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Self Concept

Diamond Approach

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

From the teachings of A.H. Almaas

What is Self Concept?

Diamond Approach Teachings About: Self Concept

As We Disengage Somewhat from the Self-Concept and the Content of Experience . . .

As we disengage somewhat from the self-concept and the content of experience, awareness of the flow brings us closer to recognizing the soul herself. To be attuned to the flow of inner events indicates that we are more aware of the consciousness which is manifesting the various states and experiences, relative to the content of the states and experiences themselves. We normally focus on the forms, one form after another, and are unaware of the substratum, the medium that is flowing and transforming. If we disengage from the focus on the specific forms and experiences, and simply observe them coming and going, we might become aware of the phenomenon of streaming, the sense of flow. This phenomenon of streaming and sense of flow is not merely the experience of various states happening one after the other. Sometimes, for example in sitting meditation, we might observe experiences flow one after the other, and we call that streaming. This is the external experience of streaming, not the streaming itself. We are still perceiving the flow through some conceptual filters. The experience of inner space with emotional states or thoughts arising in it is not the flow. As we become more steadily attuned to the flow of experience, the particular forms and specifics of experience begin to appear as manifestations of a flowing medium. The flow takes center stage in our awareness, and this can precipitate the recognition of the medium underlying the various forms of experience. We no longer experience a succession of experiences, but a flowing medium whose flow is the manifestations of the experiences. It is not then a succession of events, but rather a current that carries events. The flow is of the substance of the soul, the medium of consciousness that underlies the specific experiences. The river of consciousness carries various forms, or more accurately, manifests these forms.

Exposing the Self-Concept as an Empty Shell

When the ego individuality associated with the self-concept is finally perceived objectively, it is experienced as a kind of an empty shell. One feels the presence of boundaries that give one the sense of being an individual, but one feels fake, unreal and empty of any true substance or nature. Usually this leads to the absorption of ego boundaries into the Personal Essence. However, one can still perceive the world in the usual way, as real and full of significance. This means one still is not seeing through the representational world. One is still projecting this ego structure onto the real world, and is filtering one’s perceptions of the world through it. The realization of both the Personal Essence and the Cosmic Consciousness now make it possible to see through the projection of the representational world. The continued experience of the Personal Essence and the Cosmic Consciousness begins to expose a contraction in the psychophysical organism that has been very deeply hidden. One slowly starts realizing that this disharmonious contraction has to do with focus on, or cathexis of, physical reality in general, and not just on one’s own body. Understanding this exposes the self-concept again as an empty shell. However, now the empty shell feels like an individual who is emotionally and mentally trapped by the physical world. Sometimes one feels as if he is fat, or full of fat that covers a deep emptiness. One becomes aware that this sense of being a fat empty shell is coexistent with a state of greed and lust for food and physical comfort and pleasure. One realizes the consequences of the exclusive cathexis of physical reality, which is basically how ego sees the world. One relates to the world as if it can fill one’s emptiness, can satisfy one’s greed for all kinds of physical rewards. One is deeply, though unconsciously, aware of one’s deficient emptiness, and is seeing the world as the source of gratifications.

In Simple Terms, an Individual is Narcissistically Healthy when He Has Developed a Realistic Stable Self-Concept

It is this concept of the self-representation which plays the greatest role in the various psychological theories of narcissism. Psychoanalytic theory uses the term narcissism in a neutral sense. There is normal (healthy) narcissism, and then there is pathological narcissism. Hartmann defined narcissism as the libidinal investment (cathexis) of the self-representation. Healthy narcissism results from a well-integrated, harmonious, and realistic self-representation being invested with positive energy or libido. Narcissistic disturbance or unhealthy narcissism, occurs when there is a problem with the libidinal investment of the self in terms of either the adequacy of the investment or the quality of the energy invested, and/or in the quality of integration of the self-representation. In simple terms, an individual is narcissistically healthy when he has developed a stable self-concept that is realistic, resistant to dissolution or disintegration, with inner harmony and positive self-regard. Pathological narcissism occurs when the self-representation is absent, weak, fragmented, disintegrated, or unrealistic, or when it is particularly vulnerable to such disturbances.

It is Extremely Difficult for the Personality, and Especially for the Ego Identity (self-concept) to Let Go

An important point to understand here is that the personality does not let go easily and that this characteristic of it can be seen from a positive perspective. The personality, as we have seen consistently, contains the memory of all that was lost. To ask it to let go means, according to the unconscious, letting go of its attempt to regain all that was lost. Unconsciously, it knows what has to be there, and it is not going to clear the space completely before it is sure that everything is there. On the surface, it appears that personality wants to displace essence. This is partially true, but on the deeper levels, it was formed and developed ultimately for the protection and the survival of the organism and hence for the protection and the survival of the whole essential process. And it performs this function faithfully, even though rigidly. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for the personality, and especially for the ego identity (self-concept), to loosen its grip and let go when it believes that only lack and emptiness will result. It knows, although vaguely and unconsciously, that richness and fulfillment are possible, and it continues to hold out for them. However, if the essential aspects are uncovered and the various functions of essence realized, it is much easier for the personality to let go. The personality then will not be letting go out of desperation and hopelessness. It will let go because of understanding. It will melt away because it will see that its life is suffering and that the fulfillment of the life of essence is impeded by its own very existence. The personality will realize that it itself is the barrier to the life of fullness and abundance. It will see the necessity of its own death. It will long for it. And then it will not only disintegrate into emptiness, it will melt and disappear into the sweet honey of the divine essence.

Love has Nothing to Do with Your Personality

When I talk about “knowing oneself,” I don’t mean knowing that tag, that self-image. I don’t mean knowing how you feel about your body or how you look, or if you’re short or tall or angry or sad. Not these. I mean knowing your inner nature, your true nature. There is such a thing. It’s what we call essence. When you recognize your true nature, your being, your essence, you will see it is Being, because it is. It is in the sense that it is an existence. It is not a reaction; it is not an emotion. An emotion is not an is-ness. An emotion is an activity, a charge and discharge pattern. Essence is there regardless of the charge or discharge. There is an existence, a beingness that can be experienced, and that is you. If you don’t know this beingness, you can’t know what love is because love has to do with your being, your essence. It has nothing to do with your personality, your emotions or your ideas, your self-concept, your self-image, your accomplishments, your preferences, your likes and dislikes, your relationships. These things have nothing to do with your beingness. Your beingness is pure; it is not contaminated by any of those things. Your beingness is always pure, always present, always perfect. Its main quality is an is-ness, an existence, a beingness. The personality is an activity, a movement, always going one place or the other, always feeling something, thinking something, wanting something, desiring something. Essence is not like that. Essence is just Being. You are. What you are has nothing to do with what you want, what you don’t want, what you do or don’t do. It is just there. You could be doing anything, and the Being is there, and that is you.

Most of Us are Consciously or Unconsciously Identified with Self-Concepts

What makes it so difficult for us as human beings to be deeply authentic and spontaneous, to feel free to be who we naturally are? One aspect of the answer lies in what most spiritual traditions understand to be a case of mistaken identity. Most of us are consciously and unconsciously identified with self-concepts which greatly limit our experience of ourselves and the world. Who we take ourselves to be, as determined by the sets of ideas and images that define us, is very far from the unconditioned reality that deeply realized human beings have come to recognize as our true nature, who we truly are. Numerous approaches, such as psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and various self-improvement techniques can help us change our self-concepts so that we are more realistic, more satisfied, and more effective in our lives. But only an exploration of the actual nature of the self, beyond the details of its content, can bring us to realms of experience which approach more deeply fulfilling, fundamental levels of philosophical or spiritual truth. Our experience of ourselves can be transformed from identifying with our mental self-images to having awareness of less contingent, more fundamentally real aspects of the self. It is possible to arrive at a place where we can experience ourselves as the actual phenomenon, the actual ontological presence that we are, rather than as ideas and feelings about ourselves. The more we are able to contact the actual presence that we are, the less we are alienated in a superficial or externally defined identity. The more we know the truth of who we are, the more we can be authentic and spontaneous, rather than merely living through concepts of ourselves.

Self-Concept is a Structure Built Through the Integration of Past Object Relations

In the process of realization and development of the Personal Essence the representations that are metabolized are primarily the self-representations. This ultimately leads to the surrender of both the ego boundaries and the sense of self. This means that what is surrendered (absorbed) is the integrated self-representation or the self-concept. However, since this self-concept is a structure built through the integration of past object relations, it does not exist on its own, in isolation. It exists always in relation to the object image, or more accurately, in relation to the various internalized object images. The totality of all object images are integrated into what is called the representational world (a concept introduced by Sandler). The self-concept plus the representational world constitute an overall psychic structure, what Erikson and Kernberg refer to as ego identity. Kernberg writes:

“Ego identity refers to the overall organization of identifications and introjections under the guiding principle of the synthetic function of the ego.” [Otto F. Kernberg, Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis, p. 32]

Thus the self-concept cannot be separated from its milieu, which is the representational world. One is always conscious of being a person in relation to the overall world. The world the individual is relating to is not the real objective world, but the “representational world.” We repeat a passage from Kernberg about the representational world:

“It has to be stressed, however, that this internal world of object representations . . . never reproduces the actual world of real people . . . it is at most an approximation, always strongly influenced by the very early object-images of introjections and identifications.” [Ibid., p. 33]

This means that one cannot let go completely of the self-concept unless one lets go of the totality of ego identity, including the representational world. One cannot be the Personal Essence relating to the representational world. The self-concept will eventually reassert itself through the presence of its milieu, the representational world. But if the Personal Essence is truly integrated then the representational world will start being perceived as not the real world, and will become an issue to be understood.

Since the Self-Concept Excludes the Dimension of Being, the Ground of the Self is Absent from Experience

The most deeply impoverishing alienation in ego experience is alienation from the essential core of the self. There are subtle but fundamental differences between this and alienation from other dimensions of the self. We discussed in detail in Chapter 6 how experiencing the self from within and through the self-representation automatically alienates the self from its Essence and core, the true presence of Being. This alienation causes the identity to feel deeply weak and vulnerable. Since the self-concept excludes the dimension of Being, the very ground of the self is absent from experience, which naturally makes one feel weak and unsupported. Identity mediated through this incomplete self-representation is also bound to be superficial because it excludes the depth of the self. Since the presence of Being is not only the inner core of the soul, but also its true nature, a self-representation which excludes Being is not only incomplete but also distorted. Recalling our discussion of the perception of the body in the experience of self-realization, we will remember that the body is not experienced as a solid object in time and space, but as the embodiment of presence, as a particular form that Being assumes. We perceive directly that the body is not the solid object that the self-image portrays it to be. It is interesting to note here that if we are able to transcend, even slightly, our ingrained idea that we are what ends at our skin, we see that the experience of the body and the senses is much more flowing and sensitive to our environment. The conclusion we are compelled to adopt, supported by direct experience and the knowledge of the deepest spiritual teachings of humanity, is that the self-representation is inevitably incomplete, false, and distorted, when it excludes the essence of the self, which is Being as presence. This incomplete identity also gives one a sense of weakness, vulnerability and superficiality.

The More One Becomes the Loving Light the More the Self-Concept or the Personal Shell is Perceived as a Child who is Scared and Small

At this point students typically encounter a particular object relation: the experience of oneself as a child relating to a parent who is not loving. Usually this parent is the father. The more one becomes the Loving Light the more the self-concept or the personal shell is perceived as a child who is scared and small. Frequently a dialogue ensues between the child and the Loving Consciousness. The child feels angry at the loving presence, feeling abandoned by it, during difficult times. One can realize that one is projecting the father’s image on this cosmic presence, which is sometimes equated with God. But seeing this presence as Love brings out the loving object relation to father. One starts remembering the love between father and child. It is interesting that this particular object relation between child and father becomes activated during the time of dealing with ego identity. Sometimes the relation is with mother, but usually, especially at the beginning, the relation is with the father. We consistently find that the father image is projected on, or associated with, the aspect of Being that appears as divine or cosmic, God the Father.

To Understand and Become Free from the Self-Concept is to Become Free from Instincts

For this final shift to occur, the deepest aspects of the structure of the ego identity have to be understood. Here the deep experience of ego death happens. The experience of the annihilation of the personality deepens and becomes very profound. This is because the sense of self is very much related to the functioning of instincts and in particular to survival. In fact, the whole development of the personality is primarily for survival. To understand completely the deepest truth of the ego identity is to understand the necessity of the ego and its identity for the purposes of physical survival. This is a profound question, and answering it leads to a knowledge of the relationship between essence, the personality, and the physical body. To understand and become free from the self-concept is to become free from instincts, from biological programming and evolutionary conditioning. This is made possible by coming to understand the relationship of life and death to each other and to essence. So to live the life of essence, the life of the pearl beyond price, the identification with the personality must end, through the discovery and the realization of the true and brilliant self. This does not mean, as some teachings have it, that the individual must experience the essential self all the time, that he must hold onto it as the most precious thing. Many systems of teaching focus on the true self, concentrate on it, identify with it, and glorify it. This will naturally bring attachment, and attachment is personality, even if it is attachment to the essential self.

True or Essential Nature Refers to How the Soul Experience Herself when She is Not Conditioned

The awareness of the existence of the soul’s true nature constitutes the core understanding in all major spiritual teachings. The primary understanding in any authentic experience of spiritual realization is that our soul (our self, our consciousness) possesses a true nature—its essence. Being is the essence or true nature of the soul, as it is of all manifestation. In the Diamond Approach, we use the word Essence to refer to the specific experience of Being in its various aspects when it arises as the nature of the human soul. We experience ourselves as Essence if our experience is free, unfabricated, and spontaneously arising. If our experience of ourselves is not dictated or determined by any external influence—that is, by any influence extraneous to the simplicity of just being—we are the essence of who we are. True or essential nature, therefore, refers to how the soul experiences herself when she is not conditioned by the past or by any mental images or self-concepts. We experience our essence when we are simply being, instead of reacting or conceptualizing our experience or ourselves. Essence is not an object we find within ourselves; it is the true nature of who we are when we are relaxed and authentic, when we are not pretending to be one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. Essence is the truth of our very presence, the purity of our consciousness and awareness. It is what we are in our original and undefiled beingness, the ultimate core reality of our soul. Essence is the authentic presence of our Being; it is, in fact, Being in its thatness.

We are Normally So Caught Up with Our Self-Concepts that We Do Not Notice the Dynamic Nature of Our Ongoing Experience

Even though our inner experience changes a great deal more than we think, we are normally so caught up with our self-concepts that we do not notice the dynamic nature of our ongoing experience. We know that we have many thoughts and feelings, and they are in constant change, but we do not see the significance of this observation because we are so identified with the self-concept based on our body image, which is relatively stable compared to other facets of experience. This identification allows us to believe that we are stable, that we are the same person, while the phenomenology of our inner experience does not actually support this belief. Both outer perception and inner experience are always changing, and if for a moment we allow this observation to affect our self-concept, we might become attuned to the dynamism of our soul.

We Know Ourselves Through this Self-Concept

We have seen that as the self-representation develops it becomes the way we conceive of ourselves. We know ourselves through this self-concept. It determines how we experience ourselves. Ordinarily, we cannot experience ourselves separately from our concept of ourselves. This situation has much more profound implications than most of us appreciate. Yet it does not seem like a startling discovery; rather, it seems obvious. We may naturally think, “Of course, how I experience myself has much to do with how I view myself. How else could it be?” Indeed, how else can it be? The normal experience of the self includes the belief that its identity is made up of a body, of thoughts, feelings, ambitions, plans, ideals, values, impulses, desires, actions, qualities, and so on. Since the self takes itself to be all these things, integrated and organized in an overall view of itself, it cannot separate from them. This is the experience of the self when it is identified with self-representation. More accurately, it is the self and the self-representation experienced together—as the same reality. We could say, then, that the self experiences itself from within the self-representation, through the totality of what constitutes this representation. The various images, impressions, and beliefs—the content of the personal history of the individual—which have been integrated into the self-representation, become the lens through which the self not only conceives of itself but, more significantly, experiences itself. The self-representation functions not only as the lens through which the self sees itself, but actually as an inseparable part of the very eye which is the capacity of the self for experiencing itself.

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