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"It is out of the deepest depththat the highest must come to its height"
Men Therapy Session

Less-Self or Selfless?

We have all been taught that being selfless is a good thing. Focusing on what others want before attempting to satisfy your own desires; setting your own needs aside to make sure everyone else has what they need; not even thinking of your self, but giving your strongest effort and attention to people around you... these all seem to be virtuous attributes and altruistic traits. 

I will not arguing that these methods of thinking and behaving don't lead to others feeling a sense of ease, joy, and even increased love and acceptance. In fact, I believe there would be much more happiness in life if we were all able to accurately assess what we want in any given moment and then weigh that need/desire within the situation to decide whether it is more appropriate to pursue that want or delay (or even dismiss) gratification. An aspect of this dichotomy - between thinking/acting on behalf of ourselves versus thinking/acting on behalf of others - that I feel should be more thoroughly considered, however, involves the way we each view our own personal identity (our "self") in the first place. In short, in this post I will outline why I think there is benefit in viewing our "self" as something that emerges from our own responses to life; a cyclical and active process of perceptual compilation that (typically) unconsciously performs itself from an intentional stance of wanting or not-wanting... in other words, the "self" can be viewed as a verb instead of a noun - that is, an event rather than a thing. Experimenting with this view in daily life can lead to some very unique possibilities in how we relate to ourselves, to our struggles/successes, and to others in our lives - it may also result in very special conclusions to the Who am "I"? problem. 

One main argument around which this claim is made is that, despite how much we search, the "self" is never found. You may be thinking, "that's dumb, I know right where I am"; but if the gaze of the observer is turned toward itself, it can be quickly realized that the thing observing (the "knower") becomes the observed (the "known"). Keep in mind that when I say "observe", I am not (necessarily) talking about visual observation. The type of sight that Dan Siegel calls "Mindsight" indicates that capacity to peer into our own minds: introspection, self-contemplation, some types of meditation, autonoetic consciousness - the ability that, arguably, we all have to conceptualize ourselves within our own lived experience of past, present, and emergent future. This is the type of "looking" that is done when we stop to ponder if we like what kind of person we are becoming; when we "gaze" into what at times might be the dark abyss of our own sadness; or, in a nostalgic moment of flipping through old family pictures, we are simply overwhelmed at the fortune of having the life we have. In short, it is self-referent thinking. Assuming this self-referent consciousness allows us to recognize our innate ability to choose a vantage point that includes the source of observation (the "self") and can be immensely freeing and joyous.

We experience ourselves as the observers of reality, but when the knower is changed into the known, the central placement of conscious awareness is different than the "I" we are all used to. This spacial separation (distance) of identity can have significant (and mind-boggling) effects in the way we interact with ourselves and with others. 

Incidentally, it can also be terrifying. Finding that the "you" that has been the solid foundation upon which you have build your life and standard against which you compare all things and experiences is not quite what you thought it was can take your feet right out from underneath you. A method that may help us experience this shaken-ness might include a purposeful dis-identification from or a de-reification of the "ingredients" of our experience (this skill to dis-identify with one's inner experience is also a core aspect of an integrated mental state and aids in the cultivation self- and other-compassion). These "ingredients" might be proposed as including: 

  • Conscious Awareness (the process of awareness that couples together the stuff to be observed with the observer, creating an observational awareness)
  • Corporeality (the physical substance of our body that takes in and interprets information from our world - the mechanisms of the ear, the different parts of the eye, the odor receptors of the nose, etc.; and the physical stuff that makes up the information of our world that is interpreted - the sound waves we hear, the light we see, the molecules we smell, etc.) 
  • Feeling (the labeling - 'pleasant', 'unpleasant', 'neutral', or somewhere in between - of the physical sensations and mental objects representing our bodily experience)
  • Perception (the actual moment-to-moment interpretation of each instance of experience - these instances collect into general thoughts and those thoughts collect into broader views about ourselves and the world)
  • Mental Categories/Patterns (the very well-rehearsed responses of perception that form our dispositions, inform our intentions, and guide our actions - what we typically call our "personality")

The above "ingredients" all occur in lighting speed during each moment. Indeed, it is the cycling of these ingredients that brings the "self" into fruition. The "self" may be thought of as a byproduct of this process plus another key component: grasping. "Grasping", for my use in this article, means that intentional stance of wanting to either hold onto something (like a pleasant feeling), become or  obtain something (like your dream version of yourself), or avoid something (like an unpleasant feeling) - leading to attitudes of "this is me", "this is mine", "this is my 'self'". For the purposes of this writing, an alternative stance to our lived reality could be said to be "equanimity": the observing of what is unfolding in your immediate experience without the interference of "grasping".

If this is too out there for you, think of grasping as being either "wanting" or "not-wanting" and equanimity being something like a radical contentment. The key is the recognition that, despite the fact that life comes with pain (the body hurts, the emotions sting, people die, mistakes are made), we have a choice to observe that pain just as it is or we can heap a bunch of suffering and distress on top of it by grasping "wanting" or "not-wanting". Much like the scenario in my previous post about Non-Judgement where I illustrated two different responses to the same stressful stimuli (being late for work, spilling coffee, etc.), viewing our pains (and joys) in life with non-judgmental equanimity frees up a tremendous amount of space for us to continue living rather than stunting our own mental progress toward well-being by: desperately reaching for what we wanted but didn't get, hating what we didn't want but got anyway, or trying to keep what we have when we know we won't always have it (youth - we all get old, comfort - we have to occasionally feel uncomfortable in order to grow, happiness - we all get sad sometimes, etc.).

With this "formula" of the self as basically being our feeling-toned perceptual experience (the "ingredients") plus a tendency to "grasp" (wanting or not-wanting something other than what is happening) points out the origination of what we typically call "me". Seeing it (our "self") in this way can lead us to the conclusion that the "self" is constantly being created on a moment-to-moment basis; that the identity and personality we all claim is permanent is actually a little more shifty than that. 

One neuro-scientific theory of consciousness that arguably supports this claim of the illusory nature of the "self" is based around a phenomenon called the "thalamo-cortical sweep". It is at this point that, if I were a neuroscientist, I would interpret the data presented in Rodolpho Llinas' paper "Of Self and Self Awareness: The Basic Neuronal Circuit in Human Consciousness and the Generation of Self" to give a more accurate overview of the theory... However, being a musician-turned-therapist, I will give you an abridged version: Basically, it seems to be the case that during neuronal firing (brain cell activity), there is a network in the brain spanning the thalamic region (deep in the center of the brain) and the cortex (outer brain; the "bark") that connects all neural activity in that area by the "sweeping" of a certain frequency of brain wave - around 40Hz (40 oscillations per second): this is considered the range of gamma band oscillations - and that sweeping transforms the separate and discontinuous brain activity in our head into a seemingly steady stream of consciousness. One way to visualize this process is to think of old-school style cartoons: you draw a ton of very similar pictures on each page of a notebook that gradually change position or gestures and then flip the pages really fast to make it looks like the figures are moving. In this case, the neurons firing are the sketches on the pages, each passing "sweep" of resonance is a single page (taking a snapshot of all neural activity at that one moment), and several seconds of this sweeping (remember, 40 times a second!) is like the visual illusion of motion caused by the flipping pages.

The reason this seems significant, is that as we begin to view the "self" as a continually-constructed process of action, we can also begin to recapitulate choice into our lives based on the freedom of being essentially dynamic "selves". And even beyond that, it can be profoundly liberating to see the "self" - rather than something concrete, static, and permanently stuck - as merely an illusory phenomena that is originated and upheld by an intentional stance of "grasping" as we experience the constant and feeling-toned perceptions of our bodies and minds in our environment. Back to the issue raised by the title: once the "self" stops tripping us up with its automatic means of protecting us, hoarding for us, and grasping for us, we are free not only to experience ourselves with more self-compassion and kindness, but we are able to experience our neighbor similarly. I believe this can lead to more other-compassion and love through curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

If the "self" is seen in this dynamic way, like a wave on the surface of the ocean that is only a wave if it continues to "perform" as a wave - try to scoop it up with a giant bowl and its identity as a wave (its "wave-ness") dissolves - the argument of seeing the "self" as a verb rather than a noun seems well-supported. I will leave further implications of this to the reader's imagination - or possibly another post - but I will repeat my belief that much of the relational problems we all experience in our interactions with others - as well as the dis-ease and disequilibrium in mental health - can be at least partially attributed to one's "self" getting in the way of oneself. Our minds are wonderful at adapting, protecting, planning, categorizing, synthesizing, integrating... In general, however, we all may benefit from allowing our minds to show off how good it can be at releasing itself from its own grip; and moving from a stance of constant grasping, craving, and avoiding to a state of equanimity in reference to what is immediately unfolding can be one way of exploring that possibility. To close, I will quote a pretty inspirational guy who has done a lot of work phenomenologically mapping out the moment-to-moment experience of subjective human consciousness and exploring liberating ways to live out the synthesis of those moments with less suffering and more tranquility and compassion, Andrew Olendzki:

"Grasping is not something done by the self; rather, the self is something done by grasping."