One of the many paradoxes of modern mysticism is that there is no good word to describe the ‘sense of self’ that we all have, but which does not appear to be shareable as meaning.
It is as though the real meaning of ‘me’ always slips away when we try to define it. We point to ourselves and say, “Well, it’s just me!”
And it is… in the most fundamental way possible – to which we will return at the end of this piece. But first we need to try to explore this sense of self that is at the heart of our lives and yet which we so take for granted.
We have not always have this overriding sense of ‘me’. In my own life, I remember quite clearly when this ‘self’ happened -when I knew that ‘something’ had entered my consciousness (or had become my consciousness) and transformed me; connecting all the bits into a much more purposeful ‘being’.
This transition is usually experienced around the age of seven, though that can vary. I was standing in the back-yard of my grandparents’ house in Bolton. I was staring at the great stone blocks that formed the ‘fence’ between our house and the next one up the steep street of terraced houses. At that time my Victorian great-grandmother was still alive, though I didn’t see much of her. My beloved grandma and she did not get on…
Decades later, I was talking to my mother on one of our frequent walks. She was telling me about her own similar experience of the ‘entry of self’… and she said the words ‘in the backyard’. I stopped her to ask which backyard, realising that this could be a ‘spooky’ moment. She said matter of factly that she meant their house – my grandparent’s house.
Fascinated, I described exactly where this had happened to me… and she confirmed it was the exact same place it had happened to her…
What does our sense of self do? For one thing, it makes us into a person. A person is someone who has a personality – created by some mixture of innate traits and self-development: astrological mapping may play a part here, but there are other systems of understanding personality as described by modern developmental psychology.
Either way, the journey of the infant to ‘self-hood’ is a journey of reaction to the world. From birth, we encounter things we need, we love and those we are frightened of. They all contribute to what becomes our personality; which, in turn, forms the basis of our adulthood.
Thus equipped, we step, often naively, into the adult world, where we usually get our ‘rough’ edges’ knocked off so that we can become a useful and adult member of society.
But that inner sense of self doesn’t seem to change…
We have all heard older relatives say, “I don’t feel any older. My body may be so, but what’s inside doesn’t feel a day older than my youth”
What’s inside is that ‘crystallised’ self that came into existence at the end of our childhood, and before our hormones began to drag us into the world of the adult.
Does this have spiritual significance? In the deepest sense, this is the story of the ‘spiritual’ retold in modern language.
Because that strong sense of my-self, our identity, patterns our lives, yet is not based upon our fundamental layer of experience. It is all built on the halfway-house of the personality.
Our experience of the world is one of developing awareness. We cannot descend a ladder of consciousness and find a layer of shared awareness; it is unique to each one of us. Language helps us share experience, but the raw stuff of fundamental awareness cannot be shared, simply because its nature is to BE.
There is no getting beneath it. If we follow any deep enquiry into our selves, we come up against this fact: the deepest part of our aliveness is simply a peaceful world of uncritical awareness. Whatever we truly are, its single property is being a point of awareness.
Whether that ‘point’ really exists is a conjecture beyond the scope of this blog. But it is a question to be asked…
In the body, the personality feels contained within the biological structure. This gives rise to the sense of self: bodies are separate, therefore so is the self. And so the self develops, an island of itself, as we have seen. Self gives us a strong personality which we need for success in life. But balance is important. We all know, or know of, ‘egoic monsters’ in our own and public life.
Mystical development is the ‘road back’ to a renewed relationship with that fundamental awareness and its ‘loving kindness’ deep within us.
Mystical simply means a re-experience of these deep mysteries of our selves. Seen this way, our entire life has been a partnership – not a struggle – between the egoic ‘must exist as me’ personality and the never far away urging of something deeper, something not born of life, but with which we came into the world.
This inner voice, to which we often reply ‘aye’ or ‘no’ makes no judgement on us. Our egoic natures do that all by themselves with guilt and stored ‘scoldings’.
The inner urging is always towards unity of the self – the soul, if you like, though there are a hundred definitions of what the soul is.
Somewhere along our road, we realise that what actually looks out on the world is that original being. What reacts to that world is the personality. When, unhappy with the shallowness of our personality, we begin to shift ‘who we are’ in the direction of the inner awareness, we loosen the ties of the world, and begin to re-evaluate the truly fundamental nature of what lies beyond the ‘me’ as we know it
Nothing is lost in this journey that wasn’t illusion in the first place….
If we are ready – and this is what mystical and mystery schools do – we might find ourselves grasping that moment and taking our ‘selves’ to a place where they are ‘washed and made ready’ to greet the forgotten twin… who may just have been at the heart of our lives all along.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.