Nachiketa was a seeker desperate to know the truth of life. He, like many young people, is a ruthless observer full of ideologies. His father chose to give all of his possessions away to develop a temple in the local neighbourhood. While this may have seemed like a noble cause, this didn’t please his son. Nachiketa angered his father by pointing out that the cows he wished to donate were not worth the money. His observation shone a light on his father’s delusions and after must cajoling, his father cruelly stated “I give you to death”. This simple and flippant remark haunted Nachiketa and he became consumed with death and the meaning of life.
In search of answers Nachiketa, looking for Death, heads to his realm. On arrival, the young seeker is greeted by Depression who attempts to send him away stating that Death isn’t home. Having the reserve of a warrior, Nachiketa waits for three days and three nights for Death who, on his return, is so impressed he offers the young seeker three wishes. Nachiketa firstly asks for forgiveness and for his father to be free from anger. He understands that without forgiving compassion in our hearts we can never be happy. For his second wish he asks for the fire of life itself. He asks for Death to teach him a sacred fire ritual that will bring him prana and to give him access to the realm of consciousness. This prana is undifferentiated energy, the secret of vitality and what Nachiketa meant by this was the desire of self realisation. Finally he wished for Immortality, seeking the secret of life and death. While it pleases Death that Nachiketa wishes to learn from him, he tests his will by stating that this is a hard and gruelling lesson that will require superhuman strength and superhuman endurance. Death then attempts to lure him with offers of unlimited grandchildren and wealth, with no strings attached and ever lasting vitality so he could enjoy it. Nachiketa refused, stating that he did not want to live centuries more of an unfulfilled existence. This pleases Death and he begins his lesson with the five layers of consciousness.
Death states that there are five layers of consciousness that cover the Self, each layer carrying teachings that must be transmuted into everyday life. The first layer of consciousness is the body, which is physical. The next three layers are all layers of the mind that deal with senses, emotions and intellect. The fourth layer is the Ego, which is almost impossible to reach for most people. This is our sense of I. Finally the fifth layer is the Self, which is believed to be the collective conscious. Death teaches Nachiketa that to conquer these layers we must first learn that as a human being we have choice and daily we are forced to choose between two states which are Preya and Shreya. Preya is that which pleases us, such as things that offer us instant gratification, like a tasty treat. Shreya is that which benefits us, like meditation. Preya and Shreya are essentially forks in the road. Death offers Nachiketa an analogy to aid his understanding. He likens the human body to a chariot, pulled by five strong horses that are the senses, directed by a driver that is the mind. Our self, in this analogy, is the anxious passenger that is constantly and powerlessly bound by the actions of these forces. These roads of Preya and Shreya take us to two very different destinations. Often we have a weak driver who struggles to control the horses and we go down the road that is not where we wish to go. With this Nachiketa asks: “How do I chose?” To which Death replies: “Just don’t take the other road”. Death teaches him that with training we can create a strong driver with well trained and amenable horses, but we need to execute choice every day.
Death offers another analogy focused on the control of the body that is very heavily quoted called The City of Eleven Gates. The analogy offers us the imagery of a walled city with high towers. The walls are made of the skin, blood, tissues and muscles, the gates are our bodily openings. The first nine openings are obvious, while the tenth refers to the fissure in the skull that closes at birth, the eleventh refers to a gateway at the same place that only opens when we achieve self realisation. The inner chambers of the city are where the ruler lives. This is the Self, our inner sanctum where we can go for rest. In reality we rarely spend time in the chambers. We lurch from watchtower to watchtower, opening and closing the gates without checking the credentials of those that enter. Sometimes we can even identify only with the walls and gates and each time we open the gates we ignore the fact that our prana escapes. He states that the mind has many facets, the lower mind being the realm of senses and emotions and the higher mind, of discriminating intellect. Mostly intellect is clouded and, in those that it is, they are doomed to lurch from death to death.
Death discuses many aspects of yogic philosophy with Nachiketa before concluding that in-fact perfection is “not in the attainment of a future or yonder world, but it is in the now and here, for one who is self-realised, who knows his self as Brahman” (Deussan, P).
The above story is taken from the Katha Upanishad, which comes from the Vedas, a collection of ancient texts. Dated somewhere between 300 - 800 BC these texts are owned by no one author, but representative of a collective experience. As far back as The Upanishads, the Isha Upanishad, to be precise, states that our connection with the divine, through the mantra Soham or roughly translated to “I am that”. This has been echoed throughout many of the religious texts such as the story of Moses when he stumbled across the burning bush and Jesus when he stated “I am the way”, amongst many other declarations. Sri Niargadatta Maharaj, a sought after Indian Guru, stated that he attained enlightenment with this statement alone and stressed that “I am that” is the only mantra one would ever need.
Given that our own divinity is so heavily recorded in our personal history it’s a wonder how we have become detached from it. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna speaks of a universality when he states “The man who sees me in everything and everything within me will not be lost to me, nor will I ever be lost to him. He who is rooted in oneness realises that I am in every being; wherever he goes, he remains in me. When he sees all being as equal in suffering or in joy because they are like himself, that man has grown in perfect yoga”. There seems to have been a time when we felt we didn’t need these teachings, as though humans came to a fork in their developmental road, where we could have identified with the Universal I and we chose the Ego.
The question of the origination of the Self is one that has plagued psychologists for centuries, as its location in relation to the body is not something that is universally agreed upon. To paraphrase Deepak Chopra, who quips, that if we were to stop people randomly on the street and ask them who they were, it would be unlikely that they would respond that they are a holographic expression of the entire universe, which is manifesting as a continuum of probability amplitudes for space time events in the field of infinite possibilities. It is more likely that they would start to name the objects of their experience.
Object Referral is how many of us create our self identity. Freud believed that the conscious self is based on how we relate to the unconscious mind. The Self, according to Freud, is formed through early childhood experiences that, more often than not, result in a series of repressions and projections that haunt us into adult life. Whether or not Freud believed in the spiritual aspect of ourselves is a heavily contested topic. It is suggested, however, that this could have been the main cause of division between himself and Jung. But, I’m not here to gossip.
In our cultures, the Self is one of the central components of psychology and defining it is a complicated task. So many ideas and theories of what constitutes the Self exist. I mean, a lot. Maray Schectman from the University of Chicago suggests that our Self is is born out of our internal narratives about ourselves and our lives. Kenneth Gergen in his book The Saturated Self, believes that our Self is social, constructed through our relationships and our interactions. Gergen believes that this multifaceted Self manifests differently depending on the real, imagined or virtual nature of the relationship. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDeux believes that the Self is a product of the brain’s interacting subsystems memories. Thomas Metzinger developed something called the Self Model which describes the Self as a reality sustaining force that exerts ownership over the idea of Self and its associations.
The list of theories is really endless and really depends on your underlying beliefs, but what is clear from these ideas of Self is that they are all pluralistic. What is becoming a radical understanding for us is that the Self seems to be all of these things, and more. Trying to pigeon hole the Self in terms of its functionality is a limited idea.
William James believed that the self was a dualistic entity. According to James, we have an I which creates continuity through our past, present and future, allowing us to develop a sense of identity through thinking and self reflection. James also stated that we have a sense of Me, which is our Self that interacts with the world around us. This aspect of our Self is divided into three further sections which are the material self which relates to the things we own, the social self which refers to who we are depending on the social situation that we are in and the spiritual self which is pretty self explanatory.
Likewise Integral Psychology, which is the amalgamation of the work of Indra Sen, Sri Aurobindo and Western Psychology view of the Self. It is dual, comprising of the Frontal Self and our Spiritual Self. The Frontal Self is our self that exists in the physical world and comprises of trio of Body, Heart and Mind.
When many people think of the Self, they think of two words - Sigmund. Freud. The creator of psychoanalysis felt that our sense of Self, and all of the suffering and misery associated with it, was rooted in the material world. Freud developed the aforementioned Object Relations Theory which suggests that the Self is formed in the mind through life by compiling images and ideas of oneself that we feel represent us best. We create a representational world moulded by trauma and unmet needs, mainly rooted in our childhood.
Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, the creator of Self Psychology, adds to Freud, claiming that it is the recognition of our skills, ambitions and ideals from parents and peers through life that allow a child to develop correctly. Our developmental salvation, in this case, depends on almost perfect relationships that acknowledge our specialness. No pressure, Mom and Dad. Cognitively, our early experiences form neural pathways in the brain which manifest as repetitive lifelong patterns of behaviour. How we create continuity from the flux of images that Freud suggests is unclear, although it is suggested that Freud, like his student Jung, was aware of the difference between the Self and the Ego and that the true meaning of the word was lost in translation, literally.
Freud postulated that there were three distinct areas of the mind, the primitive mind that is the centre of our instinctual and sexual desires, known as the id. The super-ego, he identified as being the source of our morality and ego is the realistic aspect of the mind that mediates the desires of the other two centres in socially and culturally appropriate ways.
This idea of the triad in the mind of man can be seen in Neuroscience which observes the Basal Ganglia, Neocortex and the Limbic System, known as the Physical Mind, Emotional Mind and the Mind Proper in Eastern traditions such as Integral Psychology. This trio is also observed across Eastern and Western traditions when it comes to the spiritual anatomy of Self. Philosopher George Gurdjieff called them simply the Thinking, Moving and Emotional Minds.
Likewise Jung had many working ideas of the Self. To Jung, the Self consisted of three distinct levels of existence. Stemming from the work of Freud, these seem to correspond to the wisdom traditions view of Our Emotional Mind. This is the topic of examination in Western Psychology. The Lower Emotional is also known as our Instinctual Self concerned with our impulses and animal inheritances. These have been popularised by Freud who referred to this as the Id. Freud detailed two major emotional classes: these are Sex and Aggression. Viewed by Jung as the Personal Unconscious, this is where all of our feelings, thoughts and and urges lurk. Generally filled with things we wouldn’t even admit to a Priest in confession, Freud believed that although we may not think about its contents, it still affects us all the time.
The Central Emotional is also known as the emotions we experience in our daily life. This is our Relational Self, which is our primary interacting with the world around us. Freud called this the Ego, known as the best reflection of the Self and it deals with our sense of self worth, our stress levels and how we relate to the world around us. Most of us reside in this realm in today’s society and it has been said to define our human experience by contemporary psychoanalysis. The Ego according to Jung, which represents our Conscious Mind, is the part of our mind that operates in reality. The Ego is a social animal and mediates our behaviour wants and urges. The Ego has a bit of a bad reputation as in recent years, thanks to materialism, it can be a bit of a brat. On the other hand, the Ego is the aspect of the Self that stops you from tracking down the parking attendant who gave you that ticket and killing him and his entire family. Hallelujah!
The Higher Emotional is our spiritual centre or Imaginal Self, according to Integral Psychology and is what separated the Integral approach from much of Western psychology. Touched upon by one of Freud’s major students, Jung, who noticed spiritual strivings are what makes a person whole. This area accesses the imagination and creative realms of human experience and this was reflected in his clinical practises. Carl Jung thought our last aspect of Self is our collective unconscious. This is the innate part of unfathomable us-ness that we all share, yet keep forgetting that we do.
Returning to the trio of mind, the Mind Proper is our Cognitive Self, the area of the mind that deals with all of our mental faculties, our learning, thinking and problem solving. From the integral perspective this appears to have more to do with our intellectual and functioning capabilities rather than anything personal in nature.
These ideas of the mind can be a little blah-blah-blah, but I think it’s interesting as we have manuals for the various appliances that scatter our houses, yet we don’t have one for the most important machine we have - ourselves.
The Physical Level relates to our physical body and is known as our Embodied Self. The divination of the human body can be traced as far back as the Aitereya Upanishad that details the Gods’ rejection of the animal bodies in favour of human. Jung wasn’t the first to realise that the emotional experience of human incarnation is rooted in the body as many schools of body focused disciples have been developed to work on this area alone. The practise of yoga identifies the value of the body in our spiritual journey and our integration of Self.
Dissociation separates the Self from our everyday experiences and this can result in feelings of separation and unreality. Somatic Therapy, developed by Willhelm Reich, is just one example of many practises designed to release trauma from the body. Trauma and emotions can manifest as chronic muscle contraction and it is viewed as beneficial, on occasion, to move past the intellectual self and focus on the vehicle that manifests our experience. Freud, too, recognised the subconscious relationship between mind and body, believing that muscle contraction was due to something called Signal Anxiety. This alert is designed to tense our body against unwanted emotions arising from the subconscious. Reich believed that by releasing this contraction emotional trauma surfaces.
Understanding the language of energy in the body is yet another way of exploring how our inner and outer worlds relate to one another. The Chakras each contain the three elements of Physical, Mental and Emotional and demonstrate how these, seemingly separate, forces converge. The main Chakra centres are located along the spine, each relating to various aspects of our Self and our lives. Beginning at the base of the spine with physical and primitive associations, as the Chakra’s ascend they become increasingly ethereal. It is believed that working with our Chakras enables us to develop greater intuitive and expansive qualities.
Ken Wilber who, using the colours and qualities of the Chakra system, designed his own spectrum of consciousness, similar to that which was designed by David Hawkins. Wilber is one of the first philosophers to demonstrate that our ability for transcendent states has more to do with our level of consciousness, and less to do with which aspect of Self is involved.
Wilber believes that the idea of Self causes great confusion between Eastern and Western traditions as they have very different meanings. Wilber believes in three different selves such as the Actual Self, which is our healthy and integrated Self, the False Self which is the illusory and usually relates to our self image. Finally the Real Self, which is the timeless self. I’ve also studied it where it is described as the proximate self which is the I, the distal self which is the me and then the overall-self which represents the merging of theses two.
Our Self, in this way, is seen as something that is constantly undergoing a process of identification and dis-identification. Things like Ego and the id, that we saw earlier are not fixed aspects of the self, according to Wilber, but things that we identify with as our Self develops.
Believing that our personal definitions create separateness, Wilber states that true understanding starts with I AM. When many of us utter this phrase it leaves an automatic assumption that we are one thing and not something else. One can understand on an intellectual level that there is a separation, but to truly understand oneself one must begin and end with I Am, and simply leave it at that.
The story of the emerging theories of Self, as you can now see, are bringing us closer to our original transient concept of Self. They differ greatly due to the perspective of the researcher and due to the aspect of the Self that we want to examine. This idea is that the Self only exposes itself in relation to things, is very in keeping with the concepts of Self as seen in traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism and texts like The Vedas.
In the premodern world these traditions were more accessible to laypeople, who went to remote areas, like the Himalayas, to learn from Gurus and experience their individual traditions and mantras. These masters focused on the practice known as the Supreme Science, where they focus on contents of consciousness through meditation. Their personal understandings were captured in The Upanishads which are early scriptures that are written and belong to no one. They are laced with the personal understandings of self realisation. The Upanishads are interested only in the truth, they believe that by knowing one truth, we come to learn all truths and personality falls away leaving nothing but Atman, which is our true Self that transcends our external labels.