If you haven’t read The Wisdom of Solomon: You, your Self, and Mind, it would be beneficial for you to do so first. In this article I’m going to attempt to outline a (prototypical) general structure of the Self, from a variety of angles and perspectives. This will be based on my own experience and understanding, as well as on the reading and research I have done in the past. I do want to clarify- I’m not claiming any sort of scientific validity or physiological accuracy (although I will try to maintain that to the greatest degree that I am able), this is meant to be a practical and functional guide to understanding the makeup of one’s being rather than a textbook description. Additionally, all is subject to change as time goes on and my own understanding of Self deepens.
With that said, let’s begin.
I will first establish distinctions between the words self and Self. The lowercase s self is to be used in reference to general concept of who one is, i.e., “I am so-and-so, I live in such-and such.” The capital S Self, however, refers to the actual core of one’s being, the irreducible experience of consciousness (the “man on the island” in the Solomon article.) I will also distinguish between the words ego and Ego. The lowercase e ego here is the word as used in the context of Buddhism and the other eastern traditions- the temporary, illusory things that we think to be our identity but are non-permanent (this is the negative ego that causes problems). The capital E Ego here refers to the parts of our personal identity that cannot be changed- core traits of one’s personality that are consistent over time (this Ego is not an inherent evil, as some philosophies and religions claim).
Before we acquire insight into the nature of Self, we tend to have a fairly undifferentiated, vague notion of our identities. If we were to visualize it, it would look something like this:
The self is the sum total of the identity here, and because it’s undifferentiated, it’s filled with the ego. The ego here is the same as the clouds around the island that I covered in “Solomon”- thoughts, ideas, feelings, and other transient things that occupy one’s attention. Because they are not distinguished from the silent, central awareness that is pure Being, the person having this experience doesn’t know the difference between their Self and their experience. This is the problem of attachment- because we don’t see that we (our Selves) are inherently separate from our thoughts, ideas, and experiences, we experience fear when these are questioned or threatened.
We perceive any attempt to change our mind as an actual attack on our person.
This is incredibly important to understand- it means that a disagreement is potentially an invalidation of one’s identity. To rephrase this, all of the bits of the ego (the clouds hiding the self) are literally thought of as a part of who we are, and the attempt to remove or change them is actively painful. The presence of conflicting ideas, opinions, or feelings creates cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance hurts. In the event our egos are out of sync with reality, we will experience problems (suffering) directly as a result of this paradox until the disconnect is resolved. However, without insight into the nature of the cause of this paradox (through the process of self-reflection), we will not be able to resolve it.
If we go after external knowledge without first gaining knowledge of Self, we will only manage to cloud our vision of reality. The Self is like a singular eye, referenced here in Matthew 6:22-24 (KJV)-
No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.
Imagine the Self as this eye, and everything else that stands between the Self and the Truth of reality (aletheia [ἀλήθεια], Greek for “the unhidden truth”) is a contraption that affects the ability of the eye to see clearly. Some things are lenses (for better or worse), and they cause our vision to focus, blur, widen, narrow, distort, change tint, or even polarize. However, because we lack insight, we don’t see the contraption, we only see through the contraption. What is required is for us to take a step back and observe the machine that we’re looking through.
We can visualize it like this:
At the center is the Self, which is surrounded by the Ego proper. The Ego contains our personal experiences and core personality. The Self and Ego (which are the man and the island, respectively), when properly understood, should be the sum of one’s identity. The Self is inherently unchanging, as it is simply the conscious experience of being, and the Ego does not change but can grow outward (as a child has less of one than an adult) with experience. These form the foundation for the rest of the functioning of the mind. (For the philosophically inclined, the Self is somewhat analogous to metaphysics, as the Ego is similarly to epistemology. The rest of the mind (experienced thoughts) is analogous to ethics, the relation of one mind to another is politics, and the relation between the mind and the experienced world is aesthetics- all roughly.)
Now, let’s return to the lenses. While initially, it may seem like the goal would be to remove anything that stands between the eye of the Self and the Truth of reality, that is actually not the explicit goal. We need to be able to move the barriers and see unobstructed, but such sight is realistically only useful for the individual. It is essential to have the understanding that, as you gain clarity and insight into the Self and the Truth of reality, your perspective will differ from that of others. Knowing this, we must retain the ability to see through the lenses and switch them at will.
This gives us the ability to understand the way that others see things- and this is incredibly necessary if you have any intention of interacting with others. Unless, of course, your intent is to renounce society and become a monk, but as it is said, “Enlightenment is found not in the monastery but the marketplace.” It is one thing to have knowledge of Self, but the process of understanding the dynamics of others is another adventure entirely- and if we are to save the world, it’s an adventure we have to choose. No man is an island- although the Self is as a man on one.
This is where we will end for now- in the next chapter I will discuss the chains of attachment that must be broken for us to liberate ourselves, both from the lenses of the mind and also from those we interact with in life.