The self is a mental construct that enables our survival and simplifies our relationship with the world. Although it’s necessary for navigating the human condition, it’s also the cause of much suffering. What we call the self is a dynamic interplay of interconnected experiences including the mind, the body and our interactions with the material world. This construction of the self provides us with a feeling of security and certainty – orienting each of us as a subjective agent within space and time.
The self has several facets. There’s a subjective or qualitative self, also known as the “I” self, which is the ongoing self-awareness that allows us to have a first person experience – it’s the feeling of what its like to be us. There is also the “me” self, which has been described as a collection of self-representations that make up our identity including past, present, or future versions of of ourselves, as well as private and personal, public (relational, social, and collective) personas. There’s also what we consider to be “mine” – concepts, other people, and objects we associate with the self.
Some might describe the self as consciousness (arousal + awareness), but we don’t yet know where it comes from or how it arises. The brain, in its grossest form alone, cannot be the self as this organ can live on even after consciousness is gone. In fact, the self isn’t likely to be centrally located in any discrete part of the body as the loss of one part doesn’t necessarily fundamentally change who we are. More likely, consciousness is the coordination of a number of processes that are dynamic and ever changing.
Our personal identity – that which we deem “I, me, or mine” and the protective strategies we’ve developed to protect this identity – is sometimes called the “ego”. Much of our thinking involves self-referencing – this tendency to use ourselves as the yardstick by which we measure everything. Our brains are wired such that we are biased toward stimuli that relate to us. Research has shown we have better memory recall and recognition when stimuli refer to the self. So, we are constantly asking ourselves, “what does this have to do with me?” or “how does this relate to my experience?” or “does this experience matter for who I am?” This may be adaptive in many circumstances, but it causes problems when we:
- make ourselves the center of every experience, even when its not personal
- use our selves as the point of comparison for measuring worth or relevance
- think that we control things that we don’t really control
- believe that we are completely self-reliant & separate from everything else
“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.” — D.T. Suzuki
Neuropsychology has revealed two major modes of thinking – one is narrative, discursive, conceptual and self-referential, called the default mode, and the other is non-conceptual, consisting largely sensory-based moment by moment awareness – we call this being mode. Research is showing us that these two modes of thinking are strongly coupled in untrained folks and uncoupled in people who are trained in mindfulness. This uncoupling allows us to be more present in the moment and see the impersonal as truly impersonal, which frees us from the tyranny of “I, me and mine”. We are also freed from the constriction of the self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment and shame, so that we can be less guarded and more genuine.
Here are some suggested practices to help explore the concept of the self:
- Savor awe inspiring moments, such as gazing at the stars or observing the power of nature in a storm, that highlight our true place within the vast and mysterious universe.
- Shift your perspective by getting in contact with the world in a simpler, more interconnected way – provide help or assistance to someone or be mindful during a mundane task or routine activity.
- Notice what happens when you take the “I, me and mine” out of your mental self-talk.
- Practice pausing, relaxing the body and breathing in response to the urge to justify, validate, or defend your preferred self-image. See if you can develop a more flexible response, on occasion setting aside the desire for certainty, self-improvement, or perfection.
- See if you can go one whole day without looking in a mirror.
- When you find yourself judging yourself or others, reflect on these realities – everyone suffers and wants to be happy, everyone makes mistakes and is doing the best they can given their context.
“…to know yourself is to forget yourself. This is to say that when we make friends with ourselves we no longer have to be so self-involved. It’s a curious twist: making friends with ourselves is a way of not being so self-involved anymore… When we are not so self-involved, we begin to realize that the world is speaking to us all of the time. Every plant, every tree, every animal, every person, every car, every airplane is speaking to us, teaching us, awakening us. It’s a wonderful world, but we often miss it.” – Pema Chodron