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Part II – Chapter 9

The impression of self.

What do we mean by “the self”? This term refers primarily to that which seems to cognize, to will and to value at any given moment. That is, these functions seem to emanate, at any given time, from a single point or place, deep within “one’s own” bodily and mental experiences, which we each call “I” or “me” or “myself”.

The self is the one who is conscious, the one experiencing, the one sensing, the one feeling, the one imagining, the one conceiving and thinking, the one liking or desiring, wishing or hoping, the one taking action, etc.… or the one abstaining from such functions. Thus, the self is the Subject of consciousness, the Agent[1] of volitional acts and the Valuator of value judgments.

It is an error of observation to claim that cognitions, volitions and valuations can occur without a ‘person’ doing the cognizing, willing or valuing. Clear and honest observation recognizes that the distinctive nature of these events is to be relative to a self.

The self is an object of direct, subjective experience, or self-intuition, not to be confused with the phenomena due to sensation of matter or to mental experience. It is not something merely conceptually inferred from such experienced phenomena, but something non-phenomenal that is itself experienced.

Note well: our “I” is not a single phenomenon, or an aggregate of phenomena or even a mere abstraction from phenomenal experiences; it is an ongoing non-phenomenal experience. (It may well be, however, that the self would be transparent to itself, were it not subjected to phenomenal experiences that it has to cognize and deal with, through consciousness, volition and evaluation[2].)

The self, as here technically defined, exists for at least a moment of time. Logically, it does not necessarily follow from such punctual data that the selves intuited at different, even contiguous, moments of time are one and the same self. That is, the continuity of self is an additional, perhaps more conceptual idea – although we generally (all except Buddhists) subscribe to such subsistence.

This in turn, note well, does not logically necessarily imply eternity since the beginning or to the end of time – although again, many (but far from all) people subscribe to this additional idea. In addition to our punctual and continuous ideas of self, note also that we think of self as something cumulative – our past momentary selves seem to accrete over time, making us heavier with responsibilities as we grow older.

Self-consciousness, here, note well, simply means “consciousness of self” – i.e. with reference to any reflexive act of consciousness, in which the self is both the Subject and the object, which is assumably a direct and immediate cognitive (intuitive) act. Self-consciousness can also mean consciousness (i.e. intuition, here again) of any of the three functions of the self, viz. cognition, volition and valuation.[3]

These three functions, or ways of expression, of the self do not operate independently of each other but are interrelated in various ways. They may occur simultaneously or in complex chains. Cognition is the primary function, but may also occur after volition (e.g. acts of research) and valuation (e.g. deciding what to research). Volition usually implies prior cognition, but is sometimes “blind” (whimsical). Valuation is a particular sort of volition, since it implies choice; and it always implies cognition, if only the awareness of something to evaluate (but usually also awareness of various considerations).

The above proposed definition of the self refers to the essence of selfhood. In relation to this essential self, everything else is “the world out there”, “Object”, “other”. It is our deepest inside, deeper even than the mind and body. Aspects of mind and body are also often colloquially called self, but this is a misnomer. Self, as here understood, may therefore be equated to what we commonly call the “soul”, without prejudicing the issue as to what such assumed entity might be construed as.

One widespread theory is that the soul is composed of some non-material, call it ‘spiritual’, substance. This might be hypothesized as having spatial as well as temporal location and extension, or as somehow located and extended in time but not in space[4]. Another possible way to view it is as a special sort of ‘knot’ in the fabric of space-time, a knot with different properties than those of so-called material entities. Some philosophers (notably, Buddhist and Materialist ones) altogether deny the soul’s existence[5].

Whatever the theoretical differences between competing traditions, concerning the existence and nature of the self, they generally agree on the value and need in practice – i.e. during meditation – to forget, if not actually erase, oneself. This is of course no easy task. Certainly, at the earlier stages of meditation, when we are appalled to discover the mental storms in a teacup our ego concerns constantly produce, it seems like a mission impossible. But there are ways and means to gradually facilitate the required result.

At the deepest level, one has to eventually give up on the Subject-Object or self-other division. If Monism is considered as the ultimate philosophical truth, then there must indeed be a plane of reality where this duality noticeably dissolves. On a practical level, one undoubtedly cannot logically expect to reach the experience of oneness, until one has managed to surrender attachment to the common impression of duality between self and other, or Subject and Object.

Such surrender is not a psychological impossibility or an artificial mental acrobatic. This is made clear, if we reflect on the fact that the Subject-Object or self-other division constitutes ratiocination, i.e. a rational act[6].

Just as our ‘reason’ divides outer experiences into different sense-modalities, or each modality into different qualities and measures (e.g. in the visual field: colors and intensities, shapes and sizes); or again, just as it makes a distinction between outer and inner experiences (e.g. between physical sights and mental visions) – so, our rational faculty is responsible for the self-other impression. This does not have to be taken to mean that our reason is inventing a false division, producing an illusion; yet, it does mean that without the regard of a rational Subject, such distinction would never arise in the universe.

These insights imply that there is no need to epistemologically invalidate the Subject-Object distinction[7] to realize that we can still eventually (if only in the course of meditation) hope to be able to free ourselves in practice from this automatic reaction. We wish to at some stage give up the distinction, not because it is intrinsically wrong or bad, but because we wish to get beyond it, into the mental rest or peace of non-discriminative consciousness.

Sitting in meditation, one’s “self” usually seems to be an ever present and weighty experience, distinct from relatively external mental and material experiences. But if one realizes that such self-experience is a rational (i.e. ratiocinative) product, a mental subdivision of the natural unity of all experience at any given moment, one can indeed shake off – or more precisely just drop – this sense of self, and experience all one’s experience as a unity.[8]

Note well, the task at hand is not to ex post facto deconstruct the rational act of division, or reconstruct the lost unity of self and other by somehow mentally sticking or merging them together, or pretend that the Subject or the Object does not really exist. Rather, the meditator has to place his soul in the pre-ratiocinative position, where the cutting-up of experience has not yet occurred. It is not a place of counter-comments, but a place of no (verbal or non-verbal) comment. It is the position of pristine experience, where the mental reflex of sorting data out has not yet even begun.

All things are accepted as they appear. An impression of self appears, as against an impression of other? So well and good – it need not be emphasized or noted in any way. It is just experienced. If no distinctions are made, there are no distinctions. We remain observant, that’s all. We enjoy the scenery. Our awareness is phenomenological.

In pure experience, what we call “multiplicity” may well be manifest, but it is all part and parcel of the essential “unity”. Here, essence and manifestation are one and the same. Here, Subject and Object form a natural continuum. The totality is in harmony, bubbling with life. It is what it is, whatever it happens to be.

Before getting to this stage of integral experience, one may of course have to “work on oneself” long and hard.

[1] Note well, the word Agent as used here simply refers to ‘the one who acts’ – the actor of action, the doer of the deed. Agency here implies volition – a machine (or any other deterministic entity) is not considered an agent of its actions, except in a metaphorical way. Moreover, the colloquial connotation of agency as ‘acting on behalf of someone else’ is not intended here, though such instrumentality is logically subsumed under volitional action.

[2] The self may, in this sense, be said to be ‘relative’ – not meaning that (once and so long as it occurs) its existence is not ‘independent’, but that its own awareness of its own existence is dependent on external stimuli.

[3] The phrase “self-consciousness” is additionally sometimes used, in philosophy and science, to refer to consciousness that one is conscious of some other object – i.e. to “consciousness of consciousness”. The latter might be an instant event, made possible by the Subject’s dividing his attention, partly on some object and partly on his consciousness of that object; or it might involve a time-lag, assuming that the Subject is first conscious of some object, and a bit later retrospectively conscious of that first consciousness (either directly while it is still “echoing” in his mind, or indirectly through longer-term memory). Another, more colloquial and pejorative, sense of the term “self-consciousness” refers to the awareness we may have of some other person (or persons) observing us, which causes us to behave in a more awkward manner, i.e. without our customary spontaneity or naturalness, because we use our will to make sure the observer gets a certain “favorable” (in whatever sense) image of us.

[4] Or again, we might like the poet Khalil Gibran consider the soul as “a sea boundless and measureless” (The Prophet. London: Heinemann, 1972.)

[5] But in my opinion, they fail to adequately explain the peculiarities of cognition, volition and valuation.

[6] See my Ruminations, chapter 9.

[7] The Buddhists regard it invalid – but I would minimally argue that it has some credibility, like any appearance has until it is found to lead to antinomy. Indeed, I would go further and argue that any attempt at such invalidation is unjustifiable, and even logically impossible.

[8] This would of course be one aspect of overall “integration” (what is called Samadhi in Sanskrit, Wu in Chinese, Satori in Japanese).

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