is in itself, how it is mirrored by its own self-consciousness (the "Ego image") in general and at a given moment in time, what kind of ideal Ego it conceives (what it would like to be), how it looks in the eyes of other people at a given moment, particularly the eyes of "those who are something" and also the "eyes" of the future and even, posthumously, of history, while among religious people it is important how the Ego looks in the "eyes" of God. All these constantly interflowing aspects of the Ego, glittering with their own specific colours, possess a certain stability, balance and harmony. The Ego is essentially reflexive. Its regulative and controlling power takes part in every act of the individual. It is not the separate mental processes, formations, properties and states, as was assumed by Hume and long before him by Plato, who urged his readers to think of themselves as wounderful living dolls manipulated by the gods. The internal states of the personality are controlled by very fine strings, which pull a person in various and sometimes opposite directions, some towards good and others towards the precipices of vice. But, one may ask, who pulls these strings? In Plato, it is a god who made these dolls, called human beings, either for his own divine pleasure or for some serious purpose unknown to us.
If we look at the problem through the categorial apparatus of modern culture, we find that our Ego is nothing but the integrity, the wholeness of our mental, intellectual world, notwithstanding its internal contradictions, which are nevertheless harmonized if, of course, the Ego is in order. The healthy vector of its energy flow is vitality-oriented, life-asserting and in general self-asserting. The means by which it asserts itself in the stream of existence depend on the level of its moral culture.
To recapitulate, the Ego is not just the sum-total of sense impressions; it is that to which all impressions are related. It is not only the vehicle of consciousness, self-consciousness, world-view and other intellectual phenomena, but also the core of a person's character, the expression of his principles and positions. It is a living bundle not simply of experience accumulated by the individual in action, but of the active and guiding force of experience, the power of selfhood, a certain psychic mechanism regulating this experience and expressed in the fact that the individual feels himself to be the master of his desires, emotions, thoughts, efforts of will and actions. Through the prism of our Ego we become aware of the difference between us and everything else, and feel the constant identity of ourselves with ourselves. The fact that the Ego performs the role of "master" in the spiritual world of our subjectivity is aptly illustrated by the phenomena of dreams. In dreams the "master" is absent or rather he is asleep; his controlling power is no longer active and hence the meaningless kaleidoscope of images, whose origin, direction and purpose we cannot understand any more than we can understand their connection with other equally strange guests of our soul.
In a normal waking state, however, the flow of our feelings and volitions has its own logic, a certain integrity and organizing principle, and also a surprising stability of the whole amid this constant change of its elements. The Ego is something united in its diversity and variability. The Ego of our childhood is something quite different from the Ego of puberty and adolescence. The Ego of maturity differs substantially from the Ego of rebellious youth with its abundant hopes, and also from the Ego of old age and senility, burdened with physical disabilities and an intense awareness of the approaching and inevitable end.
The differences spanned by the age ladder, particularly between its top and bottom rungs, are so great that it is hardly believable that this is one and the same person. Evidently we all experience something similar when we look at photographs taken in our childhood, from which gaze the naive, innocent, inexperienced eyes of our distant and almost dream-like past. Our Ego may also change almost instantaneously, depending on the state of our health. It is different in a state of sickness from when we are healthy. At times of joy and inspiration and high flights of the intellect the Ego differs greatly from what it is when we are tired. And how enormously, sometimes beyond recognition, does the Ego change under the influence of drink! As the poet says:
At every instant we are not the same.
All changes, changes not the name.
At the same time in all this interflow of the changing Ego, in all conditions, something invariable, stable, integral is preserved which, like the thread of Ariadne guides a person through life, saving the something that is his Ego, the something that distinguishes it from any other Ego. Through out his life a person carries in himself all his ages, recorded on the "tape of memory". Without this thread that leads us along all the roads of life, our Ego would fall apart into separate, disintegrated acts of existence and feeling.
The Ego is impossible without concrete sensations, thoughts, feelings and motivations, principles, positions and value orientations. But sensations, thoughts and feelings constantly change, moving from one qualitative state to another. They may also be controlled, programmed, for example, as in the change of personality achieved by an actor. If the Ego were nothing more than these separate acts of consciousness, it would change together with them and there would be no unity in this diversity of constantly changing states. There are "situational personalities" who drift with life and become so malleable that they adapt to any situation, become mere playthings of circumstance. And there are also natures that are quite the opposite, integrated, stable, confidently and firmly following their chosen path in life.
The fact that the Ego remains relatively stable and can resist external influence is based on the brain's ability to record, store and reproduce information. A person regards even his childish pranks as his own, although they were performed by a different body and a different (child's) mind. Between our Ego of today and our Ego of yesterday lies a night full of dreams—the triumph of the unconscious, in which the chain of conscious acts is broken. There would be no continuity between these Egos but for the bridge of memory that spans the gap.
The plasticity and variability of our Ego reveals itself also in its changes of role. At work as a manager a person is different, for example, from what he is in the role of father of the family. When he finds himself in an official atmosphere a person cannot permit himself all that he does in the family circle. Constantly moving with the flow of life, every person changes his Ego on entering an office, his home, a railway carriage, an airoplane, theatre, hospital, and so on. Every day of our lives we are in motion, crossing various thresholds, entering this or that place, which has its own specific psychological atmosphere, requiring a certain readiness, a certain tuning of thought and feeling, a certain attitude and state of mind. Any change of situation influences our state in some way.
This is particularly apparent when a person is in critical situations, taking an examination, consulting his doctor, meeting somebody he loves, and so on. In order to cope with such situations a person must reckon with what lies beyond each "threshold of existence". But despite the amazing plasticity of our Ego, it possesses, when healthy, an internal connectedness, integrity and relative stability.
That this is so can be seen in cases of mental illness. Highly relevant to our understanding of the human Ego is the well-known syndrome of depersonalization, which sometimes assumes the strangest forms of deformation of the personality, ranging from a diffused awareness of Self to the complete disappearance of self-awareness, when a person loses the sense of controlling his own feelings, thoughts and actions: I am no longer I. The initial stage of this mental disorder is derealization, when reality is removed, alienated from the person; objects, events and people, without losing their empirical existence, become psychologically insignificant, unreal in the sense that the patient is incapable of establishing any meaningful contact with them. A wall rises between him and the world in general. He is alienated from his surroundings. He sees and understands but feels everything in a different way from what he did before. He loses his intelligent, comprehending sense of existence. The perception of things becomes a sensationless, "dead" fixation of only their outward appearance. In more serious cases, when depersonalization in the full sense of the word takes place, the patient loses all sense of the reality of his own body. The body is alienated and seen as something extraneous, the patient ceases to be aware of any form of life activity. He suffers from complete apathy. His feelings are blunted, he no longer experiences any joy in life. All its emotional colours fade. Out of sheer necessity he tries to appear cheerful. But inwardly he is drained and empty and consumed by hopeless misery. At times of temporary depression, overfatigue, a bad mood, apathy evoked by certain unfavourable circumstances, such a state can, of course, overcome people who are mentally quite healthy. In such cases the zest for life is sometimes lost, everything seems grey, dull and uninteresting. But when the condition becomes permanent, it may cloud the reason, destroying the unity of the Ego, splitting or even causing pluralism.
Psychiatry has described cases of the so-called alternating Ego, when a person somehow has within himself two coexisting autonomous Egos, which take possession of him for periods of a few hours or even years. In such cases, when dominated by one Ego, a person is unaware of the existence of the other. Everything he does under the sway of his other Ego is ousted from his consciousness. The two Egos may be quite different from one another and even opposites. If the first Ego is shy, timid, indecisive and oversensitive, the second Ego may be very resolute, unceremonious, outgoing, free, and even impudent. The second Ego may know nothing at all about the life of the first. Sometimes one Ego is more grown up than the other.
Such is the tragedy of mental disorders. When a person is in a healthy state he carries through the whole of his life, through all its transformations, transmutations and states, the stable nucleus of his Ego, conditioned both by the unity of his bodily organization, particularly the nervous system, and by the sturdy framework of character, temperament, and manner of feeling, thinking and acting. When remembering any stage of the path travelled, some surrender of principle or taste, a person tends to identify his present Self with the past, his childhood and youth, with mature age. Not everything in us flows away irredeemably with the river of oblivion.
Thus, the human Ego, while substantially changing under the influence of social conditions and together with growing knowledge, cultivated emotions and training of the will, and also with changes in physical states, health, and so on, nonetheless preserves its intrinsic integrity and relative stability. Thanks to the existence of certain essential invariable characteristics of the structure of his mental world, a person "remains himself". We move from one stage in life to another, carrying with us all the baggage of our intellectual gains, and change as this wealth increases and our physical organization develops.
To sum up, at the point when the Ego comes into being there is a self-identification of the personality; it knows itself. The Ego is a unity, an entity of spiritual and physical existence. It is given as the vehicle of infinite relationships both with the surrounding world and with ourselves. These connections, while infinitely diverse, are possible only thanks to this unity and wholeness of mind as the system of the highest organization of everything we know.

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