The Psychology of the Self

Each kingdom: animal, vegetable, mineral, human, has a different function, and as I understand it, humanity is the creative kingdom that must cooperate with God’s Plan. For God to be present in the world He needs to find in the human being the recognition of divine origin, of divine heritage. The very meaning of the word man is from Sanskrit, meaning “thinking entity,” “one who thinks.”

Robert: Welcome to Inner Sight. Our topic for today is the psychology of the self. Our opening thought is by Saint Augustine and is as follows: “Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.” I’d like you to comment on this. What does he mean? How should we wonder about ourselves? 

Sarah: Well, there are many thoughts that come to mind, but one that strikes me is that saying of the Delphic Oracle, “Man, know thyself; then thou shalt know the Universe.” In a sense, this statement by Saint Augustine is going in the reverse direction. I think it’s true that we do need to know the world; we do need to understand the planet and the divine Life that’s expressing through it. That’s been one of the great contributions of Western science. 

Dale: Yes, we in the West are very outward observers, and this is the way it’s supposed to be here in the West, whereas in the East and Asia, the tendency is to look within.  It’s interesting, in the images of the mountains, the seas, the rivers, and the stars, I think we’re really looking at aspects of ourselves. These images, these scenes, are like symbols of different aspects of our own inner nature and our aspirations. For example, the mountains inspire us to climb towards higher goals. They evoke our inner urge to strive upward and to reach greater heights in whatever our life may be, and our striving in our profession. The waves of the sea are symbolic of our churning emotional nature, which is always moving, and seldom very still. And then the rivers recall our endless streams of thoughts, our mind, the mind principle, the busy mind, “the mind stream,” as William James calls it. And then of course the stars, they tend to evoke a sense of wonder in us about our origins. So, taken all together, even though we’re outward looking and observing nature, it’s as if we were studying the outer world around us, but maybe really what we’re looking at is ourselves. Because we see within ourselves these same symbols, it brings to mind how one we are with nature, and because we have these same elements, we’re like a microcosm of all of these elements that we see in nature. So, Augustine was perhaps right in his wondering, but I think also secretly and inwardly, we’re really looking for ourselves. The inner self, perhaps. 

Robert: Kahlil Gibran, the famous poet, said that when we discover a truth about ourselves, we should never say we’ve discovered the truth, only a truth. Why is it so difficult to discover who we are, who the “I” is? 

Sarah: I’m not sure. It’s a question that if we think too hard about it, it can drive us absolutely nuts! And yet the self, the “I,” is at the very core of our being, while at the same time remaining for most of us masked and inaccessible. I think for ages the human being has tended to define himself in terms of his role and his duty; his role in life, his duty to the community have kind of defined his sense of himself. But now more and more, with the development of a more acute sense of the human psyche, we have a sense that there is a layer—perhaps many layers—of a buried identity that we want to get at, and we don’t know how. For some reason, the spiritual path, which is the path of self-knowing, self-awareness, sometimes seems to strike a kind of fear in some people, as if they might lose their sense of who they are, their sense of themselves. Perhaps they fear the implication that it might change the way they see themselves, or how others see them. I’m not sure where it comes from. There’s a book called The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, in which he says that man’s obsessive consciousness of and insistence on being a separate self, is the final and greatest obstacle to the knowledge of God. And I’m sure that’s true. The hardened shell around the self is what veils us from recognition of our divinity. Houston Smith, the great religious thinker and writer, said that “everything I do for my private well-being adds another layer to my ego and insulates me from God…” and yet, if we don’t have this sense of ourselves, we cannot know God. Just as the Delphic Oracle said, “Man, know thyself; then thou shalt know the Universe.” 

Dale: Yes, we’re so oriented here in the West especially, to looking outwardly for answers to everything that it’s very natural to look outward for God and for our answers to who we are. But as you say, the inner self, that “I” consciousness, is what is so deeply buried, and it’s a matter of peeling away those layers, like the layers of the onion until we get at the very core of ourselves. And maybe that’s what we’re afraid of doing because we’re going to have to let go or lose some of that outer shell. 

Sarah: Perhaps some people are afraid of what they might see, and yet if you believe that the human being is created in the image of God, why should one be afraid of what one would discover at the very spiritual core of one’s being? It is apparently a very different view of the self than what we traditionally think of as constituting our humanity. There’s another writer, Heinrich Zimmer, who wrote about the philosophies of India, and he said that what we think we are, what we cherish about our character, what we think is most precious and distinctive about us—our talents, our virtues, our ideals—that is not our real self. It’s wrapped in layers upon layers of the personality, and yet the real self is buried underneath all that. And as we’ve said before in our discussions, sometimes it takes a crisis to make one penetrate to this very hidden, yet substantial core of being. I’ve noticed that people who have had near death experiences sometimes confront a being of simplicity, of purity, of light, that they recognize instantaneously as themselves, as their higher component, so to speak, even though it’s so buried within most people. When they confront that essence through some kind of crisis, they recognize it and they know it to be themselves. That must be incredibly joyful. 

Robert: It’s too bad that we have to resort to a crisis in order to explore the deeper levels of self. What would you say that there is about crisis that really brings out the knowledge of who we are? 

Sarah: I think it destabilizes you enough to approach life in a new way. If we were smarter, we wouldn’t need the crisis. We wouldn’t need the blow on the side of the head to make us take a new approach to life. But often it’s the confrontation with our impending death, or with a deep, profound crisis, that makes us realize that our habitual ways of thinking of ourselves and thinking of others are not sufficient. But there is another way that you can develop this sense of the true inner self and it’s through spiritual practices. So, it doesn’t always take a disaster. 

Robert: You know, the last century I think of as the age of psychology, because mankind really got into examining the depths of the psyche. Does modern psychology really have an insight into the true nature of self? 

Sarah: I think it’s getting there. Psychology, as far as I understand it, is a very new, developing science. It’s only about a century old, so it’s developing. One of the contributions of psychology has been the recognition of the duality of the self; that there is an outer being, what we know as the personality, with its talents, its attributes, its shortcomings and so on, and then psychology has recognized a more hidden component. For a long time, this hidden aspect of the self was seen as a subconscious factor. Freud said that this subconscious aspect of our self was conditioned by sexuality. Then Carl Jung came along and said it was conditioned by the past, by various factors, events, traumas, in the unconscious. And more recently, psychologists like Roberto Assagioli have seen this other subjective component as a higher self. 

Dale: Yes, and it’s this recognition of the higher self that I think is really getting back to the core of what a human being is, and that has not really been recognized or given enough weight or value. It’s a new kind of approach to the whole science of psychology and psychotherapy. The psychology that Assagioli discovered or promoted they called Psychosynthesis, and it’s essentially concerned with the synthesis of the separate elements of the psyche. 

Sarah: Bringing them all together, you mean?  

Dale: Yes, bringing them together. Basic to Psychosynthesis is the recognition of the central core of the self and the “I” consciousness as distinct from the changing physical, emotional, and mental states that we’re all so familiar with. So, it’s distinguishing the difference between these emotional states and physical sensations and the real core of the self, the “I” consciousness. 

Sarah: Which, you seemed to be saying, Assagioli said was more stable? 

Dale: It’s really what we are in our basic core self. It represents and contains the basic principle of will, of love, and of light, essentially. This is what must eventually come through; if we can strip away all of the outer layers of the onion, we get to that core. 

Sarah: There’s something very liberating in the thought that we have this inner core of stability because with the pressures of modern life, many people feel so stressed and so tentative and maybe vulnerable in the face of the onslaughts of modern life, we don’t know if we can stand up to all the slings and arrows that life might bring our way. And this thought that you’ve mentioned—that there is this stable inner core—I find very reassuring. The problem is how to have access to it. Did Assagioli tell us how to find it? (laughter) 

Dale: He did lay out some exercises and some things that we can do to help identify this, and perhaps we can go into that a little later on in the program when we have more time, because it is kind of extensive and it’s very interesting—some exercises that we can do in daily life. So, there are ways that we can discover this sense of self. 

Robert: Can you think of some images or metaphors that would help us to understand the self, because the self is so complicated to understand. A lot of people will say their name when you ask them who they are; “My name is Robert Anderson.” And certainly, we have many layers. 

Sarah: There’s one image or metaphor given to us in the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu texts, and it’s the image of the chariot and the charioteer. The physical body is the chariot; we could say the road that that chariot is traveling is the metaphor for the sense objects, the things that we perceive around us; the horses that pull the chariot might be our senses themselves; the reins of the chariot are the component of the mind, the directing principle; the driver is the wielder of the reins, the determining decision maker for which way the reins will drive the chariot; and behind all of that, or above all of that, is the master of the chariot, which is in full authority of where it’s going, but never lifts a finger. I find that aspect of the higher self, the soul—which is aware of all that’s going on in the world, the road we’re travelling, the objects that we’re perceiving and all, but never lifts a finger, never gets involved in the actual hands-on aspect of living—I find that image of the chariot kind of meaningful. I don’t know if Dale has other examples. 

Dale: Well, there is another metaphor that’s a little closer to today, and that’s the idea of a movie projector. In the movie projector there is a very bright light that shines onto the screen; it projects its light onto the screen. And so here we have an analogy, if you will, of the higher self being like the very intense bulb in the movie projector, projecting itself onto the movie screen. The light beams and the light on the screen would be likened to the outer self, the little self. And then of course the film, with all the images that are on the screen, these are like all the outer trappings that block the showing of the light. We have three elements here; the higher self, the lower self, and all the sensations and the emotions that are symbolic of the images on the screen. So, that’s one way of looking at it, perhaps a simple way, but it’s interesting. All of this is trying to identify this self and as we said earlier, Assagioli— this psychologist who was living and working back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s—he set up exercises. Actually, it’s a way of developing the powers of observation. Being the observer is one of the key elements in techniques of this kind; developing this capacity to observe. We observe the outer world very well, but we don’t do so well at observing the inner world, our own inner psychology, our own inner psyche. So, we have observers like Darwin, who was an observer. He observed the changes taking place in the bird kingdom and from that he developed the theory of evolution. Jane Goodall was an observer and for most of her life she observed the chimpanzees and she developed a lot of information about the life of chimpanzees. So, we have to train ourselves to be observers of our inner aspects, and one of the exercises that Assagioli recommends is called disidentification. That is simply looking at our own reactions. We say, “I’m tired.” You, the inner self, is not what’s tired. The body is tired. It’s trying to make distinctions like that between the inner self, the inner core, and the outer physical sensations. We are not our body. The inner self is not the body, but it has a body. It uses the body. Maybe we have a sense of irritation; instead of saying, “I am irritated,” try saying, “there is in me a state of irritation.” Just try to observe such feelings as they pass through your emotional body without really judging them but observing them in a dispassionate way. So, there are exercises like that that are recommended by Assagioli. 

Robert: It’s interesting because modern science which has just begun to explore quantum physics says that the true reality is, we are all one. If that’s true—and of course, the mystics and religious people of the past have often said that we’re all one, and science has finally caught up to that—but if that’s so, why do we even need a self? What purpose does the self play in God’s plan? 

Sarah: I’m not sure. I think that question is one of the great mysteries of life. There’s a saying that’s always fascinated me, that “God is a circle Whose centre is everywhere and Whose circumference is nowhere.” I wonder if that saying might relate to the question you’ve just raised, “Why do we need a self?” Maybe that suggests that the sense of identity, of being a self, is the beginning of the presence of divinity in the world, for God to be present in his creation. He needs the help of humanity. As I understand it, humanity’s role is to be the mind principle and the creative principle for our planet. Each kingdom: animal, vegetable, mineral, human, has a different function, and as I understand it, humanity is the creative kingdom that must cooperate with God’s Plan. For God to be present in the world He needs to find in the human being the recognition of divine origin, of divine heritage. The very meaning of the word man is from Sanskrit, meaning “thinking entity,” “one who thinks.” The French philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” He was right. That’s the divine aspect of the human being; that we are capable of thinking and of perceiving ourselves as integrated entities. And this brings up something that I think is interesting about the ego, coming back to psychology. Modern psychology views the ego as that which insulates us from others, gives us a sense of authority, and perhaps even of arrogance, of self-fulfillment, but the Ageless Wisdom views the ego as that aspect of ourselves which is organized and integrated. It’s the soul, in other words, and that again suggests that we have to have this sense of being which is identity. We can’t just be an amorphous blob. That would be—what?—a little cell? An amoeba. 

Dale: We’re made in the image of God, and that’s the way it’s intended, but it’s the definition of that image that sometimes we don’t understand. Psychology and the Ageless Wisdom teachings are helping us to really identify what that true image is. It’s not this outer image, the physical image so much, it’s the inner spiritual image that we haven’t yet discovered fully. 

Sarah: And all of us are in one stage or another of awakening to this self. There are people who are extremely self-centred. They have a sense of themselves, but they’re so centred in that recognition that they don’t really relate to others. That’s a certain stage, the stage of being the sun around which all the planets revolve. But it’s that very factor that helps mobilize the energies to go out toward that which it desires. So, it’s an evolutionary impulse. Even the stage of being self-centred is a stage along the way in God’s Plan. The point that we have to reach is to develop the kind of sensitivity that makes us break out of the barricade of being a separated unit and to realize that our sense of self, of being alive, of being human, is shared with all others. We spend so much time trying to distinguish ourselves and identifying ourselves as unique, irreplaceable, and of course we are unique in many ways, but we don’t spend enough time trying to find our common ground with our fellow men. I think that’s where we find the true self. It’s one. 

Robert: Well, I hope that we’ve stimulated you to reach for the highest potential of your own existence and self-actualization. In closing, we invite you to ponder on this thought: Goodwill is the touchstone that will transform the world. Goodwill is love in action, it’s the energy that draws us together in right relationship. There’s a world prayer called the Great Invocation. It’s a call for light and love and goodwill to flow into the world and into our hearts. Let’s listen for a moment to these powerful words. 

Sarah: Closes the program by reciting the adapted version of the Great Invocation

(This is an edited transcript of a recorded radio program called “Inner Sight”. This conversation was recorded between the host, Robert Anderson, and the then President and Vice-President of Lucis Trust, Sarah and Dale McKechnie.)

(Transcribed and edited by Carla McLeod)




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