Saturday, March 17, 2012

Living without rules part 2: The innate self, the social self and the root of human suffering

As I concluded last time, we come into this world in a state of wholeness. In fact, it could be said that we come from a state of wholeness, from the totality that is everything -- the limitless potentiality of the unmanifest. The moment the formless takes form, the limitless becomes limited as an apparent singularity, an object existing in time and space. (Bear with me!)

For the first several months of life, the new human being remains in a state of undifferentiation. The ego has yet to develop, and with it the sense of duality that arises from seeing oneself as an apparently separate and autonomous entity that’s quite apart from the environment around it as well as other people. As I said in my last entry, young infants exist in a state of oneness with the world around them. There are still objects perceived, but the notion of being separate from them has yet to arise in the developing consciousness.


When the sense of “I”, “me” and “mine” arises -- and along with it the notion of “you” and “the world” as being something quite separate and alien -- the developing individual contracts into a ‘self’ and adopts a newly compartmentalised perception of reality. The sense of being a separate ‘self’, an individual entity that’s distinct from everything else (‘ego’), brings with it the need to protect, sustain and solidify this sense of individuality. That’s an important point because it’s this need to solidify the ego that underlies and motivates the behaviour of just about every human being on the planet.

This process is clearly part of the collective mental development of humankind, at least the stage of evolution we’re at. I already used the analogy of our sense of ‘self’ being like a knot in consciousness. The knot has no independent existence of its own, for it is just the rope folded in on itself. But it has an apparent existence and appears separate from the rest of the rope. This knot forms the basis of our sense of self. Like gravity, it draws objects toward itself, and as the layers build, our sense of self becomes ever more solidified and complex.

The objects that attach to the knot and form our psyche comprise various layers of conditioning, beliefs, opinions, likes and dislikes, habits and ways of relating to oneself, others and the world. Our gender, nationality, religion, social class become part of our identity and who we assume ourselves to be. These layers of mental content form the basis of our ego, of our self-image and sense of who we are.

Virtually all of this is programmed into us as children. With this realisation, we can see that there’s actually not a lot that’s ‘personal’ about it. Most of the material that makes up the ‘person’ we believe ourselves to be, is in fact second-hand and impersonal. The content is highly interchangeable, and is in fact changing all the time. It’s not solid and it’s certainly not ‘who we are’ in essence, yet we heavily identify with it. The original limitlessness and openness we experienced prior to the emergence of ego becomes contracted into a limited cluster of thoughts, beliefs and conditioning.

This conglomeration forms the basis of human identity and is what motivates just about every action and reaction throughout the course of an individual’s life. I often used to wonder what it is that motivates people’s behaviour, what it is that makes us do the things we do and what it is we’re ultimately trying to achieve. I came to the conclusion that one of our core motivations is the unconscious need to uphold and bolster our sense of self and identity. In other words, it’s all about ego maintenance.

Any perceived threat to -- or diminishment of -- our ego is almost tantamount to death, or oblivion. This primal fear of somehow losing what we take to be our ‘self’, is what’s unconsciously running the show. That, and the desire to maintain and expand our sense of self in order to feel better about ourselves and to make others perceive us the way we want to be perceived. People are willing to fight and die to uphold this image they have of themselves, and they frequently do.


The funny thing is, it’s not really who we are! We just think it is.

Our natural state, prior to assuming the mantle of an ego and all the mental content that comprises it, is boundless, open, unlimited and undefined. I believe this is our natural state because what’s natural feels GOOD. Our bodies and minds are designed to let us know what’s good or bad for us. Ease and peace are signals we’re in balance, while pain of any kind is a symptom that something is wrong, that we’ve slipped out of our natural wellbeing and must take action to resolve it. In a sense we were born to feel good! Feeling bad is a signal that something needs attention.

When we’re aligned with the ease, lightness, spontaneity and freedom of our innate self, expressing our deepest desires and loves without fear or restriction, we feel expansive, joyful and alive. Why wouldn’t we? Our innate self is completely natural, authentic and uncontrived. It’s simply pure and unconditioned consciousness/awareness, expressing itself through our bodies and minds. When we’re very young it effortlessly expresses itself, freely and without censure.

The developing ego, however, becomes like a lampshade that obscures the light of our innate or authentic self. A sense of contraction begins. We’re motivated by fear to behave in certain ways that might have originally been quite alien to us. We begin to believe that what we essentially are isn’t good enough somehow, and that we have to do, act or be ‘better’ in order to gain the favour of others. If there truly was a ‘fall’ of mankind, this is it, and it happens to each of us as a matter of course.


A very large component of the ego is what might be termed the ‘social self’, which ties in with what Freud termed the ‘superego’. The social self developed in response to the people and the world around you. From a very young age we learn that it’s necessary to have other people think favourably of us. We depend on this for our very survival. If we behave in certain ways, other people can be predicted to respond in ways that are conducive to our wellbeing. If we behave well as children, we are rewarded and if we misbehave, we are punished. (Of course, in some children where there’s been a breakdown in natural development and nurturing, behaving badly may be adopted as a means to get attention, but that’s another story.)

It’s here that the social self is born; a mechanism by which we seek to manipulate the environment around us by curtailing the impulses of our innate self in order to get the most favourable response from others. In a sense, we learn to become false. We do so to meet the perceived wants and demands of the people around us. Once the ego and social self develop, they take up residence in our psyche and, unchecked, will continue to hold the reins for pretty much the rest of our lives. The social self is about following rules and structures, doing what’s expected and behaving in ways that will get us maximum benefit and desired outcomes. It’s calculating, imitative and results-oriented.

I remember back in my Social Science days learning about sociologist Erving Goffman and his famed book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. Goffman basically asserted that all our behaviour is like that of actors on a stage. We’re all playing roles, presenting ourselves to the world in ways that we believe will bring us the results we want as well as maintaining the image of ourselves that we want others to have of us. This is the social self through and through.

A large part of what drives the social self is the fear of rejection. I believe the fear of rejection and stigmatisation is part of our genetic makeup. There’s something almost primal about it. Back when we lived among tribes, it was essential that we fit in with the tribe, for to be ostracised and cast out would be to invite almost certain death. So it’s possible that our great need to fit in with the ‘tribe’, to meet expectations and elicit approval is actually a survival instinct. Little wonder it drives so much of human behaviour and forms the core of the social self. The social self is essentially an approval-generating mechanism.

It certainly has its use. It enables us to function in the world. It provides useful guidelines for us as to what is ‘acceptable’ behaviour in the world. The untamed innate self requires boundaries, if only for practicality. If we’re to live in society, we must, to a certain extent, adhere to the norms of society. It’d be too easy to get into trouble otherwise. You might have an impulse to run through a shopping centre stark naked, but unless you’re happy to spend the rest of your day in a police cell, it’s probably best that the social self overrules that particular impulse.


Yet we’ve lost all balance. The social self has become a gargantuan dictator that has suppressed all opposition until pretty much nothing else exists. Any component of body or consciousness that overdevelops like this becomes like a cancer, threatening the health, wellbeing and even the survival of the organism.

The social self has all-but suffocated the innate self and there’s a conflict at the very core of our being. No matter what we achieve in life and what we become, as long as that conflict is simmering within us, we’re not going to be happy or at peace. In fact we’re going to be miserable, depressed, frustrated, unfulfilled and lost. There will be a continual YEARNING eating away at us, an insatiable craving for...something, but we don’t know what. This state of being is what the Buddha called ‘samsara’ and it’s characterised by a deep and profound discontent and dissatisfaction at the core of our being. This is the root of pretty much all our suffering.

It’s the result of a case of mistaken identity. We think we are our egos and social selves, which are but overdeveloped mechanisms in consciousness. Most people are so identified with them and with the roles they’re playing and the image they have of themselves, that they’re aware of nothing beyond it.

That’s the problem of the human condition. We think we are what we think we are -- but we’re not! It’s not real.

We’ve become so disconnected from our true nature, that it’s almost as though a part of us has died inside. Our self esteem and self image have either artificially inflated or plummeted because, at a very deep level, we feel inauthentic and inadequate. And actually that’s true, because we’re totally identified with a mechanism in consciousness that has nothing to do with who or what we truly are. If you don’t feel good enough, it’s because the ‘you’ you’re identifying with isn’t YOU at all.

Life then becomes a drudge and misery, bereft of all spark and joy, and we can never quite fathom why. Buying into the mass hypnosis of our consumer-driven culture, we assume it’s because we don’t have enough ‘stuff’ yet, or because we haven’t achieved enough success or recognition in the eyes of the world. So we keep chasing after objects and attainments, even though they’ve never quite us the lasting peace and wholeness we so desperately crave. Because most people’s attention is almost entirely fixated outwardly, we’re seeking this elusive ‘x factor’ outside of ourselves in objects, situations, experiences or other people.

But the problem isn’t that we haven’t measured up to our culture’s ideal of materialistic success. The fundamental problem is we’ve sold our souls to fit in with what the world thinks we ought to be. A society full of nothing but social selves is inauthentic, superficial, joyless and fundamentally dysfunctional. This distorted view of oneself and life is evident on both a personal and collective level, for it permeates the institutions and structures of society.


What we’re really looking for our SELF and we’re looking in all the wrong places. What we truly want is to reclaim the joy, freshness, aliveness and expansiveness we knew as children before our authentic nature was cemented over by the constructs of ego and social self. And it’s wholly possible to do that. The innate self is never extinguished. What is real can’t be destroyed, for it is the essence of what we are. It is pure, unrefined, unconditioned consciousness or awareness. Without it, we’d cease to be. As in sleep, no consciousness equals no world and no self.

Recovering and reclaiming this core essence is a process of excavation. To get to what is true, you have to dig through the layers of sediment that have built up around this knot in our consciousness, the phantom self of the ego. The social self can still operate and advise, for it has a necessary function enabling us to live harmoniously with other human beings. But it is no longer the driving force behind our lives. We no longer take it, or the ego as being ‘who’ we are, for they clearly aren’t.

The source of our suffering always seems to come down to mistaken identity. It’s therefore essential that we know what we are, or at least what we are not.

Ego arises within us, and a social self is built up based upon the expectations and ‘norms’ of the culture we live in. But they are not us. How could they be? We existed prior to either and we exist beyond either. Both arise only as clusters of thought crystallised into beliefs, habitual reactions and behaviour. Stop thinking, if only for a few seconds, and they cease to be. But something else exists in the stillness. Something prior to and beyond the content of our consciousness -- the pure, simple, direct awareness that we experience when everything else is stripped away. The one constant throughout our entire life, is simply our awareness. All else changes -- our body, thoughts, beliefs, self-image and identity, our circumstances and environment and the roles we assume -- but awareness always remains present, unaffected and unchanged.

This awareness, the base-light of our existence, is our true nature and it expresses through our body and mind as our innate self. We experience it as openness, expansiveness, spontaneity, peace, inspiration and often as a very deep joy, even bliss.


Tragically, we’ve been taught to mistrust our innate nature and see our natural impulses and as something dangerous and harmful. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most people have internalised the assertion of poisonous religious doctrines that assert our essential nature is somehow rotten, deficient and lowly, that we’re all ‘born sinners’. We’re led to believe that if we followed our innermost nature and allowed our actions to be directed by our innate self we’d all be lying, thieving, murderous monsters. We’re taught by society that we need rules, regulations, laws and doctrines in order to curb our innate wickedness.

But this is simply a form of psychological warfare that’s been perpetrated upon the masses for millennia in order to control us. It’s not true and it’s actually very harmful. First of all, it’s an inescapable conclusion that so many of the rules and doctrines imposed on us are archaic, inflexible, outdated and no longer serve us as a society. And secondly, because as I have said, a society consisting of nothing more than deadened social selves is inherently dysfunctional. The living become the living dead and society becomes rife with violence, ignorance, hatred and mass depression. This all stems from the conflict at the core of our being; the conflict between the innate self and the social self which has subjugated and smothered it. The external is always but a reflection of the internal. Inner conflict will inevitably be reflected in outer conflict. The only way forward is to resolve that core conflict once and for all.

I’m not talking about destroying or vanquishing the ego, superego or social self. That’s not the answer and would in fact be very harmful. Violence does not beget peace. The answer, as with all things in life, is balance. Currently we’re out of balance and we desperately need to regain our equilibrium.

Because of our conditioned distrust of our innate nature, many might fear that if we follow our innermost impulses and promptings we’d end up being lazy, selfish and hedonistic blobs. I do not believe this is true. That’s far more likely to be the case when we’re disconnected from our selves. In fact, the innate self, as a reflection of the Absolute consciousness/awareness, is characterised by joy, aliveness, compassion and inspiration. It has a natural regard for others and the whole for it does not see itself as in any way separate. We’re not truly alive until we learn to embody that most essential element of our nature. What’s more, we’ll never find lasting peace and happiness until we learn to resolve the conflict within us and learn to balance all aspects of our nature. The time for change is now...