Having said that, let me mention the first concept of self - the self as a structure. When I was a kid, I had a Tinker Toy set - at least I think that's what it was called. It was a box filled with round wooden rods of various lengths and colors, and circular wooden wheels with holes along the edges and sides. You'd insert the rods into the wheels to make complex, interconnected structures of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. You could construct them into buildings and towers, or into abstract shapes that looked like molecules.
That's how I think of this concept of the self as a structure. The self is a complex constellation of interconnected memories, attitudes, ideas, representations - whatever terms you'd like to use. It's a nuts-and-bolts model of the self that's been very popular model in western psychology, no doubt inspired by concepts of atomic and molecular structure in classical physics. We can think of the goal of therapy, as well as the evolution of the self, as the development of a more sturdy, elaborate, flexible, balanced, cohesive, and fully integrated constellation. The healthy self means its structure has UNITY.
One of the complications of this model of the self-as-structure is where to place emotion, affect. We could think of it as just another module embedded within the structure. On the other hand, some theorists like to talk about the "affective coloring" of the structure, as if emotion isn't really a unit within the structure, but rather an attribute or tone that is infused into the structure. It's the various colors of the Tinker Toy pieces, and not the structure of it. Then the goal of therapy and evolution is the positive valence of these affective qualities. Simply put: to feel good, to be happy. As the Dalai Lama said, the purpose of life is JOY.
The distinction between particles and qualities as the fundamental component of things actually is a age-old debate in physics dating back to the Greeks. Is reality composed of units (like atoms, electrons, neutrinos), or blends of qualities (like "charm" and "strangeness")? Maybe it's both. Maybe the self is composed of both structure and a melding of qualities. In an old Saturday Night Live simulated commercial, Gilda Radner and Dan Akroid are debating about this mysterious new spray can product. Is it a floor wax? Is it a desert topping? Surprise, Chevy Chase, the commentator says, it's BOTH a floor wax AND a desert topping! Even though it may seem like a contradiction, maybe the self is both a structure and a blend of qualities. Sort of like how light acts both like a wave and particles.
Another complication in this concept of self-as-structure is that structures are really PROCESSES at a slow rate of change. Sure the Tinker Toy creation looks stable and fixed, but over time it will sag a bit, some of the connections will loosen and open, or someone might come along and rearrange, add to, or break it. Structures change. Trees and mountains change. People change. We never step in the same river twice. The eternal ebb and flow of things is the Tao. Structure and Form sit on the surface of formless process. Maybe the goal of therapy and evolution is to accept and ride along with these changes rather than fight them. To try not to cling to the illusion of structure.
A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I didn't struggle," he said. "I accommodated myself to the water and just went with its flow."
So the idea of a self-as-structure is complicated by the fact that these structures are really processes at a slow rate of change. But let me emphasize that there ARE structures and even under the best of circumstances - as in really effective psychotherapy - these structures (in the time frame of ordinary human consciousness) still change slowly. Deep psychotherapy takes time to remedy a pathological psyche. Excellent longterm psychotherapists possesses spiritual qualities that enable such long change to occur - the qualities of respect, patience, and compassion.
Self as Awareness
Now let's take a look at another way to think about the self - how about the self as awareness? This is the idea that the true self is not a thing or object or structure, but the process of observing, pure awareness, consciousness, mindfulness. It's a phenomenon that is highly developed in eastern traditions, especially in meditation practices.
An interesting turn of events in evolution is that we humans seem to have developed a unique type of awareness: self-awareness. We can become conscious of ourselves. We have the ability to be self-reflective. The psychotherapist joins forces with that observing center of their clients' consciousness in order to help them explore their intrapsychic worlds. Psychotherapy is the broadening of the scope of self-awareness. It helps us observe what was previously unobservable. It makes the unconscious conscious. Because we can become aware of many, if not all aspects of the self-as-structure, some theorists believe that pure awareness lies beyond that structure. It transcends the nuts and bolts of the Tinker Toy self.
In this model of the self as an observing phenomenon, the goal of therapy and evolution is to become more fully and clearly aware - to brush away the dusty concepts, beliefs, and anxieties that obscure and distort our vision in order to really see. It's like waking up. Western psychology tends to emphasize interpersonal awareness - consciousness of ourselves and others. Awareness of oneself is a good thing, but we can carry it too far or in the wrong direction. It's like staring at yourself in the mirror for too long. Solipsism is a lonely dead end. You lose perspective. There's also awareness of others. Awareness of one's self as a relationship to others is what psychotherapy is all about, isn't it? And maybe the evolution of mind as well.
I like those eastern meditative traditions that point awareness in directions other than at that self within our skins or it's interpersonal field. What about things? Is mind there too?
After ten years of apprenticeship, a student achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit a famous Zen master in another city. When he entered the house, the master greeted him with a question, "Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?" "Yes, master," he replied. "Tell me," the master said, "Did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?" The visitor didn't know the answer, which made him realize that his awareness was not fully developed. So he stayed with the master and studied Zen another ten years.
Wouldn't it be interesting to try that on our psychotherapy patients? "Tell me, Mrs. Smith, on which hook did you hang your coat in the waiting room" or "What color is the bathroom down the hall?" It would be a tiny assessment of their mindfulness. It might reveal a lot about them.
One problem with conceptualizing the self as the process of "observing" is that it gives a distant, detached, almost alienated feeling to the self. It steps back and observes. It's not connected. I prefer to think of that observing or awareness as close up, intimate, even infused into the thing of which the self is aware. In meditation, we can become one with our breath, a mantra, a candle, or whatever it is that we have focussed our awareness. That awareness or mindfulness of other people might be called empathy or compassion. It's a merging of selves.
The development of awareness and the observing self seems to be very different than the development of the self-as-structure. It doesn't involve the building up of a Tinker Toy construction, but maybe the process of taking it apart. Activating pure awareness may be a process of negation, stripping away, letting go, unclinging. It's a process of returning. The Tao Te Ching states this very clearly. Touching the Tao is the act of returning.
There's an interesting exercise that I first read about in Yalom's book on existential psychotherapy. It's called the "disidentification exercise." You draw up a list of, say, ten things that you are. Things that are important about you, about your self. "I am a wife... I am a mother... I am a professional... I am intelligent... I am ambitious...." etc. Then, one by one, you cross off each item on the list and try to imagine what you would be without that aspect of self. When all items are crossed off, what's left? Who or what are you when all aspects of your self-as-structure have been chiseled away. You return to pure awareness, pure mind. It's a self without content. Some would say it's "no-self." Maybe we arrive at the true self by passing through loss, grief, mourning, and, paradoxically, through the loss of self itself.
I remember reading a story once about a family in which one of the children, from birth, was severely impaired mentally. I don't remember the medical details of what was wrong with the child. But his existence consisted only of lying in bed with his eyes open. He seemed aware, but he couldn't talk or move at all. Just lying in bed with his eyes open. Obviously he required constant and total care. He did grow physically, but his mental condition never changed.
When the oldest sister grew up and started dating, she would bring her boyfriends to meet the family - which, of course, included meeting her brother. The boyfriends typically acted very anxious and awkward, or just plain freaked out when they saw the brother. But one day, the young woman brought home a new boyfriend who reacted very differently. When he walked into the bedroom and saw the brother on the bed, he sat down next to him. He put his hand on the brother's hand, and just sat there quietly with him. The boyfriend seemed perfectly comfortable just being there with the brother. The sister fell in love with that man and later married him, in part because he understood how her brother was not a monster or some aberration in human development. He was a person, real, unique, essentially human as we all are, and loved by his family. The boyfriend understood something important about the self.
Revealing the self as awareness is a process of stripping away and returning. Some mystics sometimes take this idea to the extreme. They say: If I lose my arms and legs, awareness still exists. If I lose my arms, legs, and body, awareness still exists. If I lose my arms, legs, body, and this very thought and all thinking, awareness still exists.... The self as awareness, mind, consciousness, may transcend the physical and mental self. And when we think of the self in this way - as awareness that transcends the individual - something interesting happens.
A few months ago I was watching the movie "The Spirit of St. Louis." There's a great scene where Jimmy Stewart, who plays the role of Charles Lindbergh, is talking with a minister. Looking a bit skeptical, but also uneasy, he asks the minister what would happen if his plane started to spin out of control and was going down. Would God intervene? Would God help him? The minister says, "I don't know if God would or would not intervene. But I do know this. God will know that the plane is going down."
The idea of God as witness is a powerful one. It's the observing self, the self as pure awareness that transcends the individual. It's BEING WITH. Quakers believe that if someone is suffering, no matter where they are, you can always "hold them in the light." You can always be aware of their suffering and hold them in the light of awareness and being with. As a psychotherapist, never underestimate the power of simply listening, being aware, being empathic, affirming the client's suffering. It's the healing empathy and compassion of the self that transcends the boundaries of individual selves.
The Self as
This idea of the self as transcendent has come up several times already, so how about we make that the third way to conceptualize the self. We have self as structure, self as awareness, and now self as transcendent. We can think of the self as transcendent in several ways. If we think of the self-as-structure, the transcendent self is the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It's the superordinate glue or container that holds it all together, the fundamental organizing principle, the source, the ground that unifies all facets of selfhood. Evolution and psychotherapy is the actualizing of that greater holistic, transcendent self. We also can think of the transcendent self as the pure awareness or mindfulness that lies beyond the self-as-structure. Maybe that *is* the superordinate glue that holds it all together.
One metaphor I always loved is that the self is like a wave on the ocean. It appears as a separate and distinct entity, but it is a form that arises from, passes through, and eventually returns to the larger, formless volume beneath it. Evolution of mind and psychotherapy involves the realization of that connection to the source. The word "religion" comes from the Latin "re-ligare" which means, "to tie back." There's an old Japanese saying,
At times I go about pitying myself, when all the while I am being carried by great winds across the sky.
To resist the realization that one comes from and returns to the transcendent self is a type of sickness. It's a splitting and fragmenting of awareness. Woody Allen said:
I don't mind dying... as long as I don't have to be there when it happens.
Self as a Manifestation
With this idea of self-as-transcendent comes an interesting spin-off concept: the self as a manifestation. The individual self is a representation, a manifestation of the larger, transcendent self. The Bible tells us that God created human's in God's image. Zen masters ask us, "What did your face look like before your parents were born?" We can see the universe in a grain of sand. The transcendent self infuses or shines through the individual self. Maybe the manifestation is a complete representation. And maybe sometimes only certain facets of the transcendent self shine through each individual self.
As I mentioned earlier, over the past several years I've been doing a lot of research and writing on cyberspace. It's fascinating to think about the internet as a representation of the collective human mind and as a place for the individual to manifest him or herself. Cyberspace is an infinitely complex, interconnected constellation of information and ideas that shows no limits in how much it is expanding. Will it be a complete manifestation of the collective human mind, or partial? Is it a new stage in the evolution of human consciousness? And how does the individual person choose to manifest him or herself in that collective cyberspace consciousness. In the new multimedia communities on the internet, you can present yourself in any way you want, with any identity or personae you want. You can even choose any visual appearance you want, a picture or icon to represent yourself - whether it's Bugs Bunny, the Mona Lisa, the moon, a triangle, anything you wish. That self-icon is called an "avatar," which is the Hindu term for the appearance Gods choose to represent themselves on earth. Perhaps in cyberspace, we see a playing out of the divine process of striving for a transcendent self while also finding new ways to manifest the individual self.
Self as Doing (willing/being)
OK, we've sliced up the self pie four ways so far. Let's add in just one more. What about the idea of the self as doing, as motivation, the initiation of action. It's the force or energy that moves us along our path in life. Sounds good, but a problem comes up when we start to think and behave as if the self is an internal doer, as an entity or center inside us that makes us go. Where inside the individual can we locate this initiator of action? Is there a tiny homunculus that sits at a control panel inside our head? Psychology can't find it.
Perhaps, instead, the self *is* the doing of something. There are actions and thoughts without hidden internal actors or thinkers. In fact, the evolution of the mind and psychotherapy may be the ability to set aside that illusion of an internal self-entity that makes us do, think, and feel. The Zen master Dogen said that to study Zen is to study the self, and to study the self is to forget the self.
Two monks were talking. One of them bragged about how his teacher was so spiritually developed that he could float in the air while meditating. The other monk said, "My teacher also is very spiritual. When he's hungy, he eats. When he's tired, he sleeps."
The development of the self-as-doing is simply to do - to act fluidly and spontaneously according to the moment, to act fluidly and spontaneously according to one's basic nature. When I asked my dog Griffin to show me his true self - and he licked his lips and ran to his bowl - he did indeed answer my question. Psychotherapy and the evolution of mind involves freeing the doing-self from the superfluous baggage of the self-conscious, over-controlling homunculus. They involve freeing the doing self from the anxieties, worries, doubts, and second-guessing that stands over us with a club and blocks spontaneity. "The mind starts working the moment you are born, and doesn't stop until you stand up to make a speech." Here's one of my favorite Zen stories.
A distraught man approached the Zen master. "Please, Master, I feel lost, desperate. I don't know who I am. Please, show me my true self!" But the teacher just looked away without responding. The man began to plead, but still the master gave no reply. Finally giving up in frustration, the man turned to leave. At that moment the master called out to him by name, "Hey Joe!" "Yes!" the man said as he spun back around. "There it is!" exclaimed the master.
I've been taking piano lessons for about two years now. It's one of the hardest things I've ever attempted. My hands are too tight. I tend to try too hard and am overly self-conscious. But sometimes there are moments - jazz musicians call it "flow" - when I'm just playing, fluidly and easily. It's the doing piano self. It's wonderful. Unfortunately, in the middle of that flow, a tiny voice will speak out from the back of my head. "Hey! You're playing piano!" And that ruins it. The same sort of thing happens in meditation. The tiny voice says, "Hey! This is bare awareness!" In the evolution of the self-as-doing, that tiny voice fades away.
I don't want to overemphasize the idea of "doing" too much. In our western culture, we are overly ambitious about doing and achieving. Maybe a better term is "WILLING."
When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on religion with Thomas Altizer. He was very prominent in the 1960s for his philosophy of Christian Atheism, and once was almost lynched by the audience at the Merv Griffin show because talked about God being dead. He was quite charismatic and eccentric - with fiery eyes and greying hair that always looked windswept, as if he just stepped in from a metaphysical windstorm. One afternoon I went to his office to discuss my term paper. The discussion turned to Nietzsche, who was one of Altizer's favorite philosophers. He talked so fervently about Nietzsche's concept of the "will to power" that even a hardcore skeptic would waver. Being a bit oppositional by nature, I decided to challenge Altizer a little bit. Drawing on my background as a psychology major, I mentioned the fact that Nietzsche became schizophrenic during the last ten years of his life - which was the result of untreated syphilis. How can you reconcile Nietzsche's philosophy with this fact. How do you take into consideration the fact that he was completely mad?
Altizer looked me straight in the eye and said, "Maybe he willed it."
Now what was that supposed to mean? Isn't that like willing what Dan Rather says on the news, or that there's a tornado in the next county, or the fact that you were born? How do you will such things? Maybe the self as doing is, at a deeper level, the self as the force or energy of willing. The willing of oneself. The willing of life and being. It's a choosing and affirming of what you are - even if what you are or do isn't always pleasant. While driving home from work one day, I heard on NPR an interesting poem, which is from a published collection all of which are written in the voice of Barbie - you know, the doll. Here's Barbie's poem (loosely quoted):
Buddha says that existence is emptiness and there is no self.
I agree, but I wonder why a man with such a fat belly
would pose for a picture with no shirt on.
Barbie understands the nature of self. She's also a bit vain. But that's Barbie. That's what Barbie does and is. It's her nature. One's self is one's Buddha nature, and to question whether that nature is good or bad may not be a relevant question.
Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up in his hand and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion once again and was again stung. The other monk asked him, "Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know it's nature is to sting?"
"Because," the monk replied, "to save it is my nature."
One internet visitor who read this story on my web site emailed me and said, "Geesh. I guess the monk's nature didn't include a lot of intelligence. Why didn't he use his bowl to scoop the scorpion up!"
So that's it. Those are some ways to conceptualize the self - as structure, awareness, transcendence, manifestation, doing, being. The concept of self is a bit like the concept of energy. We talk about it all the time, we see the effects of it all around us, we try to manipulate it. But no one is exactly sure what it is. It's the bedrock that we can't pass through or completely wrap our minds around. One day at the university I met one of my colleagues, a physicist, in the bathroom. "So, George," I said while we stood at the urinals, "What exactly is energy." He thought about it for just a few seconds, and said with a wry expression, "The ability to do work." And then he zipped up and walked out.
George is a bit of a pragmatist. But maybe there's something to that. What is energy? The ability to do work. What is the self? When tired, sleep. When hungry, eat. Freud might say "To work and to love." So maybe the answer to the riddle of the self is pretty simple. It's our concepts that get complex, like a big Tower of Babble where we're all speaking in different tongues and can't fully understand each other. We need a Star Trek universal language translator of some kind. We need the tower to come tumbling down.
The concept of self is like the ultimate projective test. What it is is what we make it out to be. It's a reflection. It's like staring at yourself in the mirror. And the reflection will vary across people, cultures, and history.
What is it about us humans that draws us to this projective test, that makes us search for the self, that makes us do silly things like probe mirrors, dogs, and computers to find it. The only True Self you'll find at the top of a mountain is the True Self you bring there. But that's OK. We humans ask questions. We search. It's our nature. It's what we need to do to finally realize that we don't need to do it.
In that short meditation we did at the beginning of this talk, your experience - what you saw or felt - was a finger pointing. Maybe it pointed at something that I talked about. Maybe it pointed somewhere else. Wherever it pointed, that direction was more true for you than anything I've said today.
So let's go full circle, back to that cup of tea offered by the Emperor... What is this thing called self?
I do not know.