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Sense of Self

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

Excerpts about Sense of Self

A Metaphor for the Nature of the Ego-Self

Human values can generally be understood by looking clearly at the personality, or the ego, from a simple perspective. The usual way of living life, the undeveloped way, operates from the perspective of the personality, of the ego-self. If you envision it as a circle, it can be divided into two primary elements: the circumference or periphery of the circle, and the center of that circle. This is a good metaphor for the nature of the ego-self: The center is what we call the sense of self, the “I” that you take yourself to be. When you say, “I will do that,” or “I want this,” that is the center of the personality, not the whole of the personality, only its identity. The other element of the personality, the circumference, is the individuality, the sense of being an individual. So the center is the identity, and the circumference is the individuality. If you look at your experience of yourself and the way you live your life, you notice that usually it can be seen from these two perspectives. Either you are concerned about who you are, your sense of identity, the feeling of self, the center of operation, your center; or you are thinking of yourself in terms of boundaries, in terms of being an individual, separate from other individuals.  

Deeply Fixed Characteristic Emotional Qualities and Predispositions of the Sense of Self of Ego

The sense of self of ego has deeply fixed characteristic emotional qualities and predispositions. One individual might have a pervasive sense of sadness as part of the feeling of self, another might experience a quality of being active and aggressive as inseparable from who he is. The first individual will have difficulty in the personalization of the aspect of Joy, because it is felt as alien to his sense of identity. The process of personalization will bring out the subtle parts of his ego that are structured in a way that excludes Joy, and the history of the object relations that structured these parts. The second individual will have difficulty in personalizing both the Peace aspect and the Consciousness aspects, because both are quiet, still and restful. As we have said, this process is really a matter of altering one’s character, which otherwise retains the stability and inflexibility it acquired very early on.

Each Self-Representation has a Sense of Self which is Really a Memory of the Sense of Identity of the Essential Self

It is important not to forget that a self-representation as part of the ego structure is a memory. This means the Essential Self is not there in it; what is there is only the memory of the feeling of self due to the initial experience of identity with the Essential Self. This explains adequately not only the differentiation of the self-representations from the merged ones, but also how they become imbued with the feeling of self. It is those differentiated self-representations that become the building blocks of ego structure. They go through the processes of organization and integration as formulated by object relations theory. The end result is a unified self-image. Since each representation has a sense of self, which is really a memory of the sense of identity of the Essential Self, the unified self-image develops imbued with a feeling of self. The final feeling of self is a composite of all the myriad memories of the original feeling of Self. This feeling is obviously colored by all the experiences in the child’s history, since their impressions always accompanied the memories of the feeling of self. It is also influenced by all the intrapsychic processes that all the self-representations go through in the process of structuralization of ego. So clearly this feeling of self is colored by the significant emotions, sensations, images and perceptions that constitute one’s experiences. It is not a pure sense of identity; it has a characteristic emotional coloring determined by the individual personal history. This sense of self, however, is a pale reflection of the original feeling of self or identity. It is not only a memory of the original feeling; it is a contaminated memory, contaminated by all of one’s history. This is in contrast to the sense of identity in the Essential Self, which is completely independent from personal history. 

Freedom Becomes, in Some Very Deep Way, Freedom From any Sense of Self

As our range of freedom expands—from being free from suffering to being free to experience presence and realization—we can come to a place where we don’t know who it is or what it is that is enjoying the freedom. Because it is free from perspective and position, freedom becomes, in some deep way, freedom from any sense of self. Yet, at the same time, we are the particular individual for whom freedom is relevant; we live a personal life that is significant and that needs to be addressed, lived, and enjoyed. My experience is that the more freedom there is, the more there is heart, the more there is love, the more there is enjoyment and appreciation, and the more there is clarity and understanding in living as an individual. Clarity and understanding become freely given, love and enjoyment become freely given—given and not possessed by anybody. As individuals, we share in them, we express them, and we enjoy them. They don’t come from anywhere and they are not going anywhere. These are some of the qualities that we experience as we live a free life. Living realization, living freedom, means that life becomes practice and practice becomes life. Practice is not a way to get to freedom; it is freedom expressing itself as practice. As you recognize that you are both the particular, unique individual and also Total Being in its indeterminacy, your life does become free from unnecessary suffering but, more importantly, it becomes inherently free—the joy of living the authentic life of Total Being. Total Being—the reality of all times and all space, of all beings and all phenomena —lives as the irrepressible freedom of our individual lives. And the freedom of your life simply expresses the freedom of the dynamic creativity of Total Being. You are the living universe as the universe lives as you. 

Narcissistic Hurt is a Doorway to the Insight that there is Nothing to Our Conventional Sense of Self, that it is Fake

We usually experience embarrassment and shame when we begin to feel a narcissistic wound. Narcissistic hurt is a doorway to the insight that there is nothing to our conventional sense of self, that it is fake. We may feel ashamed of ourselves, deficient, worthless, not good enough, “found out” in our unreality. We might feel unimportant and worthless because we are empty of anything real and precious. Naturally, we defend against this wound. Typically, the narcissistic wound arises when we feel not seen or appreciated for who we are; we feel the absence or loss of mirroring for who we take ourselves to be. This wound is connected with the original childhood hurt about not being seen or admired. At the deepest level, however, the narcissistic wound results from the loss of connection with the Essential Identity. The wound first appears as a rip in the shell, in the structure of the self-identity, reflecting the loss of a certain way that we recognize ourselves, often involving the dissolution of a certain self-image. As we experience the wound more deeply, we come closer to an awareness of the deeper loss, the severing of our connection to our Essential Identity. 

Object Relations Theory has Formulated a Very Useful Way how this Sense of Self or Ego Identity Develops

Psychoanalytic ego psychology, and specifically its object relations theory, has formulated in a very useful way how this sense of self or ego identity develops. Basically, what is called a self-representation develops through the organization of the early experiences of the individual from smaller units into larger, more comprehensive ones. This happens concurrently with the development of object representation. Self- and object-representations are schemas that are enduring organizations, or structures, within the mind, which are the outcome of the several processes subsumed under the term organization—assimilation, accommodation, generalization, differentiation, and integration. These schemas change most rapidly over the first three or four years of life along with perceptual and cognitive development in general. They continue to be modified with subsequent developmental tasks and experiences, such as the assimilation of the changes of puberty into the self-representation. However, the basic structure of the self as a cohesive, integrated, and differentiated representation is laid down in the earliest years. 

Our Very Identity is Always in a State of Flux

This changeability is more fundamental than most of us are ordinarily aware. Our very identity is always in a state of flux. We do not even have to look at our lives over the long term to see this; we do not need to remember how we were babies, then children, then teenagers, then young men and women, and so on. We need only contemplate our experience in a given hour. Our self-images are always changing; we go from one image to another. Even though we have an overall sense of self, this sense is composed of constituent sub–self-images, as object relations theory has shown. These component self-images arise and dominate our identity, depending on situations and events. At one moment your sense of yourself might be an adult, then a few minutes later you might feel like a little child, unreasonable and demanding. One moment we are loving humans and a few minutes later we might be hateful monsters. These incessant shifts in self-image account for much of the changes in our states, our mental and emotional conditions. 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. 

The Ego Sense of Identity has a Restrictive Influence on Expansion Because it is a Specific, and to a Great Degree, Fixed Sense of Self

If disidentification from ego-inadequacy opens the way to expansion and supports the development of the Personal Essence, then the annihilation of identity does even more. The ego sense of identity has a restrictive influence on expansion, because it is a specific, and, to a great degree, fixed sense of self. We have already discussed how this limits the process of personalizing essential aspects, when an aspect is contrary to this sense of self. Now thisunchanging sense of self becomes restrictive because it cannot allow the presence of qualities that seem to it contradictory, not only to its sense of self, but to each other. This latter limitation prevents one from experiencing one’s personal presence as having many qualities at the same time. The ego self cannot allow the experience of being alive, joyful, compassionate, strong, peaceful, and so on, all at the same time. This is because in the process of its development the ego identity is solidified through the process of selective identification, which occurs after some integration of this identity; thus there is a selection of identifications that do not contradict its already established feeling of self, but rather go along with and support this identity. 

The Recognition of Who We are is the Function of the Essential Identity, Whose Mere Presence is Sufficient for Self-Recognition

The nondoing we learn at this stage of transformation is not the absence of activity in general—physical or psychological. It is the cessation of the particular activity whose specific purpose is the formulation and support of a sense of self and identity. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with activity; we need it for living. We cannot live without physical activity, and we need thinking for many purposes. But when we use our thinking, and our psychological activity in general, to construct and support an identity (i.e., to try to be ourselves), then we are using the mind inappropriately. It is not the job of the mind to tell us who we are. The recognition of who we are is the function of the Essential Identity, whose mere presence is sufficient for self-recognition. This is being ourselves, and knowing ourselves, directly and immediately, without even self-reflection. 

The Shakier or the More Limited is his Sense of Self, the More the Student Wants that Incomplete Vulnerable Structure to be Seen and Validated

The shakier or more limited is his sense of self, the more the student wants that incomplete, vulnerable structure to be seen and validated. The range of the landscape of his soul that he wants acknowledged, or even can tolerate being seen, is very small. The less complete is the identity, the more feeble it is, and the more elements of the soul it excludes. When someone sees and acknowledges other aspects of his soul, he experiences it as a lack of mirroring, even though these aspects do in fact need to be seen for them to become conscious. But the student is not ready for that deeper mirroring, and will tend to feel hurt and unsupported in this situation. The less narcissistic the individual, that is, the firmer and more complete his sense of identity, the more an insight that is slightly off-center—the center that is marked by the identity—can be tolerated. He can easily stretch his awareness and become conscious of these other elements of himself. 

There is Fear Until You get to the Selfless Stage, when You see that there is no Need to Have a Self

As you see, self-realization goes through many stages. The sense of self, the sense of identity is the last thing to go. We don’t say it is real or it is not real. There is a real self, the true self, the essential self. Everybody has that self. You can’t be a human being without having a true self which is not your own production. It has nothing to do with your childhood conditioning. You were born with it. But it is possible to see that you can go beyond that. The true self is needed, and must be realized for a person to move to the Supreme or universal self, because these are sparks of the same light. What you usually take yourself to be is the most external of these, which is the psychological sense of self. And that exists in its own level. If you look at it from the level of the personality, there is a psychological self. You experience it and you can even feel it physically. So whether there is a self or not is not the relevant question. It is not that there is or there is not a self. It depends on which level of discourse you are operating on. At each transition, there is terror and the fear of losing what you have; you feel that you are going to die. People feel that they are going to disappear or vanish. There is nothing abnormal about being terrified when you are going to die. There is fear until you get to the selfless stage, when you see that there is no need to have a self. You realize that there is life, there is functioning, everything is as usual without having to fear the loss of self. A self can arise which you could call a self, but there is no need for it. And selflessness is really essential. There is still an awareness of experience, of consciousness, and there is no self. There is consciousness and a kind of emptiness, a void that has no sense of self and no need for a sense of self. 

When the Sense of Self or “I” is Seen Only to be a Concept, Functioning is Seen to Happen on Its Own

The experience of ego is that functioning, including perceiving, is the doing of the ego individuality, at the center of which is the sense of self, the I. Ego never experiences functioning differently; as far as it can remember, functioning has been the manifestation of parts of its structure. Now, in this condition of Absence, one realizes that this is not the case, that the feeling “I am doing, I am perceiving,” and so on, is not an objective perception of the situation. It is only a subjective feeling based on a belief in the existence of a sense of self. When this belief is gone, and the sense of self or I is seen only to be a concept, functioning is seen to happen on its own, independent of any center. We are quite aware of the fact that this state cannot be imagined or conceived by ego or mind. The conviction that one is at the center of functioning is so deep, total and crystallized that it is taken by the mind to be an absolute natural law. However, it is important for us to describe this functioning which is free from a functioner in order to explore its relation to the Personal Essence.

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