One of the most wonderful elements of being Human is the sense of self; yet there is great confusion as to what the ‘self’ really is… even whether it exists at all.
Something harvests the experiences of each day yet declares itself separate from them. This accumulation is deemed to be a living entity – the ‘me’ – resplendent with a memory of having lived it, rather than the actuality of what was lived, and containing a trace of the story of that day, which, over time, is consolidated into ‘like’ experiences.
Language cements this relationship with experience. In western languages, we have the basic construct of ‘I do this’: subject, verb and object. Some older languages – often associated with highly spiritual societies – do not have this structure. Sanskrit, for example, the ancient language of India, would say “This is being done”.
It is memory that gives us this certainty of self. Its power of continuity becomes vital to our wellbeing. We take this completely for granted. We do this because we have no choice – it became our dominant perspective at a young age, typically before the age of seven. Because we ‘live in it’, we no longer see it – like so many aspects of our individual worlds.
Although wonderful, it is also a spiritually-deadly perspective, because it separates ‘us’ from the rest of our world.
Let’s consider the elements of this.
Having a sense of Self means that I separate out parts of my experience and call them ‘me’. This act, alone, is quite remarkable. On what basis did my young self determine which bits were me and which were something else?
Vividness of experience must have played a big part. What my attention is drawn to becomes that which I focus on. My attention is grabbed by immediacy and there is nothing as immediate as my body. Continued focus on my body dulls the attention given to the rest of ‘my’ world, even though it is still there with all the power it had when I was a new-born.
This sense of my body becomes, in many ways, my first self – and this will remain dominant for the rest of my life. Spirituality in all its forms, faces this as the first barrier to development. We have to come to see that the solid reality of our own cluster of matter – our bodies – is only one reality; and that the dominance of this in our consciousness is due to habit, rather than any superiority of existence.
The dominance of self as body has another consequence – it locks us into pain. When the body is in pain, so becomes our whole self, if it is focussed in this way. Pain in the body will always be real, but its effect on our overall aliveness is determined by our attention. This discipline is one of the tenets of Buddhism.
The founding psychologists of the early part of the last century worked hard to establish a structure of the Self, or Psyche, so that they could truly investigate its workings. This was a giant leap in mankind’s ability to analyse its own existence. Freud is somewhat dismissed these days, largely because of his singular focus on the sexual power as the dominant ‘drive’, but he gave us a lasting legacy and some major insights into how the self develops and sustains itself. These are of great service to the spiritual seeker.
His description of the structure of the self is of great use to those pursuing a spiritual path; and has echoes across traditions as varied as the Kabbalah and Sufism.
Freud proposed a three-layer hierarchy for the psyche. The first of these was what became known (in English) as the ‘Id’. The translation serves us badly, because the native German was much more instructive. This word, (Das Es) was, literally, the ‘It’. Using the word ‘it’ distanced the observer of her own psyche from this ‘beast’. The sentiment being: “I may need it for my survival, but I don’t have to suffer its beastiality in my normal life.”
And yet, the beast of the Id contains all our energy . . . Coming to terms with it is really important, if we want to lead a vital life. The sad part of this rejection is that it also locks away our younger self, with all its innocence and its delight – because it had appetites for things the subsequent world found ‘antisocial’.
This act of staring at the Id generated a kind of second self, known, in English, as the ‘Ego’. The native German, again more helpful, was ‘The I,’ (Das Ich). The ego’s job became to manage the monster below, allowing us to fit into society without picking our noses all the time – feel free to substitute your own metaphor . . .
But the Ego borrows all its energy from the Id, which it then seeks to manage . . .
The final layer of the Freudian self is, in English, ‘the Superego’; in German, the Uber-Ich (the over I). This is largely concerned with the ‘should-dos’ of our lives – the development of morality; that which is handed down to ‘well brought-up children’. Again, the Supergo borrows all its energy from the Id, to give the final structure and management to the concept of the self.
So… we have a beast and a trapped child, not allowed to develop into an adult self because we have rubbed up against the edge of acceptable society. Above that we have a parentally-created pattern of authority, that lives with us all our lives until we decide to break that ice ceiling and see the sky . . .
None of these things have been created by bad people. They result from two things: the commonly accepted concept of Ego, which is really the Personality; and the nature of Society – which centres itself around consensus and power, and therefore cruelly robs the individual of full life. If mankind has a purpose, it is to reconcile these forces, for the good of the life that follows.
These elements of the greater Self can be ignored – in which case the patterns of ego-driven personality will return to haunt us all our lives, producing similar patterns of events as the years progress. The alternative is to embark on a journey into the self; spiritually, we would say to go in search of the Self.
There are many trials to such a quest, the biggest being the act of turning away from the chosen path when the going gets difficult. The ego, which, remember, is a mental and emotional construct and has no real existence, has an armoury of below-the-radar weapons against such a frontal assault on its (false) kingdom.
Techniques can help. One of the most powerful tools for providing us with a personal map of the journey is the Enneagram. Originally developed by Gurdjieff as a key to how the world ‘unfolded’ in its process (the spiritual ‘Word’), it was added to by deeply spiritual teachers, such as Ichazo, Naranjo, Alamass and Maitri, to become the basis of a way of understand the ‘whole in diversity’ in the sense of how the human personality obscures the greater part of the Soul, within.
The Silent Eye has combined this knowledge with the insight from a triad of mystical and magical pasts, to offer the student (we prefer Companion) a three year guided journey, taken by monthly correspondence course with personal supervision, where every aspect of the Self is encountered, deepening each year as the journey takes us to the realm of the soul-child and beyond.
Companionship is one of the keys. Schools like the Silent Eye offer this even more than they offer teaching. This is because the journey can only belong to the one taking it. In the real journey of the true Self, which brings us face to face, via the Soul-Child, with the Essence (Being) from which our Soul formed itself, we reach a point where no system or religion can have any power over us. We come, quite early on this path, to a place where we know that truth belongs to us, and only truth learned and experienced in this way has any value.
To stand alone and look out at that which we distanced ourselves from, when the founding layers of our personality separated us from the “Other”, is a moment that brings us to stand before reality – possibly for the first time. The new Self generated at that point is one of immense power . . . and intense humility.
10 June 2020
©Stephen Tanham 2020
Steve Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit, teaching organisation which delivers stages and mentored lessons via correspondence course. For more information contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org