Unfortunately, today I want to explore an annoyingly elusive concept… a concept that's as slippery as an eel (not that I’ve ever gotten the chance to hold one of those) — I'm talking about the 'Self'. It's a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I don’t really know if I’m entirely equipped for such a monumental undertaking, so lets take it slow and just have fun with it, ok? OK?!
This term — Self (yes, with capital ’S’) — is one responsible for much debate, perplexity and confusion. And look, let’s just acknowledge right off-the-bat the futility of truly talking about it. Let us take a moment to recognize the limitations of language and the impossibly slippery landscape of semantics — especially for such a colossal concept as the ‘Self’! trying to pin it down is like trying to catch a greased-up sumo wrestler on an ice rink... a bit of an odd metaphor, but whatever. Hope you get the picture.
With that out of the way...
As a self myself, it is one of my (non)objects of greatest fascination. There are some who talk about the non-existence of self, like in Buddhist circles (Anatman), while frameworks like IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapy uses this term as a sort of psychological anchor point. And I imagine there are innumerable other interpretations of this word, but let’s keep our investigation to these two.
Let’s explore both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ conceptions of ‘Self’ — and by negative/positive, I don’t mean morally, but in the philosophical sense of understanding something by what it is (positive) versus understanding by what it isn’t (negative). Think of it as examining either the subject or the empty space in a picture.
First, the 'Self' as an “anchor-point” (our positive exploration): Ever found yourself watching your own reactions as if you were a spectator at your own drama? There's this witness, seemingly immovable, calmly observing the emotional storm around it. I've been there, mid-argument, emotional chaos reigning supreme, yet there’s this 'neutral observer' in me, curious, just watching… like a creep… hahaha jk — I love you ‘Self’, I’m just joshing.
This type of experience was validated when I began to read up a bit on IFS, where the term ‘Self’ is used to depict the central psychological element that is inherently balanced and resourceful. It's distinct from the various 'parts' or sub-personalities within an individual's mind. The ‘Self’ (in IFS) isn't swayed by extreme emotions or thoughts and is key in coordinating and harmonizing these parts for mental well-being and integration — now, I’m not going to get too into the weeds of IFS (partly because it would be too long, though mostly because I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert), but simply reporting from personal experience, this way of understanding whatever that psychological phenomenon is, seems to be very useful and effective for therapeutic breakthroughs, which is why it’s caught my attention.
IFS is a very interesting branch of therapy. It’s a way of coming into dialogue with one-self, and building trust within one’s internal family system of which the ‘Self’ (in this use of the word) plays a key role for fluid communication and acts as a mediator. Worth checking out if you're into self-exploration n’ stuff.
On the other, Buddhist hand — and still as a matter of personal experience — the “Self” is more like an illusion… it’s nothing, or perhaps everything.
The analogy of a person being a whirlpool is very useful here. A whirlpool is an identifiable pattern which we can point at, yet by it’s very nature is constantly flowing, it’s very shape is due to the continuous stream of water.
This point was made apparent during my meditation session this morning. For the most part, my meditations are mainly characterized by an extreme wondering of attention — a bit of a mad house. But today, for whatever reason — perhaps I got up from bed and set my foot two inches to the left as the crow outside my window spotted a shiny necklace — I was able to get an embodied glimpse at the “non-existence” of ‘Self’.
In paying close attention, no matter where I “looked”, everything was constantly appearing and passing away just as swiftly. Everything in motion, my breath, my heart beating, itches and body aches, the sounds in the environment… my thoughts… everything coming by itself from who knows whence, going to who knows where, all “of it’s own accord”. It became apparent that “I” was no different than a song. A symphony comprised of experiences. Or maybe even a single note — which seems like a continuous unity, but upon close inspection would reveal it’s oscillatory nature, the crests and troughs, ceaselessly vibrating. That was (is) me. The collection of all these experiences, but not one thing or experience in particular… It’s a beautiful paradox. And it’s only a paradox, of course, if you think about it.
When the meditation teacher broke through the silence via my phone's tiny but mighty speakers and asked: “what are you, really?” A response effortlessly sprung to mind: “a mystery…”
Again, to be clear, we ought not to get too hung up on language. The term ‘Self’ is only useful in the context of it’s respective “language game” (as Wittgenstein might say). I am not trying to talk about the “one and only Self”, as if what we just did was explore the same concept from different angles, rather, we explored different ways this term is used to represent ‘x’.
Both uses of this word can yield very interesting results by opening avenues of inquiry and experiential investigation into the nature of being. I would definitely encourage and invite you to try it out for yourself.
Whether through the lens of IFS or Buddhism’s ‘Anatman’, the fact remains, we are a total mystery, and there is an infinite wealth yet to be uncovered on our journey to self-discovery and the cultivation of wisdom.