I’ve thought a lot this week about the “self.” Not too much, I hope, about myself! But about “the self” — because that’s what I’m preaching on this Sunday.
And I have remembered how complicated the issue is. And how important a concept it is — how it becomes, in both philosophy and psychology, for example, as central as it is hard to describe or define. Why? Hmm. What’s my question even? Am I asking, “why is hard to describe the self?”, or “why is it important to describe the self? Or why is it central?”
I’m going with the latter, because I have more of an answer. It’s a central concern because how we think about the self determines, directly and indirectly, how we relate to everything else. It’s the opening or aperture through which everything must come. Even, ironically, our experience of our self depends upon our understanding of the same!. And, yes, I have been remembering how these questions quickly become like one of those M.C. Escher lithographs.
But let me repeat what I said, because it’s my point in this Sunday’s sermon: how we think about the self determines, directly or indirectly, how we relate to everything else. Because the self, however understood, is both the unit with which we size up and the tool with which we interact with everything else.
Let me try and share, quickly, some of the different philosophical or psychological definitions, so you can see what I’m talking about.
Is one’s “self” just to be seen as a structure, what is made of all the different building blocks– memories, attitudes, ideas, representations, emotions — that make up you? This is kind of the nuts and bolts model, based on the physical world and the physical sciences. In such an understanding, it’s best when one’s self is a better or more useful structure — more sturdy, elaborate, flexible, balanced, cohesive… a fully integrated, coordinated unity.
Another view suggests its more helpful to understand one’s self as less static, to capture some of the movements and development and think of the self as processes. This notion of the self pictures it more as an awareness. The process of observing. Consciousness. Mindfulness. With this picture of one’s self, we are left with the goal of become more fully and clearly aware, brushing away the dusty concepts, beliefs, and anxieties that obscure and distort our vision in order to really see. Here’s where we come upon all the rich metaphors of “waking up to see a new day.”
There’s the understanding of the self as transcendent. Using the first two images, we could explain that the self is either the “magical” or immaterial whole that is greater than the sum of the parts (structure), or it is the meta-awareness, the superordinate glue or container that holds it all together, the fundamental organizing principle, the source, the ground that unifies all facets of selfhood.
Or I’ve always found this explanation of the transcendent self accessible: it is just 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 from which it came, which it was always part of and which it will eventually again dissolve and disappear into. Our task then as a self is to realize that constant, though changing connection to the source. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “re-ligare” which means to tie back.
Closely related is the idea of the self as a manifestation of some all-encompassing whole — we are imperfect material manifestations of some Platonic Form that is perfect? Or in a much more overtly Christian idiom: the Bible promises that each of us is created in the image of God.
I would add one more image, that is sort of less heady and more work-a-day: the self as what we do. We are the sum of what we accomplish. The list of what we get done. (And sometimes also what we fear or suffer not having gotten done.) I want to say that this is a very modern, reductive way of looking at the self. But I am going to resist such a pronouncement. The self as the sum of our accomplishments may be much more endemic and have a longer pedigree in human self-conceptions.
Before Sunday, I want to try one more thing with you. I’m not sure how well this will go, but it’s a test. A test to get you ready, or prepare you for the sermon!
Relax, it’s an easy and good test, because there’s no way to fail. Whatever happens, you pass. Actually, whatever happens, you get an A. Because you are just testing your experience. Trusting that whatever it provides — even if it appears to be nothing — that tells you something. Something that is important. Needs to be taken seriously. Affects how you experience everything else.
So here’s how to take this win-win test. I want you to find a comfortable and quiet place where you can sit still and be undisturbed for a few minutes. Once you are seated and still, try and clear your minds. Let go off all that so often inhabits and clutters our days and our thinking. (Some people do it by relaxing their awareness and letting everything flow out, like water released from its container. Others find it easier to try and concentrate their awareness on narrowing foci: for example, the peripheral noises, but successively getting closer and closer– the sounds out on the street, in the building, in the room, in your body… until you can’t hear anything but your own heart beating or the blood pushing through your veins.)
Once you’ve settled down as much as you can, I want you to focus on a single word, “SELF” and pay attention to the images or reactions it brings up. You can’t be wrong!
You might get just a single sensation or picture that pops into your awareness. You might have a series that seems to relate or a number of different, apparently random “thoughts.”
Notice how you react to the single word “SELF.” After you’ve sat with your experience for a minute, as you come back to your everyday awareness and the world around you, please try and remember, hold on to that your reaction(s).
I don’t know what experience the word “self” created in you. The possibilities are infinite. And may well be conflicting. But whatever it was, I believe it is important. Because you are important. And allowing our unconscious not to be so unconscious, but to speak to us — not unlike our dreams — opens us to a greater experience of ourselves and everything else.
I think this could be important for what I am preaching on Sunday. For your own sense of what you hear and where it — or God — leads you.
Or at least, now I’m not the only one now thinking so much about what the self is and why it is important! Even if ultimately, it is some sort of holy, trinitarian mystery: the self, life, God.
See you in church,